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ACLU Report

Deprogramming and the Law

Anne Prichard
January 1978

This is the first part of the report the ACLU presented in 1978 and dealing with the issue of deprogramming. The second part is to be found in the conservatorship part of this website.


A. Ted Patrick

1. Patrick's Methods
2. Patrick's Legal Status

B. Other Extra-Legal Abductors

1. Abduction for principle
2. Abduction on behalf of parents

a. David Goodman
b. The Queens County Case

Second part of the report: ABDUCTION UNDER COLOR OF LAW


During the last decade, many varied and highly visible religious groups have emerged in America. These groups are unconventional and more demanding of individual members' time, material possessions, and commitment that has been customary in recent times in this country. The great majority of members are people in their twenties and, not surprisingly, public and parental reaction has been intense. Attempts to explain, in sociological terms the attraction of these groups often sound reassuring: Young people, in the aftermath of Vietnam, political assassinations and Watergate, are seeking an alternative to the traditional struggle for material success and power. An individual's growth towards independence and maturity often requires an exploration of different cultures and attitudes. Some see a sustained, "ecstatic" spiritual life as a corrective to the materialism and superficiality of American society. A close-knit religious community provides a young person with a sense of identity and an alternative to family life during vulnerable years.

Despite these and other reassurances, however, general public reaction has been primarily hostile to young people's involvement in these groups. Many of the new groups are viewed not as bona fide religions, but as "cults," whose greedy egocentric leaders wreak untold damage on young lives. Unfair, high-pressure techniques of evangelizing produce, it is said, not religious converts, but zombies who have no resistance to exploitation by cult leaders. Some opponents of the new groups claim that the ultimate subversion is not of individuals but of the very fabric of our society. A recent magazine article described "religious breaks" as "America's most dangerous threat."(*)

Desperate parents are increasingly using forcible means to abduct their adult children from religious groups that they consider radical and dangerous. Thousands of parents have hired "religious deprogrammers" to seize their children, isolate them from their usual associates, and barrage them with accusations, arguments and threats until they renounce their religious affiliations.

Parents have organized a tax-exempt foundation which provides a national communication and transportation network to deprogrammers in various cities. Free-lance deprogrammers are springing up all over the country, benefiting by the profit-making potential of deprogramming. Some parents have paid as much as $45,000 in an attempt to have a child's religious affiliation broken.

Deprogrammers have seized members of several dozen religious groups, including the Way, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, Love Israel, the Unification Church, Hare Krishna, the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, and the Divine Light Mission. One prominent deprogrammer is reported to have declared that Mormons, Jews, people who meditate, and all those who do not accept Jesus will have to be deprogrammed. (*)

Yet, deprogramming is not just a "war against the cults." Rather, it is a technique used against any affiliation opposed by a relative. One young  woman went through deprogramming because she was a Marxist. Two Denver women were kidnapped and held by force because they had left the Greek Orthodox tradition of their families. A Roman Catholic woman from Ontario and an Episcopalian man from Houston were victims of deprogramming attempts. One parents'' organization that opposes "cults" includes feminist consciousness-raising groups on its list. (**)

The American Civil Liberties Union takes no position in the debate over the effect on an individual of a particular religious affiliation or the effect on society of the proliferation of non-traditional religious group. The ACLU has no special competence to deal with these difficult questions. What is clear is that there is a point - and eighteen is now generally held to be the age of legal majority - where a young person possesses separate and independent rights to freedom of religion, association and privacy. The movement to seize, hold and deprogram people of legal age, particularly when aided by the laws and officials of the government, is a threat to basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. This report will describe the origin of the movement to seize and deprogram members of religious groups, the participation by the state in this process, and future prospects for state-sanctioned deprogramming.


A. Ted Patrick

1. Patrick's Methods

The originator of deprogramming in this country is Ted Patrick, a former community relations consultant to California Governor Ronald Reagan. Patrick was criticized for using his identification with Governor Reagan to combat religious groups and, in 1972, when he quit his state job, he went into deprogramming full time. Since 1972, he has engineered over one thousand deprogrammings.

Patrick is convinced that the only way to persuade people to renounce their beliefs is to get them away from the social and emotional reinforcement of their religious environment. His methods are primitive. He grabs people by surprise and transports them to rooms where they are confined for days or weeks. His account of his activities, Let Our Children Go (E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1976) documents his techniques. He told one victim "I can stay here three, four months, Even longer. Nobody's going anywhere." (p.24). He admits to using Mace on people who try to prevent the abduction (p. 223), depriving the victim of sleep (p. 76), and using real violence during the deprogramming (pp. 188, 189).

2. Patrick's Legal Status

Patrick carries out abductions with parents present on the theory that he is acting as their agent. Although most incidents involve people over the age of legal majority, authorities have tended to sympathize with parents and have been reluctant to prosecute in what they perceive as a family squabble. Grand juries have refused to indict, even where the victim is over 21.

