Cleric fears cults' power in U.S.

Q&A

June 01, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

The Rev. Lawrence J. Gesy says that, from the beginning of the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, he was pretty sure there would eventually be a mass suicide.

Father Larry, as the Roman Catholic priest of the Baltimore archdiocese prefers to be known, has been studying fringe religious groups for about 13 years. He has just published a book, "Today's Destructive Cults and Movements," with a foreword by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India.

Born and reared on an Iowa farm, Father Larry was ordained in 1975. As a young priest, he joined Werner Erhard's controversial est self-awareness movement, which he now likens to a destructive cult.

He is director of the Catholic Healing Ministry of the archdiocese and associate pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Catonsville, where his book, a paperback published by Our Sunday Visitor Inc., went on sale last week.

Q: Why did you expect a mass suicide in Waco?

A: In such a group there is false security. Its individuals perceive that they alone have the truth, they alone are the saved. The world is against them, doesn't understand them. It's demonic. Why would the saved surrender to the unsaved? Why would the enlightened surrender to the unenlightened? That's why I said they would take their lives.

Q: Some say the Branch Davidians chose to follow a madman and got what they deserved. What is your response to that?

A: I firmly believe it is the experience of all of us who have worked with destructive cults that the individuals who are part of the group are good, law-abiding citizens who are genuinely searching for God. They've been duped by a leader.

No, they didn't get what they deserved. Once they were in the group, their ability to think critically was turned off.

You also must remember that this is a totalist group.

Q: What do you mean?

A: All that the person needs is totally provided.

Seeking truth, they have given up everything -- homes, jobs, family, education. "Abandon all, don't question, follow blindly," they are told, "and we promise you spiritual, emotional, financial, physical security."

Q: Is the Waco tragedy peculiarly American?

A: Yes, I think so because of the First Amendment, our freedom of religion, the fact that we embrace the principle that government doesn't interfere with religion. That great gift also exposes the American public to so many of these groups.

It's very easy today to claim you're a minister or a pastor and start out on your own.

The reality is that there are thousands of groups that have the potential for what occurred in Waco. It is really about craziness. It is about insanity.

Q: How do you account for seemingly intelligent, well-educated people becoming involved?

A: One reason is vulnerability. When people are vulnerable, when they are hurting, when they are reaching out for someone, they can very quickly fall prey to someone who gives them a quick emotional fix.

A lot of people are looking for the warm fuzzies. They don't think, they don't know what it can lead to. I didn't. I mean I fell prey to it.

Q: To Werner Erhard's est?

A: Yes.

Q: Why do you consider it a cult?

A: We consider it to be a destructive New Age movement now. It's a blending of Christianity, Western occultism, distorted Eastern mysticism, a distortion of the truths. And it's very much about self-divinity -- "I create my own universe, there's no need for redemption, I'm God."

It started out in the 1970s as self-improvement, knowing about yourself. But it took on a lot of the characteristics of a destructive cult, creating its own following. People became isolated from family and friends.

Q: Some people claim traditional religions and the so-called cults are similar in that both demand blind faith. What are the essential differences between a Pope John Paul II or a parish priest and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians?

A: The difference is that we never ask people to follow us blindly. We encourage people to think, to grow in adult-like faith, to be aware of the teachings of the church -- but also to use their consciences, their minds, to think freely. And the church has always said that the greatest gift that anyone has is free will.

David Koresh was typical of a charismatic, dynamic leader who starts out by saying he has a communication from God. He keeps working his way to more power, more control, and finally moves from having messages from God to saying, "I am God." It's a common phenomenon.

Q: What do you consider the most dangerous cults today?

A: I think we need to be aware that what I call the mainstream, traditional but destructive cults from the '70s are on the move again.

The Moonies are on the rise. I don't think you're going to see the Hare Krishnas running around in orange robes -- they're now wearing suits and ties; they're nice looking, presentable people. The image has changed, but they're perhaps as deceptive and clever as ever.

Satanism is really capturing a lot of kids. We see more and more youth dabbling -- that's a concern.

I have to say, though, that I feel the greatest danger out there for almost all adults is the New Age movement. You may not have a discernible leader or organization, but it is insidious enough, pulling people out of their traditional faiths. In rising above mainstream religion, it embraces so many elements -- self-divinity, reincarnation, self-generated truths, a lot of pantheistic philosophies, witchcraft. And because there are Christian elements, too, it is slippery.

Q: Is it easier to draw people back to traditional religion from the New Age movement than from a so-called cult?

A: Yes. They are likely to be out in the open, they haven't closed down their minds, they want to expand their minds. Sometimes the New Age movement is a steppingstone to a religious revival.

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