Patterns of Scandal in New Ecclesial Movements: Part Two, Appearance vs. Reality

In researching my novel, I had occasion to study the late-twentieth century phenomenon of the serial killer — something almost unknown (according to Robert K. Ressler, the FBI agent and psychologist who helped to introduce “profiling” to the world of law enforcement) in previous eras, but which exploded in terms of numbers of cases beginning in the Sixties.

People — and Cultures — of the Lie

Ressler’s book is in many ways a study of the criminal socipathic mind, one feature of which is an almost complete lack of internally based moral norms; another feature is an almost intractable habit of deceit — this latter because the sociopath, while subject to no moral norms himself, is keenly aware that most other people are and would condemn him if they knew his secret actions; also because (to boot) he wants to be “special” and rather enjoys “putting one over” on the gullible others who restrict their own freedoms by adherence to a moral code he rejects.

Another book I came across in my research is M. Scott Peck’s classic People of the Lie. In it, Peck, a Christian psychotherapist, focuses more on the personality of “narcissists“—individuals who do have consciences, who know better, and yet who are similarly caught up in a web of deceit; self-deceit first and foremost. The problem for society, and for groups led by narcissists, is that the maintenance of this pattern of self-deceit requires the deceit of others — others who the narcissist loves to control and from whom he wishes to receive admiration, even adulation.

Here’s a quote from Peck:

The words “image,” “appearance,” and “outwardly” are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their “goodness” is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are the “people of the lie.”

Whether explained by the personality disorders of Sociopathy or Narcissism, or something else, the fact that Fr. Maciel was able to perpetrate a fraud of holiness on thousands of people who viewed him as their special mediator of grace and vocation, necessitates the consideration that his web of deceit spread further than just his own conscience. There must have been, as there always is when someone like this attains great fame and a reputation for holiness, a level of complicity or at least spiritual blindness on the part of at least some at the upper levels of leadership.

It goes a long way to explaining some of the most controversial aspects of the LC/RC “methodology”, discussed on such websites as ReGain network and Life After RC. Similar techniques of control, limiting dissent and maintaining a public persona of seamless unity are familiar to survivors of many a toxic organization. In particular one sees the vilification, impugning of motives, and shunning of people who are brave (or desperate) enough to suggest that there is something rotten or at least imbalanced at the heart of the formation they are receiving. These are all, of course, forms of scapegoating.

Another excerpt from Peck, who identifies scapegoating as one of the primary signs of evil:

A predominant characteristic, however, of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection…

Scapegoating works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil, on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others…

Evil, then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters. In The Road Less Traveled I defined evil “as the exercise of political power—that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion—in order to avoid…spiritual growth.” In other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one’s need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection.

Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil. The problem is that they displace the locus of the evil. Instead of destroying others they should be destroying the sickness within themselves.

Next, a glance at some of the most commonly employed techniques of overt/covert “coercion” used to maintain the appearance of holiness on the part of leaders and groups.


I’ll be writing later about the methods some Catholic groups (by all accounts, the LC/RC among them) use and sometimes abuse for maintaining control of its “public face” — methods which they share with cults. But first, I’d like to touch upon the related notion of “transparency,” one of the most frequently heard words of late in connection with the Maciel scandal and the LC/RC.

From the moment of its origin, and in some places still today, where believers are persecuted, Christianity has from time to time been an “underground” religion, requiring a high level of secrecy in its operations to survive. Too, times of great religious turmoil, such as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, have encouraged the hierarchy, the Vatican, and sometimes the leadership of religious institutes to operate, justifiably or not, depending on circumstances, under the assumption that honesty, or at least transparency, would not be the best policy.

Unfortunately, the conviction that one is surrounded by enemies and potential Judases is not only a sign of potential paranoia and imbalance, it is also a standard reason given by over-controlling group leaders of every persuasion for demanding absolute obedience — in particular, obedience to the leader’s demand for absolute silence to “outsiders” about his modus operandi. This is, of course, also standard procedure for every group with temptations to cult-hood.

Or, as one Catholic group leader of my acquaintance used to say, whenever challenged on his obsessive habits of secrecy, both within and without his organization, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The “they” in question were as often as not visiting members of the clergy, religious, and hierarchy.

But just as Perfectae Caritatis calls on religious institutes to adjust their charisms to the needs of the times, if the Maciel scandal proves one thing, I should think it is that, in this age of blogs, e-mail and YouTube, the old habits of Circling the Wagons and spin-doctoring problematic practices simply do not work. Worse, they turn what might have been just a small organizational grass fire into a conflagration.

