After combating sexual abuse committed against children and vulnerable people inside the Church, the bishops of France broke another taboo that concerns sectarian drifts unfortunately seen in Catholic communities, with serious consequences on the victims. Thus in 2016 they decided to create a “Unit” tasked with registering complaints, informing the competent authorities so they may take the appropriate measures under the law, ensuring support to the victims and help them regain control of their life, and most of all help them find the courage to report to the competent courts of justice.
The figures. From October 2018 to February 2019, the Unit – created by the French Bishops’ Conference – has processed 1300 reports: 245 by phone; 1,000 by e-mail; about twenty letters were sent by post and about ten complaints were personally filed. The reports show that “sectarian drifts” occur in new and old religious communities, in fundamentalist and traditionalist religious groups, in “recovery” and charismatic religious movements. The data are contained in a Dossier drawn up by the French Bishops’ Conference and presented at a press conference during which a documentary on spiritual abuse – co-produced by Catholic television network KTO and directed by Jean-Claude and Anne Duret – was also screened: a 56-minute journey into congregations and new religious communities, a reportage to investigate a phenomenon which has only recently emerged inside the Church, whose primary aim is
“to inform and raise public awareness on the possible risks connected with the quest for spirituality.”
The bishops’ reaction. “We firmly believe – said Msgr. Alain Planet, bishop of Carcassone and Narbonne, coordinator of the Unit – that the only answer to such evil is to combat is and we hope to give a contribution that may help carry out this battle in full transparency.” In November 2013, when some forty victims turned to me the bishops gathered in Lourdes, the President of the French Bishops’ Conference, Msgr. Georges Pontier, on behalf of the entire French episcopate, replied with a Letter: “We heard the cry of people who have suffered in the heart of the Church. Our thoughts go out to those who have been hurt – some of them permanently – by the conduct of some members of the Church. As president of our Episcopal Conference, I want you to know, on behalf of us all, that your stories and certain practices you denounced have upset us and shocked us… The letter continues: “Certain actions that you reported are prosecuted under criminal justice.
Nobody is above the law.”
The phenomenon. There are always a set of criteria underlying a sectarian drift inside a community. These criteria clearly indicate that this is no longer “an accidental and circumstantial dysfunction” existing inside a community, but “a veritable system enacted and upheld, consciously or, more often, unconsciously.” Sister Chantal-Marie Sorlin, former magistrate, currently serving as judge at the ecclesiastical court of Dijon, enumerated the “revelatory” signs.
The first revolves around the figure of the founder. An entire paragraph of the Dossier deals with the “cult” that frequently takes shape inside the groups. So it happens that the founder or superior somehow assumes the role of Christ: the members venerate him/her, put him/her on a pedestal and assure him/her obedience or utter submission. In the eyes of the followers the words of founder “are the words of the Gospel. His/her writings and teachings replace the Scriptures.” Woe betide whoever questions him/her: the members of these groups often make a “vow of unity” and criticism is seen as a threat to the fraternity covenant. The other criterion is the absolutization of the group. Everything that is “outside” is considered “apathetic, infidel, modernist.” We are faced with a “parallel church” and whoever criticizes, does so because “he/she is considered incapable” of understanding the charism of the group. There ensues that the community must necessarily be autonomous also in the formation or accompaniment of its members.
Even in the presence of mental illnesses that require appropriate treatment, external psychologists are considered the devil. Sometimes there is an obligation to confess to only one member of the community. And while consecrated life implies leaving everything behind, in sectarian groups this separation turns into utter isolation: ties with family, friends, social network, even with studies and professional life, are severed.
No television, radio, press: all information platforms are shut off.
The Dossier also mentions the use of “internal phraseology” (marked by new terms and different meanings) and the “cult of suffering” (“if you are taking up the Cross it means you are on the right path.”)
What happens to those who leave? This is probably the saddest chapter of the Dossier. “In deviant communities, every departure is withheld from other members. Thus, no one will approach the ‘traitor’. And since in most cases the follower had severed all relations with all his previous acquaintances, he finds himself alone. “Naked like Job.” What are the physical and mental conditions of those leaving the community? “They are completely broken persons.”
“How many cases of depression, how many attempted suicides, how many suicides … The reason is that these people feel guilty and that they’re a total failure.”
“All of these drifts have recently been reported in some Catholic communities – the nun pointed out – and they resemble those found in other sectarian groups. This shows that the axis of evil does not separate us from the external realm, it does not separate our communities from the world outside, but it’s within us.” She added: “the presence of these drifts is all the more serious when it occurs where we expect to find authentic witnesses of God and the true fruits of holiness.”