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Proposed Anti-Sect Legislation in Italy: An Ongoing Debate

The following is a guest post by Dante Figueroa, senior legal information analyst at the Law Library of Congress.  Dante has written a number of In Custodia Legis blog posts related to Italian, Roman, and Canon law.

Good vs Evil

Statue of Good and Evil, part of the Peace Fountain outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.15537)

In recent times, Italy has witnessed the growing influence of certain sects and cults and of crime associated with these developments.  A Ministry of the Interior report in 1998 separated the movements in Italy into two basic types: “magic” and “religious.”  The groups include, for example, satanic cults.  Various crimes, including sexual abuse, human sacrifice, and abuse of children, have been widely reported as being practiced by multiple sects.

To combat this phenomenon, in 2006 the Italian State Police created La Squadra Anti Sette (SAS), also known as the “Anti-Sects Team,” to investigate and prosecute crimes related to the proliferation of such sects and cults.  The SAS operates within the Analysis Division of the Central Operations Service, which is one of four units in the Italian Anti-Crime Directorate.

In addition, several legislative measures have been presented to the Italian Parliament that seek to combat the mental manipulation used by some sects and cults to persuade members to commit crimes.  Most recently, a bill introduced in March 2013, Bill No. 190, would add an article to the Criminal Code. The proposed article states:

Art. 613-bis. – (Mental Manipulation). – Unless the act constitutes a serious crime, anyone who, with violence or threats or by using conditioning techniques of the human personality or charms, puts someone into such a state of subjection that it impedes judgment and the ability to evade the impositions of the will of others, thus excluding the freedom of self-determination, is punished with imprisonment of four to eight years.

If the act is committed within the context of a group that promotes or practices activities designed to create or exploit the psychological or physical dependence of the people who participate in such activities, or if the offender has acted in order to perpetrate a crime, the penalty established in the previous paragraph is increased by from one-third to one-half.

The examination of Bill No. 190 was assigned to the Commission of Justice of the Chamber of Deputies on May 7, 2013, but no report on it has been issued to date.

During the last decade, different legislative proposals dealing with the increasing numbers of religious sects have been submitted to the Italian Parliament, but they did not become law. These include:

  • Bill No. 569, Provisions Concerning the Crime of Mental Manipulation (May 15, 2008).
  • Bill No. 1777, Provisions Concerning the Crime of Mental Manipulation (Mar. 8, 2004).
  • Bill No. 5440, Provisions to Fight Mental Manipulation (Nov. 23, 2004).
  • Bill No. 551, Introduction to Article 613-bis of the Criminal Code, Concerning the Crime of Mental Manipulation (Dec. 22, 2004).
  • Bill No. 800, Norms to Fight Psychological Manipulation (Nov. 6, 2001).

These bills were submitted by different legislators who felt that the existing legislative framework in Italy is insufficient to deal with what they perceive as the threats posed by certain sects and cults.  Currently article 613 of the Italian Criminal Code punishes anyone who “through hypnotic suggestion or [while the person is] in a state of wakefulness, or through the administration of alcohol or narcotics, or through any other means, places a person, without his consent, in a state of incapacity to understand or to exercise his will.”  However, article 613 does not address the situation in which only psychological influence is exerted over the victim, or when mental manipulation is used as a medium to commit other crimes.

There has been extensive public debate in Italy on the appropriateness of legislation to fight sects and cults and any crimes in which they are involved.  Article 19 of the Italian Constitution guarantees that everyone has the right to practice his or her own beliefs in whatever form, either individually or collectively, and to propagate the same.  This right can also be seen to encompass the right, in article 21 of the Constitution, “to freely express their thoughts in speech, writing, or any other form of communication.”  However, article 19 also imposes a limit to the exercise of freedom of religion and belief and the rites connected with them, requiring that they not be “offensive to public morality.”  Under the Constitution, there is also separation of religion and the state, there is not a state religion, and all religious cults are permitted.  Italian law grants all religious groups the right to be recognized and to enjoy tax-exempted status and other fiscal benefits.

The dilemma faced by the Italian legislature concerning the regulation of cults resides in the difficulty of balancing the aforementioned constitutional rights and liberties, and the prevention of crimes that have been associated with a number of religious sects in Italy.  Historically, the Italian Criminal Code regulated the crime of “plagio,” which punished those who subjected a person to their power “in order to reduce the victim to a state of total subjection.”  However, this provision was declared unconstitutional and struck down by the Constitutional Court in 1981.  The Court reasoned that the imprecision of the provision could create a risk of arbitrary prosecution, and that such imprecision was contrary to the constitutional principle reflected in article 25 of the Italian Constitution that there should be express and precise description of what constitutes an offense (principio di precisione and principio di tassatività).  Several commentators have raised the concern that the criminalization of certain unlawful conducts may trigger a sort of “resistance to cults,” and a sort of persecution against certain cults that do not fit into the mainstream religious practices.

The Italian scientific community has also weighed in on this debate.  Opponents of anti-sect proposals criticize the broad definition of “sects” contained in the draft provisions, arguing that these tend to classify in the same category diverse creeds such as “new age,” “esoteric movements,” “Satanism,” “occultism,” and others.  Opponents also criticize the lack of scientific rigor in the notion of brainwashing or mental manipulation utilized by anti-sect proponents, arguing that such notions lead to individuals involved in criminal conduct not being seen as responsible for their actions.  On the other side, proponents of the amendments cite various precedents of the damage caused by such cults and sects, and argue that many cult members are “influenced to do things that go against their nature, rational convictions, and good sense.”  Again, opponents reply that a multi-religion and pluralistic world requires a high level of tolerance of ideas that do not conform to traditional ways of thinking, and that most sects are not involved in criminal activities.

In the United States, the American Psychological Association (APA) has also discussed the topic of sects and what it calls “destructive cults.”  In 1991, the APA’s Psychology of Religion Division issued a resolution stating that “there is no consensus regarding whether or not scientific research demonstrates that certain religious groups practice ‘brainwashing.’ ”

The problem of the association between cults and criminal behavior has long been documented in Europe. The European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Cults and Sects was created in 1994 to serve as “an umbrella organisation for associations which defend victims of cultic excesses in more than 30 countries to date.”  An extensive comparative study on “Governments and the Cult Phenomenon” was conducted in 2006 at the European level.  France, for example, enacted a controversial law related to mental manipulation in 2000.

Even before parliamentary debate begins on Bill No. 190 in Italy, the controversy on what has been called “Europe’s Cult Wars” will probably continue during the near future.

The Library of Congress collections contain several items related to this issue, for example:

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