Update: Letter to the Senators on the Judiciary Committee Concerning the Confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett

In an AP article written about Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court and her involvement with the People of Praise, Vice President Mike Pence was quoted from a television interview as saying, “The intolerance expressed during her last confirmation about her Catholic faith I really think was a disservice to the process and a disappointment to millions of Americans.”

In this blog, I assert that the issue is really not about religion, or about Catholicism, or religious freedom, but rather a legal issue: undue influence. This is the subject of my doctoral research which is focused on offering a scientifically validated instrument to help ascertain if undue influence has been exerted.

The Encyclopedia of Elder Care (2018) offers five models for evaluating undue influence that takes place within the geriatric population. The fifth is brainwashing expert Margaret Singer’s model. Singer was an expert on undue influence and served as an expert witness many times. For some outstanding resources, including the Borchard Foundation’s comprehensive 2010 report on Undue Influence, as well as, details of California’s 2014 law in to protect elderly from undue influence, please see The California Elder Justice Coalition web page on undue influence. This page contains not only the California Welfare and Institutions Code §15610.70 law but other important documents, including a scientific screening tool developed to aid those empowered to ascertain undue influence and take steps to protect them.

The “Thought Reform” or “Cult” Model of Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D. (ABA Commission on Law and Aging & APA, 2008)–Dr. Singer’s model of thought reform was developed from her work on Chinese brainwashing programs of the 1950’s, as well as, the tactics used by cults and cult leaders. The model is based upon the following six stages: creating isolation, fostering a siege mentality, inducing dependency, promoting a sense of powerlessness, manipulating fears and vulnerabilities, and keeping the victim unaware and uninformed. The specific tactics are:

(a) to keep the person unaware of what is going on and what changes are taking place;

(b) to control the victim’s time and, if possible, physical environment;

(c) to create a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency;

(d) to suppress much of the person’s old behavior and attitudes;

(e) to instill new behavior and attitudes; and

(f) to put forth a closed system of logic, allowing no real input or criticism.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association Version 5 (DSM-V) has a category recognizing coercive persuasion or thought reform–Dissociative Disorders: Not Otherwise Specified 300.15 (F44.89) (American Psychiatric Association. (2013). It states that “Identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion is recognized in the DSM-V for who have been subjected to intense coercive persuasion (e.g., brainwashing, thought reform, indoctrination while captive, torture, and long-term political imprisonment. It has also been applied to those who have been recruited by sects/cults or by terror organizations) and present with prolonged changes in, or conscious questioning of, their identity” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

This blog features video interviews with two former long-term members of the People of Praise, as well as, a Catholic attorney who also believes the issue is authoritarianism and not a religious one.

In my opinion, freedom of religion should never be used as an excuse to force beliefs and practices on individuals to make them dependent and obedient to a human institution of any kind. Back in 1974, at the age of 19, when approached by Moonie recruiters, I was told lies that later intruded upon my freedom of religion as a Jew. Cult recruiters sincerely and persuasively looked me straight in my eyes and said their group was not religious. But, before long, I was being recruited and indoctrinated into believing that Sun Myung Moon was the Messiah and far greater than Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or anyone in history. Looking back, my human rights were infringed upon as there was a lack of what the law deems so essential–informed consent. It was a systematic social influence process by an authoritarian group. I was later told that Satan was the “god of this world” and God needed to lie in order to fulfill the mission of turning earth into the Garden of Eden- the way it was supposed to be. I had no idea Moon had been married before, nor that he had been arrested, nor that people accused him of sleeping with many women. Nor did I know Moon taught the Holocaust was necessary because the Jews did not accept Jesus. It was not until years later, after I nearly died after sleep deprivation and a terrible van crash, that I contacted my sister which led to a deprogramming. Learning about Chinese communist brainwashing criteria, as described in psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, helped me realize I had not been thinking for myself.

My story is not unique. There are thousands of destructive authoritarian groups that use freedom of religion as an excuse to teach and control members however the leadership commands. Many require lifetime commitments or contracts and punish those that leave or break them. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses fit the BITE model of Authoritarian Control. This model is based on the work of Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, Edgar Schein and others. I have written about my concerns and published a BITE model analysis of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower organization presents their beliefs and practices to new members in a positive light and does not properly inform them of all of the rules and consequences. For instance, many that join are not aware that if you change your mind, you may be “disfellowshipped” or kicked out, resulting in being shunned by former members, including friends and family. They do not allow members to accept whole blood transfusions or RBC, WBC, platelets or plasma. But, again, this is not told to you before you are asked to commit your life. For those born into the group, they are pressured to get baptized at a young age, even as young as eight years old. Baptism is considered a dedicated commitment (a contract per se) that has consequences for breaking. And ex-members cannot legally sue the organization for damages because they are considered by the IRS to be a religion, and as such, is protected.

