Friday, January 18, 2019

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are Free at Last...

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest defenders of civil rights, freedom and integrity that this now beleaguered country of ours has ever seen.

He spoke many wise words. Here are some of my favorite quotes of his that I have a special fondness for and have taken into my heart because they speak directly to me about my own struggles:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.


So, it seems very fitting to me that on this weekend when we will celebrate the 90th anniversary of his birth (January 15, 1929), I can announce that the legal troubles that have plagued me for the last seven years, are finally over. I am obliged not to speak about them in any detail. I can, however, express my gratitude to my attorney, Peter Skolnik, who is an eloquent and valiant defender of human rights.

Some of his words on my behalf:


Cults do not like it when members leave.  They like it even less when an AWOL member publicly criticizes the practices that expose the cult’s psychic tyranny and that have prompted the escape. 
Bette Leahy escaped from the cult known variously to its members as, inter alia, “Odyssey Study Group, “school” and “the work.”  
Like others who had left, Leahy posted comments, opinions and statements of fact about the cult leader and various cult members in internet blogs.  Those postings led, in fairly rapid succession, to five separate lawsuits filed against Leahy by active cult members in five separate New York counties.  None of the plaintiffs was the cult leader, who followed the cult litigation playbook by remaining behind the curtain.  Four of the five suits have been dismissed.  Only this frivolous defamation action.... remains pending. 
These relevant facts should be considered:
·     Leahy was a member of the cult for over 18 years. 
·     Leahy gave approximately $246,000 to the cult during the years of her membership.  
·     The cult’s leader’s “authority is unquestioned and omnipotent,” and she issues orders     and instructions to her followers.  

·     Leahy was sued by five cult members.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

You are not a victim for sharing 
your story. 
You are a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. 
And you never know who needs 
your light, 
your warmth and your 
raging courage.

-alex elle

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

 “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

“Be yourself. Love yourself. Show others that you love them. And live your life to the fullest every single day.”
- Kim O’Neill

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Systematic Starvation of Those Who Do Good

Despite the importance of human services and other nonprofits to employees and those they serve, many nonprofit workers do not earn a living wage. We can do better.

By Jeremy Kohomban & David Collins 

See Original Article

I am quoting this article here as a person who works for a non-profit, community service agency, who makes barely above minimum wage (in spite of having a number of advanced degrees) and who has paid over $100,000. thus far to fight absurd, frivolous and abusive lawsuits brought against me by a cult.

Late last year, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli reported that nonprofits in New York employ nearly 1.3 million people, representing more than 18 percent of all private employment in the state. In New York City alone, human service organizations—those focused on the overall quality of life of local populations, and often addressing the most economically intractable and politically unappealing problemsemploy more than 200,000 people. Yet despite the importance of these institutions to employees and the people they serve, many nonprofit workers do not earn a living wage.

Across the United States, nonprofits struggle to pay competitive wages, especially in the human services sector. New York nonprofits have the third-highest prevalence of low wages in the private sector, behind food service and retail. This is in spite of the fact that its human services workforce is highly skilled and highly educated—two-thirds of workers have some college education, and close to half hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. One factor in the widespread acceptance of these low wages may be that, across the state, 82 percent of these workers are women, and 50 percent are people of color. Both of these groups typically earn less than their counterparts who are white, male, or both. Both women and people of color also tend to come into our workforce with higher levels of student debt, making low pay all the more burdensome.  

The negative effects of poor pay are wide-ranging and institutionalized, and they pose an existential threat to the nonprofit sector as it currently exists. Following the sudden bankruptcy of Federation Employment and Guidance Service (FEGS) in 2014—an 81-year-old, $250 million human services nonprofit in New York City—the Human Services Council’s Commission on Nonprofit Closures reported that the systematic underfunding of nonprofits has led to “salaries so low that many nonprofit employees depend on safety net programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid. It also results in inadequate investment to keep facilities safe and in good repair.” Ann Goggins Gregory & Don Howard describe this underfunding as a “starvation cycle,” where nonprofits settle into a “low pay, make do, and do without” culture.

This dynamic is bad for everyone—for children and families, for communities, and certainly for employees. It is also frustrating for public agencies charged with achieving results via contracts with the nonprofit sector and for the taxpayers who foot the bill.

So how did we get here?

