Austrian Perspectives on Cults
ICSA Today, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2011, 10-13.
Austrian Perspectives on Cults
Friedrich Griess, Gesellschaft gegen Sekten- und Kultgefahren, President of FECRIS from 2005 to 2009
Since 1874, a law has existed in Austria related to the state’s acknowledgement of religious organisations. The relevant office for such an acknowledgement is the Kultusamt, located in the Federal Ministry of Education. The original law does not describe any special conditions for such an acknowledgement.
Already in 1953, the Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna had established an office for information about cults and sects. Its main interest at this time was to study ideological differences and, not so much, the harm caused to cult adherents and their families. At that time, one could often hear the view that “a group that uses the Bible cannot be noxious.”
In the 1970s, the activities of so-called “youth religions” also increased dramatically in Austria. At the same time, the methods those groups used to suppress and eliminate the free will of their members, and the consequences of this influence upon the individuals and their families became obvious.
In 1977, concerned relatives and experts interested in the problem, with the assistance of state and church authorities, founded an association known as Verein zur Wahrung der geistigen Freiheit. As a consequence of this association’s engaged educational work, an interministerial working group on “Pseudoreligiöse Organisationen” arose, which finally asked the association to set up a center for documentation and counseling. This association, with its headquarters at 1020 Vienna, Obere Augartenstraße 26–28, is a nonpolitical and nonconfessional institution that deals with the problems of extreme religious and other problematic movements.
In 1992, this association adopted its new name Gesellschaft gegen Sekten- und Kultgefahren (GSK), which should express its aims and contents without being a reason for misunderstanding. The activity of the GSK is nonprofit oriented. Its exclusive goal is to limit the damage caused by destructive cults to individuals, to their friends and families, and to the community as a whole, by consulting and also by prevention. The scope of this help includes
Providing assistance to relatives and friends of cult members.
Passing information to those who are in danger of falling victim to the fascination of a cult.
Giving support to ex-members for their return to “normal” life and for their financial claims to the group which they had left.
Collecting and keeping records of informational and source material.
Providing permanent information from the public authorities and information by professionals and the public about the methods, activities, and goals of destructive cults. This is done through informational conferences in schools and other educational establishments, and by support of the media in its reporting.
One of our four children joined a cult in 1983, and as a result my wife and I became members of the GSK in 1987; since then, we have actively supported its work.
The Austrian government’s Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Sports, and Austrian Federal Ministry for Environment, Youth and Family published a brochure entitled Jugendreligionen, Psychokulte, Gurubewegungen, with a second edition in 1987. Subsequently, Scientology sued the two ministers, Mrs. Hilde Hawlicek, and Mrs. Marilies Fleming. Although the court rejected the suit, the case created so much work for the state administrations that they were not very eager, at least for a while, to make further attempts to warn against destructive cults.
In 1991, the German Bundestag held a hearing about destructive cults, with 10 experts giving information to the MPs. I passed the actions of this hearing on to various politicians in Austria. As a consequence, the then-Federal Minister for Environment, Youth and Family, Mrs. Ruth Feldgrill-Zankl, proposed a similar hearing to be held in the Austrian Nationalrat. This hearing took place on 27 January, 1993; in it, five experts (psychiatrists Walter Spiel and Max Friedrich, and psychologist Brigitte Rollett, all university professors; Mrs. Friederike Valentin from the Catholic church; and Pastor Johannes Spitzer from the Protestant church) were consulted. As a result, the Parliamentary Committee for Youth and Family worked out a proposal that consisted of five points:
Establish an interministerial committee to further treat the problem.
Issue a brochure on that subject.
Include the subject in adult educational programs.
Support the existing self-help groups.
Revise the corresponding laws.
This proposal was unanimously accepted in a plenary session of the Nationalrat in July 1994. Subsequently, the then-Federal Minister for Environment, Youth and Family, Mr. Martin Bartenstein, who really became a cult expert himself, published a brochure titled Sekten –Wissen schützt!, with a second edition published in 1999, for a total of about 400,000 copies; he also prepared two laws that parliament agreed to in 1998:
Creation of the Bundesstelle fuer Sektenfragen.
Acknowledgement by the state of a lower level of religious association, called “confessional association,” and amendment of the 1874 law.
The leader of the Bundesstelle was and still is Mr. German Mueller, who previously was the executive director of the GSK. This office really became a brain trust of experts, although these experts are required to keep certain neutrality, as believed to be appropriate for a state office.
The Ministry of Education published a folder titled “Gemeinschaft kann gefährlich warden,” wherein, with funny pictures easily understood by youngsters, the methods of “brainwashing” by cults are explained. This folder still can be ordered at the ministry.
In Vienna, a section of the federal police was charged with monitoring cultic activities. The official duty of this group’s members has been modified to “terrorist watching,” but they still cooperate with us. Additionally, some local governments also established regional cult consulting offices, and some members of public family consulting offices were trained to be able to answer inquiries about cults.