I wish to clarify my stance and my framework: Freedom of Mind is for religious freedom but to have real freedom of mind, you need informed consent and the freedom to question group leaders, talk to former members, learn new information, and change your mind and leave without fear, threats, or harassment. Families should not be torn apart, which is what exactly happens if shunning policies are in place. Needless to say, these practices are not Biblical in their application, according to theologians I have consulted.

The law needs to better understand undue influence. It is very concerning to me and others that Amy Coney Barrett has been nominated to the Supreme Court, the highest court of our land. She is reportedly a member of the People of Praise (POP) which employ specific behaviors and disturbing patterns of authoritarian mind control. I have spoken with former members, researchers, journalists, and attorneys about this organization. I will be publishing a follow-up article evaluating this group in terms of the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, as ex-members are doing an analysis and I will have a panel discussion.

I was interviewed by the Associated Press for the article, “Barrett tied to faith group ex-members say subjugates women” and went on record stating that the culture within the People of Praise creates fear so that people remain obedient and dependent. “A person who is in one of these groups has to suppress their own thoughts, feelings, desires that doesn’t align with the dogma.”

This group reportedly requires a lifetime covenant commitment, requires wives and children to be submissive to their husbands, promotes fear of losing God’s grace and hellfire, allows and even encourages corporal punishment of children and wives, engages in forced exorcisms, shuns former members, and more. I am told they take advantage of single mothers and the disadvantaged and recruit them to join, after showering them with help and love. Again, comparing them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is a well-known tactic of cults. JW’s are known for “love-bombing” new members. They “encourage” single-mothers and direct their message towards the uneducated and impoverished.

I have been told that if a wife is approached by her husband (her “head”) for sex, she does not have the right to refuse. (See later discussion for the concept of “heads” in this cult: all persons have a “head” who makes decisions for them, so a husband is the wife’s “head” and a senior member of the cult is the husband’s “head”.) This results in rape–a crime in the United States. And, sadly, there has even been reports of suicide. This is why there is such concern about Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. While she is reportedly a brilliant legal scholar, and an excellent professor, there is a huge disconnect with how she could even affiliate with this conservative misogynistic group. It would be reassuring to hear her denounce the practices of the People of Praise. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for women’s rights and equality. The rights of women that Judge Ginsburg fought for will not be served if Judge Barrett is confirmed. It is my hope that the media and members of the Judiciary committee will do their homework before their turn to question Judge Barrett begins on October 12th. To understand more about this group, it is important to talk to former members that have lived it.

I recently interviewed two former members of the People of Praise, Coral Anika Theill and Lisa Williams. Their interviews are below, along with attorney Frank L. Cocozzelli. Frank shares my concerns about Amy’s nomination to the Supreme Court. There are a lot of unanswered questions. If these concerns were not legitimate, why did the PoP website scrub all references to Amy and her husband? Further research including interviewing former members who have left the group more recently will be very important. At least one former member I have interviewed, who is afraid to be public, has told me that there are many other former members but they are afraid to speak out. They are afraid of harassment. They are afraid to be cut off by family and friends who are still active members, talk to friends and family of current members, and apply the BITE model in order to come to a fair and informed conclusion. “While People of Praise portrays itself as a tight knit family of families, former members paint a darker picture of that closeness.”


Coral is a former member of the People of Praise, an author, advocate speaker and military reporter. She is also a domestic violence, rape, and ritual abuse victim and survivor and has spent the last couple decades writing and assisting trauma survivors and wounded warriors.

She was a member of the Vine & Branches community in 1979-1981 and People of Praise Community from 1982-1984 under the leadership of FATHER CHARLES HARRIS from the People of Praise community in South Bend. The Corvallis, Oregon Vine & Branches Community formally became the PEOPLE OF PRAISE community in 1982. They were under the discipleship of Paul & Jeanne DeCelles and Bud & Sharon Rose from the PEOPLE OF PRAISE COMMUNITY in South Bend. Bud & Sharon Rose and their family lived in Corvallis, Oregon, while they became the Corvallis, Oregon, People of Praise community branch.


To Learn More About Coral:

The AP article gives a nice summation of her experience in the group (please watch our interview below for a more detailed discussion.)

Coral Anika Theill joined People of Praise’s branch in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1979, when she was a 24-year-old mother of 6-month-old twins.