The approach to poverty in American politics generally—and in public child welfare specifically—has always been influenced by the widespread understanding of poverty as primarily a moral and personal failing, rather than a structural issue. Child and family poverty, and the policy levers pulled in response to it, have also been marked by significant racial inequity. Throughout its history and up to the present day, the United States (to a greater extent than other developed countries) places strict means testing on its safety net, requiring that families demonstrate great need prior to receiving assistance. We must understand strict means testing as a policy strategy, then, within this politically and morally charged historical context.

This dynamic provides insight into the old adage (widely attributed to the civil servant and Great Society architect Wilbur J. Cohen) that “a program for the poor is just a poor program.” The efficacy of means testing as a policy approach is debatable, but the record is nuanced, and entangled with a variety of demographic and economic factors.  Nevertheless, case studies dating from the 19th century to the present day—including the institutional failures of the poorhouse movement, the rise and fall of mothers’ pensions in the early 20th century, and, more recently, the ferocious backlash against many War on Poverty programs—demonstrate how this segregation of programs for the very needy creates negative stereotypes and connotations. Programs designed (or perceived to be designed) exclusively for poor or marginalized populations tend to be politically vulnerable and viewed with scorn, and tend to convey this scorn and stigma to recipients through their resources, administrative structures, and requirements.

A 2006 paper by Jennifer Stuber and Mark Schlessinger showed that the stigma associated with means tested programs may also disproportionately impact people who are members of racial minorities. One of the reasons we see such disregard for the sustainability of the nonprofit sector—which in many places is the primary venue for poor Americans to receive assistance—is the trickle-down of these pejorative attitudes to our own workforce. The result is a stigma around market-rate compensation for personnel at all levels of nonprofit and charity organizations, as noted in recent articles chronicling the high turnover at leading nonprofits in Chicago and elsewhere.

In New York City, as in other places, this dynamic is currently exacerbated by a wide gap in the treatment of public sector employees and their nonprofit counterparts. While the city has rightfully taken steps to increase compensation for its own employees working in challenging front-line jobs, it has neglected to do the same with its nonprofit partners, which compose a much larger percentage of the front-line workforce. Some community-based service contracts in New York City have not seen a reasonable rate increase in a decade, even as costs have risen steadily across the board.

In a famous 2006 comparison of the labor practices of Sam’s Club and Costco, management professor Wayne Cascio demonstrated how better pay and more generous benefits in the retail sector could actually improve the bottom line by reducing turnover and supporting improved productivity. Readers recognized that the Costco model was good for everyone—the organization, workers, and consumers. Why would we not apply the same thinking to our sector?

Breaking this cycle is a challenge, but we must face it. Public and private funders must send the message that living wages for workers in the nonprofit and human services sector are a priority—particularly when state and local budgets are stretched thin, there is an emphasis on cost containment in public contracts, and individual agencies do not have the leverage to push back. Similarly, foundations and private donors often focus on efficiency and cost-per-outcome when making awards. Neither of these perspectives are wrong; human services agencies should focus on achieving measurable outcomes, and public agency administrators have a responsibility to tax payers to spend their dollars wisely. However, we hope funders also keep in mind the high cost of low wages: systematic devaluation of the nonprofit employee! Fiscal responsibility and efficiency need not be synonymous with poverty wages.

To this end, we applaud the Ford Foundation’s willingness to challenge what it calls “the overhead fiction,” where “foundations, governments, and donors force nonprofits to submit proposals that do not include the actual costs of the projects.” The foundation commits to providing 20 percent in overhead going forward—an amount we agree fully funds the cost of indirect operations.

Some public and private funders are also beginning to deploy performance-based funding, social impact bonds, capitated rates, or other financing models. Some of these approaches show promise, and we try to embrace them whenever possible. But it can be difficult for many nonprofits to assume the level of risk inherent in these contracts when finances and administrative bandwidth are already stretched to the limit. We believe that returning the sector to a baseline of financial health is a necessary first step to reap the benefits of these new funding models, and that outcome measures must be designed with client and community priorities in mind, not just bottom-line savings.

We hope to see much more progress in this area. Ultimately, the “low pay, make do, and do without” culture sends a message to the children and adults the nonprofit sector serves. What does the system say about your worth if the person helping you is paid so little they need public assistance to feed their own family?


We can do better. We must do better.




Thursday, April 27, 2017

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging and joy - the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Free Speech


Originally published by:
International Cultic Studies Association


Free Speech and Cultic Litigation Interview With Attorney Peter Skolnik



ICSA Today, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2017, 2-5
Free Speech and Cultic Litigation: Interview With Attorney Peter Skolnik
Esther Friedman
In 2011, I left a philosophy group. I started researching cults. Everything I read echoed my 
experiences to the letter, and I recognized that I had been recruited and indoctrinated. I 
decided to expose this deception in a blog (cultconfessions.com) and, of course, the cult 
tried to sue me. It didn’t work, but I was lucky. Typically when a cult sues a whistle-blower, 
years of stress and accumulating expense follow.

