Much Ado About Nothing? The "Italian Report on Cults"

©Dr Massimo Introvigne and CESNUR, 1998. This is the English summary of a more detailed study in Italian.

On April 29, 1998 the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs sent to the Commission for Constitutional Affairs of the Camera dei Deputati (the lower house of the Italian Parliament) a report by the General Direction of Preventive Police dated February 1998. The report is entitled "Sette religiose e nuovi movimenti magici in Italia" ("Cults and New Magical Movements in Italy": in Italian the current derogatory word equivalent to the English "cult" is "setta"). The General Direction of Preventive Police co-ordinates, inter alia, the police intelligence activities in Italy. The Commission for Constitutional Affairs of the lower house receives this document when a (quite liberal) draft law on religious minorities and religious liberty, introduced by the government, is being examined.


What Is (and Is Not) the Report

The report is not the Italian equivalent of the reports prepared by parliamentary commissions in France, Belgium, and Germany. It does not come after public hearings, and has not been solicited nor examined by the parliament. It is a police report. Similar reports have been prepared in the past for internal use of the police and intelligence authorities. The significant new circumstance is that in this case the report has been sent to members of the parliament and to the press. But the report remains a typical police document in its format, style and aims.


The Content of the Report

The report includes (a) an introduction, in four chapters (pp. 1-19); (b) entries about 34 "new religious movements" (pp. 18-63) and 36 "new magical movements" (pp. 64-102). Pages 103-105 include the index.

The introduction's four chapters deal respectively with:

(1) roots of the phenomenon and corresponding social concern;

(2) terminology and typology;

(3) possible dangers and criminal connections;

(4) membership figures.

(1) (pp. 1-3) is a short introduction, mentioning the international concern after Waco, the Solar Temple and Aum Shinri-kyo, confirming that police intelligence is monitoring "Italian cults" from many years, and commenting that this is a "difficult task" and requires some clarifications about terminology.

(2) (pp. 3-9) includes a discussion about the use of the word "cult" and concludes that "scholars of this matter today prefers to use 'new religious movements' and 'new magical movements'" (p. 4). The report goes on to discuss what "religion" is, noting that theistic definitions of religion "are not acceptable" and "are against the most recent Italian case law" (the reference in a footnote is to the Supreme Court decision of October 8, 1997 affirming the religious nature of Scientology). Religion is better defined as "the relationship between the human being and the sacred, when the latter is regarded as a transcendent reality going beyond the material world" (p. 5). Problems remain, and the report quotes the (Stark-Bainbridge) distinction between audience cults, client cults and cult movements. The next question concerns the difference between new religious movements (or "cults") and "traditional" religions. The report quotes the opinion that new religious movements are more aggressive in their proselytization and intolerant, but disagrees with it, noting that "these aspects do exist also in some traditional religions or at least in their splinter or fundamentalist groups" (p. 5). Others think that new religious movements create among their members a stronger link with a leader or guru; but in fact -- the report comments -- "in many cases after the founder's death the movement survives and may even continue to grow" (p. 5). The report prefers to classify as new religious movements those that appear to have appeared historically in the West in more recent times, and to have doctrines and teachings regarded as quite foreign to mainline (Judeo-Christian) religion. Three main groups are taken into account:

(a) movements "with a Christian origin";

(b) movements "inspired by the East"; and

(c) movements arising from "Western religious innovation".

The first group -- movements "with a Christian origin" -- includes those that "go beyond" Protestantism in their refusal of "Catholic orthodoxy". It may be distinguished into five families or subgroups:

1. Apocalyptic-Millennialist families, including the Adventist family and the Restaurationist family. In the Adventist family the report mentions the Seventh-day Adventists, the Advent Christian Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Worldwide Church of God. In the Restaurationist family the Mormon Church, the Apostolic Church and its larger splinter group New Apostolic Church, and the Church of the Kingdom of God (a splinter group from what later became the Jehovah's Witnesses) are quoted.

