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Alternative Religions And Their Academic Supporters
"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate

Clarifying Contentious Issues:
A Rejoinder To Melton, Shupe, And Lewis
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Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs


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Original article   Rejoinder by Krent and Krebs   Credits and Copyright

Rather than focusing and furthering this debate, Andy Shupe's response inflates it, and we regret that we must spend so much time correcting his overstatements and outright mistakes. We did not say that he is "stupid" (and we certainly do not think so), and we did not say that he is "somehow in bed, or in the pockets, of cults." Indeed, Krebs remains grateful to Shupe for his inclusion of her article in his edited volume on clergy malfeasance (Krebs, 1998). Her findings, however, about a religious organization's attempts to manipulate and control information about clergy pedophilia interested her in analogous information control processes among alternative religions, which culminated (in co-authorship with Kent) in articles in SKEPTIC (Kent and Krebs, 1998b) and the more traditionally academic "Nova Religio" (1998a).

We did say that the trust Shupe put in Scientologist, lawyer, and unindicted co-conspirator Kendrick Moxon was "unwise" (Kent and Krebs, 1998b, 42) and "may have been misplaced" (41). We also raised questions about the quality of his information-sources about CAN, and we raised questions about whether he had expertise concerning CAN during the time of the Jason Scott kidnapping incident in 1991. For reasons that only he knows, Shupe did not address these issues in his response. Nor did he speak about his association with AWARE--an organization directed by a person who lied about his credentials, and whose ruse fooled Shupe. (See Scott v. Ross et al., 1995a, 134.)

These questions are legitimate ones--some of which, presumably, were behind a district court judge's query to CAN's counsel about why it had not objected during the trial to any of Shupe's testimony. Failure to have done so seems to have been a significant strategic error on the part of CAN's counsel. Indeed, during the trial but when the jury was out of the room, the district court judge expressed curiosity regarding "why there were no objections to Dr. Shupe's testimony" by CAN's attorneys. The judge stated, "[a]bout 90 percent of what I heard there [in Shupe's testimony] I would have sustained objections to" (Scott v. Ross, et. al., 1995b, 54; see Scott v. Ross, et. al., 1998, 3223-3224). In other words, had CAN's counsel objected to Shupe's answers, then the district judge may have struck most of them.

Shupe's inattention to detail in his response to our analysis in SKEPTIC led him to explain how, presumably, an article of his on Germany's (alleged) discrimination against celebrities wound up in Scientology's public relations and attack magazine, Freedom. This article, however, is not the one that we mentioned! In two Freedom publications, Shupe's photo appears next to an article that discusses alleged "cult experts" whose expertise he disputes (Shupe, [1994/1995?], 1995). While both of the publications that we cited include the statement "[r]eprinted by permission," neither identifies the originating source nor from whom Freedom received permission to reprint. Perhaps Shupe is unaware that this article appeared in two issues of Freedom publications, yet we are very clear about them in our SKEPTIC article.

Serious issues exist with Shupe's statements about Kent and his research. Kent's published works about satanism, for example, that appeared in a highly respected, Anglo-American academic journal, Religion, is cautious and balanced, in stark contrast to Shupe's allusions to it. In the first of three articles, Kent wrote, "[w]ithout, of course, definitive independent confirmation of ritual abuse stories I cannot make a scientific claim that such accounts accurately represent abusive events" (Kent, 1993b, 231). Likewise, Kent concluded his third article with the caution, "[c]areful research, balanced discussions, and thoughtful presentations of evidence are the only techniques that advance scientific enterprises. We must keep these principles in mind during the debates about satanic ritual abuse.... Not only are fundamental social and scientific issues at stake, but also people's lives are affected profoundly by our conclusions" (Kent, 1994, 371-372). Especially after Shupe's response to our initial article, we hope that he takes this caution to heart in his forthcoming book on the anti-cult controversy.

