The Church Takes a Closer Look
n a warm afternoon in September 1994, Christopher West knocked on the door of a red brick building in Silver Spring. He was supposed to be in band practice at the Mother of God community, near Gaithersburg, but he'd told the guys he couldn't make it. "I have more important things to do," he had said.
A bespectacled nun answered the door and led him toward her office. She was Sister Elizabeth McDonough, an adviser to Cardinal James A. Hickey, the archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. An expert in church doctrine, McDonough had been asked by Hickey to look into the practices of Mother of God, a group founded in the 1960s, but which had only recently sought formal church recognition.
s he followed McDonough, West's mind tumbled with emotions. He knew that many of his fellow community members would regard his visit to the convent as an act of betrayal.
West had met the nun once before, two months earlier. He had visited her to outline some of the problems he saw with Mother of God, to which his family had belonged for seven years. The previous few months had been hard for West. His entire family had been talking among themselves about community practices they felt were wrong. These were numerous. Still, as they had talked, the West family had been unable to reach any overall conclusion.
On the first weekend in September, West had attended a Catholic conference in Pittsburgh. There he was struck anew by the contrast between the mainstream Catholic emphasis on individual dignity and the inner workings of Mother of God. He had returned home thinking hard, and praying for guidance.
He got up the Monday after the conference and opened his Bible. Fifty-four days earlier, as it happened, he had started reading the Book of Psalms, one chapter a day. Now he read from Psalms 55. The verses talked of evil done not by an enemy but by a friend. "We took sweet counsel together, and walked into the house of God in company," West read. But now the friend had "broken his covenant" and the psalmist cried out in lamentation:
The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.
The verses seemed to West to apply to the leaders of Mother of God, particularly Joseph Difato, who supervised many of the community's day-to-day operations, and Edith Difato, his mother and the community's co-founder. West felt the truth about the community was coming into sharp focus, but it was not easy to accept. "I've never grieved like I grieved yesterday over the reality of the Mother of God community," he wrote in his journal the next day. "I wish I was crazy. I wish I was wrong. I'm not." He foresaw "a crash." Couples would divorce, he predicted. Some people would lose their faith in God.
e called McDonough and made an appointment for Saturday, then spent the week fretting, unable to work, tossing and turning in bed at night.
At their earlier meeting, the nun had taped their conversation and afterward prepared a transcript. When he got to the convent that Saturday morning, West asked to read it. He sat alone in a convent room, marveling at how jumbled and imprecise his thinking had been just two months earlier.
When he finished, he put down the transcript and took a seat in McDonough's office. He leaned forward and looked her in the eye.
"It's a cult," he told her. "I've been living in a cult."
he chain of events leading to the breakup of Mother of God began with a request from the Difatos for recognition as a Catholic "private association of the faithful." Why they made this request is unclear-Mother of God had operated without official church approval for a long time.
The community won provisional recognition from the archdiocese by early 1993. Permanent status would require a review of the group's statutes and operations. Moreover, by early 1994, the archdiocese was picking up signals that something might be amiss at Mother of God. Enter McDonough, who began to operate as a kind of investigative nun.
The account that follows is drawn from interviews with more than 70 former community members, as well as outside specialists and church leaders. It is also based on more than 5,000 pages of internal community documents, in addition to speeches, videotapes and other materials. The Difatos, the family that led and controlled Mother of God for most of its existence, declined repeated requests for interviews. Joseph Difato issued a brief statement: "A newspaper article is not the proper place in which to air the religious differences which led to the division of the Mother of God community. Nor is it the place to comment on baseless allegations which inevitably surface during times of emotional stress and which were initiated by a handful of former community members. It is my hope that all those involved will move on with their lives with mutual respect and love."
By the time McDonough began her examination, many Mother of God members had begun to see problems inside their community. Some families had pulled away from active membership. Two families had written letters to the archdiocese outlining what they saw as the group's invasions of privacy and manipulative practices. But most of the dissident members still weren't talking to one another, and most were still attending community functions. They had firmly in mind the good things about Mother of God, the things that attracted them in the first place-the warmth and faith of the membership, the sense of haven from America's violence and decadence. Besides, they remained deeply fearful of acts of disloyalty, because the community's tenets held that disloyalty was a terrible sin.
mong these families, word got around that McDonough was serious about her review. One by one, in secrecy, people who had endured years of pain and confusion trudged down to the archdiocese or to the Silver Spring convent to see her. She turned on her tape recorder and asked them to tell their stories. At one point, McDonough received 40 completed "Buddy Reports" in which community superiors gathered information about each member's "sin areas" such as "sexuality" and "alcohol/drugs" as well as details about such topics as "sexual relationship with spouse."
Around this time, it came to light that a couple of teenage boys had alleged that a teacher at the Mother of God school had made sexual advances toward them. Parents were upset to learn that the community's leadership, after hearing of the allegations, had allowed the man to continue teaching for a time. This jolted some previously loyal Mother of God members, and fed doubts about the leadership.
s the church's investigation progressed, and as its sweep became known to the Difatos, community members loyal to the Mother of God leaders sought out McDonough to tell their side of the story, too. They denied that community members were being manipulated against their will or that community practices caused emotional damage. These members described the Difatos as warm, generous, benevolent, faithful leaders who kept at heart the best interests of the community, its members and the Catholic Church.
