Contenuto principale

Madame Anne Brasseur

President of the Parliamentary 

Assembly of the Council of Europe

Palais de l’Europe

67075 Strasbourg Cedex 

 the 19th of March 2014



Dear Madame Anne Brasseur,



My name is Raffaella di Marzio and I’m a researcher in Psychology of Religion in Italy. Since 1994 I have been studying, from a psychological and educational point of view, minority religions, also named New Religious Movements, and very often called “sects” or “cults”, a derogatory word, usually used for stigmatizing religious minorities.  


I wanted to draw your attention on the report drafted by Rudy Salles, a French MP and member of the French delegation at PACE. The report was adopted by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the PACE, on Monday March 3, 2014. This report will be voted upon during the second part session of the PACE, starting the 7th of April in Strasbourg. This report is presented as a wish to protect children from harmful treatments, inside “sects”, but, according to my experience and my studies in this field, it is posing a real threat for children and parents belonging to religious minorities in every country of the Council of Europe.


Here is the report:


In particular, I wanted to draw your attention on an idea which is repeated many times in the Rudy Salles’ report: the idea that “sects” perpetrate psychological abuses on children, the so called “mind manipulation” crime. Here are three excerpts from the report:


The Assembly is particularly concerned about the influence which sect-like movements can have on minors, given the latter’s vulnerability. It strongly condemns the “excesses of sects”, namely acts which have the purpose or effect of creating, maintaining or exploiting a state of psychological or physical submission in an individual, causing harm to that individual or for society. Such excesses may cause human rights violations, particularly in terms of the health, physical and psychological integrity, schooling and social and emotional development of minors, who are often removed from their family environment and/or cut off from any outside contact. (p.1)


What interests us in the context of preparing this report is “excesses of sects”, which, according to the French Inter-Ministerial Mission for Vigilance and action Against Sectarian Excesses (MIVILUDES), are characterised by “the use of pressure or techniques which have the purpose or effect of creating, maintaining or exploiting a state of psychological or physical submission in an individual, causing harm to that individual or for society (p.4)


Following the example of some states such as Belgium, France and Luxembourg, making the abuse of psychological and/or physical weakness a criminal offence by introducing a provision in the Criminal Code would be extremely useful and could have an effect in terms both of punishment and also of dissuasion (p.13)


Unfortunately, Salles is right: badly influenced by media and anti-cult propaganda, some European governments set up courts of inquiry, parliamentary commissions, anti-cult squads and approved even laws against “cults”, or, in other words, against the alleged “mind manipulation crime” that “dangerous cults” would perpetrate against their followers, especially against children.


I have carried out extensive research about this matter for about 16 years and summarized results of my studies in my book "Nuove religioni e sette. La psicologia di fronte alle nuove forme di culto”, (New religions and sects. Psychology facing the new cults) published in 2010. I discovered that the theory of “mind manipulation” or “brainwashing”, or “persuasive coercion” as applied to “sects” has no scientific basis.


I would like to cite the most important professional Association of psychologists, who published official statements about this matter.



The official position of APA (American Psychological Association)


1987 - On February 10th, 1987, the APA joined other parties in submitting a brief in the Molko case, pending before the California Supreme Court, involving issues of brainwashing and coercive persuasion with respect to the Unification Church. The brief stated that, as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion “is not accepted in the scientific community” and that the relevant methodology “has been repudiated by the scientific community”. To state such a position with greater clarity would be very difficult indeed, and the brief also implied that, when applied to new religious movements, very often called “sects” or “cults”, theories of mind control were uniformly regarded as “not accepted in the scientific community”, be they referred to as “brainwashing”, “mind control”, or coercive persuasion”.


1987 - On May 11th, 1987 another very important step in this matter was APA’s refusalto approve the DIMPAC (Report of the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control), submitted by the psychologist Margaret Singer and other five scholars. The APA rejected the report in a Memorandum of May 11, 1987 because it “lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur”. The APA stated in 1987 that brainwashing or coercive persuasion theories, when applied to new religious movements, are not scientific.


