Religious Cults

Praying or Preying?

"Religious Cults – Praying or Preying" was the subject of a presentation made by family business security expert Harold Copus. He recently spoke to a group of family business owners about security threats to their families and their businesses.

Copus, a former Special Agent with the FBI, has been featured on several episodes of the Dr Phil Show dealing with his work on finding and returning missing children and adults. He is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News and CNN and leads the security section for the Family Business Institute. In 2002, President George Bush invited Copus to the White House for a conference on missing and exploited children. Copus was recognized for his work and was asked to attend the White House when President Bush signed legislation to create the Amber Alert Law.

In his security presentation dealing with risk management, Copus talked about his assignments dealing with religious cults. Kalan Schwerzler, a writer and editor with Family Business Experts, interviewed Copus regarding his experiences with religious cults and the ways in which they manipulate their followers.

FBE: You recently had a run-in with Jim Green's religious cult “Army of God” as a result of your working with the Dr. Phil Show. What was the basis of your contact with this group?

HC: I was looking for a young lady that had been desperately seeking religion in her life. She met someone that knew of Jim Green, listened to his message and was mesmerized by him and his beliefs that God only spoke through him.

FBE: How did you approach your initial contact with this group?

HC: I went to the group's compound outside Grants, New Mexico. Grants is about 100 miles east of nowhere. We decided to arrive at the compound unannounced. We were greeted with immediate hostility. This was a dangerous situation. We never found the daughter but later learned that she had gone to another compound in southwest Texas, near the Mexican border.

FBE: What is the foundation of these religious cults? How is it that these leaders are able to command so much power over those who follow them?

HC: What is so amazing is that there are so many of these groups. In social hierarchies like these, the leader is the only one that speaks directly to God and further, that God has chosen this person to be the one authorized to hear the message.

FBE: Seems like these groups are in stiff competition with one another.

HC: I sometimes wonder if they've seen the others' websites!

FBE: You used the term “social hierarchy”. How are these groups arranged socially?

HC: The leaders, for the most part, live the good life. They do not “toil in the vineyards” like their followers. They are too “busy” talking to God to do what those on the lower end of the spectrum are doing, those who are not getting the direct message. The leaders eat well while their followers eat little. Leaders have cars and take rides on airplanes while their minions walk.

FBE: Seems like it would be much better to be one of the leaders than a follower!

HC: I agree! As that leader, you get a comfortable bed, you enjoy the fruits of others' labor and you have hundreds of admirers hanging on your every word and action. The only fall back is that you have to constantly recruit.

FBE: Speaking of recruiting, are there any characteristics that are prevalent in the type of people who are most commonly drawn into these religious cults?

HC: Most, but obviously not all, that look toward joining a religious cult have low self-esteem and may have had a run in with the law and generally have had a drug problem in their past.

FBE: So it's safe to say that, predominantly, these religious groups seek out younger members. Is there any reason why these individuals are more susceptible to the recruiting efforts?

HC: The future of religious cults, as they are well aware of, is not in recruiting the over-50 crowd. By now those folks do not need or want another boss. They also do not need or want to work long hours, lose sleep and be generally starved to death.

FBE: How do these groups recruit new members?

HC: They troll bus stations in major cities and shelters where many young adults are found that have run away from home. They have also utilized modern technology and they create websites that attract a lot of their new recruits.

FBE: I understand you're most recent work has been retrieving individuals from religious groups like Army of God, what has your success rate been thus far?

HC: About 50/50. What causes removal of an individual to be difficult is that the longer they stay, the harder it is to convince them that the situation is an unhealthy one. Also, the younger they are the better chance of removing them and re-introducing them back to society.

FBE: When encountering these religious cults, what are the conditions you usually find the individual in? Are there any instances where their life was actually in danger?

HC: One of the most serious cases I've come across involved a girl in her mid-twenties. She belonged to a religious group that was fasting in preparation for Judgment Day. When the appointed day came without the finger of God destroying the earth, many of the group members became disillusioned.

FBE: What was the leader's reaction to the doubt he faced amongst his followers after that happened?

HC: Their leader knew immediately what he had to do. He called them back to the “Temple” and told them that their prayers and fasting convinced God to wait on destroying the earth. God had told him they had to go out and recruit new believers to save the world from the next day of destruction.

FBE: That was some fast thinking on his part! What happened to the girl?

HC: Well, the leader also called for additional fasting. The young girl was by now a true believer. She fasted with even more feeling than others. She refused both food and liquids, thus greatly increasing the danger of the situation.

FBE: With time obviously the leading factor in making a plan of action, what steps did you take to remove her?

HC: We had to get a court order to remove her from the compound to a hospital because of her imminent death from fasting. The leaders fought us in court but ultimately lost.

FBE: Were you ever able to convince her of the illegitimacy of the leader's “master plan”?

HC: Yes we were. She was one of our successful cases!

FBE: How did you manage to convince someone who shortly before was willing to give their life for their beliefs and their chosen leader?

HC: What pushed us over with her was that we had video and audio where the leader told me that he was not fasting. He led the members of his group to believe that he had been fasting but God had spoken to him and wanted him to “lightly” partake of food so he could lead his followers.

FBE: Having seen the vast, well-stocked and heavily armed compounds these religious cults establish, how is it that they are able to raise the necessary funds to begin with?

HC: They generally operate under a 501 c 3 of the IRS tax code that allows them to be exempt from taxes. Members are the ones who work to provide for the group. All monies from their efforts go into the general fund. Only the leader and his small group have access to the funds. Houses are sold, cars are re-titled over to the leaders, and 401ks are liquidated. All to show to the leader that the follower is a true believer.

FBE: To most of us, that seems completely outlandish! What would make these individuals willing to do something like this?

HC: Well, when an individual is “lost” so long and so downtrodden in life, that when these religious cults find them and give them “meaning” in their lives, they're willing to do anything that's asked of them. The feeling of family and belonging can be a deeply motivating thing. Leaders of these groups know this, and take advantage of that fact.

FBE: You've discussed the hierarchy between the leaders and the members of these groups, are there any peculiar social conditions among the members themselves?

HC: Absolutely. Men are usually separated from the women. Men work hard while women do a lot of the household chores. The leader usually decides who can “sleep” with one another with the exception that the leader can “sleep” with whom he selects.

FBE: Another aspect of those groups which just seems wholly unappealing to most, I'm sure! Well, Harold, thank you so much for your time and expertise on this subject. Hopefully, you will continue to help families and family businesses cope with the involvement of family members and friends with these groups. Is there any parting information that you would like to include?

HC: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to relate some of my experiences so that the early warning signs can be recognized and quickly handled in the appropriate manner. I think it's crucial for everyone to understand that if a family member or friend begins to follow one of these religious cults that intervention at its earliest point is the best way to keep the person out of the harmful grasp of the leaders and other group members. The longer they stay, the harder it is for them to leave.

FBE: Thank you Harold - your presentation was a real eye-opener!


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