Shupe should rethink the implications of Kent's co-presentation of a paper with a person (Joe Szimhart) who formerly had performed some forcible 'deprogrammings,' since Kent worked with Szimhart on the paper specifically because he had renounced those practices and was involved in the "voluntary exit counselling" movement, about which academics know very little. Rather than endorsing violent or illegal deprogrammings, Szimhart and Kent's paper described in part how voluntary exit counselling had become the dominant paradigm within the "countercult" movement (Szimhart and Kent, 1996).

Moreover, once again Shupe got basic facts wrong about a crucial court case in which Szimhart had been involved. In 1993, Szimhart faced charges over his involvement in a "failed deprogramming" of a Church Universal and Triumphant member. Contrary to Shupe's incorrect statement that Szimhart "narrowly escaped a prison sentence for kidnapping and assault simply on a legal technicality," the press reported at the time that "[t]he jury in a kidnapping trial here [in Boise, Idaho] found two of the defendants, Kenneth Paolini and Joseph Szimhart not guilty of aiding and abetting a second degree kidnapping.... The jury decided not to find any of them guilty of a lesser charge of false imprisonment, a misdemeanor, which it had the option to do" (Dvorak, 1993). A subsequent press report revealed that "[t]he 12-person jury that found two of three religious deprogrammers innocent of kidnapping charges in Boise, Idaho, last week did so because they eventually came to believe that what the deprogrammers did was right.... [I]n the end, the jury believed that while Paolini and Szimhart may have broken the law, it was probably necessary in this case" (Dvorak and Ronnow, 1993). While we do not want readers to believe that Kent and Krebs necessarily hold this position about forcible deprogramming, Shupe erred when he wrote about what had occurred to a person with whom Kent had worked as co-presenter at an academic conference.

Concerning yet another factual error, we specifically and public challenge Shupe to provide the SKEPTIC editor either with copies of "Canadian newspapers [that] have questioned [Kent's] credibility as any kind of expert" or to retract and apologize. We doubt that Shupe will accept the challenge, since no such questioning by any Canadian newspaper about Kent has ever taken place--unless Shupe considers Scientology's Freedom publication a legitimate newspaper! In June, 1998, two Canadian newspapers (in Edmonton and Toronto) carried a 16-page "Freedom" insert that had a two-page attack specifically targeting Kent. Scientology seemed particularly upset about Kent's persistent discussion about alleged human rights abuses in the organization's forced labour and re-indoctrination programs called the RPF (which we have mentioned earlier in our response to Melton; see also Kent, 1997b). (Both newspapers subseqently [sic] printed a correction or apology indicating that they were not aware of any factual foundation for Scientology's allegations [The Edmonton Examiner, 1998; The Globe and Mail, 1998].) When a newspaper queried Kent's place of employment about any possible response the educational institution might have been contemplating regarding Scientology's attack, the University of Alberta Vice-President (Academic) responded, "I guess people will just have to judge the reputation of the Church of Scientology versus Stephen Kent and the University of Alberta. I'm not terribly concerned about the outcome" (in Rusnell, 1998). Neither are we terribly concerned about the outcome of our public challenge to Shupe.

James Lewis' attempt to "set the record straight" contributes little to the contentious issues we raise in our SKEPTIC analysis. Most of what he attributes to us are statements that we simply did not make. We analyze Lewis' scholarship in the context of arguing "that, on crucial social issues, controversial religious groups have courted researchers in order to enhance their public images, and some social scientists have participated in these efforts at the expense both of legitimate endeavors to advance knowledge according to accepted scientific standards of objectivity and of the attention to the use of their scientific expertise" (Kent and Krebs, 1998b: 36). Lewis' evasive response to our analysis only reinforces our conclusion that his advocacy on behalf of alternative religious groups at times has compromised his scholarly judgement.

