State Alarm

The 1998 Ministerial Report on “cults”

Are the media campaign and the legislative initiatives targeting some religious movements the product of an accurate and scientific analysis? Or, instead, are there special interests taking undue advantage from State structures for questionable purposes? And the State lends itself and contributes to amplify this alarm with questionable, to say the least, initiatives.

In February 1998, the Ministry of Interior drafted the much discredited report entitled “Religious cults and new magic movements in Italy”.

This initiative was not incidental and many and curious back stories could be told to explain the genesis of a similar measure, starting from the use of the term “cult” (sect) in a somewhat unproper way, compared to the original meaning of the word.

What is certain is that, if statistics have been collected and surveys have been done, there must have been some concern about the phenomenon of “cults”.

Was it justified concern or the results of a “propaganda campaign” that succeeded in generating a very precise market demand?

Whatever would the answer to that question – legitimate and almost spontaneous, would one want to analyze the historical events that lead to such a witticism by the Ministry of Interior – it happened that the Report, originally intended for internal use, a few days after its compilation it was released to the media, in a not at all mysterious and oddly rapid way .

In fact, the same office involved in the drafting of this report for internal use of the Ministry, immediately sent copies to the members of the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies. From there, to its appearance on  the media, the step has been very short.

The decision of publishing such a document – full of speculations, inaccuracies, undocumented and incomplete data, opinions and evaluations based on rumors and obsolete information – caused substantial damages to a number of religious groups and individuals.

Perhaps the upcoming Catholic Jubilee of 2000, in view of alarming news fabricated mainly by “anti-cult” propagandists, justified the need to publish a Government report to “assess” the existence of a “cults danger”.

It is a fact however that the choice of giving publicity to this document lacking any utility, has been convenient only to anti-cult groups and tabloid reports, certainly not for the freedom of religion and the security of the State.

The Report was repeatedly discredited as unreliable by scholars of religions, including Catholic ones, as in the case of “ CESNUR ” and it was made the subject of repeated parliamentary interrogations, such as that of the then Members of Parliament Maselli and Giovine, submitted already on 15th May 1998 .

However, the report itself, despite its alarming opening words […“media information (that) has increasingly drawn the attention to the dangers represented by the expansion of some sectarian groups accused of committing plagiarism …”] inspired by media reports of anti-sectarian source, and its contents, definitely unfavorable to any kind of non-traditional religious movement, signaled no imminent dangers and, among other things, stated: “considering that mythomaniacal and thoughtless individuals also exist – and in no lesser percentage – outside of religious movements” (page 14 of the report “Dangers and possible criminal implications in the activity of some movements”).

After repeated solicitations, Hon. Maselli got a reply to his interrogation during the session of the Permanent Commission of Constitutional Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies of Thursday 11th June 1998 (see mid-page 12), when he mentioned once again to Undersecretary Lucio Testa of the Ministry of Interior that although the report was intended “for internal use of the Ministry … the mass media had spread the contents of the document creating a public alarm”, so he wanted to “be reassured about the value to be attributed to this document”.

Undersecretary Lucio Testa, responded to the Member of Parliament making some distinctions, totally absent in the report, stating that: “the publication edited by the Ministry of Interior was nothing more than a study of movements dedicated to magical rites and mystery practices that take inspiration from principles other than those of the religious denominations as such.”

This raises the suspicion that perhaps Undersecretary Testa had not even read the report, since in the report there was no distinction made between “movements dedicated to magical rites and mystery practices” and other movements “that take inspiration from principles other than those of the religious denominations as such”. Indeed, excluding the Catholic Church, the Jewish Community and few other groups, the ministerial report spent very unflattering words for almost each group mentioned.

The Undersecretary also reassured the questioning Member of Parliament saying that “there were no major concerns about the indicated phenomena, which remain restricted to a phenomenology with a limited social capacity, much the less criminal.”

Reassured by the response of the deputy-Minister, member of parliament Maselli declared himself “fully satisfied with the response received, that, he believes, shall reassure all those who have read the dossier on religious cults” and he wished for the future the establishment “of a direct relationship with the leaders of these religious movements – thus avoiding the intervention of law enforcement – to to do a fact-finding survey, so as to exclude possible ambiguities of information about them.”

He concluded his reply by asking if it was “possible to schedule the bill # 2947, laying down rules on religious freedom, for next week, in order to conclude the general debate and set up a restricted Committee to be able to proceed to the hearings with the representatives of the religious denominations.”

Despite the reassuring words of Undersecretary Testa – poorly meeting the truth –, the member of parliament Maselli’s hopes remained frustrated. The Ministerial Report amplified the media alarm and created literally hundreds of print articles and TV reports that cited it as a reliable reference, as it was an official document of the Ministry of Interior reporting a “serious danger, a cults’ emergency”.