1991 - APA’s Division 36 (Psychology of Religion Division) published this resolution: 

“The Executive Committee of the Division of Psychologists Interested in Religious Issues supports the conclusion that, at this time, there is no consensus that sufficient psychological research exists to scientifically equate undue non-physical persuasion (otherwise known as "coercive persuasion," "mind control," or "brainwashing") with techniques of influence as typically practiced by one or more religious groups. Further, the Executive Committee invites those with research on this topic to submit proposals to present their work at Divisional programs”. (PIRI Executive Committee Adopts Position on Non-Physical Persuasion Winter, 1991) 

2007 - On August 16th 2007, APA’s Resolution on Religious, Religion-Based and/or Religion-Derived Prejudice was adopted by APA Council of Representatives. 


APA Council of representatives, in the Introduction of this document, talk about the “Prejudice based on or derived from religion and antireligious prejudice”. They affirm that this kind of prejudice “has been, and continues to be, a cause of significant suffering in the human condition”. 

The American Psychological Association’s policy statement on prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination provides operational definitions for prejudices, stereotypes, and interpersonal and institutional discrimination. The resolution specifically states:

Prejudices are unfavorable affective reactions to or evaluations of groups and their members, stereotypes are generalized beliefs about groups and their members, interpersonal discrimination is differential treatment by individuals toward some groups and their members relative to other groups and their members, and institutional discrimination involves policies and contexts that create, enact, reify, and maintain inequality. (American Psychological Association Council of Representatives, 2006).

Moreover, in a following paragraph, the resolution refers to the so called “sects” or “cults” in this way: 

Current examples of covert religious discrimination include government surveillance of religious speech, pejorative labelling by governmental bodies of certain religious groups as “cults” with a resulting loss of religious freedoms, and a lack of legal protection for citizens from non majority faiths who are victims of religious hate crimes (Center for Religious Freedom, 2001, 2003; U.S. Department of State, 2004)


In his report, Rudy Salles ask for the introduction of a provision in the Criminal Code for a criminal offence making the abuse of psychological and/or physical weakness a criminal offence. The fact is that this kind of “crime” has no scientific basis and it is a danger for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.


In Italy we had such a law. It happened in 1930, under Mussolini: the “plagio” law (article 603), that was the criminal offence of putting someone in a “complete state of subjugation”. The meaning of the Italian expression “plagio” [plagium in Latin] is the English word “brainwashing”.  These days, anticult and media propaganda use some synonymous like “mind manipulation”, mind control”, and so on … but the meaning is the same: they affirm that a person can be subjected to “plagio” by “dangerous cults” or “sects”.



The idea of Mussolini, when he inserted the law in the penal code, was that communists were communist only because they were under undue influence, and this law allowed him to put in jail some communists accused of exerting such influence on others that they became communists too. It was an easy way to put in jail the best of his opponents. Then, after WWII, the law was still in use but then it was used against the homosexuals. Homosexuality was considered to be a way to manipulate people and put them in a state of psychological subjection. The last scandal of this law was in the 70s, when a Catholic priest had been accused of estranging his young disciples from their families. 


Following this scandal, the case was referred to the Italian Constitutional Court, which repealed the Plagio law in 1981. The article was repealed for many reasons amongst which: 


- the first body of criticism was empirical: the phenomenon of plagio does not exist nor can it be verified, if we presume that such a condition of subjugation cannot be achieved merely with psychological tools. Most psychiatrists agreed on this point. The problem was that such a rule was too vague and undetermined, therefore contrary to the constitutional principle of legality.


- the second body of criticism was political: the critics argued that the rule masked an attempt at ideological discrimination. Following this line of reasoning the judges ran the risk of judging lifestyles and any ideas that were contrary to prevailing social opinion or even to the court's majority opinion under the pretext of judging methods of indoctrination


I personally collected a large bibliography on this specific subject, including a total of 500 books, articles or studies, from 1970 to 2012

