Fall 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 3

Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock

Preacher Joe

The Mexican Election: Bringing the Church Back In

Rome, Relativism, and Reaction

Waco Redux: Trial and Error

Tibet I: Lama on the Lam

Tibet II: Monastic Spinmeister

The Never Ending Story


Cult Fighting in Massachusetts

by Andrew Walsh

This is a story about the Rev. Robert Pardon and the journalists who covered him—or 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 group’s alleged neglect and abuse of its children.

The Attleboro story—in which three members of the group now face murder charges—attracted 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 year.

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. "We’re 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, it’s 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 cooperate—or 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, too—an order that caused some uneasiness among lawyers and pro-choice advocates worried about precedents for jailing uncooperative pregnant women.

The drama continued with a high degree of media coverage until October 23, when Denise Corneau’s 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, Corneau’s nephew. On November 13, prosecutors indicted two group members for murder and one as an accessory.

It’s difficult to judge on the basis of the coverage—so many questions are left unasked—but 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 destructive group."

The most extensive effort to present the history and teachings of the Daneau-Robidoux group was Paul Edward Parker’s 2,110-word article in the Providence Journal on September 11, which begins, "A cult expert who is advising the district attorney’s office on the case says that sect member David Corneau’s 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 members work."

Parker’s reliance on Pardon was extreme, but it wasn’t 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 firm—and accurate—reference to Pardon’s institute as an "anti-cult organization" appeared in an AP story that moved on October 26, 2000—after the discovery of the children’s 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. It’s not clear from the coverage, but it’s a good bet that Pardon had a role in Mingo’s adjustment to life beyond the Attleboro group. Pardon, for example, is quoted in Paul Edward Parker’s 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 hadn’t 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 couldn’t make sense of "hundreds of pages of the group’s 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 group’s 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. Pardon’s 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 Nasif—and especially his decision to place the pregnant Rebecca Corneau in custody—on 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 Globe’s 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 AP’s 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 weren’t 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 Pardon’s visit to David Corneau was about to end like other prison visits he made to members of a religious sect—with a firm ‘I don’t want to talk to you,’ a turned back and a swift exit. But then Pardon mentioned Corneau’s three little girls and pulled out their pictures. Corneau’s eyes filled with tears. Before returning to his cell, he abruptly grabbed the pictures. That’s when Pardon knew, he said, that Corneau might eventually break ranks with other members of his Attleboro-based cult."

Versions of this high-pressure tactic—attributed only to Pardon himself—appeared in the AP and in other newspapers.

Why weren’t reporters curious enough to ask probing questions about Pardon? They didn’t have to look very hard to learn that he doesn’t 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 ( 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 institution’s staff members "hold advanced degrees in their fields." This turns out to mean Pardon’s M.Div. (the standard professional degree for Protestant clergy) from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Barba’s 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 Institute’s home page and is followed by a list of links to news stories on his role.

Further, there’s 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 institute’s Web Site, for example, doesn’t cite sources that aren’t 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 he’s a religiously committed activist—one 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 Pardon’s 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 institute’s 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 Pardon’s list also names, for example, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Mormons, the Baha’i faith, the Jehovah’s 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 reporter—the 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 isn’t 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."