At the same time, the “direct relationship with the leaders of these religious movements” was not established as expected by Maselli. A direct relationship was instead established between that Ministry and the so-called anti-cult groups, and the “Bill #3847, laying down rules on religious freedom” remained a dead letter and disappeared from the parliamentary agenda.

However, it appeared clear that the contents of the Report had been fueled by the propaganda of the “anti-cult” groups, and this gave rise, as we have seen, to more than one official dispute, not least that of a lawsuit lodged by one of its victims that got awarded 50 millions of old lire in damages (decision of the Civil Court of Roma – Sealed General Role # 38334 of 16th June200).

In that legal case, the reasoning of the decision was also mentioning the “worthless scientific evaluations” and the “defamatory nature” of the Report and censored the responsibility of the Ministry for allowing the public disclosure of the Report itself.

Regarding the error of having publicly spread a defamatory internal document, in the attempt to challenge the counterparty’s arguments, the Ministry tried to explain to the judge that:

errore giudiziario

(English text)

“the report as such, was not as erroneously assumed by the plaintiff, “an official publication of the Ministry of Interior, but a document of study drafted for institutional aims by the Crime Prevention Police and written “for internal use only”;

Particularly, that it represented the compendium of a monitoring activity on “religious cults and new magical movements”, carried out to comply with a specific request for information received from the Government;

On this point the judge responded to tone, heavily censoring the statements of Ministry’s attorney:

Motivi decisione

(English text)


 Regarding the preliminary objection of the Ministry that the publication of the report in question was intended for internal use only, the same objection is belied by the fact that such a report has been reported and disseminated by ANSA wire service, thus with broad circulation at public level and then reported and widely circulated also by national newspapers as a document of the actor.

The judgment also states: «In fact, in this case the information is based on incorrect references to two “criminal records” of the plaintiff, completely irrelevant from the point of view of the personality of the plaintiff, and on negative and disparaging evaluations about the scientific nature of the psycho-therapeutic program organized by the plaintiff, evaluations that besides not having a scientific value, are also disproved by the documents produced on this point coming from official organizations whose reliability cannot be doubted».

A defamatory document, therefore, based on incorrect and irrelevant references, on negative and disparaging evaluations, lacking scientific value and surreptitiously spread when it was not supposed to be.

Moreover, one cannot fail to notice the participation – crucial for the preparation of the Report – of Cecilia Gatto Trocchi, an anthropologist who committed suicide in July 2005. On page 16, in fact, it is specified that the figures given for occultism, esotericism and Satanism were taken from “public polls directly conducted by the anthropologist and summarized in the collections ‘The money of the Devil’ (March 1989) and ‘News from the Mystery’ (February 1990)”.  Gatto Trocchi was defined as “an expert on cults” but she was in fact affiliated with the main advocacy Catholic “anti-cult” group called GRIS, i.e. “Group of Research and Information on Cults” or (as stated by the more modern version in use since ten years) “Group of Social-Religious Research and Information”, founded in 1987.

In a conference held in Rome on 12th December 2007 at the Pontifical Athenaeum “Regina Apostolorum”, organized by the “anti-cultists”, an officer of the Ministry of Interior openly and publicly declared that the data contained in the Report of February 1998 were old and outdated. This was nothing new, since that fact was known before, but never before such an official confirmation had come from the Ministry of Interior.

Despite being repeatedly refuted and discredited even in courtrooms, in the last fourteen years, the Report has been used to exasperation (curiously, even in the same conference in Rome mentioned here) to support the theory that “cults” would be dangerous. It is like asking the innkeeper if his wine is good, because, of course, those who flaunted it to the four winds (and that fed and propitiated it) were and are indeed those same “anti-cult” groups. 

Despite the criticisms, the ministerial justifications and the adverse rulings, the objections of scholars and politicians, in addition to not withdrawing the Report compiled “for internal use”, the Ministry did not apologize to anyone. Indeed, we shall see later how it stubbornly continued on the same road with other blamable initiatives.

Yet we are talking about spirituality, about beliefs different from those considered traditional or of movements that, although not fully known by a large part of the community, represent, for many people, a real life choice.

One ends to think about the alarming stories and the ungrounded accusations told about the early Christians in the fourth century “Amongst which atheism, charlatanism, magic and cannibalism” wrote professor Domingo Ramos-Lissòn of the University of Navarra, or those about the Albigenses, by the Vatican establishment of Pope Innocent III in 1209 – 1229,  rather than the Jews under Hitler’s regime in 1930s, or the ethnic minorities in Serbia by the government of Slobodan Milosevic just twenty years ago.

Historia magistra vitae? It seems not, as we shall see later.


21st May 2012