2. Catholic splinter groups, following "anti-popes" (Magnificat Church, Apostles of the Infinite Love) or the schism of Mons. Marcel Lefebvre (Fraternity of St. Pius X).

3. Prophetic and messianic groups.

4. Syncretic groups.

5. Pseudo-Churches (groups gathered around "wandering bishops", Orthodox non-canonical bishops, or similar, easily mistaken by the Italian population for Roman Catholic bishops or priests but in fact not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church).

Although movements in families under (1) and (2) may profess "teachings quite original" (page 8: a footnote mention the Mormons' baptism of the dead and teachings that God the Father may have "a body of flesh and blood") or be involved in conflicts with mainline churches or the society at large (pp. 7-8: Jehovah's Witnesses are particularly mentioned), in fact "they are not really interesting for the present report". The report will focus on families 3 to 5, where -- it claims -- some risks may exist.

The second group -- movements "inspired by the East" -- includes three families:

1. Movements created by Westerners fascinated by Eastern religions (Theosophical Society, Anthroposophical Society, Alice Bailey Group and the Urusvati Center, the latter a small group headquartered in Torino).

2. Eastern groups with a missionary activity in Italy (the report lists Ananda Marga, the Baha'is, the Self-Realization Fellowhip, ISKCON, Transcendental Meditation, Divine Light Mission, Sahaja Yoga, Sant Bani Ashram, Rajneesh groups, Sri Chinmoy groups, Subud, Sathya Sai Baba groups, Bal Ashram, Dzog-Chen, Soka Gakkai and Sukyo Mahikari).

3. Eastern-oriented groups recently established by Italian-born gurus.

Although movements under (1) and (2) may be criticized abroad (it is mentioned that the Dalai Lama does not endorse Soka Gakkai) and even subject to criminal prosecution, "they never caused any problem whatsoever in Italy". The report, as a consequence, will only include entries about family No. 3.

The third group should include the fruits of "Western religious innovations". In fact the group only includes the "human potential movements". The report quote "self-religions" and "psycho-cults" as synonimous for "human potential movements". It notes that these will be "the main focus of the report since it is mostly against these 'cults' [the word is written between brackets in the report: p. 6] that accusations of 'mental destructuration' or fraud are heard".

From the new religious movements, the report then distinguishes the "new magical movements", where the sociological structure is similar to the new religious movements but the central experience is different, being more (in terms of Eliade) a "cratophany", or experience of power, than a "hierophany", or experience of the sacred. New magical movements are also divided into families:

1. Esoteric and occult family, sub-divided into (a) "initiatory groups, universal brotherhoods and pythagorical orders"; (b) Rosicrucian movements; (c) neo-gnostic movements; (d) ritual magic groups.

2. Spiritualist/ Spiritist family.

3. UFO family.

4. Neopagan and New Age family.

5. Satanist and Luciferian family.

All the new magical movements have individual entries in the report.

Chapter 3 of the introduction (pp. 10-15) is written "from a law enforcement point of view" and lists the possible criminal problems connected with "some individual movements". Five potential problems are listed:

a. Brainwashing and mind control (with a footnote giving the standard anti-cult reconstruction of the brainwashing process).

b. Fraud.

c. Covering under the religious facade "immoral practices or illegal activities".

d. Preaching doctrines so "irrational" that they may bring the members to activities dangerous for the national security.

e. Subversive political plans.

