Cults and the European Parliament

Cultic Studies Journal, 1990, Volume 7, Number 1, pages 1-14

Cults and the European Parliament: A Practical Political Response To An International Problem

David Wilshire, MA, MP

United Kingdom Member of Parliament for Spelthorne (Surrey)


On May 22, 1984 the European Parliament passed a resolution addressing problems associated with various new organizations, commonly referred to as cults. The historical background of this resolution is discussed. The Parliament became involved as a result of numerous complaints made to its members, including complaints of psychological pressure, financial irregularities, political intrigue, sexual abuse, law-breaking, and physical threats against members. Despite challenges to the Parliament's enquiry, the concern for protecting human rights prevailed. Four actions were recommended: information exchange among member states, establishment of an international data pool the drafting of a Voluntary Code of Conduct, and a proposal that Member States should adopt a common approach to the problem. Implementation of the Parliament's resolution has been slow.

When told in 1982 that my next assignment was “to do some work on cults,” it never crossed my mind that I was embarking on a project that would come to dominate my working life for two years, would take me half-way round the world, and would permanently figure in my future political life.

At the outset, I knew almost nothing about cults and I assumed them to be a harmless minority hobby -- without any international implications that could involve a European politician and his staff. In almost no time at all, I realized just how wrong one can be. I was wrong for three reasons. First, because cults are not a harmless hobby but a real and growing problem. Second, because society is entitled to expect that the actions of cults do not harm others. Third, because in a democracy politicians ignore abuses of civil rights at their electoral peril. Cults are a serious international problem to which politicians must respond.

How the European Parliament Became Involved

At the beginning of 1982, worried by complaints received from electors, nine Members of the European Parliament tabled two motions critical of the activities of the Unification Church. As the European Parliament is not even well-known by the citizens of the European Communities who elect it, a brief summary of its composition, role and procedures is given in Appendix A.

The President of the Parliament amalgamated the two motions and referred them to the Committee on Youth, Culture, Education, Information and Sport. In September 1982, the committee's twenty-four members considered the motions and voted to make a formal response. They therefore appointed one member rapporteur (whose job it was to prepare a draft report). The member selected was Mr. Richard Cottrell (then Bristol's MEP). He was asked to widen the scope of his enquiries from just the Unification Church to all “New Religious Movements.” As I was the Head of Mr. Cottrell's Private Office at the time, the file landed on my desk.

By the end of the year, we had completed our preliminary enquiries. A Draft Working Document was published in January 1983 and debated at three committee meetings. It contained a draft “Motion for a Resolution” incorporating a Voluntary Code of Conduct. The committee considered the draft motion at four meetings, voting to adopt it in March 1984. The European Parliament formally considered and approved the committee's proposals in May. The full text of the final resolution appears in Appendix B.

Preparing the “Cottrell Report"

Our brief was to look into complaints. Our first task was to test three basic assumptions -- that enquiries were necessary; that this work was for politicians; and that there was an international dimension. We quickly concluded that the major outbreak of complaints about cults' actions called for careful study. Even if the distress was unjustified, it was horribly real to individual parents. It therefore needed a positive response.

Throughout our enquiries, we were told that politicians had no right to enquire into religion. We disagreed. In all human societies the interaction of politics and religion is inevitable. In many countries there is state religion, and in all democracies social problems (even if caused by religious beliefs) are referred to politicians. Until we became involved, political interest was nationally based. However, it is well documented that cult leaders and members move rapidly from country to country, regularly call on help from supporters in other countries, and are particularly successful in recruiting foreign visitors. When challenged, cults are often very skillful at making maximum use of differing national legislation. Cults are therefore a truly international issue.

Because issues that touch on religious freedom must be approached with extreme caution, we undertook our task with great care. Our approach was to check out the facts, come to some positive conclusions, and then write a report that made some practical suggestions for responding to complaints. We established the facts by meeting cult leaders and members, by talking to traditional religious and academic experts, by listening to supportive and distressed parents, by visiting cult establishments and by reading a vast amount of literature written by and about the cults. All this led us to conclude that at least some of the complaints were justified. We found evidence of psychological pressure, financial irregularities, political intrigue, sexual abuse, law-breaking, and physical threat against members. The report that emerged from our research was deliberately a response to these problems rather than a detailed description of them. It started where our enquiries ended by concentrating on practical international suggestions for curing the problem. Nowhere did it set out to challenge beliefs.