In at least two cases, Patrick escaped conviction for kidnapping and assault by invoking the doctrine of "justification." New York Law, 35.05 of the Penal Law, Subdivision 2, defines justification as follows:

2. Such conduct is necessary as an emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury which is about to occur by reason of a situation occasioned or developed through no fault of the actor, and which is of such gravity that, according to ordinary standards of intelligence and morality, the desirability and urgency of avoiding such injury clearly outweigh the desirability of avoiding the injury sought to be prevented by the statute defining the offence in issue."

Under this doctrine, it is permissible to break into a burning house in order to save someone from fire.

In 1973, in a case involving an attempt to kidnap Daniel Voll, Patrick claimed he was aiding Voll's parents to save him from a greater wrong than the admitted assault and kidnapping. This greater wrong, according to Patrick, was Voll's affiliation with the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a small, noncommunal group of evangelical Christians who meet in Manhattan apartments.

During the trial, the judge permitted the defense to introduce evidences that attempted to ridicule the group's devoutly held beliefs. No evidence was offered that the group was engaged in unlawful activity. Rather, it was fundamental religious beliefs and practices that came under the court's scrutiny. Judge Bruce Wright charged the jury that, if the abductors reasonably believed the abduction was justified, "then you may excuse the conduct of the defendant." The jury acquitted Patrick under the doctrine of justification, presumably because the jury found that the theological tenets of the New Testament Missionary Fellowship were sufficiently bizarre to have led the kidnapers to believe they were acting for the good of the victim.

Most of the time, Patrick has been successful in his assertions that he was acting as agent for the family and that he had "justification." Nonetheless, he has served time in jail for false imprisonment, a misdemeanor. In June 1974, Denver District Court Judge Zita Weinshienk sentenced Patrick to one year in jail and fine him $1,000 for falsely imprisoning two young women. The women, who had no religious affiliation, had left their parents' strict Greek Orthodox way of life. For this non-affiliation, they were seized and held in a room with barred windows and subjected to shouted accusations for a week. The National Organization of Women picketed the Denver District Attorney's office to protest the inaction of law enforcement offices in the case, which finally resulted in Patrick's conviction. Judge Weinshienk suspended all but seven days of Patrick's sentence with the condition that he cease his deprogramming activities, but insisted that he spend some time in jail to experience for himself "what deprivation of physical freedom means."

Patrick's response was to go after a young woman, a member of a radical political group in Philadelphia, a month later, while his conviction was on appeal. The following spring, Patrick was found guilty in Orange County, California of falsely imprisoning a Hare Krishna woman. There, the judge refused to accept Patrick's choice-of-evils defense, calling it "a matter of religious liberty, plain and simple", and sentenced Patrick to one year in prison.

While serving his sentence in the Orange County jail, Patrick was removed from an unsupervised five-day-a-week work furlough program because he lied about the duties of his work while on furlough. Rather than promoting his book, as he had claimed, he was continuing his deprogramming efforts.

Patrick was released from the Orange County jail in March 1977. Judge Weinshienk then ordered him back to Denver to serve the suspended one-year sentence because he had violated the terms of his parole, but deducted the 221 days he had served of the California sentence. Judge Weinshienk said, "This is a case where an individual has sought to take the law into his own hands." When he was sentenced in Denver, Patrick vowed to continue deprogramming activities as soon as he was free. He was released in July, 1977.

At this writing, Patrick faces new misdemeanor charges for two deprogramming attempts which he made during his work furlough. In August 1977, the Beverly Hills district attorney charge Patrick and five other persons with conspiracy and false imprisonment for kidnapping two members of the Brotherhood of the Sun, a Santa Barbara Christian group.

B. Other Extra-Legal Abductors

1. Abduction for principle

Joyce B. is a twenty-seven year old hare Krishna devotee who is married to another devotee. She was six months pregnant in January 1977 when she set out from her apartment to the Krishna temple nearby. On previous occasions, she had noticed that she was being followed on her walks and thoughts that she recognized members of a Christian group which had been heckling Hare Krishna devotees at the city's airport.

As she was entering the temple this January morning, a car pulled into the driveway. Four men were in the car. They said they had some questions to ask her and, as she approached, the rear door opened and she was told a gun was pointing at her and that she would be shot if she did not get into the car. She got in, was blindfolded, and was driven to a motel. According to Joyce B's signed affidavit, she was forced to disrobe and remain without clothing. She was beaten by the men. She was continually harassed day and night and was given only minimal amounts of food and sleep. She was forced to listen to tapes excoriating her religion.

She lost track of time, but estimates that, after two or three weeks of this ordeal, she was taken to some kind of boarding house where she and a young woman from the Unification Church were kept under guard for about five days. She was then taken to a house belonging to a family of Pentecostal Christians and was exhorted to accept the Pentecostal philosophy.

