Untangling the Labyrinth of Cult Behaviors: One Scenario Analyzed

Last week, Cara Schulz posted WicCom Priest Under Fire for Ethical and Sexual Misconduct on Pagan news blog the Wild Hunt. The story, in an unusual twist for such matters in the Pagan community, has people from both sides of the contention speaking about the situation. While refreshing in that this story has much more full disclosure than normal, the usual negatives that come from these situations remains; at least one of those who has spoken out in the Twin Cities Pagans Facebook group reported shutting down her Pagan Facebook page because of a vindictive account raised copying her name, other people that spoke out have been derided as liars, and a few are expressing – as they did with the Kenny Klein situation – that we all would just not talk about it and insist Pagans are all harm none good people who Simply Don’t Do These Things. (I assure you, we have the full range of human behavior that manifests in every other group situation, religious, political, or social).

These situations may well be among the worst community/religious movement growing pains ever. They also provoked a rage response in myself – not only did I live in the Twin Cities Pagan community for 12 years, act as volunteer organizer for some of the Pagan Pride events from 2003-2004, I acted as a private counselor to others of magical priesthood across many spiritual paths. I occasionally crossed paths with the alleged perpetrator. We were not on one another’s radar, so I have no sense of whether he is the “type” to do this or not, though in other experiences I have found that the worst perpetrators never seem like the type.

I do not in any way know the alleged victims, but sadly, I can see what they described as something that could happen in Minneapolis. My anger around this situation might be multiplied because in the past few years I taught a class on the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame  to the Twin Cities Pagan community a tool developed by Neopagan scholar Isaac Bonewits to identify and avoid exactly the type of situation that appears to have played out here. You can see the video of me rehearsing my presentation on this for Paganicon 2014 here – I was ill for about six weeks when I made it so bear with. In addition, the Art of Seduction, a rather cynical book about sexual archetypes and behavior, has several points of behavior that match with this story.

Along with this, there appears exploitation of ignorance about differing magical paths, particularly the Left Hand Path. The occult universe expands along with the size of the universe watched through the Hubbell telescope; it’s more than understandable why students might not know better, but this is also why “question everything” is a concept that responsible teachers of magic must bring back in vogue. I have not spoken to the students involved; they may well have Googled “left hand path” before agreeing to lessons, or been told “this is so not Wicca.” I have no way of knowing without their input. I am assuming these things did NOT happen, or this story would have unfolded very differently.

I want to clarify that I have no objections to Left Hand Path practices, and I consider myself a person that “works with both hands,” since my own morality is centered on caring for home and community and that requires the occasional magical drop-kick of an idiot. The issues taken here are over the misrepresentation of Left Hand Path magic, and the construing of ANY sex magic with the Left Hand Path.

There is a lot to pick apart here, and it’s easy to lose the thread of consciousness needed to write an article. I put this together with in a table mainly so I wouldn’t lose track of all that needs exploring. The first column, “incident” labels a specific action mentioned in the Wild Hunt article. The next column, ABCDEF shows the question on the Cult Danger Evaluation Frame that this would fall under. I also added points from the Art of Seduction where I felt appropriate. The analysis is my opinion about happened, based on my own experiences with sex magic, covening, and dealing with domestic and community abuse.

Incident ABCDEF Analysis
Vorderbruggen approached students in a Wiccan class for “Left Hand Path” lessons, telling them they were “more mature” than other students in the class.  Front Groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group, especially when connections are hidden. This definitely sounds like grooming, and raises another flag: Wicca doesn’t have a Left Hand Path. Unless this is a sudden, strangely sex negative Wiccan tradition, nothing about the Great Rite/sexuality would be considered “left hand path” and there’s no sign that the students were learning daemonolatry, something also taboo in most Wiccan traditions.
LHP classes were kept secret even from other members of the tradition and from the students’ partners. Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.

 

Wisdom/Knowledge Credited to leader(s) by members; amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or towards verification efforts.

 

Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.

This is a screaming red flag. As soon as any religion tries to make itself more important than your family and friends, you’ve got problems. The probable justification for it was likely some of the old Burning Times saw, but that wasn’t about hiding magic from other practitioners, it was about protecting one another’s identities from Inquisitors.

There are situations where confidentiality is necessary – especially when a member of the coven requires counseling, has a job where public identification as a witch can cause problems, or  when a family is embroiled in a custody battle.

This class was not one of those occasions. The confidentiality demand meant served as a way of isolating the students from relationships outside the coven, and especially creating a rift with those closest to them. This style of isolation is a classic cult technique.

 

Vorderbruggen demanded a blood oath before the students could start class.  Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s). A class on the Great Rite is NOT what blood oaths are for. Blood oaths are for swearing to protect lands and people in times when the people under siege; it is for warriors that swear to give their lives to protect vulnerable people; it is a matter of deep honor. A blood oath is certainly not for some dumbass Wiccan coven attempting to be spooky just because they want people all impressed that the religion has sex as one of its core magical practices.
Oath: secrecy and obedience for the rest of their natural lives but “conscience was the final word in all decisions.” Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.

Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s).

Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.

 First of all, anything requiring secrecy obedience for the rest of your natural life is disturbing. and from what’s been revealed about the content of the classes, completely unnecessary. It’s normal for people genuinely committed to spiritual seeking to sometimes change their religion. This demand of obedience smacks of the Catholic church’s “no one gets out alive” or the Mormon church’s “we’ll convert you after you’re dead,” doctrine. Second, the “conscience as the final word” is in direct contradiction to that whole secrecy and obedience thing. Taking ownership over someone’s conscience like this is, well, unconscionable.
Trance journey to Vorderbruggen’s astral temple, then DURING TRANCE Vorderbruggensstated he met his “true” companion that he worked with in tradition and finding her in spirit form feared she was deceased.  Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.

This is also a move identifiable in the Art of Seduction:

  • Disarm through Weakeness and Vulnerability
  • Use Spiritual Lures
  • Stir Up the Transgressive and Taboo
  • Confuse Desire and Reality
This raises several questions. 1. Is this “true companion” someone the priest knew in real life, or someone only ever worked with in the astral? Why couldn’t he just pick up the phone or send someone a Facebook message? If a real relationship, was it truly consensual? If it were consensual, wouldn’t this partner have had notification prior to the ritual? 2. Why was the priest going on the journey with two students new at this type of astral temple travel? Trancing along with inexperienced students could have left them both abreaction and easy manipulation. Were they given proper “outs” during this session, or provided any trance safety keys at all? 3. Was anyone present who was not in trance to oversee the group’s safety?
Somewhere in here was something about performing “the Great Rite in True” between the two students, who happened to be in monogamous relationships with other people. The students just happened to have refused before this bizarre trance journey. External Control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior.

Wisdom/Knowledge Credited to leader(s) by members; amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or towards verification efforts.

 The only reason the Great Rite in True needs to be performed is a)to make a baby via the God/Goddess for who knows what reason or b)to fertilize fields. Most of the time energy exchange works just fine without producing genitals. This is important for the next part: the Great Rite, “in True” or “in fake” (the symbolic athame in the cup) are about channeling the energy of the Goddess and the God. Without them involved, it’s just straight up sex magic and can be for any number of purposes. Those purposes may or may not fall under what this coven was calling “Left Hand Path.”
 After this trance journey, Vonderbruggen insisted that it was “more important than ever” that the Great Rite in True be performed by the students. Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.

 

From the Art of Seduction:

Create a situation where they don’t have time to think.

 

 This looks like outright manipulation – the priest, upon being refused by the students initially, created a drama to make it “more important than ever” to do what he wanted despite their objections. This seems mighty convenient for him, and also puts the students on the spot so that they’re forced to acquiesce in the moment. Not giving people time to think is a move straight out of the Art of Seduction.
Vorderbruggen insisted that the spirit needed to be drawn down into someone else’s body Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups.

Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.

From the Art of Seduction:

  • Use Spiritual Lures
  • Enter the Spirit (in this case literally)
 While Divine possession is a real Wiccan practice, I was under the impression that privilege only went to deities under the auspices of that religion. Asking someone to draw a potentially dead human spirit into their bodies is unbelievably high risk, and to do it via sex magic with an inexperienced practitioner makes no sense. You end up making your work harder when you draw the dead down living pathways.

If this person thought dead turned out to be only sick or injured, yes, sex magic can help but that would in no way require the students to have sex with each other when they both had long-term sexual relationships with other partners. Their own partners could serve in this work just fine.  Also, since this was about Vorderbruggen’s “true” partner, it raises the question of why these students needed to act as proxy, especially if the priest also has a spouse. If the person in question was confirmed dead, there are a host of other methods of contact that don’t require sex.

Vorderbruggen, upon seeing that the students were not ok with the Great Rite, told them to talk among themselves about it.  External Control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior.

From the Art of Seduction

  • Master the Art of Insinuation
  • Keep Them in Suspense – What Comes Next?
  • Sow Confusion Using the Demonic Power of Words
 This is a very high context move that you have to live in Minnesota to understand. Basically leaving them to “talk amongst themselves” was a cue to get themselves in a head space to do what he wanted them to – within that cultural context it’s a very high pressure tactic.
 The Great Rite in true was made as a requirement of initiation – for people moving from 1st degree to second degree  Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.

Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s).

Remember, violence isn’t just about “using hands for hitting.” Social violence is significant in that it makes people afraid to act out of fear of social consequences. Social violence in Minnesota is called “Minnesota Passive Aggressive.”

