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Few are aware who operates Cult Awareness Network

In the wake of the dead 39 members of the Heaven's Gate community in San Diego, here's a living definition of irony. The Cult Awareness Network -- CAN -- may suddenly be inundated with calls from families anxious about kin who are in cults. CAN used to be in the anti-cult advocacy business -- a ferocious foe of cults, including the Church of Scientology.

The Chicago-based CAN at its peak handled 15,000 calls annually from worried relatives and disseminated its information and views widely.

Its work gained initial prominence from a mass suicide, the 1978 Guyana People's Temple tragedy. It was then called the Citizens' Freedom Foundation. Thirteen years later, as Cult Awareness Network, it was instrumental in guiding parents to "deprogrammers" but advocated only legal means for "rescuing" their children from the cults so that they could deprogram them.

In a December 1996 article, Washington Post reporter Laurie Goodstein looked into CAN's circumstances. "Aside from Satanic groups, more callers asked about the Church of Scientology than about any other group," according to a 1992 telephone log CAN supplied to the Congressional Quarterly, Goodstein reported.

Church of Scientology members fought back in the courts, at one point filing suits against CAN at the rate of 12 a week, The Washington Post article reported. Goodstein added that "people who identified themselves as Scientologists alleged that CAN denied them membership or participation in CAN conferences" or would not allow them to volunteer at CAN national offices.

One suit succeeded and the court ordered CAN to pay $1.8 million. CAN went into bankruptcy and when its assets were put up for sale its name and logo were bought by a Scientologist lawyer, Goodstein wrote. According to Goodstein's story, if parents are calling CAN asking for help in the wake of San Diego, Scientologists are answering the phone.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 1997