by Paul Serran
The International Journal of Coercion, Abuse, and Manipulation published recently a Special Issue: NXIVM & Scientology. It’s packed with useful information for anyone interested in the fight against these cult-like organizations. People like the readers of the Frank Report.
I wrote a review of an important article by Professor Stephen Kent on the comparison between NXIVM and Scientology, but there’s plenty more in that issue that is relevant to us.
One such case is an article with the very long title of “Preventing Predatory Alienation by High-Control Groups: The Application of Human Trafficking Laws to Groups Popularly Known as Cults, and Proposed Changes to Laws Regarding Federal Immigration, State Child Marriage, and Undue Influence“. The article was written by Professor Robin Boyle-Laisure, a teacher of Legal Writing and a full-time member of St. John’s University School of Law, in Jamaica, NY.
Professor Boyle’s article examines how the human trafficking legislation is used in the fight against ‘High-Control Groups’, and she looks at state legislations that can help in the struggle.
“There are no laws that protect people from cults and high-control groups”, she initially clarifies, “because such entities are not legally recognized in the United States.”
This fact would partially account for the difficulty in fighting these organizations in civil and criminal court. But, Professor Boyle, argues, it so happens that “when religious or business organizations cross the line into criminal or civil wrongdoing, our American legal system can provide justice, broadly defined.”
But what organizations are we talking about? Boyle states that “It is estimated that there are from 2,500 to 8,000 cults in the United States today.”
“The ideology of cults can focus on anything,” she reminds us, “not necessarily based upon religion.”
Professor Boyle points out that civil liberties in the US, while undoubtedly a good thing, can also be used against cult victims because the “egregious behavior of oftentimes cultic groups” exists side by side with “the American principle that its citizens are free to think and act according to tenets of religious, political, or philosophical ideology.”
The cult-like organizations are even more of a danger because they mostly “exist under the radar until the damage they do becomes known to authorities.”
With a lack of specific anti-cult legislation, a constitutional framework of liberty of cult and association, and the lack of visibility of these organizations, she writes, “[c]riminal and civil victories for victims of high-demand groups have been few and far between.”
There is where the prosecution of the ‘Vanguard’ Keith Raniere and his top followers surpasses the sensational pages of journalism and urban legend, to become a matter of legal precedent. “United States v. Raniere,” Boyle writes, “was probably the most significant criminal case against a cult leader in recent times.”
How did that happen? Boyle starts by talking about human trafficking.
“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. Today there are approximately 24.9 million exploited persons worldwide for some form of gain to the traffickers—either labor, sex, or anything of value.”
After Frank Parlato broke the NXIVM-DOS fire branding reality to the world, and after the New York Times turned it into a huge story embedded in the American psyche, federal prosecutors arrested and initially charged Keith Raniere and his codefendants with sex trafficking and forced-labor conspiracy.
“The guilty verdict in United States v. Raniere was a significant victory for those on the side of seeking justice for victims of cults or high-demand groups”, Professor Robin Boyle-Laisure writes. “The jury took less than half a day to declare Raniere, age 58, guilty of all counts against him — racketeering, sex trafficking, conspiracy, forced labor, identity theft, sexual exploitation of a child, and possession of child pornography.”
In examining how that became possible, Professor Boyle cites the question of visibility: “NXIVM’s core players had celebrity status; defendants’ arrests and witnesses’ testimony were frequently captured in the news.”
Also notable is the fact that, although Raniere’s NXIVM “had the markings of a cult”, that was not an issue at trial. “Being a cult is not an illegal activity”, she notes, “and, accordingly, the prosecution did not make that a theory of the case.”
During testimony, NXIVM was endlessly painted as the ‘evil entity’ that it was. Professor Boyle recalls how Mark Vicente “testified how it was revealed to him that members could not leave NXIVM because they had been coerced to supply ‘collateral.'” And that was palpable evidence that rose above rivaling definitions of ‘cults’ or ‘sororities’. “Arguably, from the point of view of the prosecution, evidence of collateral likely helped the jury to find coercive tactics.”
This form of coercion was hardly new. “The use of collateral is a form of threat and psychological coercion commonly used by cults.”
