From its offices here in a Chicago suburb, the network (known as CAN) answered more than 350 telephone inquiries a week, counseled relatives at conferences attended by thousands, and gave news interviews to everyone from small-town daily newspapers to "Nightline."
As CAN's influence rose, so did the ire of its foes, who were furious at being depicted as dangerous cults.
In particular, Church of Scientology members fought CAN with a barrage of lawsuits. One high-stakes suit, handled by a lawyer who has frequently represented the church, succeeded, and a jury ordered CAN to pay as much as $1.8 million. The group filed for bankruptcy.
Now CAN's assets are up for sale, and last week its name, logo, Post Office box and telephone number were finally sold to the highest bidder: a Los Angeles lawyer named Steven L. Hayes, who is a Scientologist. Hayes says he is working with a group of people "united in their distaste for CAN" who plan to reopen the group so it "disseminates the truth about all religions."
"It kind of boggles the mind," said David Bardin, an attorney who has represented CAN in Washington. "People will still pick up the CAN name in a library book and call saying, `My daughter has joined the Church of Scientology.' And your friendly CAN receptionist is someone who works for Scientology."
It is a turn of events applauded by the Church of Scientology, whose literature calls CAN "a hate group in the tradition of the KKK and the neo-Nazis." The Rev. Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, said in an interview: "I just don't think a hate organization has a right to operate in America with impunity, and obviously the courts feel the same way."
Hostile takeovers are nothing new in the corporate world, but this is an exceptional tale of the hostile takeover of a nonprofit organization. The anti-cult advocacy group is gradually being dismembered and absorbed by its adversaries, who attorneys say have deftly outmaneuvered CAN in the courts.
CAN's fate also highlights the crippled state of what was once a prominent nationwide movement that for years kept America's unorthodox religious groups on the defensive. For years CAN's charges of cult mind-control and brainwashing helped shape the public's impressions of groups like Scientology, the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, Boston Church of Christ, Transcendental Meditation and others.
But with each passing decade, these religious groups have become increasingly mainstream and even institutionalized -- opening new houses of worship, buying universities and other properties, attending interfaith events. Now it is the anti-cult camp that no longer has an institution of its own.
Next up for auction could be 270 boxes of CAN files that former staffers say are stuffed with confidential information about current and former cult members, efforts to extricate them and private testimonies of anguish and abuse. Kendrick L. Moxon, the lawyer who has frequently represented Scientologists, is actively pursuing a purchase of these files, says the trustee handling the bankruptcy.
"The fear [is] that this list of information could be bought by the highest bidder," said Bob Grosswald, a Long Island dental supply salesman who contacted CAN when his son joined the Church of Scientology. "And could only be used to harass people, to make people feel uncomfortable, and to further damage the relationships people have to family members still inside these cults. How a court could even consider selling such a thing is beyond me."
The modern anti-cult movement was born in the 1960s when American youth were experimenting with Eastern religions and alternative spirituality. The Citizens Freedom Foundation, CAN's predecessor, became a nonprofit group in 1978, the year that 913 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones died in a mass suicide at the People's Temple compound in Guyana. In 1986 the group changed its name to CAN. The next year, Cynthia Kisser, who had turned to CAN when her younger sister joined an obscure Bible-based group, was named executive director.
From its suite on the ground floor of a Tudor-style building it shared with a few accountants, CAN took telephone inquiries from around the world about hundreds of controversial groups. Every request for help, whether from a relative or reporter, a congressman or police officer, was logged and filed. Aside from Satanic groups, more callers asked about Scientology than about any other group, according to a 1992 telephone log that CAN supplied to Congressional Quarterly.
But CAN did not just supply information. It also gave some parents references to self-styled "deprogrammers," whom CAN maintained were skilled at extricating devotees from cults by systematically challenging cult teachings and undermining beliefs. But there were repeated cases of deprogrammers convicted for using force or other criminal means to wrest their targets away from the cults. The CAN board articulated a policy advocating only "legal methods" of deprogramming, but the stigma of associating with criminals left CAN vulnerable to its detractors.