“My husband at the time was very drawn to it because of the structure of the submission of women,” recounted Theill, who is now 65.

Theill, who converted to Catholicism after getting married, said in her People of Praise community women were expected to live in “total submission” not only to their husbands, but also the other male “heads” within the group.

In a book she wrote about her experience, Theill recounts that in People of Praise every consequential personal decision — whether to take a new job, buy a particular model car or choose where to live — went through the hierarchy of male leadership. Members of the group who worked outside the community had to turn over their paystubs to church leaders to confirm they were tithing correctly, she said.

Theill says her “handmaid,” to whom she was supposed to confide her innermost thoughts and emotions, then repeated what she said to the male heads, who would consult her husband on the proper correction.

“There’d be open meetings where you just have to stand for the group and they’d tell you all that was wrong with you,” Theill recounted to the AP last week. “And I would ask questions. I was a critical thinker.”

When she told her husband, she wanted to wait to have more children, Theill said, he accompanied her to gynecological appointments to ensure she couldn’t get birth control.

“I was basically treated like a broodmare,” she said, using the term for a female horse used for breeding. During her 20-year marriage, Theill had eight children from 11 pregnancies.

Theill, who says she declined to take the covenant, described being dominated and eventually shunned because of the doubts she expressed about the group.

Authoritarian groups control members and make it hard to leave. This was Coral’s experience. When asked why she just did not leave, she responded by saying the leaders did not let her. Instead, she was humiliated, publicly shamed, put on the floor outside of meetings. She was pushed into a car after suffering a miscarriage and a DNC surgical operation to be interrogated by cult leaders until the wee early hours of the morning when she was supposed to be on bed rest. She must not have answered correctly, because the next morning, her husband got a call and the entire community were ordered so shun her. They turned her own children against her. And changed the narrative to blame her by calling her crazy and mentally ill. This was classic parental alienation, where one parent leaves and the other indoctrinated parent in an authoritarian group turns their children against them.

Lisa Williams in 1979 at a Bible camp run by People of Praise
Lisa Williams said her parents joined the Minnesota branch of People of Praise in the late 1970s, when she was a fourth grader. She chronicled her experience in a blog entitled, “I grew up in a Bible cult and it ruined our family.”
(Technically, Lisa was in another covenantal community with similar abuses that folded or was taken over by PoP. But the group was the same with the same leaders. They all went to Notre Dame for the meetings through the 70’s. The name changed in the 80’s. “It was definitely the same group because it was the same people. It’s like being a Catholic but going to a different parish; it’s all the same religion out of Rome.”
(Please watch our interview below where she talks in great detail about what life was like for her in this group, along with her concerns.)
My framework is for religious freedom and freedom of mind. My family have been involved with a Jewish Temple community for over twenty years. I like to pray, sing, chant, study Torah and support and encourage people to pursue their spirituality.
Is People of Praise associated with other groups? If a wife must take direction from her husband, he has a “head” and he has a “head” above him. What happens if Barrett is told what she should do concerning a legal case? She presumably has signed a lifetime oath of obedience. So she cannot disobey her husband even though as a judge she has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution. Catholic writer Frank L. Cocozzelli recently wrote an article for the Daily Kos and shared his concerns: A Catholic’s Case Against Amy Coney Barrett. He addresses a big question: Would Associate Justice Barrett use her position to deny religious freedom to others?
Members are asked to make a lifetime vow, donate lots of money, and follow specific dogmatic rules under fear of consequences such as shunning. I sincerely doubt they have been educated about brainwashing techniques of cults, models of undue influence or told that long term members have left and written critical articles against the group. Former twelve year member and professor Adrian Reimers, who read my book Combating Cult Mind Control many years ago and cites it in his book, wrote this book: Not Reliable Guides: An analysis of some covenant community structures.
I predict that the leadership of the People of Praise would not wish any member to know about this book, much less read it. Yet, one question that could be asked of Judge Barrett during the confirmation hearing in the Senate is, “Why haven’t you read this book?”
More research needs to be done and I hope to hear from more former members. I hope to have a forthcoming article, possibly even panel discussion, and BITE model of authoritarian control analysis for the People of Praise. If you recently left this group, please reach out and contact us. By continuing to educate and make the public aware of these issues, we can demand a change in the law which will protect future generations from being subjected to the dangerous and unhealthy influence of destructive cults.

Interview with Coral Annika Thiell

Interview with Lisa Williams

Interview with Frank L. Cocozzelli

Additional viewing:

ABC (Australia) documentary on Opus Dei-run school

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