Challenges to our Enquiries

Predictably, our research encountered many attempts to block progress. They came from the cults, established churches, Members of the European Parliament, and the public. The main reasons advanced were the inappropriateness of political investigations into religious matters, the relative unimportance of the subject, and the lack of relevance to the work of the European Communities. The main methods used were writing about us in cult publications, circulating critical reports, lobbying Members of the European Parliament, and the organising of letter writing campaigns. Our opponents made extensive use of the media, and the Unification Church even prepared a hostile report which they made look like an official European Parliament document.

Objections to politicians investigating cults came mainly from the cults and the established churches. Much was made of historic struggles to obtain religious liberty and the right to believe whatever you win. These objections were overcome by confining our interest to the actions of individuals and groups that appeared to be causing harm to the civil rights of recruits and their families. Established religious organisations (such as the now disbanded British Council of Churches) also opposed political enquiries. They feared that, if cults were investigated, they might be next. How, they asked, could we distinguish a cult from a religion? We declined to try. Instead we pointed out that almost all democratic constitutions and established religions not only seek to protect religious freedom but also hedge it about with qualifications aimed At protecting the public good. For example, Article 50 of the Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of worship "within the limits set by public order and morality,” whilst Part 2 of the Declaration on Religious Liberty of the Second Vatican Council states that religious freedom cannot be interfered with 'as long as public order and justice are maintained.'

Other Members of the European Parliament were the main source of the pressure to halt our enquiries on the grounds that there were better things upon which to spend scarce time and money. We overcame Ns challenge by establishing to the satisfaction of a majority of members that here were serious matters requiring a response. We did this by brief-mg colleagues on the facts that we had established and the large number of complaints that we and they had received.

The claims by the cults and some Members of the European Parliament that our enquiries were outside the terms of reference of the European Communities amounted to a claim of unconstitutional activity. Our opponents managed to have the whole matter referred to the Legal Affairs Committee for a ruling on the legitimacy of our work. Given the strictly limited responsibilities of the European Communities and the lack of any mention of religion or civil liberties in the founding treaties, preparing our case required careful thought. We were able to point to the right of the European Parliament to discuss any matter that affects the citizens of the European Communities, to the fact that the Commission that administers the European Communities had a religious affairs advisor, and that the international nature of the problems raised suggested a coordinated Member State response.

After lengthy consideration, the Legal Affairs Committee ruled in our favor. They cited three reasons. First, that a key objective of the founding "treaties is the harmonisation of legislation within the Member States. Second, that the European Communities e)dst in part to increase the role of political cooperation in the solving of common problems. Third, that (whilst it is not a European Communities agreement) the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights affects all Member States individually and points towards European Communities interest and action. Article 9, paragraph 2 of the Convention states: “freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” The committee therefore concluded that the convention “provided an adequate legal framework for a Community solution to the problems raised” and that “it is also desirable and legally correct to develop political cooperation and try to find whatever kind of agreement may help to prevent acts which jeopardize human freedom.”

Practical Problems

We encountered three main practical difficulties -- the sheer number of cults capable of being investigated, the hostility of the cults, and finding something practical that can be done to help. Faced with several hundred organisations giving cause for concern, a comprehensive survey was impossible within the time available to a Member of the European Parliament. The problem was overcome by selecting (based on the number of complaints received) a small number of cults and studying them in detail. The cults we concentrated on were the Unification Church, Baghwan Rajneesh, the Children of God, and the Church of Scientology. Inevitably, we came to know something about many other cults as well.

At the beginning of our enquiry, almost every cult we encountered tried very hard to persuade us that they were a harmless minority hobby. Once they realised they could not, they switched to seeking to discredit us and to complaining that they had not been given adequate opportunity to present their case. Attempts to discredit concentrated on questioning our motives, our thoroughness, and our sources of information. We were subjected to attacks in cult newspapers, leaflets, and correspondence. Letters were written to Members of the European Parliament, parliamentary officials, and the media. The complaints about inadequate opportunities to state their case were mainly directed at the committee when considering the draft report. The amount of paperwork generated by the cults finally persuaded colleagues that there could not be much left unsaid.

Presumably in desperation, one or two cults resorted to threats against us. In more than one telephone call it was hinted that we ought to worry about our safety, and that if we did not stop our enquiries, legal action might be taken against us. In the event, we came to no harm and were not sued.

