Like many parents, Debbie Diglio was nervous when her only son, John Stacey, went off to college. But John was a stable, high-achieving, all-American young man who seemed the sort who might succeed in staying out of trouble.

So when John left their home in central New Jersey and registered at New York University in 1992, Debbie Diglio, a nurse by profession, hoped for the best. But, then, shortly into his first semester, she said, "he went away one weekend and vanished."

She first got a sense of trouble when she called his NYU room with happy family news. "My sister had a baby and I called to tell John," she recalled, still with a quaver in her voice. "His roommate said he had gone away with a few new friends he had met."

The roommate remembered that the "new friends" were from a group, known by the acronym, CARP, standing for the innocuous title, Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles. After learning that CARP was "a front group" for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church, Diglio and her husband, John's step-father, began a frantic search.

"I tried to call the church and they said they had no idea who he was."

The Diglios feared the worst, that John would be drawn into the controversial religious sect that has been accused by critics of "brainwashing" impressionable young people into becoming robotic followers of Moon as a new messiah. "When John did call," Debbie Diglio said, "I knew immediately that he was in trouble."

So began a four-year nightmare for Debbie Diglio. Like thousands of other parents in the past quarter century, she had lost a child to the charismatic South Korean who teaches that his movement is building a theocracy that will rule the world. During those four years, Stacey almost completely severed ties to his family and nearly drove his mother to a nervous breakdown.

Though the number of young Americans drawn to Moon appears to be in sharp decline -- his total U.S. church membership in 1997 was estimated at less than 3,000 although church officials insisted the figure was around 50,000 -- the story of John Stacey was a reminder that Moon's controversial recruiting techniques continued.

The Freshman’s Tale

When I interviewed John Stacey four years after his recruitment at a pizza restaurant near his hometown of Piscataway, N.J., the thin, blonde, young man had an edgy way about him, a look that was both vulnerable and cagey. He'd hold my gaze for a minute and then quickly glance away.

But amid the clatter of plates and piped-in rock music, Stacey seemed relaxed talking about his growing-up years as a prototypical Middle American who came from a Baptist background and was close to his family. He was a high school honor student, and when he left for NYU, he said, "my mother was still making me peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches."

Stacey's life detoured when he encountered CARP members on the street near NYU, at the edge of Manhattan's Greenwich Village. "They gave me a survey, and it turned out everything that I was interested in they were interested in," he chuckled. The recruiters invited him to a lecture which stressed positive themes: God, peace, patriotism.

Upset over a fight with his roommate, Stacey agreed to attend a week-long CARP seminar supposedly on "youth decision-making" at a compound located in Queens, N.Y. "They said it was not a religion," he recalled. "They invited me under false pretenses, away from my reference points to another world, it seemed. ... I went there with the impression that all the people there were students like me."

The "students" who surrounded him reinforced the messages from the speakers, while leaders of the group flattered Stacey and attended to his every need. "The seminar is completely rigged," Stacey told me. The other "students" turned out to be Unification Church members who Stacey later learned were "very well trained" in these recruitment methods.

"They gained my trust before I realized they were not worthy of it," Stacey complained. "They used the same tactics that the Chinese communists used. People don't recognize how dangerous it is because they're using mind-control techniques without prior consent. I didn't suspect that they had designs on me. ... It's like a Moonie factory. They sort of clone people there."

Stacey was not held at the Queens compound by force. Rather, he explained, the recruiters employed more subtle techniques of peer-group pressure and isolation. "When I was at that seven-day seminar, I had no idea my parents were trying to find me," he said. "For three months, I never left that property. ... I had five people patrolling me."

A Very Delicate Time

When Stacey did contact his mother, she had received some counseling herself in the methods of cults and knew that it was "a very delicate time in the first few days of recruitment." Her choices were to "scare him or go along with it. So I tried to scare him with [a story that] my husband had a heart attack."

But Diglio said the Unification Church was savvy to the reactions of desperate parents, too. "They called every hospital," she remembered, and found out that Stacey's step-father had not been admitted for treatment. Diglio saw her son slip farther from her reach.

"It was horrifying," Diglio told me. "I didn't sleep. We didn't eat. I had people come out and speak to our extended family [who wanted to know], how can John be so stupid?"

A year after John joined the church, Diglio said she was allowed to visit him "in a Moonie house. It was horrible. I never had a moment to speak to John alone. It was very creepy, very sad, because there are so many young people there, all under Moon's influence."

She was shocked by the changes in her son. "John was very different, very glazed over, trance-like. Did you ever see 'The Stepford Wives'? It was so emotional to watch your only son to be taken and transformed. I kept praying that he would come to his senses."

Inside the church, after his recruitment, Stacey took part in the exhausting and humiliating routine of the "mobile fundraising teams" that travel by van from town to town selling flowers and other cheap items.

