We're no cult, says British expats group

A custody tussle has led to disturbing claims about a community living in Portugal. Liz Nash reports
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An Intimately entwined group of British expatriates in Portugal is squirming in the glare of public attention amid a spectacular row over the custody of three teenagers.

The children were whisked back to Britain by their mother on 16 January in defiance of the wishes of the group's charismatic leader, Nadine Scott. The Portuguese press has branded the group an "English sect". Mrs Scott has gone unusually silent and is believed to be in London.

The furore has prompted allegations that the International Saturday Group - a therapeutic community of middle-class professionals who describe themselves as "children of the Sixties" - is a secretive cult engaged in bizarre practices and business fraud. Several Britons living in Portugal claim they were swindled by the ISG and subjected to ritual humiliation by the group's esoteric therapeutic principles of "bioenergetics".

One embittered former member who fears his own children may be victims of manipulation and brainwashing claims the group defrauded him of pounds 1m in therapy and ill-advised business ventures.

Catalyst, a British cult-busting charity led by Graham Baldwin, gave evidence to Portuguese police last week of alleged financial and personal damage inflicted by Mrs Scott. He said in Lisbon: "Mrs Scott took control of people's lives, not only in their marriages and where they lived, but also in what they did with their money. It developed way beyond one-to-one psychotherapy into what is a cult."

Group members living in luxurious white villas near the prosperous, faintly twee resort of Cascais, 20 miles along the coast from Lisbon, are extravagant in praise of Mrs Scott, 62, whom they regard as an inspiring therapist, although she has no formal therapeutic qualifications.

Mrs Scott, grandmother of the three children, since made wards of court in Britain, has drawn into her orbit more than 100 people, including some 50 children, the core of whom moved to Portugal in 1985 from their base in the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Hammond.

"I am not ashamed to say that Nadine Scott has a very great influence over my life," said David Sampson, a leading light in what he calls "a group of close friends busy with our families".

A former lawyer who runs an English-language monthly business magazine in Portugal, he admits to being "a bit of an oddball" but insists it is "just ridiculous" to describe the grouping as a cult.

Portuguese police are investigating whether or not the group constitutes a cult and whether their activities are illegal, an inquiry being keenly watched by the British embassy in Lisbon. A spokeswoman there said: "We are concerned about allegations that children have been fostered out with other families in the group, and the police are looking into this. We have insisted that the police let us know what's going on, and especially if children are involved."

Allegations of bizarre behaviour and overlapping businesses and therapeutic and personal intimacies are bolstered by a pair of extraordinary nude photographs taken at the group's summer workshop in 1989. The photo was, said one longstanding member, "a dare". He added: "It was a silly thing to do. Most people now find it very embarrassing, but it's nothing sinister."

Another prominent member, Tony Wolfson, who runs a private medical practice in the Algarve, said that the photograph was "great fun, a joke. If people find it offensive, that's their perception".

But a former ISG member working with Catalyst to prove that the group is a harmful cult, pointing at the photograph of the naked ranks of clean- cut men and women, said, "These people are manipulated, and so are their children. If they won't speak out against it, they either believe everything they are told, or they are afraid. It's the silence of the lambs."

Dr Wolfson said "bioenergetics", a therapeutic technique that Mrs Scott adopted in the United States and brought to England, consisted of "encounter groups common in the Seventies, with kicking and screaming and everyone giving full physical expression to their emotions".

Robin Thomson, a doctor once employed by Dr Wolfson, says group members were "induced by Mrs Scott to crawl on all fours, baying and shrieking - a phenomenally disturbing experience". He described Mrs Scott as "an awesome and overbearing woman with an unbelievable capacity to dominate people's lives, especially the vulnerable people she took under her wing".

Dr Thomson says that after he fell out with the group, they sacked him and tried to ruin his career in Portugal, a claim Dr Wolfson dismisses. "It's dog eat dog out here. We are all in competition for patients."

As for allegations that Mrs Scott breached ethical principles by jumbling therapeutic, friendship and business relations, Dr Wolfson said: "I can see how that sort of thing came about. But I use what I want and don't use the rest. Most of us have no business interests in common."

None the less, the group set up various business activitieswhich operate from their headquarters in Areia near Cascais. They include a construction firm, a decorating company, a removals service, a video store, an insurance broker and a management consultancy. Other enterprises run by group members around Cascais include a healthcare centre, a restaurant, skin care, a florist, a jewellery shop, soft furnishings, translators and a dog-sitting service. Dr Wolfson said: "We're all oddies, who got out of the corporate lifestyle. Most of us are pretty bright and independent, but with a need for a close community of support from our friends." The unusual name of the group was a nickname given by Mrs Scott to a group of her most difficult patients who could meet only on a Saturday, he said.

Earlier this month, Mrs Scott's son, Mark, died in the Algarve after a long Aids-related illness. His estranged wife, Claire, returned from England to claim their three children who were living with another family in the group. The custody tussle carries echoes of a case against Mrs Scott in Britain in 1984.

"We're feeling a bit beleaguered at the moment. It's as if an atom bomb has been dropped on us, like Waco," said Mr Sampson. "We came out here with the idea of making our way in business, with mutual support and encouragement, and some were unlucky and lost money. We may have been a bit odd, but recent weeks have been like torture by the Inquisition."