The search for practical solutions was the hardest problem to resolve. It was clear from the outset that yet another description of the problem would achieve nothing. Indeed it was only when practical steps were suggested that Members of the European Parliament finally accepted that their interest was worthwhile and could lead to positive progress.

The European Parliament's Response

Like all resolutions passed by the European Parliament, the cult motion approved in Strasbourg on 22nd May 1984 was in three parts -- a preamble, setting out its justification; a statement of its objectives; proposals to secure these objectives.

The resolution's preamble gives as its justification the widespread public concern, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Treaty of Rome (which established the European Communities). Article 9 paragraph 2 of the convention has been quoted above. Article 220 of the Treaty of Rome seeks cooperation between Member States for the “protection of persons and the enjoyment and protection of rights under the same conditions as those accorded by each State to its own nationals.” This is the heart of the matter. The Cottrell Report and the European Parliament's Resolution are not about religious freedom. They are about human rights, the defense of society, and equal protection for all throughout the European Communities.

The resolution listed five objectives: to respond positively to the public concern about the activities of cults, to respect freedom of religion, to focus attention on the practices arising from religious beliefs, to stress the international dimension of the subject, and to protect the European Communities' labor and social laws.

There were four proposals for action plus some unavoidable routine procedural ones. First, a proposal for an exchange of information between Member States on cult-related topics such as charity and tax legislation, legal status, social consequences, missing persons, abuses of personal freedom, help for those seeking to leave cults, and stopping up of international legal loopholes. Second, a proposal to establish an international data pool on the international aspects of cult activity. Third, a proposal for a Voluntary Code of Conduct. Fourth, a proposal that Member States should adopt a common approach to the problem.

The Voluntary Code of Conduct attracted most attention and came in for most criticism. Despite the claims, it was not an attack upon religious freedom. It simply sought (on a voluntary basis) to help protect the human rights of individuals. The code set out to list the civil rights of the individual cult member. Members should not be asked to make long-term commitments until eighteen years old, should be allowed a period of reflection, should be allowed to retain contact with their families, should be able to complete their education, should be entitled to obtain independent advice and medical help, and should be free to leave. The code also set out to W ways in which cults should respect the civil rights of others. It urged them to operate within the law, not to take advantage of foreign visitors, to admit to who they are and what they believe, to tell enquirers where members are, to permit proper rewards for work done by members, to provide return travel for members sent abroad, to pass on phone messages and letters to all members, and to respect the rights of the children of members.

The Way Ahead

If politicians are to make progress with the European Parliament's recommendations, their approach and themes must be right -- and they must have some specific practical objectives as well. They will also need much help, and all those involved must be clear about their most effective roles.

A political approach must be calm and constructive. Calmness is vital for the persuasion of others and because those personally affected find it difficult to be so. Being constructive means offering better alternatives. Here politicians will need the assistance of the established churches. The central theme for: all work done by politicians must be the protection of civil rights, and they must avoid even the appearance of challenging the freedom of religious belief. Politicians will need the help of three key groups -- parents, parent-support organizations, and academic and religious experts.

Affected parents need to think through their role very carefully. Understandably, they often sound biased and bitter -- which is counterproductive when seeking to influence the uncommitted. Parents should therefore concentrate on working within parent-support organizations and individually publicizing the facts of their individual family experiences. There are now many well-developed parent groups throughout Western Europe. Their role must be to support individual families, to educate those who can influence others, and to do everything possible to keep the cult problem in the public eye. Academic and religious experts must undertake the necessary research into the factual background of the cults, the reasons for their success, how mainstream alternatives may once again be made appealing, and how action could be taken. Two areas of research need urgent attention -- the reality of psychological manipulation by cults, and the possible application of existing legislation to cult-originated civil rights abuses.

The role of individual politicians is to link those with problems and a need for help with the governments that can provide it. In a democracy, governments cannot avoid responding to pressure forever. When attempting to cure cult-based problems, politicians must not seek to abolish cults. All they can seek to do on behalf of those they represent is to lay down terms for cults to become acceptable (the status that all cults desperately long to have). These terms must include three key requirements -- socially acceptable behavior, compliance with the law, and respect for civil rights. These were the basic elements in the European Parliament's Voluntary Code of Conduct. It is interesting that, to date, no cult appears to have agreed to abide by it.

