Escape from a Seaside Sect

Escape from a Seaside Sect

By Paul Morantz
© October 2010

I have been asked often what was the worst cult case I was involved in. I think the answer is open to interpretation. Obviously, it is hard to top the People’s Temple. So many people adopted one man’s insanity and then dying for it. Phil Ritter’s being struck over the head with clubs with the intent to continue to his death, only to be saved by a passerby. Paulette Cooper being framed by the Scientology Guardians office of a phony bomb scare on Scientology. Little girls being raised by John Gottusso for his future sexual appetite being so frustrated by having parents that were Gottusso followers that they would cut themselves.

From all I can only say each has had its own horror. But for me, for whatever reason, the most bothersome did not involve sex or violence, but an alleged deception that suggested no boundaries for man’s ability to exploit the vulnerable.

It was the case of Ronald. That is the name I give him here. In fact no names are given. A deal was made.

It is unfortunate in law that those guilty of the worst crimes often make settlement agreements where the aggrieved parties agree never to disclose the settlement nor the facts. I do not have much problem with concealing the settlement, but I do with the facts. Our civil court proceedings are open to the public so the public can learn and observe the process. But what is gained when afterwards a judgment or facts be hidden as part of a deal to avoid trial. How is society warned? Where is the deterrence?

The system needs settlements or it would collapse if all cases went to trial. It is the duty of lawyers to seek settlement. But if a part of that settlement it becomes legal to silence witnesses than what is the purpose of the system to begin with? The answer is that it is a dispute resolution process only. Truth and the interests of society are of no concern. I actually once had a judge tell me to just represent my client, and not society.

Let’s say 10 people have similar lawsuits against a big corporation. The corporation is liable to settle with the one who has the most evidence and offer good money to keep the lawyer and the plaintiff from speaking publicly about the facts or aiding any other litigants. And the courts shockingly often approve this.

Some cults, and I imagine corporations as well, particularly those that are totalistic, will offer severance packages to those leaving and making no claims with payola in return for an agreement never to speak about the organization publicly. Some courts have approved stating that the person being paid to be silent can still be deposed or subpoenaed to trial. But this is still an impediment to investigation; and approval of paying a witness to not cooperate cannot be said to be in support of the search for justice. Depositions are expensive and the loss of ability to interview privately not only interferes with trial preparation but is prejudicial to the poor. The latter does not have the same access to make his case and therefore is being discriminated against.

Yet the system wants settlement so badly it turns his eyes often away from what the very system is supposed to be about— truth finding.

They have even in cases where after judgment (which would be binding on those facts found adverse to a party on similar claims in other cases) are withdrawn because of settlement. The bad guys could go through the risk of trial and then if they fail just pay more money to get rid of the judgment that could be used elsewhere against them. This encourages trials, not limits them. But it does reduce the amount of appeals.

For me there has never been any question that the most important thing in this country is freedom of speech and the People’s right to know. Presidents have mislead us but only until the media got the facts are. Trials are like news stories. But instead of reading an investigative report, the actual evidence is presented to a trier of fact to determine what did happen. The outcome can be changed by removing the evidence, and settlements that silence witnesses can do just that.

So I simply tell my clients that I will work for them harder than any other attorney but never expect me to give up my First Amendment rights. I will agree to not disclosing the terms of the settlement but will never agree to not disclosing the facts of the case. Ifanother victim of the same defendant comes forward and can benefit from the information I have learned, I do not give up my right to be of assistance.

But in the case of Ronald I made my one exception. We had reached a settlement amount after a long mediation which was aimed at restoring to Ronald his family inheritance. But the leader of Seaside Sect (Not real name) wanted an agreement that the facts of the case would never be discussed. Ronald was agreeable, I was not. I was also confident as we were leaving if we are patient they will withdraw the gag requirement if we stand firm. I expected a phone call tomorrow. My client I don’t think was happy with idea that I did not believe I had to throw in my first amendment rights to get a case settled. As it was, we got only half way down the stairs when the attorney for the leader asked us to return.

And so I made a one time exception. In part it was also based upon the fact that this was very early in the process for a leader to be willing to return the money and he should get something for that. For whatever he had done, he was doing right thing now. It was a small group. I doubted it would last beyond the leader’s life. An exception was not the concealment of the facts, but just the identity of the parties. So I have named group here “Seaside” because it existed in a quaint down along the coast. I am not saying that is the case, but it did exist solely in a relatively small community.

So here are the facts. Ronald was about 10 years old. He had an older brother and sister. Their parents died in airplane crash, leaving each about $1 million inheritances after all the costs and taxes were done.