Today cults can leverage litigation to intimidate and muzzle whistle-blowers. Cults have 
money and can afford lawyers. Many cults have a template for frivolous legal filings. In 
contrast, there are no established protections, structures, or supports in place for 
defendants. Resources are few and far between. Most former members can’t afford 
counsel, and pro bono legal help is nearly impossible to find.

In 2014, ICSA conducted a free-speech survey of its membership (see the report in 
this issue). The purpose was to begin understanding the extent and impact of cultic 
litigation and start documenting it. Respondents provided snapshots of how cults 
suppressed their free speech through the court system, and the toll such litigation 
takes on those threatened and/or sued.

I interviewed nine of the respondents. They reported legal strategies that ranged from 
manipulation of divorce and custody battles to restraining orders, defamation accusations, 
accusations of violating religious freedom, multiple lawsuits filed against one defendant, 
and—in the most extreme cases—criminal charges and jail time. All reported multiple 
obstacles to finding legal counsel. Even those who could afford representation found 
most lawyers unwilling to take on cult cases. Those lawyers who did take on the cases 
were unprepared for the cultic legal strategies: intimidation tactics, intentional convolution 
of the facts, unnecessary complications, relentless discovery filings.

Attorney Peter Skolnik is the exception. I interviewed the New York-based lawyer, who 
started litigating against cults in 2000. He represented the Cult Education Institute when 
Landmark Education sued its founder, Rick Ross, for defamation. He has continued 
litigating against cults ever since. In an interview, he discussed his experiences, the legal 
strategies commonly employed in the majority of his cases, and effective responses.

“I think that, for me, it’s always been a function of finding that my clients were intelligent, 
sympathetic folks who really needed protection from onerous, overbearing litigation,” 
Mr. Skolnik said. “I have never had the slightest iota of respect for any of the groups that 
have brought these litigations … to some large degree, I’ve always viewed this all 
as a mitzvah.”1 

Indeed, Mr. Skolnik has provided 15 years of pro bono counsel for the Cult Education 
Institute, and also has taken on other cult cases. Most of the time the cult in question 
follows the Scientology model—the objective is to wear down the defendant financially 
and psychologically; winning, losing, truth, and justice are all inconsequential in such 
cases. As L. Ron Hubbard is known to have stated within Scientology policy documentation: 

The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win. The law can be used 
very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge 
anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his 
professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly. (1955, p. 157)

Sadly, Hubbard’s statement proves true. When I was seeking legal help, many who had 
seen, or experienced, cult cases discouraged me. I was told that the more tangled the web, 
the more expense accumulates—both financial and emotional. Many defendants are sued 
into bankruptcy; many settle cases simply to end the stress and move on with their lives; 
many plaintiffs are thus empowered to impose gag orders on those who could be exposing 
deceptive and predatory groups.

I am not a lawyer. I am an expressive-arts therapist. As a mental health professional I would 
argue that these gag orders are damaging, both to the individual and democracy as a whole. 
But, as noted, no protections exist against frivolous litigation, and cults don’t like to be called 
cults. It’s bad for business. People join religious groups, Bible studies, yoga classes, 
self-help programs, philosophy classes, theater groups, management trainings, and so on. 
People don’t join cults. Cults must brand and market themselves as something else.

It stands to reason that when a cult is called out, a lawsuit may follow. In the interview, 
Mr. Skolnik said,

The word has a very ugly connotation … there are other kinds of cults that are more 
innocuous, more fan-based than anything else. But the leaders of these cults, who rely on 
adherence, typically for money, sometimes for power, or for their own sense of power … 
they don’t like to be called cults.

The label might get members questioning: “I never wanted to join a cult! Why aren’t you 
doing something about this?”

Additionally, Mr. Skolnik said that cult leaders typically believe, “…they are really on the 
side of the angels and that there’s nothing inappropriate with what they’re doing.” This 
belief is necessary to proliferate an ideology that relies on a contrived social hierarchy—
one in which societal laws, rules, and norms don’t apply to those in the cult, especially 
the leadership. The narrative of an “us” — those in the group—verses a “them”—those 
not in the group—is one of the hallmarks of culthood and, ironically, one of the hallmarks 
that could be exposed if whistle blowers were protected legally.