About (a) -- brainwashing -- the report notes that what is commonly called brainwashing was included in the Italian criminal code under the name of "plagio", and that the corresponding provision (Section 603 of the criminal code) was declared non-constitutional by the Italian Constitutional Court in 1981. About (c) -- and more generally -- the report notes that in Italy there is no difference between "cult crime" and "normal crime". Accordingly, "criminal activities within the frame of a religious activity are considered as common crimes, although religion may have a role in determining the motivation" (p. 12). The report also notes that "in Italy today no religious or magical movement as such is accused of criminal activity of any kind" (p. 12): even notorious Satanists such as the Children of Satan have been found not guilty in the 1997 Bologna case where they have been tried. It is true, however -- the report adds -- that in a couple of cases of the 1980s involving fringe Catholic groups regarded as illegitimate by the Roman Catholic Church (the Pia Unione di Gesù Misericordioso of Ebe Giorgini, "Mamma Ebe", in 1984; and the Rosary Group in 1988) the defendants were found guilty of serious crimes. The risk considered under (e) -- subversive political plans -- is not regarded as a serious danger in Italy. "Not even the Church of Scientology", "in Germany (...) regarded as a serious threat to the democratic institutions", meet in Italy the pre-conditions needed to carry on serious political plans or projects (p. 14). Soka Gakkai and Ananda Marga, accused of political plans in other countries, are "quite different" in Italy. (The report incorrectly argues, p. 15, that the Italian Soka Gakkai was "apparently excommunicated by the Japanese mother organization". In fact both the Italian and the Japanese Soka Gakkai as lay organizations parted company from the monastic order they used to be affiliated with, Nichiren Shoshu).

Fraud seems to remain the main risk the Italian police is concerned about. About (d) many newspapers have quoted the few lines about the year 2,000 and the Catholic Holy Year. The report in fact says that millenarian groups may be progressive or apocalyptic, and that the latter are more dangerous for public security than the former. It adds (p. 14): "It is true that, particularly in the perspective of the Holy Year, we cannot exclude as a general hypothesis that some individual, member of one or another group and conscious that Italy will then become the focus of considerable international attention, may decide to do something extreme in order to send a message to the whole world. However risks of this kind always exist in large international events. Mythomaniacs and disturbed individuals exist also, and in no lesser percentage, outside religious movements. Even as far as satanists are concerned it is not probable that they will do something that will attract the general attention, considering that their primary interest is mostly to remain invisible and anonymous (...)" (p. 14).

Finally, the fourth chapter of the introduction (pp. 15-17) mentions how difficult it is to count members of new religious movements, since the very concept of "member" is controversial, and tentatively assess the number of new religious movements in Italy as 76, with 78,500 members. New magical movements may be 61, with 4,600 members.


Is There a "List" of the "Cults"?

In fact, there is no real list of the "cults" parallel to the lists in French or Belgian parliamentary reports. There are individual entries for 70 movements but the report itself mentions that 137 groups are monitored as either new religious or new magical movements (p. 17). As mentioned earlier the report's choice has been to prepare individual entries for some "families" of movements, ignoring altogether other "families". As a consequence, for example, all groups in the "prophetic-messianic" subfamily are included and no group at all in the "adventist" subfamily has an individual entry. But the fact that a group has no individual entry does not mean that it is not currently monitored by the Italian intelligence or police. Conversely, groups are included because they are part of a certain "family" but the entry makes it clear that they are not accused of any wrongdoing.


What Sources Have Been Used?

Readers familiars with Massimo Introvigne's "Le nuove Religioni" (Milan: SugarCo, 1989) and "Il cappello del mago" (Milan: SugarCo, 1990), the two Italian standard encyclopedic textbooks on religious minorities, would easily recognize that a good portion of the report is taken from these two books. Particularly, the definition and typology of new religious movements and the identification of families and subfamilies follow closely the scheme of "Le nuove Religioni", although with some differences in terminology (groups called "micro-churches" in "Le nuove Religioni" are called "pseudo-churches"; human potential movements are also called "psycho-cults": the latter term is not used in "Le nuove Religioni"). The very notion and terminology "new magical movements" come from "Il cappello del mago", and the distinction of new magical movements into families follow strictly the distinction in sections of "Il cappello del mago". A number of individual entries also follow largely "Le nuove Religioni", "Il cappello del mago" or other CESNUR sources (on O.T.O. and splinter groups the entries largely and at time almost verbatim reproduce PierLuigi Zoccatelli's report available on CESNUR's Web page). There is considerable evidence of the many hours spent in Turin's CESNUR library. The introduction reproduces entire paragraphs of works by Massimo Introvigne. No quotes or credits are included. Since this is a police report, not a book intended for commercial publication, CESNUR has nothing to complain. In fact, it is quite happy that reliable information has found its way into the report.

