Minister counsels former cult members Groups nationwide seek his advice

August 18, 1993|By Claudia Rosenbaum | Claudia Rosenbaum,The Prince George's Journal

BOWIE -- The Rev. Richard Dow hower has met them all.

The ones who believe Lyndon LaRouche is the political messiah. The ones who believe salvation can be achieved through human and animal sacrifices. And the ones who promise to rid a person of all their negative experiences -- for a price.

Though each cult has its own methods, they all are strikingly similar in preying on vulnerable people and promising salvation, said Mr. Dowhower, pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church here. But once a member has given in completely to the group, he said, the niceties fade and every aspect of the member's life is controlled.

"Not all cults are religious," the minister said. "Some are political, some are commercial, some call themselves self-help groups, but they all abuse people in the same way."

Mr. Dowhower, 56, sets aside time between teaching Bible school, writing sermons and preparing his church's bulletins to counsel former cult members and people whose loved ones have deserted them for a cult. Last year, he worked on more than 30 cases, some through long-distance telephone calls and others by private sessions at his church. In the process, he has become an expert in the field whose comments are sought by the media during events such as the Branch Davidian standoff in Texas earlier this year.

He acquired his interest in cults after noticing a "strange group" of individuals selling flowers in the middle of the street near a Pittsburgh church where he was pastor in the early 1970s. They told him they were followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, selling flowers to raise money to keep kids off drugs.

"It just seemed like they were trading one addiction [drugs] for another," he said.

From there the fascination grew, and for the past 18 years, Mr. Dowhower has devoted himself to becoming an expert on cults. He belongs to the American Family Foundation, which researches cults and how they operate, and the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, both of which regularly call on him to provide counseling.

He said most cults try to induce potential members to hand over control of their lives to the leader. Then, he said, the cult typically "picks the person's wallet clean."

"It's really a form of religious and psychological racketeering," he said. "Where do you think [Branch Davidian leader David] Koresh got all that money to buy that arsenal?"

Mr. Dowhower said people typically fall under the sway of cults at vulnerable times in their lives -- young people suffering a breakup, older people undergoing a mid-life crisis, senior citizens finding themselves alone. Along comes the cult, providing instant love and inclusion, usually directed by a charismatic leader, he said.

He said most cults have a "short shelf-life," attracting a lot of followers in the beginning but burning out, often with the death or imprisonment of the leader. But, he warned, new ones are popping up all the time.

Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, said her organization handles more than 1,800 distress calls a year. She said cults are viewed as a continuing problem.

Mr. Dowhower said the days in which opponents of cults kidnapped and "deprogrammed" cult members are over, and those who leave such groups typically walk out on their own.

He still works as a religious counselor to former cult members to reassure them that faith and spirituality can still have value.

"I'm not trying to make them Lutheran, I'm just trying to help them get out of the human rights violations and rip-off practice of cults," Mr. Dowhower said. "Where they choose to place their religious needs after that is their own business."

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