Under pressure to meet quotas and fearing harsh criticism if they came up short, members would work feverishly for long hours, seven days a week. They would live on McDonald hamburgers and other fast food. Tired van drivers rushing the fundraising teams to new locations experienced far more accidents than normal.

Some church members went to extremes, even going out in snow storms, in sub-zero temperatures. "I know people who lived in a van for 15 years," Stacey said. "They're very burnt out, these people. ... Fear and guilt are the driving force."

Hiding the Moon Connection

Stacey asserted that the key to the church's fundraising – like its recruitment – is deception. But church members justify the lies because they are serving a larger good, the ascendance of Moon to a position of world dominance. Stacey said, "there's no such thing as truth," outside of Moon's religious teachings, known as The Divine Principle.

"The Divine Principle justifies murder," Stacey stated matter-of-factly. "If you do it for Reverend Moon, it's good. Good and evil are decided by motivation."

When out selling, the fundraisers hid their links to Moon and presented themselves as students raising money for some worthy cause. Stacey said he broke that rule only once, when going door to door selling wind chimes on an island off the coast of Alaska.

"I told everyone that I was doing this for Reverend Sun Myung Moon," Stacey said. "I didn't make a penny. It was the only time in four years that I was honest."

But with his intelligence, hard work and clean looks, Stacey rose quickly through the church's ranks. He opened a CARP office in Portland, Oregon, and became a Pacific Northwest CARP leader based in Seattle, Washington.
In his capacity as a leader, it was his turn to become the recruiter, targeting vulnerable young people and applying the same deceptive techniques that had been employed on him.

"I convinced people to quit school and leave their families," he acknowledged. "Look, I was a con artist."

The fundraising schemes also grew more sophisticated as the church phased out the "mobile fundraising teams" because of bad publicity.

Instead of roaming from city to city, local chapters sold gift items at mall kiosks before Christmas. But always, Stacey said, there was the deception and the certainty that the end – advancing the cause of Moon's church – justified the means.

Stacey's chapter made $80,000 during the holiday season, he said, by working a bait-and-switch tactic: the kiosk would display a decorative light which looked stunning with a powerful halogen bulb. But after the purchase, the customer was given a boxed lamp which contained a "much cheaper" and dimmer bulb.

Growing Disenchantment

Eventually, according to Stacey, the deception and the deification of Moon ate away at his commitment to the church.

He also grew disturbed watching the painful lives of longtime church members who had joined in the 1970s. Then there were gaudy promises of the church's worldwide ascendance and the evolution of church members into perfect beings. Instead, the church has shrunk and none of the members has attained the promised perfection.

"Twenty years later the church is getting smaller, it seems," Stacey told me. "I see the church as very miserable people. ... There's a lot of suffering among the older members."

The rewards, both spiritual and worldly, have gone disproportionately to Moon and his family, Stacey observed. "Reverend Moon is perfect and his wife is perfect, his family is supposed to be perfect. But according to church records, no one [else] had reached perfection."

Through the four years, Stacey had periodic contact with his family. But he hid signs of his doubts. In September 1996, he flew to New Jersey for his mother's birthday and stayed the weekend. Some family members went out to lunch together. Stacey found himself defending Moon.

"When he got back [to the Pacific Northwest]," Debbie Diglio recalled, "he wrote a nasty letter. He was visibly upset that we were laughing at Moon."

Yet privately, Stacey's faith in Moon was breaking down. "When I looked at the leaders, they were all con artists," Stacey concluded. "Reverend Moon is training a race of very charming manipulators. ... He's creating almost an elite force of people who are very charming but very dangerous."

Stacey also was offended by Moon's pretensions that he was superior to Jesus and by Moon's attacks on Americans as "Satanic" because of their belief in individualism.

"I left because it was wrong," Stacey told me. "I was causing my family way too much pain. ... My mother was about institutionalized. They'd cry and cry and cry and beg me to come home."

Then, in January 1997, Stacey called his mother and announced that he was flying to New York. They met in Newark where she works. Only then did he tell her that he was quitting the Unification Church.

"I almost died," Diglio said, "I could not believe it. I thanked God. I was so happy and so frightened at the same time. We just huddled as a family and cried our eyes out. It was so emotional. For four years, it was an all-time low. The distress was so much. I wasn't dealing at all with life. I thought I was losing my mind. I'd wake up at night and cry hysterically."

When I talked with Diglio several months after Stacey's return home, his mother spoke with none of that passion. Her voice sounded drained, the tone of a parent who is relieved that an ordeal with a child is over but is sorry that the ordeal ever happened.

Though glad that her son had returned, Diglio no longer sees Stacey as the same bright-eyed young man who left for college.

The four-year stint with the Unification Church had changed his mannerisms. Though she was hopeful that he would get his life back together – he had decided to attend Rutgers – she was often reminded of the four lost years.

His behavior is still a "little Moonie," Diglio said. "He can't directly look you in the eye."             

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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