|Cult Fighting in Massachusetts
This is a story about the Rev. Robert Pardon and the journalists who covered
himor rather, neglected to cover him adequately. Pardon, a committed evangelical
Protestant cult fighter, runs an organization called the New England Institute for
Religious Research in southeastern Massachusetts. For the past year, he has played a major
but unexplored role as an investigator, adviser, and analyst for a Massachusetts criminal
investigation of a tiny religious groups alleged neglect and abuse of its children.
The Attleboro storyin which three members of the group now face murder
chargesattracted immense coverage in New England as a compelling mystery. From the
moment the story broke last November, Pardon has been deeply involved in what appears to
be a semi-official capacity. He has examined evidence, interviewed group members, issued
reports to a state juvenile court judge and to prosecutors, and secured appointment as
legal guardian for children removed from the group. Moreover, he has served as a major
source for journalists covering the story.
But no journalist has ever pursued the question of who Pardon is. Not the Boston
Globe, the Boston Herald, the Providence Journal, New England Cable
News, or any of the other news outlets that gave heavy coverage to the case for almost a
The story broke on November 13, 1999 when the Globe and Herald reported
that the Massachusetts Department of Social Services was investigating the whereabouts of
two small boys who lived in a small religious group largely composed of their extended
families. "Were trying to determine what happened to them," Bristol County
Assistant District Attorney Gerald Fitzgerald told the Herald. "Finding them
is a big part of that. If the information we have is true, its possible neither
child is alive."
The stories reported that state investigators were already digging up the yard where
the two boys lived. Within a few days they would be digging at another property owned by
the group, and then eventually in Baxter State Park in Maine and in Rhode Island. For
weeks the mystery deepened as the authorities could find no sign of the boys, and the
parents along with other members of the group refused to tell the police anything.
Unsurprisingly, the story galvanized intense and enduring coverage from New England
print and broadcast outlets. Most of them covered the story as a straight-ahead crime
story, a mystery set among a tiny isolated group that sometimes called itself "The
Way" and that had fewer than 50 members, almost all members of the Daneau and
Robidoux families. In the normal style of such coverage, the journalists pretty much
accepted the comments of the authorities without question or independent research.
The religious group under investigation was not only tiny and obscure, it was
aggressive about its withdrawal, rejecting all dealings with the American legal system,
public education, organized religion, banking, the entertainment industry, science, and
medicine. Within days, eight members of the group were in jail, charged with contempt of
court for refusing to cooperateor even to speak with the authorities. Very little
information about the group, its beliefs, history, or dynamics came to light, which made
both investigation and reporting hard.
But in January a state juvenile court judge removed 13 children from the group. A few
months later, the same judge attracted national media attention by placing Denise Corneau,
a pregnant woman who was at the center of suspicion, under custody. When she refused
medical care, he sent her to a secure state facility because he was concerned that she
might starve or neglect her newborn, tooan order that caused some uneasiness among
lawyers and pro-choice advocates worried about precedents for jailing uncooperative
The drama continued with a high degree of media coverage until October 23, when Denise
Corneaus husband David, faced with the threat of the permanent loss of parental
rights over his four children, broke silence and cut a deal with prosecutors. Corneau then
led investigators to the spot in the Maine state park where the group had buried the
bodies of his infant son Jeremiah and 10-month-old Samuel Robidoux, Corneaus nephew.
On November 13, prosecutors indicted two group members for murder and one as an accessory.
Its difficult to judge on the basis of the coverageso many questions are
left unaskedbut it appears that Robert Pardon played a significant role in virtually
every step of the investigation and its coverage.
