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‘Cults’ Hiding as Charities

30 June 2015 at 12:33 pm
Xavier Smerdon
Organisations that could be identified as cults are registered as charities in Australia and receiving tax exempt status, a group of experts has claimed. Journalist Xavier Smerdon investigated the issue of when a charity becomes a cult.

Xavier Smerdon | 30 June 2015 at 12:33 pm


‘Cults’ Hiding as Charities
30 June 2015 at 12:33 pm

Organisations that could be identified as cults are registered as charities in Australia and receiving tax exempt status, a group of experts has claimed. Journalist Xavier Smerdon investigated the issue of when a charity becomes a cult.

In the early 1990s Ros Hodgkins’ daughter Emma was a bright and affectionate young woman who had moved from the NSW countryside to Sydney with dreams of becoming a beauty therapist.

Living away from her family and friends in what felt like a foreign city made Emma vulnerable.

When she met members of the Boston Movement, later known as the International Churches of Christ, she felt that she had finally made some new friends.

It was more than two years before Ros saw her daughter again, with the cult ordering her to cut off contact from her family and devote herself to their cause.

“She quit her job to work full time for the church with very little sleep, very little pay, moving from flat to flat and she was totally told to cut herself off from us, her family,” Ros told Pro Bono Australia News.

“It was absolutely horrific because the whole time you’re thinking how could this happen in this country?

“For a family member to be so changed, to be so taken away from the person that you knew, and sadly that’s the kind of stories that we’re hearing every week.”

Ros was finally able to get Emma in contact with an expert on cults who helped her think critically about the choices she had made.

She eventually left the group she had devoted so much time and energy to and returned to her family.

Ros soon discovered that she was not alone and that many other parents around Australia had lost their children to dangerous groups masquerading as religions.

Along with a group of other parents she helped found the Not for Profit group, Cult Information & Family Support (CIFS).

Ros said she was constantly being contacted by people from around Australia and the world who felt their children may be in trouble.

With the growing threat of groups like ISIS recruiting vulnerable and idealistic young people, Ros said she was seeing a rise in the number of cults operating in Australia.

“It’s been for some time recognised that there could be possible 3000 groups, some of those might be replicated in different states, within this country, that would be using dynamics that we understand are coercive, that have undue pressure, that are using destructive and abusive types of control techniques to keep their members compliant to how they see they should live,” she said.

“They’re taking away personal freedoms very much in an area that could go from not so abusive to extremely abusive.”

Possibly the most disturbing of Ros’ claims is that groups that she would identify as cults are receiving charity status, and dodging paying tax in Australia.

She points her allegations specifically at two of the most notorious churches.

“There are many, many churches that have become something sinister. Scientology is recognised as a church, the Exclusive Brethren is recognised as a church and yet it has its own school, it has people that leave that are totally told that they, in the eyes of the family, in the eyes of those still in the church, that they are dead,” she said.

“There are groups that aren’t even seen as a church but they claim charity status.

“Some churches these days are still stopping young people from having tertiary education, they are still saying if they leave, they are to be treated as though they are dead because that’s how God would treat them if they left the true cause. How can that be still obtaining tax deductibility?

“They’re going against human rights that we all take very seriously. Freedom to choose and to believe.”

Ros’ accusations are backed up in part by Independent Senator Nick Xenophon who in April wrote to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) asking it to investigate the Church of Scientology.

Following the airing of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a documentary containing fresh allegations of abuse of members, mismanagement and spying within the Church of Scientology, Xenophon said that the ACNC should review the charitable status of the church.

Xenophon told Pro Bono Australia News last week that he was not convinced that the Church of Scientology could be ruled out as a cult.

“It’s an issue of cult-like behaviour,” Xenophon said.

“An organisation that is receiving tax-exempt status ought to be subject to some scrutiny.”

He said Australia should look to the example of the United Kingdom, which has refused to give charity status to Scientology since 1999 because it has no “public benefit arising out of the practice of Scientology”.

An ACNC spokesperson said secrecy provisions limited what it could say about its investigation into Scientology.

“The ACNC has received the letter from Senator Xenophon. We take all concerns about registered charities seriously. Where there is evidence of serious mismanagement or misappropriation, a serious, persistent or deliberate breach of the ACNC Act, or where vulnerable people or significant charitable assets are at risk, the ACNC will act firmly and quickly,” the spokesperson said.

“Cults are not mentioned in the Charities Act or the ACNC Act. All charities must meet the definition set out in the Charities Act. This includes being not-for-profit, being for the public benefit and having no disqualifying purposes.”

A letter sent to Senator Xenophon from Director of Compliance and Reporting at the ACNC, Stuart Donaldson, last week and seen by Pro Bono Australia News confirmed that the charity regulator was responsible for investigating allegations of abuse within Scientology.

