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"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate

Clarifying Contentious Issues:
A Rejoinder To Melton, Shupe, And Lewis
- 1/2

Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs


Index to Forum Debate
Original article   Rejoinder by Krent and Krebs   Credits and Copyright

Our SKEPTIC article (which the editor named, without either our knowledge or consent, "When Scholars Know Sin,") raised at least five issues that had direct relevance for Gordon Melton and that he could have addressed. his peculiar discussion about brainwashing--not a topic that we raised--obfuscates very important points that we made in the essay. We shall refocus the discussion back to those substantive issues, and by doing so examine the few points that Melton makes in direct response to our analysis.

First, Kent and Krebs agreed with sociologist Robert Balch's critical summation (Balch, 1996) that James Lewis and Melton's edited volume on the Children of God/The Family (Lewis and Melton, 1994a) disregarded the group's efforts to sanitize and manage its public image. We pointed out the group's implementation of Media Homes whose hand-picked members rehearsed answers to expected questions, and we indicated our knowledge of the group's destruction of controversial sexual material involving children. Melton boasts about both the size of his collection and his numerous visits to Family homes. He does not however, marshal any of this material to refute our statements (from Family literature, reinforced with our interviews) that Media Homes not only had question-and-answer rehearsals in preparation for researchers but also had destroyed crucial documents about the group's encouragement and facilitation of child sexual abuse. (See Melton's own reference to two book chapters from a 1978 teen training book that The Family expunged by the early 1990s [Melton, 1994,91].) He claims that we incorrectly state that The Family study was tied to AWARE, but he neglects to mention that seven of the 16 authors published in his co-edited book on the group were either AWARE directors or on its Academic Advisory Committee.

Second, we mentioned that several academics had spoken favorably about The Family on a public relations video that the group produced in 1994, which should have caught Melton's attention since he was among the academics who appeared on tape. He also appeared as an expert witness on behalf of The Family in a British court case (which was decided in October, 1995 and which Melton refers to in his response). Combined with his 1994 essay entitled "Sexuality and the Maturation of The Family" that appeared in his co-edited volume, we have three opportunities to compare Melton's comments within a relatively close period of time about the crucial issue of child sexual abuse.

In his 1994 essay, Melton indicated that "[a]llowed, even encouraged, behavior" in a 1979 Family publication "included nude mixed bathing, nude mixed play, self-sexual examination, experimentation and/or interplay when playing or sleeping together. Allowing children to watch adults engage in sexual intercourse is allowable, but each case must be judged on its own merits according to the child's reaction" (Melton, 1994, 83). When he discussed the publication, Child Brides, Melton indicated that The Family's leader, David Berg, "suggested that those teens [aged 13 to 15] who wanted to should be allowed to marry" (Melton, 1994, 84). From 1981 to 1987, some Family homes made videos of nude women dancing, and "[i]n a few cases, at the home in Greece, minors, both teens and pre-teens, were allowed to participate in making a video" (Melton, 1994, 86). In the early 1980s, some Family members took the discussion of adults pleasurably manipulating the genitals of children "as encouragement to begin doing it" (Melton, 1994, 88). Also in the mid-1980s, some teens in The Family's teen training camps "paired off and were into heavy petting short of sexual intercourse" (Melton, 1994, 90). Referring, apparently to pre-1980s incidents, Melton indicated, "[e}arlier incidents of adults having sex with children (there were no youth) brought strong reprimands. They were plainly wrong," he added, apparently referring to such sexual contact (Melton, 1994, 91). In 1989, after "[w]omen in their late teens" found themselves working with older men, Berg's partner, Maria, threatened excommunication to anyone found in adult-teen sexual arrangements. Part of Maria's fear apparently was that "younger woman are both attracted to older men and on occasion might attempt to use their attractiveness as an entree into power" (Melton, 1994, 91-92). By 1991, however, child abuse accusations by some former members caused The Family to issue "an even stricter policy on teenage sexual activity" (Melton, 1994, 92). At several places in the footnotes, Melton was critical of another scholar's statement that many of the contentious documents mentioned adult-child sex (Melton, 1994, 275).

As these (often understated) observations stand, and without analyzing the doctrines themselves, Melton's comments about child sexual abuse might appear to support his claim that he among those who "have gone on to write some of the most damning of critiques of various...when it seemed called for." Indeed, regarding the British court trial, Judge Ward indicated, "[w}hen cross-examined [Melton] felt able to go further than he had in his written report and his evidence was clear and unequivocal namely that he was in no doubt at all that oral or manual masturbation and full sexual intercourse had occurred between child and adult[sic] within The Family and that the incidence of this having occurred was higher in The Family than outside it." He also "did not shrink from expressing his horror at the excessive punishments meted out to the children." The judge indicated that, despite Melton's "reputation for being a defender of small religious groups and a defender of the freedom of religion," he found Melton "to be independent and objective..." (Ward, 1995, 217).

With these observations about Melton's findings in mind, it is exceedingly difficult to understand how he could have made the statements about The Family that he provided on the group's public relations video--a production entitled Insight: Experts Comment on The Family and Other New Religious Movements. He pronounced, for example, that Family members "have a very positive view of sexuality. This is something that mainstream, particularly liberal Protestants, articulate but rarely act upon, and The Family has been the one group that we know of that doctrinally fit[s] into mainstream Christianity that's tried to act upon its ideas of positive sexuality--ideas that have gotten them in trouble at various times and places" (The Family, 1994). Speaking specifically about The Family's children--including teens who presumably had been both targets and participants in The Family's sexual activities--Melton concluded, "I think The Family teenagers compare with certainly the best of what we're turning out in mainstream society today. They are alert to what's going on in the world. They've been given a strong, loving environment within which to grow up in [sic]. They are aware, trained in terms of their formal education. They have had the benefit of living in a drug-free environment, and they've had the benefit of giving--been given a fairly strong moral code, so that they have something to face life as an adult" (The Family, 1994).