She persuaded her captors that she needed medical attention because of her advanced pregnancy and they took her to a hospital. From there she called her husband with whom she returned to the temple where she is now living.

Joyce B. was threatened with a worse fate if she returned to the Krishna religion. She expressed fear about taking any legal action against the people who held her, some of whom she said she could identify. After two months, she overcame her fear sufficiently to write an affidavit for use by her temple where others have been threatened with similar incidents. She is an orphan and has no near relatives. The apparent motive for the deprogramming attempt is that the Pentecostals saw she was pregnant and decided to save her soul and the baby's for Christ.

This group has seized other young people in order to convert them from their chosen religions to its particular beliefs. Its most frequent targets are members of the Unification Church and Hare Krishna devotees. The halfway house where Joyce B. was taken from the motel is used as a deprogramming center where several young people are held at the same time.

2. Abduction on behalf of parents

a. David Goodman

All over the country, imitators of Patrick are willing to profit by parents' willingness to pay to have their children seized. Like Patrick, they have avoided conviction by claiming in their defense that there is a law of love between parent and child that is a "higherlaw" than mere mundane laws against things like kidnapping. After David Goodman, age 19, took part in a 21-day Unification Church worship, four men grabbed him in a parking lot and attempted to deprogram him in a Westchester County, New York, motel. Goodman filed a complain against six people, including his mother and uncle, for unlawful imprisonment, a felony in New York.

The defense pleaded justification. A Westchester grand jury refused to indict. Westchester District Attorney Carl Vergari explained, "Implicit in their findings was the belief that the family had the right to take reasonable steps to rescue the child from a situation which they believed constituted a danger to his health and welfare."

b. The Queens County Case

Not only have grand juries failed to indict kidnapers, but, in one bizarre case, a grand jury reverse direction and indicted two Hare Krishna leaders for unlawful imprisonment through the use of brainwashing.

The case began with the abduction of Merylee Kreshower, a 23-year-old Hare Krishna devotee, by her mother and a private detective, Galen Kelly. Kelly, who admits to performing about seventy similar missions in the past, seized Kreshower at a shopping center in August 1976, forced her into a van and took her to a motel. After five days, Kreshower pretended to renounce her faith, got back to the Hare Krishna temple in Manhattan, and charged Kelly and her mother with kidnapping.

Merylee Kreshower went to court to testify with Ed Shapiro, another Hare Krishna devotee, who had been the victim of a Ted Patrick deprogramming attempts eighteen months earlier. The Queens grand jury heard testimony from Ms. Kreshower and others about Krishna beliefs and practices, dismissed the charges against her mother and Kelly, and charged leaders of the Manhattan temple with unlawful imprisonment by mind control techniques. The court then held Ms. Kreshower and Mr. Shapiro as material witness on $50,000 bond each.

Under New York law, the crime of unlawful imprisonment requires proof that one person restrains another under conditions which expose that person to the risk of serious physical injury. Attorney Jeremiah S. Gutman asked the criminal court judge to dismiss the indictment against Hare Krishna leaders on the grounds that: a. no physical force was use, b. Ms Kreshower entered the Hare Krishna temple voluntarily, and c. she was in no way physically restrained from leaving the group. Most important, the charges directly interfered with her constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.

In the meantime, Ed Shapiro's father succeeded, in cooperation with the prosecutor, in getting the material witness order against Ed vacated and had Ed "delivered" to him under a Massachusetts conservatorship order secured without notice to Ed. The father then had Ed placed in an ambulance under guard and driven to a mental hospital in Long Island, presumably to be committed. The New York CLU called the hospital and warned its officials that there would be litigation if they admitted Shapiro. They did not, and Shaprior's father took him, still under guard, to Massachusetts. There Ed Shapiro's struggle to prevent his father from confining him in a mental hospital finally ended in June 1977 when a petition to grant a guardianship over Ed was dismissed because there was no evidence that he was mentally incompetent.

In March 1977, New York State Supreme Court Justice John J. Leahy dismissed the charges against the Hare Krishna temple leaders and called the grand jury indictments a "direct and blatant violation" of religious freedom. As to the state's charge that the practices of Hare Krishna (rituals, chanting, etc.) constituted mind control, the court found no legal foundation, but rather "a concept that is fraught with danger in its potential utilization in the suppression... of citizens' right to pursue, join and practice the religion of their choice". The ruling, the first of its kind, is not binding on other courts, but Leah issued a "dire caveat to prosecutors" across the land to protect religious belief. (Memorandum, Supreme Court Queens County, Ind. No. 2114/76 and 2012/76, March 16, 1977).

Despite this decision, Merylee Kreshower's abductors escaped prosecution and Justice Leahy's words have not deterred deprogrammers elsewhere.

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