Orthodox Cult Abuse

By Greta Larson and Pokrov.org editorial staff

NOTE: Because of some excruciating problems and pains that several of our (AMERICAN ORTHODOX CHURCH) clergy and members had gone through in Toledo, Ohio during the first part of 2003 by another whose Ohio church name is similar but not a part of this International Body, it was found that certain characteristics mentioned in the following article and subsequent links, fit (almost) exactly that which they suffered.  On presenting the information to our Metropolitan Archbishop, +Joseph Thaddeus, OSB, SSJt., Ph.D., he has, after much time has passed in prayer and contemplation about the significance such means, he blessed our action to post the following.

The following was sent to us for its informational content.  And, we must admit that the information is enlightening.  The information, on verification is posted at the above sight of the authors. 


Because the subject being discussed is so important and actually necessary, we felt that by including the following for you visitors and readers of this web site, you might be drawn to the "Pokrov.org" web site for further investigation and understanding.


Be sure of one important fact before you proceed.  Unless you are steeped in an Orthodox understanding of and about the faith, you will loose your way and become transfixed on an ideology that is more secularistic in psychology without allowing for the true spiritual value to come through. 


The information provided is not for those who are un-Orthodox, but more for those whose faith is more wholly Orthodox and Catholic.  Anyone else would misuse the information without realizing its significance and the damage that would otherwise be caused.

Since this web site began, we have had a list of cult characteristics listed by Father J. Mahoney, of the Roman Catholic Church. Certain aspects of our faith, such as obedience to elders, confession, fasting, monasticism and liturgical rituals can be exploited by leaders and organizations. The Orthodox tradition can be an inviting target for cults and cult type abuse, so we wanted to discuss how each of the following points can be applied to the Orthodox faith.

1. Coercive interpersonal dynamics
2. Simplified view of life
3. Manipulation of trance states, mind control dynamics
4. Frequent orientation around a central figure who functions as the definer of reality
5. Isolation dynamics
6. Sense of persecution and unique possession of the truth or "the really real."

1. Coercive interpersonal dynamics

These can be exhibited in the use of  guilt, humiliation and manipulation. In many cultic situations, coercion can also be accomplished by the abuse of confession and an emphasis placed on the paranormal, which creates an environment of superstition and fear.

In the Orthodox faith, we can see guilt and manipulation used in the abuse of confession where dependence can be mis-placed upon a person for salvation, or if the priest asks probing questions which are inappropriate. While we are all guilty before God, we are also the beloved children of God.  If we wallow too much in our own guilt, we  forget the gifts that God has given us. A confessor should never encourage this downward spiral of shame. In some groups frequent confession is used in this manipulative manner. In fact, "cult of the confession" is one of the  Eight Marks of a Mind Control Cult described by Randall Watters :

There is often a tendency to derive pleasure from self-degradation through confession. This occurs when all must confess their sins before each other regularly, creating an intense kind of "oneness" within the group. It also allows leaders from within to exercise authority over the weaker ones, using their "sins" as a whip to lead them on.

Confession is an important sacrament in our faith. Orthodox customs are varied-- some churches encourage confession weekly before every communion, and others have other schedules. However, regardless of the frequency or the manner of the confession, it should never be coercive or manipulative.

Here are two orthodox examples which demonstrate confessional abuse and coercive behavior:

1) In one orthodox educational institution, clergy meet weekly to discuss the confessions of the students. Students that do not confess to a priest on the faculty are reprimanded or expelled. This practice distorts the meaning of confession so that it is used for power, rather than a spiritual tool.

2) In one orthodox church group, members live in a commune and women are required to write the date of their menstrual periods on a public calender. This particular practice encourages a lack of private space and further shames members in the group.

Examples of superstition and fear are seen in the emphasis some groups place on death and the supernatural. Cult groups emphasize the strange and scary qualities of orthodoxy. Many of their publications focus on death and skulls and relics. While there is nothing wrong with contemplating our mortality or venerating relics, this fascination with the dark and sometimes frightening aspects of the church, can create an environment of fear where followers feel further in need of  their leaders.   Here are some example of superstition in cultic church groups :

2. Simplified view of life

In extreme environments, it is believed that there is only one way to live an Orthodox life. This view takes away from the fact that God has given us different strengths as well as different personalities. This simplified approach is also seen in the treatment of the sacraments as "magical".  Richard Watters names another cult characteristic as "Mystical Manipulation":

... ideology becomes the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. The ideology is too "sacred" to call into question, and a reverence is demanded for the leadership. The cult's ideology makes an exaggerated claim for possessing airtight logic, making it appear as absolute truth with no contradictions. Such an attractive system offers security.

We hold the Church teachings as truth, but truth should always be strong enough to handle questioning. Our Orthodox Faith is strong enough to hold against everything . . . there is no reason to be afraid of asking questions or raising concerns. Church situations should never discourage questioning or discussions.