An example comes from an entirely different sphere of culture. Nearly the same day that the news of Fr. Maciel’s double life exploded in the blogosphere, actor Christian Bale, shooting an intense scene for the new Terminator movie, became enraged with what he viewed as unprofessional conduct on the part of the film’s young cinematographer. Bale, an actor I otherwise much admire for his on-screen intensity, proceeded to ream the poor fellow in a four-minute, F-bomb laden rant that, unluckily for all concerned, was picked up on the mikes. Before the day was over, the rant was all over the Internet. Within hours, an entrepreneurial music video geek had turned Bale’s rant into a sort of “rap video,” and by the evening of the second day the video had received six hundred thousand hits on YouTube.

My point being, though the Faith never changes, our understanding of it, and particularly our understanding of the best ways to live it and share it in a particular time, do change and develop. Like it or not, we are living in an age of instant communications and “viral marketing.” Surely if ever there was a time for the new movements to adopt a “methodology” of transparency, it is now.

“Public Face” vs. “Private Face”

Every religious group (or business, corporation, family, agency, team…you name it) develops a certain “public persona” over time, and I would be hard put to name any that didn’t want that public face to be a positive or even (in the case of religious groups) holy one. Ideally, in a Catholic group, that “face” should reflect the image of Christ himself.

But beneath the public persona, every group has a private face, too — the image formed from all the things which only members of that group see. (N.B.: How much a given member sees, particularly in highly structured, hierarchical groups, may depend on his/her place in the group.) The private face, too, should reflect the image of Christ, and when it does not — when members see a repeated pattern of “private face” words and deeds belying “public face” words and deeds, we are looking at a diseased community.

In a truly healthy and holy group, I would submit — once again the word “transparency” leaps to mind — there ought to be an overall consistency between the public and private faces of a group, particularly in terms of habitual approach, attitude, and methodology. This, even when certain things (say, for “reasons of national security,” or to protect the maturity level of a child) are occasionally better kept behind closed doors. I’m not talking about perfection here, which none of us will see in any group this side of the Beatific Vision, so much as a “habit of being”; but when there is a marked discrepancy between the public and private persona, there exists in the group an unacceptable level of dishonesty, of disrepect for human dignity, and of manipulation. As John Paul II taught us, this is the opposite of charity, of “love”; not “hate”, but use.

When the discrepancy is wholesale, we have a situation of outright hypocrisy, malfeasance, and abuse.

Sometimes the prettifying of a group’s “public face” may involve the tacit cooperation of friendly members of the hierarchy; at other times the hierarchy may not perceive the deception because vigorous pressure has been put on members to keep things mum, usually with the rationalization that “outsiders” (including priests and bishops and popes) “do not understand our vocation.” The hypocrisy, malfeasance, and abuse inherent in the present Maciel/LC situation are obvious on the personal level, of course, and may suggest the existence of some covering-up at high levels within and outside of the organization; but that is not my main concern. It is my belief, rather, that any future investigation of the LC/RC (or any other ecclesial movement, for that matter) must include the question of public/private face in broader organizational matters; for in groups troubled by scandals like this it would be the exceptional organization that didn’t exhibit analogous patterns of masking all the way through the ranks, and for any number of reasons — say, to prevent disclosures about,

* practices which do not conform to the Code of Canon Law

* practices which blur the line that by Canon Law should separate the exterior and interior forums; the line between group discipline and private conscience and the choice of personal spiritual direction

* practices which would upset family members, if they knew about them

* practices and attitudes which, in effect, set up “parallel churches” and divide Catholics from the local parish communities

* teachings or language which suggest heterodox theological positions

* teachings which confuse Church-sanctioned spiritual teachings with the private political or social beliefs of the Founder

* practices and code language masking inappropriate forms of recruitment and fundraising

* inappropriate expenditures

* inappropriate or heterodox devotions and practices, particularly relating to an excessive veneration of and loyalty to the Founder or the Organization

* the extraction of “vows” or “promises” from recruits, sometimes at a too-early age, which by Canon Law should be under the regulation of the local bishop or the Vatican, but are not.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Here’s how I described, in my novel, the methods used to “mask” my fictional “Student Apostolate of North America.”

For the public view, Peter put his sweetest face forward as he made sure that no one nearby could prove an obstacle to his rule. His statements to the Archdiocese, to visiting prelates and Catholic journalists, remained moderate and submissive. He spoke in glowing terms of continuing his brother’s “important work.” He saved the meat of his new doctrine for the “inner circle.” Thus to outsiders and visitors Krato spoke in treacly terms of community, of faith, of charity. To the inner circle he spoke the language of combat and discipline, of leverage and pressure. He spoke the language of Power….