While working to establish a voluntary code of conduct, politicians must work on two other special issues -- law-breaking and unconstitutional activity. Using the law to curb cults is an emotional issue, mainly because the cults have been allowed to protect their practices with the cloak of religious freedom. Yet no one has the right to break existing laws. Rather than seek new laws, progress could almost certainly be made by enforcing existing ones more strictly. Cases could be started by individuals or groups in the courts of individual Member States or before the European Court of Human Rights.

There is scope for a number of legal initiatives. Action could be taken under laws relating to accounting practice and privileges afforded to charities. Challenges could be made to any doubtful financial practices. Withdrawing charity status from cults is already being examined in a number of Member States. Consumer protection legislation (especially requirements aimed at ensuring honest advertising and truthful descriptions) could be argued to be applicable to cults. If so, more action could be taken. Finally existing employment protection and labor laws could be examined to see if they are applicable to work abuses.

To date little thought has been given to using national constitutions to curb cults, yet almost all say something about religion and human rights. Whilst offering freedom of religious belief, almost all hedge it about with restrictions on action arising from belief. Constitutions probably offer scope for outlawing some cult practices. It is time someone tested the possibility.


In 1984, we were able to persuade a democratically elected parliament that it had the right and that there was the need to consider positive international action to end cult-originated civil rights abuse. Then and now, I consider that an historic achievement, which in itself made the whole exercise worthwhile. Sadly, little action has been taken to implement the recommendations. This is mainly because the European Parliament does not have the power to act and no national parliament or government within the European Communities has yet tried to implement them. Having become a member of the United Kingdom parliament in 1987, I now plan try to persuade the British Government into belated action.

Appendix A

The European Parliament

In order to understand how our enquiries came about, how progress was made, and the full significance of what was achieved, it is necessary to understand the European Parliament and its procedures.

The Treaties of Paris (1951) and Rome (1957) establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community (Common Market) and the European Atomic Energy Community all made provision for the establishment of Assemblies of representatives of the peoples of the Member States (now Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom). These originally separate communities have been merged over time into one organization, the European Communities (EC). .

A Convention signed in 1957 provided for a single assembly common to all three communities. This Common Assembly has come to be known as The European Parliament. From 1951 to 1979 members were appointed by the parliaments of the Member States. In 1979, 1984, and 1989 international direct elections were held -- each Member State using its own electoral procedures. Today there are 518 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

The role of the European Parliament is clearly defined in the treaties (which take the place of a national constitution). It is strictly limited (although it has been increased by modifications of the treaties) and currently does not have any legislative functions. However, it does have an “own initiative” procedure which enables it to consider almost anything and to urge action on Member State governments and/or any other EC institutions.

The European Parliament works through multi-national party political Groups rather than multi-partisan national delegations. Progress therefore has to be made politically rather than nationally. Rules 47 and 49 of the parliament's Rules of Procedure allow any member to table “Motions for Resolution” on any matter within the sphere of activities of the EC. There is no definition of “sphere of activity” and no motion has ever been rejected for failure to comply.

Rule 47 seeks to provide a means for MEPs to have matters of concern discussed. Rule 47 motions are automatically referred (without debate) to the appropriate committee. Committees are not obliged to consider them. If they do, they normally appoint a member as Rapporteur to draw up a draft response. If the response is approved it is passed back to the parliament as a Committee Motion for a Resolution. If accepted by the parliament it is finally referred to the bodies (EC institutions or national governments) named in it for action. These bodies are not legally bound to act.

Rule 49 provides a means for MEPs to establish whether colleagues share their concern about a specific matter. If, within two months, more than half the MEPs add their names to a motion it is forwarded to the bodies named as a recommendation from the European Parliament for action. Again, action is not obligatory.

When considering the EP's resolution, it is also helpful to have some knowledge of the EC's other institutions. The Commission is the independent bureaucracy that administers the EC, drafts proposals for development and supervises compliance with the treaties. The Council of Ministers is the decision-making body composed of the relevant ministers from each of the national governments of the Member States.

Appendix B

The European Parliament's Resolution

Approved in Strasbourg on 22nd May, 1984

Resolution on a common approach by the Member States of the European Communities towards various infringements of the law by new organisations operating under the protection afforded to religious bodies.

