Cults are known as spiritual or religious movements which develop outside of mainstream religions. Over the decades, the term has taken on a negative connotation, since many of these religious groups are often characterized by an extremist and a radicalizing doctrine and have been alleged of crimes against their own adepts, including coercion, sex abuse, human trafficking, and blackmailing. In the collective imagination, indeed, cults and deviated sects are synonyms for closure to the outside world and rejection of the conventional lifestyle, but also for brain-washing, foul rituals, deception, and mind control aimed at taming the adept at the will of the group leader and extorting money.

Nevertheless, setting speculations aside, the seriousness of such allegations pushes for a well-defined legal framework on the cults’ status and criminal accountability, as well as proper tackling and prevention measures, for the sake of victims and people at risk within a given cult.’

Cults are a world-scale phenomenon and an increasing number of new religious groups are developing and proselytizing everywhere in the world, including in Europe. Since the 1990s, national states, such as Belgium, France, Austria, and Germany have been developing observatories and information-gathering centers. In other countries, different NGOs, such as the Italian Association of the Victims of the Cults (Associazione Italiana Vittime delle Sette) promote awareness and assist cult victims. France and Belgium, in particular, have adopted ad hoc legal frameworks with respect to cults and crimes allegeable to such groups. The establishment of legal regulation on cults, however, has been hindered since the very beginning by the difficulty to conceptually define a cult and identify the phenomenon. In secular France, as well as in many EU countries, the concept of a cult is de facto unknown in national law.

Moreover, every state striving to create laws limiting cults’ unlawful activities must make sure to legislate in compliance with the principle of religious freedom and prohibition of state interference in religious beliefs, guaranteed by the Declaration on Human Rights and the respective national constitution. As a matter of fact, the spiritual or religious nature of cults is not a crime. Predictably, cults have been exploiting these principles in order to weaken and discredit states’ law-making attempts which are deemed as detrimental to their existence and functioning and the Unification Church condemned the new French anti-cult as fascist, undemocratic, and inadequate by the new French anti-cult law. The bill introduced a new crime of “mental manipulation,” understood as deliberate psychological pressure altering a person’s judgement against his/her interests, and allowing, among other things, the dissolution of any cult or sect in case their members are alleged for criminal behaviour.

Importantly, the French law is an example of how, in the European law tradition, state legal action against a cult has frequently been taken as a lawful response to a crime committed against individuals within the operating system of the religious group. Therefore, the religious freedom principle is not compromised, as the legal measure is taken in the best interest of the affected individuals, while the cult itself, found accountable for crimes against adepts, is recognised by law as “systemically guilty.” Beside legislative experimentation at a national level, European states have shown their intention to upgrade legal instrument of cult regulation by bringing their concerns to the broader EU institutions’ attention. The need for EU-level regulation and cooperation in addressing the issue was motivated, first of all, by the increasingly transnational character of cults, their international ramification, and international crimes identified by Europol.

The European Parliament Resolution on cults in Europe from 29th February 1996, called for EU states to take action (also revoking the cult status in case of involvement in criminal activities) and develop coordination action in form of vigilance, law implementation, and information exchange. However, the document still lacked a legal definition of a cult, as the meaning of the term itself is uncertain and it has a negative connotation in many European languages. As a matter of fact, the Resolution represented the first acknowledgement of the relevance of cults’ criminal accountability issue for the safety of EU citizens, but it had not been translated into any innovative legal practice.

The discussion continued with the 1997 Report on cults in the European Union, initiated by the EP Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs, which basically deepened the analysis started by the 1996 Resolution. Again, the Report underlined the absence of a legal definition of a cult and the importance of protection by law the freedom of religion, conscience, opinion, association, and assembly in compliance with international and EU law. Significantly, it was strongly suggested to forbid to draw up a list of cults in order not to jeopardize such freedoms. It was reiterated that state legal intervention in cult issues is lawful only with respect to the “problematic aspects of cults and in connection with their specific activities, if they affect people’s physical and mental integrity or social and financial standing, taking action (…) while fully respecting fundamental civil rights.” Moreover, standard criteria for the protection of the individual are to be implemented also on the basis of the existing EU consumer protection law. However, the problematic legal loophole of the “psychological services” offered by the cult still needs to be properly addressed. Lastly, the Report pushed for the enhancement of educational prevention tools (to be addressed, in particular, to at-risk youngsters) and transnational cooperation through shared databanks, observatories, and information agencies. Such needs for joint information efforts were also pointed out by the 1999 Report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

What is more, it was not deemed as necessary to establish a common European policy or to set up a special European agency against cults. This is the clearest demonstration of how the idea of a specific EU legislation on cults has traditionally been rejected under the assumption that national law, backed up by EU-sponsored cooperation initiative, is sufficient to deter the criminal behaviour of many cult leaders and members.

Not by chance, the EU Council and the Commission have always replied in a lukewarm tone to any proposals on cult regulation coming from the European Parliament. Most recently, when in 2010 MEP Sergio Berlato addressed a parliamentary question concerning a possible involvement by the Commission in individual protection against cults’ criminal deeds, the Commission referred to general existing regulations on child abuse, human trafficking, etc, evidencing the lack of specific legislation addressing the cult issue.

In conclusion, in approaching cult criminal accountability, the EU has to deal with many legal vacuums, starting from the very legal definition of a cult and its status under the law. In any case, the EU is not likely to change its strategy any time soon, it is still reasonable to believe that a boost for legal inquiries, legal integration between domestic legislations, and properly designed regulations would contribute to better frame cults’ criminal accountability and amplify the possibility to implement more efficient prevention, victim protection, and sanction measures.

Edited by Stefan Pajović.

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