Unquestioning obedience quickly became the sole criterion for preferment at SANA. From the beginning Peter kept tabs on everyone by a stooge system worthy of a federal penitentiary or the Nixon White House. Having spent many years in English public schools and Canadian military academies, I am an old sweat at that particular game, and more than familiar with the techniques. For example, Peter sent everyone out “two by two,” whether to the grocery store, to class, or to the loo. Parents and guardians, such as they were, were surprised to find their sons coming home, on their increasingly infrequent visits, with at least one fellow SANA member invariably in tow. This measure was implemented primarily to prevent “imprudent disclosures” about the newly-reformed way of life at SANA House. The idea was that there would always be someone standing over your shoulder to hush you up if you spoke out of turn, or rat on you if you sneaked a smoke….

By the time I left, some members were making private “promises” of celibacy for increasingly extended periods of time, with a view to a possible permanent “Covenant.” Krato didn’t use the word “vow,” of course, because vows are governed by the Code of Canon Law and Archdiocesan oversight would interfere with his grace as Founder. Notwithstanding its non-canonical status, however, Peter managed to impose the concept of these promises with a feat of verbal gymnastics that I am unable to replicate, except to say that it communicated Krato’s belief that, if anything, such a promise would be “spiritually” if not “formally” even more binding on our souls than the vow of a cloistered religious.

To review methods and disciplines in other (real) groups, many of which are variations on a theme of manipulation known to cultish or abusive groups of every description, I recommend looking at the sites of ex-LC/RC folks, such as ReGAIN and Life-after-RC.

[CE Editor’s Note: This series of articles is adapted from a series previously published on Debra Murphy’s blog and is used by permission.]


Catholic novelist ("The Mystery of Things") and publisher of Idylls Press, founded in 2005 with the mission of "publishing the Catholic imagination."

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  • jmtfh

    Ms. Murphy,

    Very insightful article!

    Actually, this also describes addicts to a tee, too. The description you provide is clearly my former husband’s modus operandus. Anytime a person fools himself to think he/she is just fine and it is everyone else who has the problem, they are living a life of deceit and lying begins to become their reality somehow. Soon the truth and the lies become indistinguishable.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    “the extraction of ‘vows’ or ‘promises’ from recruits, sometimes at a too-early age, which by Canon Law should be under the regulation of the local bishop or the Vatican, but are not.”

    One thing I learned in studying to be an NFP teacher were some teachings of John Paul II that seem troubling on the surface, most notably that a married man can commit adultery with his own wife if his intentions or actions are immoral. But on further reflection, this teaching becomes clear, especially when placed in the context of a vow — which in Holy Matrimony is unequivocally a vow, properly subject to the authority of the diocesan Ordinary. In Matrimony (at least under the Latin Rite), each of the betrothed actually administers the Sacrament to the other — including the vows — and these vows are witnessed by the Deacon, Priest, or Bishop, preferably in the context of the Mass. But notwithstanding the vows, neither spouse may licitly command, or even request, that the other do anything immoral. Such immoral commands or requests carry no weight of authority. They are void, except perhaps in the mind of the recipient thereof.

    This should instruct each of us in understanding all formal professions and vows into which any religious or lay person might enter. Certainly it is valid for a person to voluntarily take on as a formal vow the dictates of a moral Rule of Life and to voluntarily submit to going above and beyond the minimum required for living a moral life by means of the vow. However, even when living under such a vow, no religious authority may licitly make immoral commands or requests, even if such commands or requests appear to fall under the rubric of the formal vow. This is why proper formation on the part of the one taking such a vow is paramount, for how can anyone distinguish objectively between a moral and an immoral command if his catechetical formation is flawed? It is also the reason that every such vow, even those taken as part of the celebration of a Sacrament, must be taken under the ultimate authority of the diocesan bishop. The bishop is the primary Legislator in his diocese. He is himself, of course, properly to submit to the authority of the Pope and of the collection of all Bishops (i.e. the Magisterium). But in his diocese, his word is not just suggestion but law — and he is answerable for that law before the Magisterium, before the Pope, and before God. Just as importantly, the bishop must make that law known publicly, or else no one knows to follow it. In practice, this forces him to answer for that law before the whole of the Church in his diocese. It is a terrible burden — which is one more reason to pray for our bishops.

