Multimillion-Dollar Judgement Upheld Against Cult of Kidnappers
he U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco affirmed in April a multimillion-dollar verdict against the old Cult Awareness Network, a clearinghouse for anti-religious outlaws. The original October 1995 judgment resulted from the kidnapping, imprisonment and attempted "deprogramming" of a man from a conservative Christian church from the Seattle area. The old CAN is now required to pay its victim $875,000 in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages, plus interest from 1995.
But it is also something more: a victory for religious freedom and civil rights for people of faith in America. "This is the first federal appellate court decision which expressly holds that deprogramming violates U.S. civil rights laws," said Kendrick Moxon, one of the attorneys on the appeal. And, given that the deprogramming attempt was, at its core, an effort to force a young adult man to "change" his interpretation of the Bible, Moxon noted that the decision "means that efforts to force someone into changing their religious views — whatever they are and for whatever reason — are clearly labeled as violations of federal law. This is a very important legal precedent."
|In a separate case in Chicargo, a federal jury found that the old CAN was a criminal clique and that its president, Cynthia Kisser (above), deprogrammed her own sister and then went on to conduct other assaults.|
The old CAN was infamous for involvement in illegal acts against religious groups and their members. And its reputation was well-deserved: its founder a five-time convict charged with an array of offenses including rape and cocaine smuggling; its favorite "deprogrammer" a convicted jewel thief and diagnosed psychopath; its security chief a longtime inmate of some of the nation's toughest jails.
The views of the old CAN's last executive director, Cynthia Kisser, shed much light on what comprised that organization's agenda and help explain its perverse fascination with Christians: "If [Jesus Christ] were alive now," she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "we'd take an interest in him because of the great controversy surrounding his fringe activities.... We'd try to see if there was abuse, unethical behavior or deceptive practices. And I'd send whatever we could find to reporters."
Faced with court losses and mounting problems with the law entangling the old CAN's officials and deprogrammers, the September, 1995 trial in Seattle came at a crucial time — and the subsequent verdict was effectively the last straw for the embattled CAN.
|Attorney Kendrick Moxon: With the Court of Appeals’ recent decision affirming a multimilliondollar verdict against the old Cult Awareness Network, “efforts to force someone into changing their religious views – whatever they are and for whatever reason – are clearly labeled as violations of federal law.”|
The Court of Appeals determined that CAN's agent in Washington state, Shirley Landa, acted for and on behalf of CAN in making referrals for what CAN euphemistically called "involuntary deprogramming" — a practice where the target is held against his will while attempts are made to forcibly alter his religious beliefs. Since the verdict against CAN, the practice of deprogramming in America, which had been a lucrative criminal enterprise, has apparently ceased. The court found CAN responsible and that "CAN members routinely referred people to deprogrammers."
In its 23-page opinion, the court acknowledged the role played in the case by violent deprogrammer and convicted felon Rick Ross, and Ross' ties to the old CAN, noting that "The evidence indicates that it was CAN's practice to refer people to deprogrammers, including Rick Ross, and that Ross was known to engage in involuntary deprogramming."
The court also turned to CAN's violations of civil rights laws, and the issue of whether a private organization can be held liable for the acts of its members, under a legal doctrine known as vicarious liability or respondeat superior (literally, "let the master answer"). "We conclude that vicarious liability may be imposed on CAN in this action," said the court. "Under either traditional principles of respondeat superior or 'policy and practice' principles, CAN would be liable. Landa acted as CAN's agent, and Landa acted in accordance with CAN's practice of referring people to involuntary deprogrammers."
Further, confirming that CAN engaged in "a conspiracy to deprive the plaintiff of the equal protection of the laws," the appellate panel concluded that "The record shows that Landa was involved in the agreement to deprogram Scott and thereby violate his civil rights. Landa referred [Scott's mother] Tonkin to Ross, and Landa was aware of Ross' methods. ... The fact Ross contacted Landa for 'legal advice' after his arrest is further evidence of her complicity."
CAN argued before the court of appeal that it was its "official policy" to not involve itself in deprogramming, and thus it should be let off the hook. The Court rejected this argument as contrary to the evidence at trial, saying that "CAN's 'official' policy prohibiting involuntary deprogramming [does not] undermine the evidence concerning CAN's practices...." and thus held CAN fully liable for the original judgment, plus interest.
Explaining the importance of these findings, Moxon said that "This means that groups which violate civil rights as a matter of policy and practice cannot escape responsibility for crimes by stating 'well, that was done by an individual employee on his own initiative.' If someone acting for the KKK violates your rights, the KKK can be held liable, because such actions are consistent with their goals, policy and practice. The implications for a hate group like the old CAN are vast."
In a separate case which went to trial in U.S. District Court last year, a federal jury in Chicago found that CAN was a criminal clique and that its president, Cynthia Kisser, deprogrammed her own sister and then went on to conduct other assaults.
Following the 1995 verdict, the old CAN declared bankruptcy and its name and assets were purchased by a consortium of religious groups, the Foundation for Religious Freedom, intent upon reversing CAN's previous campaign of prejudice and intolerance. The new group promotes religious liberty and family communication and understanding to resolve disputes regarding religious beliefs. More than 5,000 individuals have telephoned its hotline to date and obtained help or information.
The new CAN's chairman, Rev. Dr. George Robertson, vice president of Maryland Bible College and a Baptist minister, said, "We applaud this decision as the death blow to a former reign of religious terrorism, fueled by lies, fear and bigotry. We feel religious liberty is America's most important freedom."