The Scientology magazine Freedom last year devoted a special issue to CAN, headlined: "The serpent of hatred, intolerance, violence and death." An inside story called CAN's executive director Kisser "the mother of the serpent" and purported to expose her past as a topless dancer, which she has denied. The magazine highlighted alleged deprogramming excesses and quoted scholars defending new religions such as Scientology. "The time has come to do something about the Cult Awareness Network and its anti-religious crusade," Freedom concluded. "This organization has plagued the American people for too long."
Beginning in 1991, CAN and its local affiliates and staff were hit with a series of lawsuits filed by several dozen members of the Church of Scientology and others. In one week in 1992, Scientologists filed 12 suits against CAN, Kisser said. "I'd open the door, a process server would hand me a suit, I'd say thank you, close the door, fax it to the attorney," said Kisser, a thin, intense woman who speaks at a machine-gun clip. "Then another knock would come on the door. It was ridiculous."
Most of the suits were civil rights claims, according to attorneys on both sides. People who identified themselves in the lawsuits as Scientologists alleged that the group denied them membership or participation in CAN conferences. Others sued because CAN would not allow them to volunteer in its national office here. Some self-identified Scientologists sued after they attempted to form local CAN chapters and use the CAN letterhead, and the national CAN office refused to recognize them. Kisser said many of these were "cookie-cutter lawsuits," in which only the plaintiff's name was changed.
Moxon, whose law firm filed many of the suits against CAN, said: "What would you do if you had a religious belief and somebody was intentionally trying to destroy your church and destroy your belief and destroy your family? I'm a lawyer. People hired me to go to court and vindicate their rights. What could they be expected to do when there's somebody out there who's bent on destroying them?"
Many of these lawsuits were dismissed, but CAN was cannibalizing its $300,000 annual budget to defend itself, and the five-member staff, only one of whom worked full time, grew increasingly absorbed by the litigation, Kisser said. What's more, she said, CAN's insurance carrier refused to renew its policy because of all the lawsuits, and no other insurer would agree to cover the group.
CAN struck back in 1994 with a counter-suit against the Church of Scientology, 11 individual Scientologists and the Los Angeles law firm of Bowles and Moxon. The group's "malicious harassment" suit alleged that the Church of Scientology orchestrated the filing of 45 unfounded and frivolous lawsuits in an attempt to drive CAN into bankruptcy. CAN's suit was dismissed by the Cook County Circuit Court, but an appeal is pending in the Illinois Supreme Court.
The lawsuit that succeeded in driving CAN into bankruptcy involved an 18-year-old from Bellevue, Wash., named Jason Scott. In 1991, Scott's mother hired a "cult deprogrammer" and two assistants in an attempt to get him to renounce his membership in the Life Tabernacle Church, a Pentecostal group.
Scott alleged in the suit that he was kidnapped for five days at a beach house, handcuffed, gagged with tape and forced to watch videotapes about religious cults. Scott feigned conversion, and when his deprogrammers took him to a restaurant, he ran off and went to police. In late 1993, the county prosecutor brought charges against the deprogrammer, who was acquitted.
But the case lived on in civil court. The lawyer who took the case on Scott's behalf was Moxon, a Scientologist and a frequent attorney for the church in high-profile cases, who has been sued by CAN for allegedly filing malicious lawsuits.
This time, Scott sued not only the deprogrammer and his two assistants, but also CAN. Scott maintained the woman who referred his mother to the deprogrammer did so as a local CAN volunteer. The Scott case essentially put the anti-cult movement on trial. Testifying for the prosecution, Anson Shupe, a sociologist at Indiana-Purdue University, told the jury that CAN's persecution of Scientology was born of the same irrational bigotry that Americans earlier directed toward Baptists, Methodists, Irish Catholics, Jews and Mormons.