Some people contacted by the Difatos and their allies refused to cooperate with this campaign, however. Difato loyalists asked the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, a priest who had left Mother of God to teach at Oxford University, to bring his prestige to bear on the Difatos' behalf. He says he demurred, his doubts about the group having deepened with distance. The requests persisted. So Weinandy sat down and wrote a long analysis of the community. He described critically what he saw as the fierce demands for loyalty by Mother of God's leaders. He credited what he saw as the positive aspects of the group, but he criticized the community's "inappropriate, insensitive, pushy, authoritarian and doctrinaire" practices. He sent the analysis to several people in Gaithersburg.
udith Tydings received a copy, and it reinforced many of her own emerging doubts. Although she had co-founded Mother of God with Edith Difato nearly 30 years before, Tydings had lately begun to question the community's practices. She began to meet in secret with other dissidents, sharing information. Because of her role as co-founder, Tydings had the moral authority to bring the rebellion into the open, former members say.
At a Mother of God prayer meeting on the evening of Sunday, May 21, 1995, Tydings approached a microphone and pulled out a copy of Weinandy's letter. She gave a brief introduction and began to read sections of it. As she did, people could hear Edith Difato gasp from across the room. On a videotape of the meeting, adherents can be seen staring at Tydings in apparent shock.
Some people who had long harbored dissident thoughts stood up immediately to back Tydings. Others gave speeches urging that the group turn its focus back to the teachings of Mother of God.
The prayer meeting ended irresolutely. But now the dissent was out in the open, and the ties that had bound the group for so many years were unraveling fast.
Much depended on what McDonough's investigation would ultimately conclude. She and a committee that worked with her compiled several boxes of evidence and turned them over to Hickey. Both sides continued to work hard to get their side of the story to the archdiocese and to make their influence felt with the cardinal.
On July 18, 1995, Mother of God member Jeffrey Smith, a leading Difato loyalist, wrote a "personal and confidential" letter to Bishop William E. Lori, one of Hickey's top aides. At a time when the archdiocese was arriving at crucial judgments about the community's status within the church, Smith offered in his letter to donate $200,000 of Mother of God's money to the Cardinal's Appeal, a charity drive. The church rejected this offer in sharp language, insisting that Smith withdraw it. He later denied in writing that the offer was an attempt to "bribe"-his word-the archdiocese.
s dissent swelled, some Mother of God members began to consult "exit counselors," who help people leave high-control sects. In doing so, these members helped bring into play the idea that Mother of God might be more accurately described as a "cult" than as a religious group.
Some of the dissidents never accepted that idea, even as they left the community in anger. This uncertainty about the word "cult" reflects a wider debate among American academics. Many clinical psychologists argue that there are groups that can sensibly be called cults because they use certain powerful psychological techniques to gain control over members' lives. On the other side, some sociologists of religion argue that unless physical coercion is involved, no set of psychological techniques can change people against their will. In Mother of God's case, a key figure was Doris Quelet, a suburban Baltimore volunteer with experience in counseling people who want to leave manipulative groups. Quelet believed there most certainly were some groups that deserved to be called cults and that they sometimes did tragic emotional damage to their members. Like other modern cult counselors, Quelet eschewed kidnapping and other coercive techniques used by cult "deprogrammers" in the 1970s. Instead, she talked only to people who were willing to sit and listen. She was careful about even using the word "cult." Her technique was simply to describe the features of a cult-like environment and let her listeners draw their own conclusions.
t the invitation of former Mother of God members, including Roger and Sue Cavanaugh, Quelet came to Gaithersburg and began giving small workshops. The meetings were kept secret at first, at the insistence of community members. "The level of fear that I found in these people was shocking," Quelet recalls.
At the sessions, Quelet described many of the classic features of cultism. She gave a name, for instance, to the extreme warmth that people feel upon joining manipulative groups: "love bombing." She explained that this method is used routinely in high-control sects to draw in new members and bond them to the group. Quelet talked about the use of confessions of intimate secrets as a way for groups to establish further control over members. She described the fierce emphasis on loyalty and the lack of privacy as being typical aspects of destructive cults.
Christopher West was still wrestling with his feelings after blurting out to McDonough that Mother of God was a cult-a label he had come to on his own, without consulting Quelet. Now he wanted to know more. He met with Quelet privately. She gave him a book to read, Today's Destructive Cults and Movements, a survey of cultism written by a Catholic priest, the Rev. Lawrence J. Gesy. West tore through it feverishly, especially Chapter 5, "Shepherding/Discipleship Movement," which seemed to describe Mother of God's operations with uncanny accuracy. West marked passages with a yellow highlighter pen.
One evening, West dragged his friend Gary Cummings to the mall in Gaithersburg. They sat at Jerry's Subs & Pizza and shared a pepperoni-and-mushroom pie. Cummings skimmed the highlighted passages in West's book.
"My jaw hit the floor," Cummings remembers. "I saw my whole life written in there, all the struggles I had been through-in a book with the word 'cult' in the title. I felt sick, actually. It really did make me sick. I knew at that moment that I had been living in a cult my entire life."
ver the next several weeks, Cummings's shock gradually turned into anger. He jumped in his car one day and headed toward Goshen House, the Mother of God headquarters. He found Joseph Difato in his office and began to yell at him. For more than half an hour, he says, he revisited the abuses he felt had been heaped on him over the years. He recalls that Difato said little. Once in a while Difato would rise to leave, and Cummings would yell for him to sit back down. "He was cringing," Cummings says. "I was yelling at him the way a drill sergeant yells at somebody."
That night, Cummings called Quelet. "I said, 'Doris, he no longer controls me,' . . ." he recalls. "I felt like I had finally gotten my life back. I had reclaimed my dignity from that man."