But when groups believe themselves superior beings on altruistic missions, it is also easy 
to buy into another belief: The end justifies the means. Justice and truth seeking can 
drop out of the picture.

“The strategy is to wear you down, I think, in most cases,” Skolnik said. “A lot of them 
[cults] litigate a lot and are used to having lawyers on the other side who haven’t done this 
before, who don’t want to be involved in these cases and who are easy to push around.”

In his experience, Mr. Skolnik has typically seen the following strategies: The opposing 
counsel buries the defendant in unnecessary, never-ending, overarching discovery. 
Independent law offices don’t have the resources to manage the relentless document 
demands. They also commonly intimidate through depositions—subpoenaing the 
defendant’s friends, family, and close associates. Legal fees, and stress, accumulate. 

When asked why the court system allows such frivolous litigation, Mr. Skolnik explained 
that when a complaint is filed, courts are obligated to respond, regardless of the merit of 
the complaint. If the defendant doesn’t respond, the court has to do something.

“One way or another, the wheels of the court system have to begin,” he said.

How long they grind on is one of those issues that circle back to how intelligently the 
lawyer who represents the defendant is able to start pushing the right buttons. 
But is it an abuse of the court system? I think it absolutely is.

There is no established infrastructure to weed out frivolous suits. Mr. Skolnik said that 
one of his cases has been grinding on since 2006; the cult in question files continuous 
lawsuits against detractors.

Mr. Skolnik said,
If you leave that group, you’re likely to be sued on some trumped-up charges that will 
cost you so much to defend that you are forced into bankruptcy. When you are forced 
into bankruptcy, they will litigate that you should not be allowed a discharge in the 
bankruptcy.

They have done this to 10 people whose names I can give you. They litigate and litigate 
and litigate; they have destroyed lives. They have harassed almost to the grave. 
It is simply their strategy. It is simply their way of saying, “You mess with us, 
you’re going to be very sorry.”

His experiences paint a grim picture. However, he offered some “right buttons” to push 
when taking on cultic litigation. The lawyers must begin, he said, by educating the judge 
about the group, exposing patterns of cultic practices that include frivolous litigation and 
other such maneuvers against detractors. He said,

Some judges get it pretty quickly and they know what they are dealing with; others either 
don’t get it, or, for one reason or another, are unwilling to clamp their fist[s] down on 
overreaching, onerous, harassing litigation tactics by the cults. Between lawyers who don’t 
really know what they are getting themselves in for and judges who don’t become sufficiently 
and quickly enough educated to know what they are dealing with, that can cause problems 
all around.

Additionally, he calls defamation claims “the horse that draws the cart,” the central claim 
in most cases; other charges may be tagged on, but typically these suits rely primarily 
on defamation. Federal defamation laws have become more sympathetic to defendants 
over the past 30 years. Federal First Amendment constitutional principles that protect the 
defendant must be applied by state courts. For example, defendants previously had to 
prove that their statements were true; now the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the 
allegedly defamatory statements are not true.

“One tip I would have for a lawyer who is taking on one of these cases, and has very little 
experience, is to learn the law of defamation,” Mr. Skolnik said.

There is very likely to be far more protection for your client, because one of the rules in a 
defamation claim is that the plaintiff has to say exactly what it is that your client said that 
the plaintiff thinks is defamatory.

Additionally, the defamatory statement must be factual—statements of opinion are not 
actionable. Therefore, plaintiffs must provide a specific statement and cannot modify the 
filing unless the court grants permission.

“Defamation cases are always about what freedom of expression really means, what you 
are allowed to say and what you are not allowed to say,” he said. “Defamation law is also, 
by definition, state law. There are federal constitutional principles, but the specifics of 
defamation law are a state-by-state matter.”

However, when that plaintiff is a public figure, the First Amendment has an additional 
requirement: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew he was lying when the 
statement was made.

Mr. Skolnik said,

They essentially have to really prove that “the defendant is really just doing this to bug me. 
He or she knows that it’s a lie, or that it’s likely a lie, but is just hoping to get away with it.”

Additionally, he reported, “Cults do not like discovery aimed at their finances.” Oftentimes, 
when facing a court-upheld document request for financial papers, a cult will withdraw its case.