Ronald’s older brother was a member of the sect. The day after their parent’s death, it was alleged, the brother took Ronald to a sect meeting where followers formed a group around Ronald in sympathy. The leader allegedly came into the middle, put his hands on Ronald’s shoulder and said that it was his parent’s karma that they would earn money and then die young so their wealth could better mankind through its donation of it to the sect. The world would become a better place.

And by making the donation, the leader was charged with saying, Ronald was guaranteeing his parents a better life in their next reincarnation.

And so that’s it. When I think of all my cases; this one bothered me the most. While I give credit to the sect for doing right thing in the end, I still think of a 10-year-old boy suffering over the loss of his parents being told that their death was to fulfill their karma and benefit mankind and by the turning over the inheritance to the sect he was assuring a happy new life for his parents.

In totalistic societies, the ends justify the means. The Moonies called it “ heavenly deception,” any lie that benefits the group is justified (see Molko). But to me, I would think, can any a person allegedly without a conscience (typical cult leader) still have so complete a void of consciousness, regret or guilt. Is there not some limit in conning. Per this story, there was arguably no compassion in that room for Ronald. Not one person was known to come forward and said stop.

Yet the answer is sadly compassion was present. One easily twisted in the minds of the true believers. Most likely all had bought it and each believed that the cause was so holy it was an honor for Ronald to benefit society and by such donation to secure a better next life for the departed. What a wonderful thing to do for the parents.

Being a minor, the money could not just be taken. The older brother would begin to donate his own and when he was older he also became the guardian of Ronald and his estate. Ronald was placed in homes occupied by other sect members and attended school classes in which the teachers were also followers. Once Ronald turned 18 his money was given by acts of the brother/guardian to the sect. It was alleged some monies were even given before Ronald turned 18.. The brother went to law school and became the sect’s attorney and confidant to the leader. He was also attorney for Ronald’s estate.

Eventually, Ronald began to question the leader after observing him make several nonsensical outbursts and shouting at the walls. He became scared and afraid for his physical safety. He learned about Dr. Margaret Singer, the first cult exist counselor, in Berkeley and went there for counseling, having left the sect with his girlfriend.

Dr. Singer in addition to treating him referred him to me. At the time there was already another claim against the sect pending for a similar allegation and the leader was publicly in the denial mode, attacking the attackers.

But I felt there were some things special in this case that might bring on a different attitude. One, which by now is true in several of my cases, was that I was the attorney. They knew I knew what they did and knew I knew how to prove it. By then, my name on the pleadings could be construed as a seal of approval to the courts and the media. That law aided settlements in some cases; for others it was just fuel to prove they were besieged by conspirator anti-cultists.

The Achilles Heel in this case was the brother. As the guardian he owed a fiduciary relationship to protect his brother and his assets. He owed a simlar duty as the estate attorney. As the sect’s attorney he had a conflict of interest to be involved in the making of financial gifts by Ronald to the sect. An investigation could lead to disbarment or even criminal charges. So paramount in the lawsuit was a claim against the brother for breach of his multiple duties and wrongful depletion of his brother’s. In addition to asking for repayment by the sect, we asked for payment by the brother plus punitive damages. These cause of actions were based on simple probate and trust Law, plus legal ethics, and did not involve any issues of First Amendment and/or whether church donations are refundable. The claim that Ronald was brainwashed into turning over the money would not have to be even reached as to the brother.

Before the lawsuit was filed, I gave it to the sect’s attorney. We agreed to a settlement conference before the suit was filed. This was giving them the opportunity not to have the media descend upon the story once the suit was of public record..

Would the leader let the brother/attorney take the fall. In some cases I would say yes but I didn’t think this one would. In the end the brother was more important. There are always people to convince to turn over money, but a home grown dedicated zealot with a law degree would be much harder to replace. It would also be certain to cause an awful lot of publicity. Possibly internal dissension because the brother would be in a tight place. It could end the group.

Also, the leader now had a face savor. He could say that he settled not because they did anything wrong but because of the state laws the brother might be responsible for making the decision not in Ronald’s best interest, as non believers no one would understand the righteousness of the deeds, and therefore as they were the ones who received the money, not the brother, they should return it and save our beloved follower.

In most cases when leaders settle they have a pitch how it was a necessary sacrifice to protect the group from those evildoers who wish to destroy it. We had given them an easy one.

I never heard again from Ronald. Nor did I ever again hear of the Seaside Sect. I like to think that the case changed the direction the group was going or led to its end. For whatever motivations were, I like to believe that the sect leader in the end recognized that to the extent the allegations were true, they were wrong to have been committed.