The Australian, Wed 14 Oct 1998

Legal crackdown on cults


RELIGIOUS cults could be prosecuted for causing "mental harm" to their disciples under legal recommendations to the States and Territories.

An official committee of federal, State and Territory governments' top legal advisers has recommended that "significant emotional harm" inflicted by religious groups be classified as a criminal offence.

"'Freedom of religion' is not freedom, for example, to defraud, nor is it freedom to cause significant psychological or psychiatric harm to any person," the committee says in its report to the nation's attorneys-general.

The report cites a California Supreme Court finding that "coercive persuasion" by religious sects may cause "serious physical and psychiatric disorders".

"The techniques involved may include isolation, manipulation of time and attention, positive and negative re-inforcement, peer group pressure, prohibition of dissent, deprivation of sleep and protein and the inducement of fear, guilt and emotional dependence," the committee reports.

It notes the Church of Scientology had argued the activities of religious groups should not be singled out in the definition of criminal harm.

"The committee is not concerned with, nor does it make any judgment on, the question whether the Church of Scientology causes criminal harm to other people in its evangelical activities," the report says.

"It is concerned that the criminal offence proposed (in the proposed national criminal code) catches the causing of significant psychological harm to people, accompanied with criminal intention.

"If a religious organisation does that, it, like anyone else, should be guilty of the appropriate criminal offence."

Church of Scientology spokeswoman Virginia Stewart said yesterday the committee appeared to be supportive of constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom.

"We support any changes that bring about greater responsibility for criminal culpability whilst retaining inherent civil and religious liberties," she said.

The committee was commissioned by the federal, State and Territory attorneys-general to harmonise their conflicting laws in a "model criminal code".

Its latest report, Non Fatal Offences Against the Person, also recommends criminal sanctions apply to people who:

INTENTIONALLY or recklessly transmit a serious disease;

SET traps to kill or seriously harm intruders;

STALK another person;

PERFORM genital mutilation or send a child overseas for genital mutilation.

[Press articles on Scientology]