Cfr. for example: Galanter, 1993, 1996; Anthony and Robbins, 1992, 1994, 1995b; 2004; Barker, 1984; 1988, 1989, 1995, 1998; Bromley, 1988, 1998abc, 2002; Bromley et al., 1992; Richardson, 1978ab, 1985ab, 1993; Introvigne, 1992, 1996, 1998, 1999ab, 2002; Fizzotti, 1994; Fizzotti et al., 2000; Aletti, 1994; Aletti et al., 1999; Anthony, 1990, 1999, 2001; Barber, 1961; Conn, 1982; Fromm and Shor, 1979; Orne, 1961-1962; Spanos, 1996; Paloutzian, Richardson and Rambo, 1999; Wuthnow, 1976, 1978; Zimbardo and Hartley, 1985; Bird and Reimer, 1982;  Lewis and Bromley, 1987; Wright, 1988; Wright and Ebaugh, 1993; Stark and Iannaccone, 1997; Bromley, 1998; Saliba, 2004; Wulff, 2001; Luckoff et al., 1996; Buxant et al. 2007, Buxant and Saroglou, 2008; Namini and Murken, 2009; Healy, 2011; Rambo, 1993; Rambo and Farris, 2012; Rambo and Bauman, 2012. 

After a very careful survey of the literature and using my almost twenty years of experience on the field, I can assert the following: while the common anti-cult brainwashing or mind control theories have been largely rejected by the scholarly community (with few exceptions), forms of persuasion or influence based on false or otherwise unethical representations continue to exist in everyday life and also within some of the New Religious Movements. As a matter of fact, this kind of abuse can cause serious problems to people. However, misrepresentations are rather different from brainwashing, or “mind control” or “mind manipulation”. 

Rudy Salles affirms that such repressive laws in order to combat the crime of brainwashing “would be extremely useful and could have an effect in terms both of punishment and also of dissuasion”. 

Being quite an expert on psychological and educational matters, as well as the subject of Freedom of Religion or Belief and religious minorities, I can tell you, supported by the scientific community, that this idea is not based on scientific data or empirical research. It is only the expression of an intolerant ideology that has already created tremendous harm to children and parents belonging to religious minorities in many countries, like Italy. I can confirm that in Italy, over the last 30 years, members of religious minorities, especially children, have suffered discrimination and isolation in different ways.  




In conclusion, it is my belief that to approve repressive laws to combat the crime of “mental manipulation”, as Rudy Salles suggests in his report, is not only useless, butalso very dangerous for freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and democracy in general.

I think that the Council of Europe should choose another way for dealing with the alleged “psychological abuses” against children and everyone else: prevention, education and reliable information on new religious movements is the only way to deal with the issue. In particular, prevention begins with families. Moreover, governments have to be very cautious: in order to deal with the so called “mind manipulation threat”, they should use positive actions and avoid all kinds of repression. 

If there are people who manipulate other people, or if there was abuse of psychological and/or physical weakness, governments should improve the education, the laws and social strategies in order to promote freedom of conscience and defend human rights. I believe this is the best thing to do because strengthening the freedom of thought, conscience and belief would enable us to face the problem from a cultural and social perspective, rather than an individualistic one. This is the only solution to the problem if we want to avoid the violation of human rights.

My wish is that the members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe keep in line with their mandate and reject this resolution, or at least strongly amended it to respect the fundamental human rights standards.


Would you have any question feel free to contact me.




Raffaella Di Marzio




Raffaella Di Marzio

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Raffaella Di Marzio, researcher in psychology of religion, in 2001 set up a Centre of Information on cults, New Religious Movements and Anti-cult Movements: the Online Center She is a member of the managing board of SIPR (Italian Society of Psychology of Religion) and Correspondent of Human Right Without Frontiers in Italy. She has published more than 100 articles about cults, mind control, New Religious Movements and anti-cult groups, is a contributor to CESNUR’s Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy  (2013) and to Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, 6 vol., ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara [California] 2010), J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann Editors.

Raffaella Di Marzio has B.A. degrees in Psychology (University “La Sapienza” of Rome, 1981), Educational Science (Pontifical Salesian University, 1981) and History of Religions (University “La Sapienza” of Rome, 2003) and Religious Science (Institute for Religious Studies Ecclesia Mater, linked to the faculty of theology of Pontifical Lateran University, 1986).

She has been a Catholic religion teacher in a senior high school in Rome since 1981 and she is ICSA Today’s News Co-Correspondent for Italy. 

She is in demand as a cult expert for TV and radio shows and lectures widely