 I’ve been in two Wiccan covens and neither required this, even from second to third. This may be a quirk of the tradition, but if it is, that’s a pretty nasty quirk to have since, again, it places the importance of the religion as dominant over the coven members’ own lives. THIS IS NOT EVER THE CORRECT ORDER OF PRIORITY.
Vorderbruggen insisted that the Great Rite in True would “form a magical bond needed for the other magics they would perform” and they wouldn’t need to perform the Great Rite in the future.  Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners. Yes, sex forms a powerful bond. This would effectively be a two-way rape since Vonderbruggen was psychologically coercing both parties. If this tradition subscribes to reincarnation, forcing two unwilling people into sex with each other sets up a bond for all kinds of toxic acting out in future lifetimes. Also, the “don’t need to do it in the future” isn’t exactly ringing true in the wake of all the other manipulation. Sex is far from the only way to bond. I hear bowling and mini golf are fantastic alternatives.
Vorderbruggen said that they continued classes and did not appear uncomfortable  Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.  There were Internet comments removed from the Wild Hunt page that claimed Vorderbruggen did threaten the students if they went public with his actions. This however has to be rated as hearsay, although it definitely fits with everything else going on here.
WicCom, when notified, had no process in place to handle this issue.  Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members. Given the recent Pagan community scandals, that’s concerning – but also typical of the Pagans assuming “we’re all good people” and failing to install systems of accountability.
The WicCom board discussed sex magic and blood oaths, and decided that while not for everyone they aren’t inherently unethical.  Hypocrisy: amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain.  That’s all fine and well, but what makes them significant is that they were used as tools for sexual coercion. Seems like a miss of the big picture on that one.
 The acknowledged “ethical lapse” was the students having to care for Vonderbruggen after he thought his partner had died.  N/A, but does miss the point, which is a gaslighting strategy. REALLY?????????? THAT was a bigger problem than requiring two non-consenting people to have sex with each other to make him feel better?
Allegedly Vonderbruggen asked to be released from his own oath to explain the situation, and the person he made the oath to refused to release him from it.  Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations; number and degree of unverified and/or unverifiable credentials claimed.  That makes sense – if someone else has been getting away with this “tradition” for years, there would like be a lot more people coming forward about abuses from that original oath taker.
There are comments on WildHunt and in the Twin Cities Facebook group about Vorderbruggen threatening the students with “their world crashing down around them,” if they spoke out about his actions. Because of the forum they are expressed in, they have to be treated as hearsay because they aren’t verifiable by witnesses. So I won’t rate this on the ABCDEF but it does fit with the overall pattern playing out in this story, which is why it gets a slot.  Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.

Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.

Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s).

Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories.

 It’s not uncommon for targets of sexual violence to be threatened with social and practical sanction. If true, it again places the students’ religious world in importance over their personal lives, which I can’t emphasise forcefully enough is the WRONG ORDER.
WicCom ruled that there were ethical lapses but that there was not misconduct.  Hypocrisy: amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain. I have read other Internet commenters wondering what on earth the difference between misconduct and an ethical lapse is.  From reading the Wild Hunt article, they seem to have completely ignored the entire point about the inherent problem of sexual coersion. WicCom certainly doesn’t recognize any accountability to the students that brought these complaints against him.

 

There are probably several more areas where the manipulative/cult behavior happened in this situation – this is merely an overview from someone evaluating from a news article, not from from interviewing the people involved in this conflict. The ABCDEF is included in most copies of Drawing Down the Moon for a reason – Margot Adler also wanted to give people a way of avoiding groups that exploit our relative ignorance of what is healthy and isn’t when we first start realizing that our faith-selves are “other” and we begin seeking our truths. In this case it appears that students bought into the hard-sold belief that they needed teachers to truly develop magically to the point where they may not have explored more information out there about the Left Hand Path, sex magick and the Great Rite on their own.

Cult avoidance classes may not be sexy, but perhaps they should be added to every Magic and Paganism 101 category. Hit me up if you want me to teach it at your shop – if you’re outside California you may need to supply plane tickets and hotel.

 

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for piecing this all out and re-assembling into an organized and well-structured piece.

  2. The ABCDEF tool is an excellent one. I have zero confidence in most of Pagan leadership culture to address sexual abuse and harassment correctly. They’re doing all of the same things the Roman Catholic Church did, and it’s going to end exactly the same way. Probably the the simplest way to avoid cult like behavior is to avoid coven and closed type groups altogether. I’ve never come across one that didn’t throw a number of flags on the Bonewitt’s scale, and for all that, none of them had any particularly worthwhile “secret” or advanced teaching. The ethical dimensions aside for a moment, everything this guy was purporting to teach about the Great Rite is metaphysically unsound and amateurish. A putz operating under the supervision of bigger putzes.

    1. There are a lot of Pagans carrying wounds from the Catholic church, and yes, I think many act out patterns from those days in their lives for lack of better reference. I am going to post a follow up discussing “scale of abuse” since the tool was designed in a day far less absolutist than our own – while most of the stuff in this case was on the far end of the scale of “bad”, not all things on that scale are necessarily bad but are intended to be on a spectrum of behavior. I’m also seriously irritated with the way he was teaching what he was calling “the Great Rite” since that wasn’t the Great Rite, that was sex magick – and unnecessary sex magick – for some highly questionable practices.

      1. I have no problem if people want to practice or teach sex magick or the full physical enactment of the Rite. They are perfectly legitimate practices among consenting adults. From my perspective the nature of the problem in this scenario was the teacher’s deception and omission of what he intended to teach and ask, and the way in which he pressured his students past their own comfort levels or ethical boundaries and quite possible did so for his own gratification.

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