There are, of course, other sources that have been used. On a number of Italian micro-groups, not included in either "Le nuove Religioni" or "Il cappello del mago", anti-cult or counter-cult sources (particularly files of the Catholic counter-cult organization GRIS) appear to have been used. On some groups that the report regards as particularly controversial (and where many different sources were available), it has obviously considered different sources and elected to follow one or another. This is particularly true about Scientology (the single largest entry in the report), where the report largely follows the scheme and the reconstruction of the decision rendered by the Court of Appeal of Milan in 1996, although it also notes that this decision has been annulled by the Supreme Court in 1997 (pp. 49-50). Occasionally previous police reports have been used, such as in the case of the Children of God/The Family (pp. 20-23).


Is the Report Anti-Cult?

The report per se does not embrace the typical anti-cult positions. In fact -- as opposite to the French and Belgian parliamentary reports -- it does insist on using the terminology "new religious movements" and "new magical movements" rather than "cults". It notes that no movement as such is currently accused of any criminal activity in Italy. It regards a number of current anti-cult criticism as grossly exaggerated. And, in most individual entries, it does not mention any wrongdoing. In fact many of the entries are quite accurate, if short and simple, and a number of groups may only comply of having been mentioned at all in a document concerning possible "dangers" -- on the other hand, they come clean out of it (see, for instance, entries on AMORC, Lectorium Rosicrucianum, New Acropolis).

It is unfortunate that the language of some entries does not always respect the good intentions of the second chapter of the introduction (where "cult" -- "setta" -- is normally written between brackets, while in some entries one find "cult" and even "pseudo-cult" -- for a UFO group and whatever it may mean: p. 83 -- used quite liberally). The report knows that "plagio" (the Italian version of brainwashing) was exposed as a non-existing crime by the Italian Constitutional Court in 1981. However in the entries we occasionally read that members are "submitted to plagio" in some groups (see p. 89).

Overall, the main parts where the report appears to reproduce anti-cult stereotypes are one and a half page about brainwashing (pp. 10-11 and particularly footnote 13) -- although, as mentioned earlier, the report does not fail to note the legal problems in using such a concept in Italy after the Constitutional Court decision of 1981 -- and some individual entries. In the latter the report is either not updated or has elected not to follow (against its general style) scholarly sources. The worst example of an entry not updated is the entry on the Children of God/ The Family where the report fails to note that the sexual wrongdoings of old are no longer practiced by The Family. It does not mention a 1991 courty decision by the Justice Court of Rome quite favorable to The Family. It also mentions that The Family was raided in France in 1993 and accused of child abuse, but fails to mention that nothing came out of the raid and the members of The Family involved were finally not prosecuted. The report also does not seem aware of the Italian schism of a small group that intends to resist the changes introduced in The Family in the late 1980s and 1990s. This splinter groups is now completely separate from The Family but may have created some confusion among law enforcement personnel.The entry on Scientology, as mentioned earlier, was prepared on the basis of a Milan court decision later annulled by the Supreme Court. One may wonder whether in fact it was not prepared before this decision, and some references to the decision itself subsequently included. Hostile comments also pop up in the entry about the Unification Church (an entry where recent developments are also ignored), although it is duly noted that these largerly come from "campaigns organized by the anti-cult movements" (p. 28).