When asked how important it is for lawyers to understand the psychological impact of cultic 
practices on their client, Mr. Skolnik said that it is important to understand the degree to which 
a cult has impacted her decisions and actions:

Sometimes there are ways to bring that to the litigation and to the judge’s attention in ways 
that are useful because, again, it’s part of that education of the judge. If you can show a 
court that, while my client was involved in this cult, she was forced to disinherit her children 
and leave her husband, judges are going to pay some attention to that. So sometimes it will 
have a direct impact on the way you litigate the case.

But primarily understanding the psychology helps the lawyer also understand the overall 
gestalt, the environment of the group and the pressures applied on members. Mr. Skolnik 
likened it to a theater director understanding an actor’s creative process. It might not shape 
the litigation strategy, but it might, and it is always useful in a lawyer’s relationship with the 
client. In some cases, the group’s psychological profile informs the type of discovery that 
would be most impactful.

I have read through a number of Mr. Skolnik’s legal filings in connection with one particular 
cult case, and have noted that these papers illustrate the tips he outlined for this article. 
He makes a point of telling the judge, repeatedly, that the plaintiff is involved in a cult. 
He blares spotlights on misleading, convoluted, or avoidant litigation strategies at every 
opportunity. He does not hesitate to call out the opposing counsel for misusing and 
manipulating the court. When the opposing counsel convolutes a legal filing; omits facts; 
drags on the action unnecessarily, letting court-mandated deadlines slip past; and other 
such distracting or evasive tactics, he immediately calls it to the judge’s attention. Clearly his 
intention is to educate the judge and expose the group.

But even given his knowledge, and his track record, he expresses a cautious pessimism. 
Mr. Skolnik said,

The First Amendment is probably the most important piece of legislation in this country, 
but there’s a cost for defending it. And very often the poor man or woman who gets on 
the wrong side of these cases has to ask, “What is ultimately in my best interest: pay the 
lawyers, or fold?”

Everything circles back to the inequity of the judicial system. At the end of the day, the 
reality is that cults have a steady stream of income and resources at their fingertips, 
while the former members and critics typically do not.

It’s disheartening to hear this summation from a counselor who has been successfully 
litigating against cults for more than a decade. But certainly cults are not the only 
institutions to abuse the courts intending to silence critics. It would be interesting to know 
how extensive this misuse is and what kind of ripple effects such abuse sends out into the 
social fabric of our country. It would be useful to know how much wear and tear it inflicts on 
free speech, one of the pillars of American democracy. Does it threaten our democracy? 
How invested are we, as a country, in protecting free speech, our tax dollars, and our court 
system? And is it possible to build a coordinated political/legal infrastructure to counter 
such abuse and misuse of the courts?

At the most superficial level, nonmeritorious lawsuits are a blatant misuse of tax dollars. 
The extent of the damage inflicted by cultic abuse of the courts is hard to fathom. As a 
nonlawyer, I’m out of my league when it comes to answers. But the fact that it does cause 
damage is undeniable, and I’d like to believe that something could be done to protect our 
free speech and our tax dollars from the ironic misuse and abuse of our courts.

Note

[1] A mitzvah is “a commandment of the Jewish law” or “a meritorious or charitable act” 
(see http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mitzvah).

Reference

Hubbard, L. Ron. (1955). A manual on the dissemination of material. In L. Ron Hubbard, 
The technical bulletins of Dianetics and Scientology, Volume II, 195 –1956 (p. 157). 
Available online at: 
http://www.tep-online.info/laku/usa/reli/scien/SECRETDOX/1954_56.PDF

About the Author

Esther Ruth Friedman is a Boston-based expressive-arts therapist with a master’s 
degree from Lesley University, and a performing songwriter and recording artist. In 2006 
a friend invited her to meet a “group of friends who got together on Tuesday and Thursday 
nights to discuss ideas.” In 2011 she left the group, began researching the group's origins, 
and discovered she had been recruited into what she now views as a secret cult called 
School. In the 1970s, a man named Alex Horn employed the teachings and ideas of 
Russian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff and created The Theater of All Possibilities in San 
Francisco. Investigative news reporters exposed the Theater after the 1978 Jonestown 
tragedy. The group left San Francisco to reemerge in New York City and Boston, where it 
continues to operate as a secret, esoteric, mystery school. After discovering that School 
was not all that it claimed to be, Esther started researching high-demand groups and 
employed writing and songwriting as recovery tools. She posted her experience online 
in a blog called Cult Confessions. In 2014, the group filed legal papers in New York in a 
failed attempt to establish jurisdiction over her. These experiences have set Esther on a 
new path to build a therapeutic healing-arts practice for former members and abuse 
survivors, and to expose and address how cultic groups manipulate the 
court system to silence criticism.