Religious group The Freedom Church has been forbidden from operating in campus premises after the group was accused of targeting vulnerable students, in particular first years.
Suspicions were raised when a concerned parent contacted the director of the university’s Student Services Kevin Child worried that their child had been inducted into a cult.
More concerns were voiced by an anonymous student in early October who contacted Mr Child to discuss his own experiences in dealing with the Freedom Church.
He said: “After attending for a period of eight months I started to have my suspicions as I climbed up in the leadership tree [a tiered system used by the Freedom Church to categorise members].”
The church uses a profiling system in which existing members approach new members as friends and use conversation to collect personal details to use to target them in future.
“I was on a VIP team set to make first time guests feel welcome. My aim was to make a lasting impression to attempt to get them to return the following week. I did this every week for six months and had a team of people working with me to do so.
“I started to view things differently and noticed how new attendees were being treated with flattery and were being profiled as they came in so somebody who had more in common with them could talk to them to make them feel more accepted,” he said.
Immediate investigations followed which confirmed that previous inquiries by other organisations had recognised the church group as exhibiting cultic behaviours. The Freedom Church had already been prohibited from operating on campuses across Cardiff University because of fears over the group’s aggressive operating methods.
After the information emerged, the Freedom Church was prevented from continuing meetings in Swansea University campus buildings.
“As part of my duty of care, I have to investigate anything that’s causing concern over the wellbeing of our students,” said Mr Child.
“Students that have been associated with The Freedom Church, bright young individuals who have been taken in, have been damaged when they realise how they’ve been indoctrinated.
“Feeling deceived and disappointed in themselves not just for being convinced personally but also for involving friends -a big part of their religion is campaigning to convert others.
“Furthermore when they leave that community, they leave feeling bereft having lost what felt like their family and friends,” said Child.
Another student who has left the church said: “I never really was completely happy with it but liked the people so sort of ignored any doubts I had and just dismissed them at first.”
“I do honestly believe that the people that go to Freedom are nice and I have made friends there but they can be a little obsessive over your life. I think you just ignore it because it’s nice to think they actually care about how you are as friends and nothing more. But I think the issue is that they’ve overstepped the mark of being interested in someone’s life and desperately trying to dictate it,” she said.
The Freedom Church flyered campus soon after their removal with leaflets, particularly targeting first-years. Posters were also put up around campus without consent, however security has since removed all unauthorised materials.
Freedom Church materials, their posters, videos, website design and terminology are designed to appeal to a young audience using images and videos of youthful individuals, including modern music and culture.
Part of what caused concern was their limited demographic. “The fact that they seem to target young and reasonably wealthy people rather than just anyone causes concern,” said Kevin Child.
Another cause of concern was instruction from Freedom Church leaders to younger members of the congregation to bypass the advice of family and friends and come straight to them for relationship advice.
The church encourages its young members to marry within the church and to marry young. Two Swansea university students who are both members of the Freedom Church were married this year but refused to comment.
The Freedom Church regularly asks for donations from the congregation.
A former member of the church said: “Money seems to be invested more in the main Hereford centre than the people in the church or the community surrounding it – something that I felt uncomfortable with as the movement seemed quite focused on its own ambitions.”
The church also asks its members to pay £1500 to pay for ‘The academy’, a paid course that on completion allows you to climb further up the leadership tree.
“A member of the Cardiff Freedom Church said: “I joined the church a while ago. I was quite depressed and thought it was the thing to help me. It really wasn’t! I noticed when I didn’t attend the Catalyst meetings, I was pressured to and constantly asked why! I felt I was judged a lot. I didn’t think paying £1500 for the academy was good value for money too.”
When it was no longer possible to hold meetings on Campus, the Freedom Church relocated to the Guildhall. However as a result of close inter-agency partnership working both locally and nationally, the organisation has had its Guildhall booking suspended.
Our anonymous source said: “It’s all flattery and false words. I feel embarrassed as I was a key communicator for making new people feel welcome and I wanted to alert other students to this matter as I want them to be aware.
Our other anonymous source said: “They all said the same phrases: ‘Wow’ ‘Come on’ and ‘Yes Lord’ and if you didn’t say these things clearly you weren’t showing the ‘right’ kind of dedication, which I never liked but again just ignored as I didn’t really want to see it because then I would have to admit I wasn’t completely comfortable with it.
“I am embarrassed to say I was so easily almost ‘brainwashed’ into not noticing anything I didn’t like as I was just so blinded by how nice they were.”
A Swansea University spokeswoman said: “Swansea University is committed to the protection of its students through its Safeguarding Policy and the UK PREVENT Agenda.
“We have also been sharing our concerns with other organisations in the Swansea area to ensure that our students are protected from organisations such as the Freedom Church when outside of the campus as well.”