Last week hungry media accorded expert status to half a dozen cult-monitoring groups as journalists sought analyses of the massacres in Switzerland and Canada. But in speaking about each other they displayed professional rivalries and bandied allegations ranging from drink and drug abuse to collusion with the cults they are supposed to be fighting.
The groups have blossomed amid concern about the expanding influence of religious movements such as the Church of Scientology, the Moonies and the Children of God. While the FBI monitors cult activity in the United States, in Britain the task has been left to organisations with no official authority.
Only one group, Inform - Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, founded by Dr Eileen Barker - has ever received any government funding. Today the groups all survive on donations. Yet many parents look to the expertise of such groups to help extricate relatives from cults that demand their obedience, their money and even their lives.
Some cult-watching bodies have their origins in Christian fundamentalism. Others have been founded by individuals with personal experience of cult activities.
The cult-watchers have enjoyed a higher media profile since the messianic leader David Koresh and his Branch Davidians set fire to their compound at Waco, Texas, in February last year. But with the publicity has come rivalry.
Acrimony between the groups surfaced last week as news of the Solar Temple massacres unfolded. When the Rev John Celia, founder of the Christian Rescue group, suggested that members of the Solar sect had been in Britain to visit Stonehenge two years ago, others rejected his claim.
Ursula McKenzie, of Fair - Families Action Information Rescue - which was formed in 1976, dismissed Mr Celia's ideas: 'Was he there at Stonehenge? It seems strange for a Christian minister to be there, at a pagan festival. I don't even know what Christian Rescue is.'
Mr Celia - a former lay minister who in 1985 set up Christian Rescue, the church in which he was ordained - said the information had been collected by one of his undercover investigators. He has clashed repeatedly with other cult- watching groups. 'The others don't like me because I've actually gone to talk to some of the cults and their leaders,' he said.
Both Ian Haworth, founder and director of the Cult Information Centre in south London, and Graham Baldwin, director of Catalyst, a group set up last year to provide counselling for cult victims and their families, are critical of Mr Celia. 'Nobody had heard of John Celia a few months ago,' said Mr Haworth. 'I've never referred anybody to him because I don't feel he is an appropriate person.'
Mr Haworth was also critical of Inform. He claims that when it was set up in 1987 the Moonies celebrated. Dr Barker's organisation was given three years' 'start-up' funding by the Government. This was later extended for a further three years. During her investigations into cults, she took expenses-paid trips to Moonie seminars, for which she has been criticised by Mr Baldwin.
Dr Barker said of her government funding: 'One of the reasons they extended it was because we were having such trouble with the anti-cultists. We really think of them (anti-cultists) as part of the problem. We use professional counsellors whom we have taught about religion, unlike some of the other groups who use people who have left (cults) and may still have unresolved problems. We have to mop up a lot of damage (they cause) and I'm sure they say the same about us.
'We receive nothing from any of the cults and we are not in the pay of the Moonies.'
Mr Baldwin is unimpressed. 'She thinks cults are no worse than a cold. Our experience shows that that is not true.'
Inform's director, Robert Towler, wrote of the rival groups: 'The anti-cult movement creates greater fear and alarm, especially among parents, than is justified or helpful and itself becomes positively cult-like, being as determined as any of the movements it attacks to close its eyes and ears to any evidence that might confuse a simple division between goodies and baddies.'
In the past this has led to a series of embarrassing and worrying incidents. In 1987, Cyril Vosper, a Fair committee member, was convicted in Germany of kidnapping and causing bodily harm to Barbara Schwarz, a 32-year-old German Scientologist whom he tried to 'de-programme'.
Ian Haworth and an associate called Robert Sutherland were ordered to pay 10,000 Canadian dollars ( pounds 4,700) plus costs to Werner Erhard Educational Associates in 1989 after losing a court case Werner brought against them and a group called Coma that Mr Haworth ran. Mr Howarth is alleged to have fled Canada to avoid paying. Yesterday he said the litigation was 'vexatious' and had lain dormant for three years until after he left the country and was unable to defend it.
Perhaps the only thing on which all the groups agree is that a Waco or Solar Temple tragedy could occur in the UK.
Mr Haworth believes a massacre here is quite possible. 'One man or woman can use certain techniques to control the minds of the group of people. The group can be small or large. That person can get the group to do anything.'
Ms McKenzie of Fair said: 'All you need are some dominant chaps. (The Solar Temple killings) have parallels with Waco. We have 450 cults in this country, probably a few more. One has to be careful: they're not all harmful by any means and a lot of them are very small. But this group (Solar Temple) had only 30 members in Canada. That is why nobody had heard of them. Before this they were just one of hundreds of tiny groups.'Reuse content