The European Parliament

accepting the principle laid down in Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,

having regard to the ECC Treaty and in particular Article 220 thereof,

having regard to International Youth Year 1985,

having regard to the motions for resolution on:

distress caused by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (Document 1-2/82)

the activities of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church (Document 1-109/82)

having regard to the report of the Committee on Youth, Culture, Education, Information and Sport and the opinion of the Legal Affairs Committee (Document 1-47/84),

having regard to the concern felt by individuals and families in the Communities at the activities of certain organizations described as “new religious movements” insofar as their practices infringe human and civil rights and are detrimental to the position in society of those affected;

stressing that full freedom of opinion is a principle in the Member States and that the Community Institutions therefore have no right to judge the value of either religious belief in general or individual religious practices;

convinced that, in this instance, the validity of religious belief is not in question, but rather the lawfulness of the practices used to recruit new members and the treatment they receive;

whereas the problems arising from the emergence of the above-mentioned organizations have attained world-wide dimensions, occurring in all Member States, although to different degrees, and having already prompted investigations, government action and court judgments in various Member States;

whereas it is very difficult, given the different terms used to describe these organizations in the Member States, to find neutral expression which will be universally understood in the same way; whereas the abandonment of their previous way of life by the members of these organizations raised social issues and issues connected with labour law, possibly adversely affecting not only the individuals involved, but also the Community and the social system;

Considers it necessary for the Councils of Ministers responsible, that is to say the Ministers of the Interior and Ministers of Justice meeting in European Political Cooperation, and the Council of Ministers for Social Affairs, to hold an exchange of information as soon as possible on the problems arising from the activities of the above-mentioned organizations with particular reference to the following areas:

procedure applied in conferring charity status and tax exemption on such organizations;

compliance with the laws of the individual Member States, for example labour laws and social security legislation;

consequences for the social system of failure to comply with these laws;

attempts to find missing persons and the possibilities of cooperation with third countries for this purpose;

ways in which the rights of members to personal freedom may be infringed;

creation of centres to assist those leaving these organizations by providing legal aid and assistance to reintegrate into society and find employment;

existence of legal loopholes owing to the differences in legislation in the individual countries which enable possibly proscribed activities to be pursued from one country to another;

Calls on the Member States to agree to pool data on the international ramifications of the above-mentioned organizations, including those using the cover names and front organizations, and on their activities in the member states;

Calls on the Commission,

to submit a report on the matters set out in paragraph 3 above with particular reference to the measures taken by government bodies, especially the police and the courts, in response to infringements of the law by these organizations, as well as the findings of government commissions of investigation into such organizations;

to develop ways of ensuring the effective protection of Community citizens in this field;

Invites the Councils of Ministers responsible to discuss on the basis of the data collected and the Commission's report the problems arising from the activities of the above-mentioned organization and to enable the Member States to cooperate with each other in protecting the rights of their citizens;

Recommends that the following criteria be applied in investigating, reviewing and assessing the activities of the above-mentioned organizations:

persons under the age of majority should not be forced on becoming a member of an organization to make a solemn long-term commitment that will determine the course of their lives;

there should be an adequate period of reflection on the financial or personal commitment involved;

after joining an organization contacts must be allowed with family and friends;

members who have already commenced a course of education should not be prevented from completing it;

the following rights of the individual must be respected:

-the right to leave an organization unhindered;

-the right to contact family and friends in person or by letter and telephone;

-the right to seek independent advice, legal or otherwise;

-the right to seek medical attention at any time;

no one may be incited to break any law, particularly with regard to fund-raising, for example by begging or prostitution;

organizations may not extract permanent commitments from potential recruits, for example students or tourists, who are visitors to a country in which they are not resident;

during recruitment, the name and principles of the organization should always be made immediately clear;

such organizations must inform the competent authorities on request of the address or whereabouts of individual members;

the above-mentioned organizations must ensure that individuals dependent on them and working on their behalf receive the social security benefits provided in the Member States in which they live or work;

if a member travels abroad in pursuit of the interests of an organization, it must accept responsibility for bringing the individual home, especially in the event of illness; telephone calls and letters from members' families must be immediately passed on to them;

where recruits have children, organizations must do their utmost to further their education and health, and avoid any circumstances in which the children's well-being might be at risk;

Considers, moreover, a common approach within the context of the Council of Europe to be desirable and calls, therefore, on the governments of the Member States to press for appropriate agreements to be drawn up by the Council of Europe which will guarantee the individual effective protection from possible machinations by these organizations and their physical and mental coercion;

Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Commission and Council of the European Communities, to the Governments and national parliaments of the Member States, and to the Council of Europe.

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David Wilshire, MA, MP is a Member of Parliament for Spelthorne in the United Kingdom

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1990, Page