    Moreover, when vows are transparently subject to the authority f the bishop, those who enter into those vows have recourse to the bishop in cases where immoral commands and requests are made under the context of the vow. This transparency is the ultimate guarantor of lawfulness. Moreover, such transparency also protects the reputations both of the organization that administers vows and of their members. It’s really no different from having at least two people deposit the parish collections in the bank. Everyone, of course, trusts the two chosen to make the deposits, but with the witness of honesty of each to the other, each has an extra guarantee of the goodness of his reputation. Anyone who wanted to smear the reputation of either not only has to credibly accuse one but also impeach the good word of the other. In other words, transparency protects everyone, even when no direct appeal to the authority of the bishop is actually made.

    Returning to the larger point, however, it is critical that every one of the faithful have a proper formation in order to objectively distinguish between moral and immoral commands. Immoral commands and requests made under the auspices of a valid and licit vow are always void, except perhaps in the mind of those on the receiving end. But if the vow is transparent, then at least those who are such issued immoral commands have recourse to the diocesan Ordinary in order to assert the immorality of the command or request and to demand that the issuer thereof answer before the bishop — and before the Church, if necessary — to justify morality the command or request.

  • Samwise

    About the silence and secrecty of cult like organizations or orders…what about Opus Dei…? It seems to me that they are shrouded in secrecy and are almost an elitist kind of organization and yet they have been embraced by the Church. I don’t think there has ever been even a hint of scandal touching them but…their secret ways have always disturbed me…Sam

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Secrecy in Opus Dei? That makes no sense. There was a discussion on Catholic Exchange a few years ago about the formal structure of Opus Dei, in which I — and outsider — offered insights to a member of Opus Dei within these fora. One distinguishing characteristic of secret organizations is that such an inside-out instruction is impossible because outsiders have no access to the closely guarded secrets in order to discuss them meaningfully. Indeed, almost every characteristic of Opus Dei is open to the ready examination of anyone interested, just b going to their website ( One more point: Opus Dei actively encourages devotions of St. Josemaria outside the context of Opus Dei. This might lead some to affirm that of course they would: after all encouraging devotion to the founder helps further the ends of the organization. But this observation misses a critical point: Opus Dei cannot, by definition, enforce any authority over outsiders who find recourse in a devotion to St. Josemaria. Such outsiders actually bring a healthy transparency to the organization because they can readily ask questions pertaining to the particular devotion without any recourse to the organization itself. In other words, the most likely place to take such questions is to one’s pastor at the local parish, or a fellow layman in the pews. The organization therefore lacks the kind of absolute control that LC/RC has seemed to prefer.

    Now, the mainstream media and heterodox Catholics all dislike Opus Dei because of their transparent embrace of Magisterial Authority. Therefore, they have invented a moniker of secrecy that doesn’t really stick.

  • Mary Kochan

    NFPdad, there actually were some problems and abuses, including secrecy, recruitment pressures and violations of freedom of conscience of people in Opus Dei many years ago and there certainly was scandal because of it. Observers questioned whether the problems were localized or systemic. I will tell you that the initial response of Opus Dei was problematic — it consisted of denial along with casting aspersions on those who complained. A number of people familiar with cultism quite boldly told the Opus Dei leadership that if you don’t want to be considered a cult, you have to stop acting like one. Opus Dei reformed its methods to become a healthy organization, and I haven’t heard of recent problems — although I admit that I have many other irons in the fire besides trying to keep up with Opus Dei.

  • mamamull

    We have adopted a son who was almost 5 years old – he has attachment disorder.

    He has characteristics of both pathologies. He has not had a moral sense of honesty for most of his life – still lies as easily as he breathes.

    He is not guilt tolerant – it is never his fault. Everthing is always caused by someone else wno caused this innocent to get in trouble.

    He doesn’t think he should be treated with the same rules as others – even though he can treat us poorly. Sigh!

    His level of empathy is shallow at the least. He mostly tries to fake being normal. He is very concerned about appearance and shallow things.

    He doesn’t mind us eating after him – but he would NEVER eat after someone else.

    At the age of four he asked me if I had put broken glass in the pancakes – he had a sore throat. What child would even consider such a thing at the age of four?

    He has also been suicidal – I had him admitted at the age of 6 into a pediatric psych ward to get him on antidepressants. He was on other psych meds – but antidpressants are hard to have dispensed for a kid. Being inpatient was the best way for him to have enough supervision.

    I keep praying that we can change his possibilty of being a serial killer by the time he grows up – seriously.

    Under the mercy,

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