In light of what Melton knew about the group, these statements about positive sexuality, a strong moral code, and a loving environment are extraordinary. Melton objects to the fact that some critics label him and others as "cult apologists"--a term, by the way, that we did not use. With these kinds of inconsistencies, however, in his own work, it is easy to see from where the label comes. Claiming dismissively (as Melton does) this "apologist" charge as a personal attack is to avoid the more logical conclusion--Melton has brought the pejorative label upon himself.

Let us move quickly through a few other points. While we reinforce the criticisms that Balch and Langdon (1998) levelled against Lewis and Melton's Church Universal and Triumphant study (1994b), Melton tries to credit it with "a wholesale transformation of the church's organization." Almost certainly, however, that transformation is attributable to factors having nothing to do with Lewis and Melton's book (see Church Universal and Triumphant [CUT], 1997, 6). CUT suffered a financial crisis in the mid-1990s ("Billings Gazette," 1997; Church Universal and Triumphant [CUT], 1997,16), and recently the organization's leader announced that she (allegedly) is suffering from Alzheimer's disease (New York Times, 1998).

As a fourth issue, we pointed out that Melton had been involved with an identified Scientology public relations front group called APRL. Melton, however, never responded to this issue, so we will say no more about it. Fifth and finally, we challenged the wisdom of Melton's efforts to help Scientology keep secret its upper level doctrines, and on this issue Melton said a great deal.

Melton should not doubt our academic interest in these documents, since the confidential ones relating to supposedly secret (but actually widely known) doctrines (see Kaufman, 1972, 157-164) likely shed light on crucial issues involving ideology and (possibly) claims about physical healing. (Melton insists, by the way, that all of the currently circulating confidential material had been stolen from Scientology, but he must realize that some of these same documents could have entered private hands in the late 1960s, when people signed out the confidential "Operating Thetan" documents and took them home [Kaufman, 1972, 161].) Essential to acknowledge, however, is that many of Scientology's confidential documents have nothing to do with its members' belief in a supposedly sacred realm. Instead, some documents outline the operation of its forced labour and re-indoctrination program for members--the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF). Melton is familiar with this program, since he heard Kent present an academic paper on it in 1997 (Kent, 1997a).

The RPF apparently operates in at least four American locations, as well as at sites in the United Kingdom and Denmark. Its combination of forcible confinement, physical and social maltreatment, forced confessions, and intense ideological study makes it a classic "brainwashing" program. Moreover, its operation raises serious issues about human rights abuses, and Kent has spoken about these issues to German parliamentary officials in 1997 (Kent, 1997b). (Extraordinarily, James Lewis managed to twist my discussions about these alleged human rights abuses into "preaching my pseudoscientific gospel of hatred against minority religions.")

None of the human rights commissions and groups that commented on Germany's response to Scientology knew about the RPF. Nor did the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) of the American Psychological Association (APA) when, in 1987, it rejected a final report on mind control theories as applied to 'new religions' prepared by the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC). The memorandum forwarded to members of DIMPAC stated that the BSERP "does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue" (APA, 1987)--a crucial admission that Melton omitted in his summary of the brainwashing debate in the social sciences. Viewed in this context, an effort by a researcher to introduce new material into the scholarly arena should have been a welcome event. Apparently, however, it was not a welcome event to Melton, who prevented Kent from presenting such material in a conference that Melton's Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR) co-sponsored with the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in late 1996.

The conference's "call for papers" (ISAR/CESNUR, 1996) indicated that one theme was "violence in the life of new religions." Kent submitted an abstract entitled " 'Brainwashing' and Membership Maintenance: Confinement Systems in Two Nontraditional Religions," to Melton and stated that he would examine "physical, psychological, and socio-emotional punishments in confined or guarded camps" (Kent, 1996a). In a highly unusual response, Melton faxed back to Kent a page-long set of comments about brainwashing, and concluded them with the statement, "[y]our paper should anticipate such objections and you should be prepared for these to be raised in the discussion period" (Melton, 1993 [sic: 1996]). Kent replied with a note indicating that he was "conversant with the existing academic literature on the subject," and assured Melton that his "presentation will fit within appropriate social scientific parameters. In any case, you may find it most economical to respond to the completed paper so that you can see how I use data to unfold and support my argument" (Kent, 1996b). Only when Kent contacted Melton again shortly before the conference did he learn that Melton had ommitted [sic] him from the program without notifying him that he had done so.

Melton concludes his piece indicating that "it is a pity" that Kent (supposedly) has attended only one discussion about "new religions" at the American Academy of Religion, when it is really a pity that Melton conveniently forgot that Kent actually has participated in three of them! Kent's impression from these discussions is that other colleagues also share his concerns about the objectivity of some o fMelton's work. These concerns only will increase with Melton's recent announcement (in his response) that "finances for the [CUT] study were received before the study was launched," since he should have provided and elaborated upon this funding in the published study. This admission, coupled with actions such as endorsing controversial organizations like The Family, casts shadows over what often is impressive scholarship.

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