"Are you saying the anti-cult movement is a cult?" Moxon asked. "It has aspects of it, yes," Shupe replied. A jury found all the defendants liable and awarded Scott more than $4 million in damages. CAN was ordered to pay as much as $1.8 million; the group has appealed.
Paul Lawrence, an attorney for CAN, acknowledges that Scott suffered an "unfortunate" deprogramming attempt. But CAN "did not deserve to be swept up" in the case because the volunteer who referred Scott's mother to the deprogrammer did so without CAN's knowledge, he said.
"It is extremely unusual for a nonprofit organization to be hit with punitive damages based on the actions of a volunteer member," said Lawrence, who is president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state. "This is a dangerous precedent for a wide range of nonprofit associations. . . . Most nonprofits have tens or thousands of members out there acting in a way that the nonprofits can't hope to monitor."
Several nonprofit groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case.
In the meantime, CAN filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 1995, hoping to develop a reorganization plan that would allow it to keep operating while pursuing the appeal. CAN's main creditor is Jason Scott. Moxon, Scott's lawyer, contested CAN's plan in bankruptcy court, and the judge refused to approve it. In an attempt to protect its assets, CAN filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last June, which meant that it transferred control of its assets to an independent trustee.
The trustee is Philip R. Martino, a plain-speaking Chicago attorney. "CAN doesn't exist," Martino said in an interview. "Whatever power CAN had is now mine."
The CAN staffers were last in their office here on June 22, when Martino phoned to say he was coming over. He brought a locksmith who changed the locks. He told the staff to take only their personal belongings and leave. Kisser took photographs of her son and her collection of turtle statues given to her over the years by supporters as a reminder to "go slow and stick your neck out." She was not allowed to remove her nine appointment diaries; Martino considered them CAN assets.
Martino sold CAN's name and logo, telephone number and P.O. box -- the essence of its identity -- along with CAN's office furniture and computers (stripped of their hard drives) for $20,000. CAN tried to contest the sale, but dropped the attempt this week after the judge required the group to post a $30,000 bond first. Martino says he put CAN's name-brand assets on the auction block only because Kisser herself asked to buy them. Her highest bid was $19,000.
"I have an asset to sell. It's a name," Martino said. "I sell it to the highest bidder. What the bidder does with it is not my concern. It can't be my concern. Congress didn't make it my concern. And if I made it my concern, I would be rewriting the bankruptcy law."
The attorney who bought CAN's identity, Steven Hayes, said in an interview that he represents a group of several people he cannot name without "permission." He said they put up money of their own and money "from this country and other places." Hayes said he is a Scientologist, not an employee of the Church of Scientology. Hayes also had sued CAN in the early 1990s on behalf of several Scientologists who wanted to attend CAN's national conference, according to CAN attorneys.
Hays said his group intends to revamp CAN so that "religions that have been attacked in the past would have an opportunity to at least show what they believe the truth to be."
The anti-cult movement has now turned to the Internet to share information. A small meeting of anti-cult activists gathered at a Newark hotel earlier this month to discuss how best to carry on the cause, but the meeting was marred when a coterie of Scientologists showed up uninvited, several participants say. Cynthia Kisser is suing the Church of Scientology for libel. She says she was never a topless dancer.
Scientologist Jentzsch, for his part, says that Kisser is "in the business of spreading the bubonic plague, and she feels bad that someone stopped her."
Little remains of CAN now but 600 feet worth of files. CAN's trustee, Martino, says that Moxon has already mentioned his interest in bidding for those. Martino said he won't sell the files until names and personal information are removed, a process that he estimates will cost about $50,000, to be paid by the buyer.
People who were heavily involved with CAN could ask to have their names removed, Martino said.
"Scientology will pay anything to get their hands on those files," said Robert Vaughan Young, a former Scientologist who served as a church spokesman for 20 years before he quit and became a church critic.
"We always figured that CAN was the nexus for all the rest of the problems [Scientology had]," he said. "So the idea of getting the files is similar to the KGB being able to buy the files of the CIA."