Let us be clear about what we did not say. We did not accuse Lewis or others of "directly or indirectly accepting funds from certain minority religions." However, his co-editor, Gordon Melton, told SKEPTIC readers about receiving "finances" for their study of Church Universal and Triumphant. We neither accuse Lewis (or any other researchers) of being "cult apologist[s]" nor do we claim that Kent is a "victim of a 'cult conspiracy.' " (Indeed, throughout our analysis we avoid use of pejorative labels against either individuals or groups.) Moreover, we did not conclude that "Scientology, The Family[,] and so forth are terrible groups like the KKK or the mafia that merit social censure." These are Lewis' words, not ours. Nor did we "misrepresent [Lewis] and [his] work" or his credentials. We specifically state that he had falsely identified himself as "James R. Lewis, Ph.D." when interfering with the publication of Kent's article on David Berg in 1993, and he only discusses his attendance at "more than one graduate institution" (about which we knew, since we had communicated with university officials at two institutions). He does not identify from which institution he received a doctorate, nor when he received it, since he certainly did not have one prior to or during 1993.

In the context of Lewis' credentials, we discussed his pre-publication intervention against one of Kent's peer-reviewed articles to the editors of Research in the Social Scientific Study of religion--an intervention he made without having read the article itself (Kent and Krebs, 1998b, 37). The investigation (conducted by the publications's co-editors) into his claims revealed no basis for Lewis' "concerns and allegations" (Lynn, 1993). Only the publisher himself can say what, if any, role Lewis' intervention had in blocking publication of Kent's article. Lewis' unwarranted intervention, however, merits examination on its own, especially when placed in the context of other advocacy positions he has taken for controversial religions. Even now, Lewis continues his advocacy of the Children of God/The Family by implying that Kent received Family material stolen from the Philippines. Because of the questionable circumstances under which former members removed material (and in which Kent played no role whatsoever), he has avoided using or owning any of that information. He (and the University of Alberta Library collection that he oversees) have obtained their Family sources from legitimate donations. He and others have used these sources to substantiate statements made by former members.

It is true (as Lewis claims) that Kent received material directly from The Family in 1989. Lewis neglects to mention, however, that Kent purchased the documents with his own money. Moreover, Lewis wrongly states, "Prof. Kent never composed a paper on the counterculture," since Kent already had published two articles on the topic before he received the material from The Family (Kent, 1987; 1988, revised reprint in 1992), and a third article after the material arrived (Kent, 1993a).

Returning to the larger question about compromised scholarship, SKEPTIC readers will want to know about another major incident (not involving The Family) in which Lewis' research and/or judgement was seriously flawed. in the introduction to his co-edited volume on Church Universal and Triumphant, Lewis prophetically stated, "[m]any scholars of stigmatized religions, myself included, have a secret fear that they will one day examine a controversial religious group, give it a clean bill of health, and later discover that they had defended the People's Temple, or worse" (in Lewis and Melton, 1994b,viii). His secret fear came true when he defended Aum Shinri Kyo.

Following Aum's March 20, 1995, Tokyo subway sarin gas attack (and another poison gas incident in 1994 that killed seven people), Lewis and three other Americans (including Melton) traveled to Japan on tickets that Aum had purchased for them. After spending three days interviewing Aum leaders and others, Lewis told a gathering of Japanese reporters that "the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both mass murder cases. Lewis said the American group determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum" (Reid, 1995, A8). Subsequently, observers around the world of the events following the Aum subway gassing gasped as investigators revealed information that contradicted the assessments offered by "prominent scholars in the specialty of new religious movements" such as Lewis and Melton.

Japanese Studies expert Ian Reader observed, "Melton had earlier made the comment that, when the media reports scandal stories about religious movements, the substance of such stories normally proves to be less than the extent of the allegations." As, however, information became available about the actions of Aum, "the evidence showed the actions of the movement to be greater than had originally been rumored." Reader concluded, "[a]s a result of all this, not only has the reputation and image of religion in general been damaged, but so has that of its scholars..." (Reader, 1995, 2). Lewis' advocacy on behalf of what he calls "persecuted religious minorities" has contributed to this damage because, in some instances, he has allowed his research to be compromised by the very groups that he is defending.