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Never able to stay out of the news for long, the Aum Shinrikyo cult made headlines last week, but this time with deliberate intent. The unprecedented formal admission by its current acting leader, Ms. Tatsuko Muraoka, that some of the cult’s members were indeed involved in the series of crimes of which the group has been accused was bound to make headlines. Among the crimes, of course, are murder and the terrifying sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 12 people and left another 5,500 ill or injured. What may not have been intended was the suspicion with which the “confession” was greeted by the public and law-enforcement officials alike.

The impact of the public acknowledgment of culpability, sent by fax to news organizations and repeated by Ms. Muraoka on a commercial television news broadcast, was partly eclipsed by simultaneous reports of police raids on the offices and facilities of another cult, Honohana Sanpogyo, on suspicion of defrauding some of its members out of large sums of money. The leader is accused of falsely promising to cure serious illnesses, including cancer, which were allegedly diagnosed through the curious practice of “reading” the soles of people’s feet.

This development came only days after police discovered in a Chiba hotel room the mummified remains of a 66-year-old man being tended by two members of still another cult, the Life Space group. The body was that of a former longtime member who died of natural causes after being removed from a hospital by his own son and other cult members, who insisted to the police that he was still alive and would be revived by their healing guru. He had been dead at least four months. It may be only coincidence, but these events involving religious cults occurred just as the Diet is deliberating two bills for laws intended to control the activities of Aum Shinrikyo, but which avoid mentioning the group by name.

One of the bills is aimed at groups that commit indiscriminate mass murder, “including those using sarin in the past 10 years.” The other allows officials to confiscate the assets of such an organization to pay compensation to the victims of its crimes. Unbiased observers have good reason to suspect that Aum Shinrikyo’s belated apology to the public and its acknowledgment of the criminal responsibility of some of its members is directly tied to this proposed new legislation. The connection would also explain Ms. Muraoka’s statement, without offering specific details, that the cult will provide “as much compensation as possible” to the victims of its crimes and their families.

While justifiable concern is being expressed about possible human-rights abuses in the application of the new laws, it is unlikely that the present acting Aum leader will have garnered much sympathy with her plea that the proposed legislation not be applied to their organization. The statement issued by Ms. Muraoka makes no mention whatever, for example, of the cult’s current relationship with its founder Shoko Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto), on trial form for his alleged involvement in a total of some 17 crimes. Her later comments on television that Aum will abide by the decisions of the court in the Asahara case but that members will continue to revere him as a religious leader are not encouraging.

The cult statement acknowledging criminal culpability apparently resulted from the announcement in late September that Aum would cease conducting any of its regular activities while it undertook a review of the crimes with which it was charged. Ms. Muraoka may want the public to believe her statement to be an “apology from the heart,” but she may find it more difficult to deal with the dubious offer of compensation. She intends to announce the details of the cult’s planned offer as well as to divulge its assets sometime in January. However, Aum Shinrikyo as an organization was declared bankrupt as long ago as March 1996. The bankruptcy administrator with whom she said the matter would be discussed has dismissed suggestions of compensation by individual members as “nonsense,” since they have no personal assets.

Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom must be protected at all costs. This does not mean, however, that protection can be assured for questionable religious groups that engage in criminal activities in which the public, as well as their own members and even the children of their members, may be the victims. Of course, most of the some 220,000 religious groups registered in Japan are legitimate. Those that are not, and which prey on and defraud the innocent, the ill and the confused, cannot always be recognized before tragedy strikes. Nevertheless, every effort to do so must be made.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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