“The ACNC has completed an initial evaluation of these concerns and viewed the Going Clear documentary,” Donaldson said in the letter.

“We have concluded that the concerns you raised are within the ACNC’s jurisdiction to the extent that they are occurring after the commencement of the ACNC in December 2012 and relate to ACNC governance standards, reporting and record keeping obligations and entitlement to registration under the ACNC Act 2012 and the Charities ACT 2013.”

Donaldson said the ACNC could take a range of actions against the Church of Scientology, including encouraging it to conduct a self-evaluation, launching its own investigation or review, or reviewing the church’s entitlement to registration as a charity.

He said the ACNC may also decide to take no action “until further evidence is available”.

The President of the Church of Scientology Australia, Vicki Dunstan, told Pro Bono Australia News that free speech was not a free pass to broadcast or publish false information about her religion.

“These claims are baseless and have no bearing on the real activities of the Church at any level,” Dunstan said.

“Not only does the Church know it is a charity but others who are qualified to pass judgment also affirm this.

“The Church of Scientology is a charitable organization recognized by a unanimous decision of five Judges of the High Court of Australia in 1983 and we remain so today. Nothing has changed.”

Dunstan pointed to humanitarian work undertaken by Scientology as proof that it should remain a registered charity in Australia.

“The Church sponsors the largest non-governmental anti-drug campaign on earth – reaching tens of millions of people each year, promoting education about drug abuse,” she said.

“The Church sponsors an international foundation called The Way to Happiness – a non-religious moral code based on common sense that aims to restore values. In the two decades since it was authored, some 80 million copies of the book have passed from hand to hand.

“The Scientology Volunteer Ministers program has initiated volunteer disaster relief efforts and other assistance on a global scale. There are 203,000 active members who are on call at any time and any place in the world for any situation.”

The ACNC is not thought to be currently investigating the Exclusive Brethren, or Plymouth Brethren Christian Church as it is officially known, which also strongly defended its charity status and said it was not a cult, calling the allegations a “terrible slur”.

“Our charitable status has never been questioned. And yes we will defend it,” a church spokesperson said.

“The Plymouth Brethren has none of the features of a cult. We are much more comfortable with the term ‘sect’.

“Our Church members live and work within the wider Australian community in suburbs and in country towns. Our homes are situated amongst the homes of other Australians. We do not live in compounds or gated communities. Our children attend normal public schools in their early years and then schools that are fully accredited by relevant State and Federal education authorities and are staffed by non-Brethren teachers who follow the requisite state-based curricula.”

The spokesperson said the church’s Rapid Relief Team, made up of volunteers, worked to assist at charity events, help the homeless and feed emergency personnel during natural disasters.

So while support groups, a Senator, and religious organisations argue about what defines a charity, Ros Hodgkins is sure about one thing, charity status cannot be used to protect cults.

“Governments haven’t taken seriously a problem that’s existed here for a long time and are too afraid to be looking at a religious belief that simply becomes a way for people to hid behind that belief,” she said.

“No organisation should be not able to be scrutinised simply because it says ‘I’m a  charity or I’m a religious group’.”

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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  • Tore Klevjer says:

    Surely the content of a documentary such as 'Going Clear' provides sufficient cause for alarm and an investigation into the tax free status of Scientology. Simply providing social assistance should not be the only criteria by which a charity is measured. Going Clear gives an insight into a religion that is harmful to its followers, and misrepresents itself to gain converts. As a counsellor I have spoken to many ex cult members, who tell me that many so called 'Cults' have other aliases and masquerade as charities in order to win the approval of the public and raise funds. Some of these groups have had phony web sites and take photo evidence of their charitable deeds while posing alongside workers from World Vision or other charities.

  • N. Maendel says:

    Thank you for raising awareness of the very real coercion, exploitation, and undue influence that masquerade behind many of these "charitable" and "tax exempt" group facades in the name of belief and devotion. All too often, these groups are able to con and manipulate (public relations initiatives, donations, relationships with religious leaders/law enforcement/ politicians/ celebrities, etc.) the naive public into believing that they are 'helping' the world, when the reality is that the members and their families, both inside and out, often experience quite another ugly and destructively dangerous picture very similar to what you've reported. People inside of these groups cannot truly speak for themselves or question leadership or demand transparency. To do so can put themselves and their loved ones in harm's way. Most all members of the more dangerous cults do not have a penny to their name and are, therefore, completely dependent on the group and totally at the mercy of the whims of their leaders. Their leaders, however, are often in complete control of rather exorbitant sums of money and legal representation, which can be used to evade and minimize accountability before the laws of the land. Watchfulness from the outside world is VITAL in addressing and preventing human rights abuses within these groups/cults/sects/churches. Keep up the excellent work of bringing this issue into the spotlight!

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