3. Manipulation of trance states, mind control dynamics

Some may ask "how could we have anything better to do than going to church?!" While it is true that we must make time for God, it is not true that we are called to be monastics. In fact, devoting too much time to church and not enough time to other responsibilities can take away from the gifts God has asked each of us to use. God has not called all of us to be monks and nuns, yet often cultic church groups require that all members are to behave as monastics. Devaluing the Individual is one of the cult traits named in Biderman's Chart of Coercion

Those with natural gifts in the areas of music may be told they are proud or puffed up or "anxious to be up front" if they want to use their talents and denied that opportunity. Those with discernment are called judgmental or critical, the merciful are lacking in holiness or good judgment, the peacemakers are reminded the Lord came to bring a sword, not peace. Sometimes efforts are made to convince members that they really are not gifted teachers or musically talented or prophetically inclined as they believed they were. When members begin to doubt the one or two special gifts they possess which they have always been sure were God-given, they begin to doubt everything else they have ever believed about themselves, to feel dependent upon church leaders and afraid to leave the group.

In the Orthodox tradition we are called to either be monastics, or married people. Of course life is not this black and white. Still, it is important to note that family people are not expected to keep the same rule of prayer and fasting as monastics.

Remember that there is a place in the liturgy to pray for "Those who are absent for honorable reasons."  (Like providing for a family, illness, or academic studies.)  An excessive cycle of services can be a symptom of something being wrong when other areas  of a Christian life (such as family time, stewardship and witnessing) are neglected, or when it becomes a source of pride for the community or a competition between people for the most time spent in church.

We are each given different strengths. One of the marks of cult activity is when people's individual gifts are not recognized or used. Mandatory attendance is also a way of controlling the actions of people.

Further exploitation of our liturgical tradition is seen when it is used to escape  reality. Many books on our resource page confront the issue of religion as a drug. Often the church rituals can turn into a form of anesthesia from what is really going on in life. The Orthodox liturgical cycle can be quite addictive for people pruned to use the "church drug." While the liturgy is supposed to be heaven and earth uniting, it shouldn't be such an altered reality that we forget where we are. Trance states and mind control can also occur when excessive fasting and prayer are prescribed. (Read about "Induced Debility and Exhaustion" in Biderman's Chart of Coercion.)

While we are told to "pray in all things," this doesn't mean that prayer is an escape. Prayer and church are not substitutes for facing the truth and facing reality.

4. Frequent orientation around a central figure who functions as the definer of reality

In the Orthodox Church, this central figure is often the priest or elder. Excessive obedience to these people creates a situation where the leader becomes over-involved in the most personal of decisions. Some priests have required that their spiritual sons and daughters ask permission for purchasing property, changing jobs, choice of spouse, or the conception of children within a marriage. Here are some other examples:

While the opinions of others can sometimes be helpful, God also gives us many tools to make our own choices in life. The only central figure we should have is Jesus Christ.

5. Isolation dynamics, i.e. an intense identification with the cult and separation from the larger society (often enforced or ordered by the cult)

While it is important to keep our Holy Orthodox Traditions, isolation can be demonstrated in an imbalanced zeal and fundamentalism that is increasingly found in many orthodox settings. Some groups encourage  followers to dress as nineteenth century European peasants, so that a liturgy nearly resembles a costumed re-enactment of an historical event.  Almost anti-social behavior is also encouraged, forcing members to break ties with all non-Orthodox family and friends, or even those who are Orthodox, but not according to the group's narrow definition. For instance, some groups  do not allow members to read non-orthodox books, listen to popular music, or allow children to attend local schools, local events, or have non-Orthodox friends. Many members  aren't even allowed to visit other Orthodox churches in their area. All of these things make  followers of the church very distant from society and increasingly dependent on the church and its leaders for social contact and direction.

6. Sense of persecution and unique possession of the truth or "the really real."

We do believe that "we have seen the true light."  However, this is often distorted so that we feel "superior" rather than blessed.. This can turn into an elitism that makes us feel that no one else understands us.  It is a natural instinct to feel like it is only at church that we feel "at home" and that the larger society "just doesn't understand." However, while we may live in a society where Christian ideals are not respected or advocated, this is an extra reason to reach out to the outside world. 

Another Orthodox trap is for us to feel that our particular church, jurisdiction or monastery is the best and only place to be, or that only a particular style of icons, a certain type of music, or a particular translation or language style is acceptable to God. This can cause us to put God in a category and feel that He is limited in scope and perspective. In cult situations orthodoxy and its leaders are made to be gods, rather than function as vehicles which point us towards God.

We must remember that we are part of a living faith. As Orthodox we worship a living God. Our Lord has created us in His image and thus called us to life. Let us reclaim the gift of free will and spirit that God has given us and remember that we each have a unique dignity and responsibility. As God's Creation let us encourage this uniqueness in ourselves and one another and help put a stop to cult abuse in the name of the Orthodox faith.

For Further reading, make sure you see Biderman's Chart of Coercion on the RE Focus Web site.

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