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Laws Against Cults and Mental Manipulation in Italy1454688 231075363727909 367010609 n

Minority Religions, Social Change and Freedom of Conscience


A Paper presented at The 2013 Spiritual Human Rights Conference

Copenaghen, 10th December 2013


The sixth edition of Spiritual Human Rights Conferences was  co-organized by Soteria International with partner institutions, namely the following: Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience (CAP), European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (EIFRF), European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion (EMISCO), Dansk Interreligiøst Forum (DIF) and Youth for Human Rights (UFMR, Denmark).

By Raffaella Di Marzio




In Italy, a few members of Parliament (members of Berlusconi’s party) have been proposing, from 2000 to 2013, three different bills for punishing the “mental manipulation” crime. The criminalization targets most of all minority religions and, in general, spiritual associations which have ideas, beliefs and practices different from the mainstream.


“Plagio” in Italy


Massimo Introvigne, the managing director of CESNUR (The Center for Studies on New Religions) explains very well what happened in Italy in 1981, when the Constitutional Court repealed the “Plagio” law. I would like to summarize his article published in the CESNUR website.

First of all he clarifies the meaning of the Italian expression “plagio” [plagium in Latin]. It is used as a translation for the English “brainwashing”. In Italy we say that a person can be subjected to “plagio” by “dangerous cults” or “sects”. Plagio is rooted in article 603 of the 1930 Italian penal code which under the heading “plagio” mandated a jail term of five to fifteen years for “anyone who subjected an individual to his own will, so as to reduce that individual to a total state of subjugation”.

The article was repealed in 1981 for many reasons:

  • the first body of criticism was empirical: the phenomenon of plagio does not exist nor can it be verified, if we presume that such a condition of subjugation cannot be achieved merely with psychological tools. Most psychiatrists agreed on this point. The problem was that such a rule was too vague and undetermined, therefore contrary to the constitutional principle of legality.
  • the second body of criticism was political: the critics argued that the rule masked an attempt at ideological discrimination. Following this line of reasoning the judges ran the risk of judging lifestyles and any ideas that were contrary to prevailing social opinion or even to the court's majority opinion under the pretext of judging methods of indoctrination (Introvigne, 2002).


International debate on brainwashing


Of course, we should look at these objections regarding brainwashingin the broader context of the international debate. The official position of APA (American Psychological Association) is very important in this matter. In fact, on February 10th, 1987, APA joined other parties in submitting a brief in the Molko case, pending before the California Supreme Court, involving issues of brainwashing and coercive persuasion with respect to the Unification Church. The brief stated that, as applied to new religious movements, the theory of coercive persuasion “is not accepted in the scientific community” and that the relevant methodology “has been repudiated by the scientific community”.

To state with more clarity such a position would be very difficult indeed, and the brief also implied that, when applied to new religious movements, theories of mind control were uniformly regarded as “not accepted in the scientific community”, be they referred to as “brainwashing”, “mind control”, or - as Singer preferred -“coercive persuasion”.

Another very important step in this matter was APA’s refusal to approve the DIMPAC (Report of the Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control), submitted by Margaret Singer and other five scholars. APA rejected the report by a Memorandum of May 11, 1987 because it “lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur”. APA stated in 1987 that brainwashing or coercive persuasion theories, when applied to new religious movements, are not scientific.

Finally, in 1991 APA’s Division 36 (Psychology of Religion Division) published a resolution in which it said that the “undue non-physical persuasion (otherwise known as `coercive persuasion,' `mind control,' or `brainwashing')” really exists and it made clear that “there is no consensus” regarding whether or not scientific research demonstrates that certain religious groups practice “brainwashing”.

After more than twenty years the situation of the scientific research in this field hasnot changed. The last attempt to revitalize the debate about this subject was made by Benjamin Zablocki in 1997. Few scholars challenged and criticized his theory and no scientific research followed his proposal.

Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins criticized Zablocki’s proposal. They summarized in an article their criticism about the simplistic extrinsic “brainwashing” model of participation in new religions or other social movements and suggested a more nuanced interactive model. Those who undergo a conversion experience tend to be “seekers” who experiment with the transformation self to a deeper and more religiously committed form.

The authors affirm that, notwithstanding some deception and manipulation in the self-presentation of some groups, there is generally some “elective affinity” between the group and the recruit, which commences a process of interaction in which certain types of individuals and certain types of groups jointly create a religious milieu. Moreover, the religious or spiritual groups may strongly influence the devotee and play a necessary but not sufficient condition in the nature of his/her conversion to a new self, but devotees also influence the evolution of groups, especially when a group attracts many unstable persons or when participants’ orientations entail an expectation of strong, charismatic leadership.

Furthermore, recruits frequently defect when they perceive that a group does not meet their needs, or is evolving in a problematic direction. The selectivity of potential recruits and potential defectors would appear to limit the application of the “brainwashing” extrinsic model. Finally, Anthony and Robbins conclude that there appears to be little evidence that people are confined in formally voluntary totalistic groups against their will, or that the “new self” resulting from a conversion experience in such groups is imposed in a way that is ego-alien and independent of the nature of their pre-conversion selves.

