Church Cautious About French Move Against Sects

Warns That Legislation Could Stifle Religious Liberty

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PARIS, FEB. 1, 2001 ( The Catholic Church has expressed its reservations about French legislation that would cover the crime of «mental manipulation» and be aimed at so-called religious sects.

Including this problem in the penal code as the crime of «mental control» creates difficulties for European lawmakers, who differ on how to define «sects.» Some experts believe that the word should be replaced by «destructive group.»

The Catholic Church sees a potential danger behind the legislation because it could be used not only against the sects but also to suppress liberty of thought and religious belief.

According to Monsignor Jean Vernette, secretary of the French Church´s pastoral service, responsible for sects and new beliefs, the current French laws are sufficient to address the manipulation of sects. He proposes, instead, that collaboration be established between victims´ associations, political and judicial authorities, psychologists and sociologists, religions, and reflection groups.

The legislation has the support of «deprogramming» associations and many psychologists, teachers and experts in the field of helping former sect members recover their identity.

One fear about the legislation is that it what would be difficult to demonstrate when a crime has occurred. A prior psychological or psychiatric report would be necessary, as well as a subsequent one to establish the damages caused by the sect in question.

Monsignor Vernette made his proposals in a document that warns about sects and contributes ideas for pastoral consideration and action. He is familiar with the «Moonies,» Krishnas, Children of God, the Church of Scientology, and others, ever since he began studying them in 1968, when he was responsible for adult catechumens nationally. Today, two-thirds of French dioceses have a delegate to the service of «Pastoral Care, Sects and New Beliefs,» which he directs.

«Just a few days ago, representatives of the great religions were invited at last by parliamentarians to express their opinion on the sects,» Monsignor Vernette told the Italian newspaper Avvenire. «I then manifested my doubts on the text of the law, which lends itself to many mistakes. Certain practices in use in the Catholic Church could end up by being regarded as forms of manipulation. I am thinking of religious vows, ascetic practices like fasting, night vigils in monasteries.»

In his document, however, the French priest recognizes the sectarian danger, even within the Catholic Church itself.

«As in any group of persons, in the Church also there can be cases of this type,» he said. «The Code of Canon Law is there in order to avoid and recognize them. They could be verified, as a hypothesis I mean, in a monastery where the abbot unduly influenced the new novices in the ´internal authority.´ Certain deformities happen more readily in closed communities.»

At the European level, Monsignor Vernette believes that some nations are more exposed to the danger of sects.

«The countries of the East, which eight or nine years ago were liberated from Communist regimes, have found themselves in a great spiritual void of which religious groups of all kind from the East and the United States have taken advantage,» he observed. «Because of this, two international conferences were organized recently in Vienna, the last two years ago, precisely on the problem of sects in the Eastern countries.»

He concluded that, although «sectarian derivations can appear in any group, they are a deformation of the functioning of the collectivity and have nothing to do with faith. This is about group dynamics, not theology.»

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