A General Evaluation of the Report

If compared with the Belgian and the French parliamentary reports, the Italian police report is a comparatively moderate and accurate document (with the exception of a couple of entries, particularly the entry on Scientology). The Italian intelligence services may teach many of their European homologues a lesson on how to use scholarly sources and not to rely exclusively on anti-cult movements. On many issues the Italian services appear to have done their homework, precisely what their French and Belgian homologues failed to do before the parliamentary reports. This does not exclude occasional factual mistakes. Most entries summarize -- obviously in the style of a police report, something different from a doctoral dissertation - scholarly literature on the group. Others do not, and unfortunately follow anti-cult stereotypes. In the introduction, a generally acceptable and moderate paper, a couple of pages emerge where some legitimacy is granted to anti-cult stereotypes on brainwashing. Normally, reports of this kind are not the work of two hands only, and it is not surprising to find some contradictions.

We shall, however, not forget, that this is a police report. It is written often in a law enforcement jargon. It also summarizes an intelligence work done following the rules of intelligence services throughout the world. They collect all rumors and all whispers -- some of them may eventually be true. Typical of the report's style are sentences introduced by words such as: "According to rumors we were unable to confirm..." (p. 56); "according to oblique rumors...." (p. 58); "according to a source..." (p. 61); and even "according to information we received from an anonymous source..." (p. 62). It is indeed the work of police intelligence to collect rumors. Rumors, however, should not be mistaken for facts, or for confirmed or reliable information.

Although areas of inaccuracy exist in the report, the main problem is not the report itself. The problem is that a police report has been converted in headline news overnight by sending it to several politicians and journalists. When an inventory of rumors reach the media, they tend to regard the rumors as facts, particularly if rumors appear to have been granted some legitimacy by having been included in an official report. The fact that most rumors are dismissed is easily overlooked. A number of media had headlines on "the danger of cults on the Holy Year 2,000" although the report itself regard current ideas about this danger as grossly exaggerated. A number of media also published the list of the 70 "cults" that have an individual entry (at times including mistakenly some that in fact do not have such an entry, such as Soka Gakkai), although in fact they are called in the report "new religious and magical movements" rather than "cults". The report also mentions for most of them that they are not accused of any wrongdoing. Their having an entry is only due to the fact that they have been classified in a "family" of movements regarded as worth watching as a general category. The most sensational portions of the report about brainwashing, Scientology or the (old) sexual mores of The Family -- in fact the weakest parts of the report -- also became the most quoted. (However, in fact, two of the three Italian leadig daily newspapers carried on April 30 ,in the same page where their lead article about the report was published, long interviews with Dr Massimo Introvigne, director of CESNUR, about the danger of a witch hunt: see "Una caccia alle streghe" [A Witch Hunt] in La Stampa and "Ma attenti a non stilare le liste nere degli eretici" [Beware the Black List of the Heretics] in La Repubblica -- the titles tell it all).

The real danger is that, because of the media event created around the report, respectable and law-abiding citizens who happen to be members of movements mentioned, but explicitly exonerated from any charge, in the report, may be discriminated or maligned as "members of a dangerous cult" in Italy (just as it happens in France or Belgium). One cannot blame the authors of the report for this (although they can be blamed for some inaccurate entries and comments). The interesting question is who decided to create the media event and why. Conjectures in Italian political circles mention two possibilities: political conflicts (within the same majority parties) about the text of the new law on religious minorities introduced by the government and currently pending before the parliament, and foreign pressure. It is possible that German and French intelligence services and anti-cult politicians are not happy about being accused of bigotry in international forums and contrasted with their more liberal and tolerant Italian counterparts. The report in fact rather confirms that Italy, and even Italian intelligence services, have an approach different from Germany and France (not to mention Belgium, where the worst of the parliamentary reports was produced in 1997). However the media results of the publicity given to the reports may undoubtely give the impression that Italy is following a similar path. Some media will undoubtely use the report to continue sensational campaigns about brainwashing, "psycho-cults", Satanism, and crazy cultists threatening the Catholic celebration of the Holy Year 2,000. On the other hand, Italy has only a very small anti-cult movement and, even energized by this incident, it is doubtful that it will become a significant force in the next few months.

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