So little information was available about "The Way" that journalists seem to
have drifted into using Pardon as virtually their sole source of information about it. For
his part, Pardon, who was almost universally described in stories as simply a "cult
expert," was happy to talk to reporters. And over the course of time he provided an
increasingly detailed portrait of "a dangerous and destructive high control
The most extensive effort to present the history and teachings of the Daneau-Robidoux
group was Paul Edward Parkers 2,110-word article in the Providence Journal on
September 11, which begins, "A cult expert who is advising the district
attorneys office on the case says that sect member David Corneaus request for
a lawyer is monumental." After quoting an assistant district attorney in the fourth
paragraph, Parker relies for the entire remainder of the story on Pardon, making 30
consecutive attributions to the man he identifies again as "an ordained minister and
cult expert." The story explains its almost total reliance on one source by
asserting, "Perhaps more than any outsider, Pardon knows how the minds of the sect
Parkers reliance on Pardon was extreme, but it wasnt uncommon. In
September, after months of coverage, the Boston Herald began to refer to Pardon as
a "noted cult expert" rather than as simply a "cult expert," largely
because it had quoted him so often. The first firmand accuratereference to
Pardons institute as an "anti-cult organization" appeared in an AP story
that moved on October 26, 2000after the discovery of the childrens bodies.
Pardon may have been in on the story from the beginning. The investigation began in
November 1999, when a former group member named Dennis Mingo told the Massachusetts
Department of Social Services that, based on his readings of journals kept by current
group members, two children might have died from lack of adequate nutrition or medical
care in the spring of that year. Mingo later told several journalists that he had been
"deprogrammed" after leaving the religious group earlier in 1999.
As it happens, the New England Institute of Religious Research is a local organization
that provides counseling for persons trying to leave cults. Its not clear from the
coverage, but its a good bet that Pardon had a role in Mingos adjustment to
life beyond the Attleboro group. Pardon, for example, is quoted in Paul Edward
Parkers September 11 Providence Journal story as saying his involvement in
the case began in November. No one asked why Mingo decided to approach authorities, or who
helped him in the process. But plenty of stories connect Mingo and Pardon.
By the late fall of 1999 investigators were bogged down. Digging in three states
hadnt produced bodies. Despite imprisonment, no one in the group itself was talking.
And the only evidence in their hands was thousands of pages of journals kept by members.
In fact, Dave Wedge of the Boston Herald reported on January 6 that investigators
couldnt make sense of "hundreds of pages of the groups rambling religious
journals" that included some discussion of the missing boys. One journal seemed to
suggest that Jeremiah Corneau died stillborn and suggested that Samuel Robidoux had been
denied food for weeks in the spring of 1999.
At some point, Attleboro Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Nasif asked Pardon to read the
journals and to advise him about their meaning and about the Attleboro group. No
journalist has ever asked how or why Pardon was selected or why other "experts"
were not consulted.
Pardon and his associate Judith Barba then pored through the journals and produced a
20-page report for Nasif tracking the groups evolution from a splintered Catholic
bible study group in the late 1970s through affiliation with groups like the World Wide
Church of God and, after 1997, into an increasingly isolated, dangerous, and authoritarian
body that awaited visions from God about appropriate child care. Most of the analytical
structure of the report, which eventually circulated widely among journalists, was derived
solely from the work of committed evangelical Protestant anti-cultists.
In January, Nasif made Pardon the legal guardian of the 13 children removed from the
Attleboro families. Pardons guardianship is mentioned frequently in subsequent
coverage, but no reporter asked him what his role was or why he was selected as guardian.
Globe columnists like Eileen McNamara and Adrian Walker sharply criticized
Nasifand especially his decision to place the pregnant Rebecca Corneau in
custodyon the grounds that she was an unfit mother and member of "a bizarre and
dangerous cult." But no one asked where Nasif derived these judgments about the
group. The Globes liberal columnariat never knew that it all was coming from
an evangelical with a mission.
As the story came to a climax in September and October, Pardon was quoted frequently by
journalists. The APs Jay Lindsay reported on October 26 that Pardon had identified
David Corneau "early" to investigators "as someone who might break from the
group." In this period, Pardon was interviewed by journalists at outlets ranging from
the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle to NBC News on the state of mind of cult members in
jail. They printed his assessments of why, for example, group members werent
contesting state procedures to take their children away.