I agree with their point of view for other reasons. I personally collected a large bibliography on this specific subject, including totally 500 books, articles or studies, from 1950 to 2012. After a very careful survey of the literature and using my 20-plus years of experience on the field, I can assert the following: while the common anti-cult brainwashing or mind control theories have been largely rejected by the scholarly community (with few exceptions), forms of persuasion or influence based on false or otherwise unethical representations continue to exist in everyday life and also within some of the New Religious Movements. As a matter of fact, this kind of abuse can cause serious problems to people. However, misrepresentations are rather different from brainwashing. Therefore, it is my belief that to approve repressive laws in order to combat brainwashing crime, is not only useless, butalso very dangerous for freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and democracy in general.


New laws for punishing “plagio” crime


In the course of the “cult” polemics, the reintroduction of laws similar to former article 603 was repeatedly suggested in Italy. Members of Parliament have been proposing, from 2000 to 2013, three different bills for punishing the “mental manipulation” crime. The last bill, proposed in March, 2013 is this:

ART. 613-bis, bill for the re-introduction of the crime of “plagio”.
“[...]Anyone who, with violence, or techniques used in order to condition personality, puts someone into a state of subjection that eliminates his/her ability to judge and withstand pressures from others, so that he/she removes the freedom of self-determination, shall be punished with imprisonment from four to eight years”

This penalty can be exacerbated if the crime is committed among a group.

The member of theItalian parliament who presented this bill introduces his proposal saying that psychologists deeply study the human mind and, in particular, the mind manipulation process, also known asbrainwashing. He stresses that many members of religious cults (or sects) are manipulated by leaders and this manipulation leads to commit very negative actions such as murders or suicides. Moreover he says that the pseudo religious sects are increasingly common in Italy.

Therefore, he continues, it is necessary to protect people from mind manipulation which  occurs very often. He bases his conclusions using media news. According to him in Italy there is a dangerous legal vacuum which is causing a dramatic increase of mind manipulations cases: dozens of victims are brainwashed every dayby religious leaders who harm, in particular, young people.

Finally, the Member of Parliamentaffirms that this law is necessary because thousand of people, are worried for their relatives. They ask our parliament to approve this law in order to help police, prosecutors and the judiciary to combat this crime.


Why I don’t agree with this position


I think that this proposal is biased because it is grounded only on the cult alarm created by by Italian media and anti-cult organizations. From a scientific point of view the idea that the conversion is due to brainwashing techniques is just that: an idea, a personal opinion. Nothing more. In fact,it has no empirical evidence. On the contrary, dozens of researchers found that people join and freelyleave religious or spiritual groups. It is certain that in some groups (religious or not) fraud, deception and any kind of abuses can be perpetrated on the followers, but they can be punished using  existing laws.

Moreover this law creates many problems: first of all, tracing a boundary between licit conditioning and unlawful conditioning (that might compromise psychological integrity) is not possible. Therefore, the new rules would risk arbitrary interpretation. They might also conceal hidden references to constitutionally forbidden judgments about the “quality” of the ideas and proposals into which the individual is allegedly being “conditioned” (See Introvigne).

It is my opinion that we should not go back to the old “plagio” law for many reasons. First of all I think that no one knows for certain how much a person is free when he/she makes a choice. Because there is no scientific methodology capable of accurately and reliably measuring the level of influence and manipulation to which a person is subjected, to put this crime in our own Penal Code runs the risk of prosecuting people who make free choices and who are unable to defend themselves because the charge of “brainwashing” is not verifiable. In fact, if a person is declared “brainwashed,” nothing the person says can be used to support the view that he/she chooses freely. Everything he/she says has no credibility. It has no legal value because the person is considered to be “brainwashed,” incapable of thinking with his or her own mind. Hence, who can possibly determine how much that person is free and how much is manipulated?

I fail to see how going back to the old “plagio” law could possibly help us solve this problem. In my opinion it creates other problems, abuses, and injustices without solving anything. If we want to find a solution we should act in order to prevent, educate and spread reliable information by media.




Prevention, education and reliable information are the only way to face the problem. In particular, prevention begins with families. It is also necessary to find a strategy useful for speaking with worried parents, because the majority of people who ask for help to counseling centers or anti-cultassociations are parents whose adult children join New Religious Movements or spiritual groups. Parents don’t understand and don’t agree with their children’s choice to change religion. For this reason they are very angry because they think that someone brainwashed their children or relatives. Very often, in order to face the problem, they, together with few ex members, become anti-cultactivists and set up anti-cultassociations trying to help other worried parents and angry ex members.

Finally, I would like to share with you something I’ve beenrealizing for the past six years. My view, with regard to this issue, is slowly changing. A new, strange truth reveals itself before my eyes: there are people who seek actively someone who direct their life because they need to be protected by someone else. Some of them are lucky because the “manipulator” is a good person, in good faith, other people are not lucky at all, because the “manipulator” is a bad person and his/her intentions are to abuse others.

I think that we cannot decide what is right and what is wrong for a person. I do believe that sometimes trying to help someone could actually worsen his/her situation. Therefore we must be very cautious while we face this kind of situation: we should respect people’ choices even if we disagree with them.  

Governments have to be very cautious too: in order to face the so called “mind manipulation threat”, they should use positive actions and avoid all kind of repressions. If there are people who manipulate other people, governments should improve the education, the laws and social strategies in order to promote freedom of conscience and defend human rights.

I believe this is the best thing to do because strengthening the freedom of thought, conscience and belief would enable us to face the problem from a cultural and social perspective, rather than an individualistic one. This is the only solution to the problem if we want to avoid the violation of human rights.