Also revealed in the copious testimony at trial were the punishments that “ranged from taking a cold shower, planking, standing in snow with bare feet, to being hit with a paddle and leather straps”, she writes.
Once again, nothing new, since “[p]unishment, shunning, and shaming tactics are some tactics used by high-demand groups.” Boyle also makes a point of reminding us that “sexual and physical abuse are prevalent in destructive cults”.
In fact, for much of her article, Professor Boyle shows how Raniere’s criminal behavior mirrored ‘standard’ cult-like modus operandi. In discussing Daniela’s incarceration, she notes that “[i]solation, which can be either physical or psychological barriers imposed upon followers, is a tactic used by cultic organizations.”
What about the branding, and the controversy about how consensual that can be? “Psychological coercion in destructive cults can include acts that appear to show consent, although the victim did not willingly consent”, Boyle writes, noting that the severe food and sleep deprivations reduced critical thinking.
While many courts have been unreceptive in the past, Boyle writes, the human-trafficking statutes “have lessened the legal evidentiary challenges of establishing mental coercion, otherwise referred to as undue influence, mind control, or brainwashing.”
“The language of the sex-trafficking statute”, she makes a point of noting, “purposefully omits references to mental coercion.”
According to the Professor, “the human trafficking statutes are serving as a template for successful recovery against high-demand groups/cultic groups that exploit others.”
One question that merits Professor Boyle’s attention is the cause of immigrants who escape high-demand groups in their home country, and therefore, in the US, have to prove that they are “refugees”.
To do so, they have to prove that have been persecuted “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Furthermore, the acts complained about by the alien “must have been committed by either the government or by forces the government is either unable or unwilling to control.”
If they claim a social group as a basis for their claim to asylum protection, asylum-seekers must meet three criteria, “namely that their social group (1) has common, immutable characteristics of its members; (2) is defined with particularity; and (3) is socially distinct within its society from which the alien had emigrated.”
In the case of cults, it is always difficult to prove that to the Immigration Judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Boyle thinks that “lawyers, mental health professionals, former cult members, and those who have gained asylum here in the United States should collectively seek to educate the bench and the bar about the nature of cults and their destructiveness.”
Another feature from Professor Boyle’s article is the examination of various initiatives in state-level legislation. Child Marriage Laws is one of them. “Child brides are often prey to cults and high-control groups”, she writes, noting the new legislation on the issue by New York, Ohio and Georgia on this subject.
Boyle argues that “[r]aising the age of legal marriages recognized by states has made it more difficult for cults to coerce child members to intermarry other members and leaders”.
Undue influence can be described as “a moral coercion, which restrained independent action and destroyed free agency, [and] constrained the [actor] to do that which was against [her] free will and desire, but which [she] was unable to refuse or too weak to resist.”
In 2017, the New Jersey legislature required the departments of Children and Families and Human Services “to study predatory alienation and its effects on young adults and senior citizens.”
The New Jersey report included “policy recommendations on addressing the manipulative tactics that Internet predators, terrorists, human traffickers, pimps, abusive partners, gangs, swindlers, and other malicious individuals and groups use to isolate, control, and exploit people of all ages.”
“The resulting bill currently pending is called the Predatory Alienation Prevention and Consensual Response Act.”
[The bill was introduced in the New Jersey State Senate on January 14, 2020, and was referred to Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.]
According to the bill, predatory alienation is “whenever a person or group uses predatory behaviors, such as entrapment, coercion, and undue influence, to establish a relationship with a victim and isolate the victim from existing relationships and support systems, including family and friends, with the goal of gaining and retaining sweeping control over the victim’s actions and decisions.”
In the criminal trajectory of NXIVM’s Keith Raniere, we find many instances of “[p]redatory alienation and other forms of undue influence”. And, as Professor Boyle reminds us, these “are commonly used by cults, religious sects, gangs, extremist groups, human traffickers, sexual predators, domestic abusers, and other similar persons and groups.”
While the war on cult-like organizations has barely began, it is possible to see signs of hope in the horizon, as we watch cases like the NXIVM prosecutions. “In conclusion”, Boyle writes, “United States v. Raniere provides groundwork for authorities to use the human-trafficking laws, and related provisions, to prosecute dangerous and manipulative leaders of high-control groups and cults.”