Evidently, state officials also used Pardon and his expertise enthusiastically. He
visited group members in jail and began visiting Corneau repeatedly to try to chip away at
his loyalty to the Attleboro group.
On October 26, WCVB in Boston aired a lengthy news report on "the break in the
case" that turned Corneau. That happened "when an expert who studies religious
sects went to prison to try to talk to David Corneau. The Rev. Robert Pardons visit
to David Corneau was about to end like other prison visits he made to members of a
religious sectwith a firm I dont want to talk to you, a turned
back and a swift exit. But then Pardon mentioned Corneaus three little girls and
pulled out their pictures. Corneaus eyes filled with tears. Before returning to his
cell, he abruptly grabbed the pictures. Thats when Pardon knew, he said, that
Corneau might eventually break ranks with other members of his Attleboro-based cult."
Versions of this high-pressure tacticattributed only to Pardon
himselfappeared in the AP and in other newspapers.
Why werent reporters curious enough to ask probing questions about Pardon? They
didnt have to look very hard to learn that he doesnt present himself as a
neutral expert, but rather as a very committed partisan in the debate over whether
"cults" or "new religious movements," are legitimate.
The web site of the New England Institute for Religious Research
(http.people.ne.mediaone.net/neirr.html) discloses that it is a freestanding organization
with two staff members. It was, the site notes, "founded in 1991 to combat the rise
of cults, the occult and aberational Christianity in New England." It is "a
mission outreach called to provide churches, organizations and concerned individuals with
up to date research on cultic structures."
The site notes that the institutions staff members "hold advanced degrees in
their fields." This turns out to mean Pardons M.Div. (the standard professional
degree for Protestant clergy) from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Barbas
M.Ed. from Cambridge College.
There is nothing illegitimate or sinister about Pardon, the Institute, or its sense of
committed ministry. Pardon himself is totally up-front about its purpose and approach. The
word "Attleboro" flashes in bright green letters on the Institutes home
page and is followed by a list of links to news stories on his role.
Further, theres no sign that his analysis of the Attleboro group was wrong.
Things evidently did go tragically wrong in Attleboro. But Pardon and his institute are
highly committed a priori to a particular conservative Protestant interpretation of
such sectarian groups. The institutes Web Site, for example, doesnt cite
sources that arent evangelical Protestant or give a sense that the realm of
"anti-cult" activity is a highly contested matter.
Once again, Pardon himself makes it clear to all comers that hes a religiously
committed activistone blurb on his site notes that there "are hundreds of ways
the Institute helps people, including crisis intervention for those caught in cults, and
counseling for those who have loved ones trapped in some aberrant religious group."
The problem is that no one asked what Pardons judgments about aberrance should
mean in a non-religious context like a criminal investigation.
Religious aberrance is, after all, in the eyes of the beholder. Helpfully, the
institutes web site provides a lengthy "list of cults/occult/new age groups and
aberrational Christian groups." It makes mention of Jonestown and Branch Davidians,
as well as Scientology and many groups that have been involved in high profile
controversies, including criminal matters. But Pardons list also names, for example,
the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Mormons, the Bahai faith, the Jehovahs
Witnesses, and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (a largely gay
denomination) as object of special concern. Unitarian cultists! In Massachusetts!
Pardon may be a little disingenuous, but the real difficulty is that the Commonwealth
of Massachusetts turned to him as its sole in-house expert without acknowledging or
considering his partisanship. And no journalist asked why.
It might have been different if one of the metropolitan papers had brought in its
religion reporterthe person on staff most likely to have had a clue about how
contentious the terrain of cults and cult fighters actually is. This is so because Pardon
isnt going away.
In August of 1999, two months before the Attleboro story broke, the Boston Globe
and the New Bedford Standard-Times both carried sizeable stories about a local
controversy in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Lakeville. Pardon and his institute
were seeking permission to convert a nursing home into a "safe-home" for
"former member of high-pressure religious groups."