The law about “confessional associations” was mainly an attempt to postpone the decision about problematic groups who sought acknowledgement as religions and thus is not really a permanent solution. Some people also consider it to be discriminatory.
The GSK has been subsidised by both the federal ministries mentioned above, as well as by some local governments. On 30 June, 1994, the GSK became a cofounder of FECRIS.
In the late 1990s, the media also became very cooperative so that citizens were well informed about the possible dangers caused by cults. Schools were very much interested in organising lectures for their pupils, as were parishes for their members. I remember, for example, that in 1997 I was invited to give 50 lectures, nearly one every week. During that time, there also was a broad cooperation between state and church employees and volunteers. From that effort, a small unofficial working group still exists today, meeting about every second month.
But the 1998 US law against discrimination of religious minorities also had its influence on Austria, and the annual report of the US Department of State regularly mentions the GSK as a “controversial association.” Since 2004, all subsidies for the GSK on the federal level have been dropped; this has, at least transiently, caused a dramatic financial disaster if a private sponsor does not prevent that.
Although the Bundesstelle provides good services for those who enquire, it does not actively alert citizens, and so we must fear that public knowledge about the dangers of cults will fade away.
Beyond the Bundesstelle, the Youth and Family Department, actually located at the Federal Ministry for Trade, although with its own Secretary of State, Mrs. Christine Marek, has some interesting remarks on its Web site, which translate to the following:
Information about cults from the side of state institutions below the threshold of law violation is possible if:
it points to threat for psychological or physical health,
it serves for the protection of the integrity of family life,
it points to extreme financial entangling,
it hereby provides the free entrance and exit of the individual, and especially
if it serves the wellbeing of children and youngsters who enjoy a special protection in our legal order.
But the Ministry refuses to keep an updated copy of the brochure Sekten – Wissen schützt! on its Web site, even though this would be a low-cost means to inform the public. Unauthorised copies are accessible, in German and in English translation.
However, in practice, authorities show little understanding for cultic influence; and courts generally tend to protect those who represent themselves as “religious minorities.” I have been personally involved in a number of court cases, and I could tell many strange stories about this.
Officially, the inter-ministerial committee still exists. But its activity, if there is any at all, is unknown to the public.
So far, that is the situation in Austria. But Austria is not an isolated island; there is a strong information exchange between the German-speaking countries because of the common language. An Internet network, technically installed by the German Catholic priest Gerald Kluge (his name translates to “clever”), connects about 180 people in state, church, and private associations, and even some participants outside this area who understand German.
In Germany, there is certain coordination on the federal level by the Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women, and Youth; and Scientology is observed on this level by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Otherwise, each Bundesland treats the protection against cults separately. The most active ones seem to be Nordrhein-Westfalen, Baden-Württemberg (actually, they still resist the claim of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be recognized as a religion), Bavaria, and—up to now—Hamburg, although the latter one recently had to reduce its activity.
But even such a large country as Germany is affected by the US position. On 25 May, 2010, the president of the German Bundestag (parliament), Prof. Dr. Norbert Lammert, was lecturing in my home city, Klosterneuburg, about the subject “The contribution of Germany to peace and mutual understanding of people in Europe.” After that excellent lecture, in which the speaker several times stressed the importance of the cooperation of EU member states, I had the opportunity to ask the question why the cooperation of EU member states with respect to cult problems obviously is not possible. I also suggested a closer cooperation between Germany and France in this field, mentioning the About-Picard law; I suggested that the German bill about a psycho-marked law should be adopted on the European level. In his reply, the speaker extensively and with remarkable sharpness said that the main obstacle against this cooperation is the position of the United States, which even threatens countries with trade impairment if they discriminate against what the US regards as “religious minorities.”
In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, it is more or less up to the cantons how they handle sectarian problems; but none of them has taken appropriate action.
More hopeful is a lecture, presented by Mr. Georges Fenech, president of Miviludes, at a conference of FECRIS on 17 April, 2010, in London, with the title Promoting a European Programme of Vigilance and Struggle against Cultic Excesses, in which the speaker stressed the necessity of cooperation on the EU level and pointed to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) as the right place to act. Because this agency is located in Vienna, we are back to Austria, which possibly has a chance to play a major role in that game.
I also refer to a pamphlet I wrote last year with the title The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and Its Jeopardising by Totalitarian Cult Organisation. In this pamphlet, I show the incompatibility of cultic behaviour with this Charter and make suggestions regarding what the European Union and the governments of its member states should do about the situation.
Association against the Dangers of Sects and Cults, http://sektenberatung.at
 Fédération Européenne des Centres de Recherche et d'Information sur le Sectarisme—European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism, http://fecris.org
 Society for the Preservation of Spiritual Freedom
 Pseudoreligious organisations
 Youth Religions, Psycho Cults, Guru Movements
 The first chamber of the national parliament.
 Cults—Knowledge Protects!
 Federal office for sectarian questions, http://www.bundesstelle-sektenfragen.at
 “Community May Become Dangerous”
 at http://membres.multimania.fr/xenu/Sekten-Wissen-schuetzt.html