NEW YORK (Reuters) – An alleged New York sex cult shielded its founder from new recruits, building the man up as a genius of unparalleled insight whose followers came to view him as “some kind of god,” according to a 12-year veteran of the group.
The longtime member, filmmaker Mark Vicente, is due to resume testifying on Monday at the criminal trial of Keith Raniere, whom federal prosecutors have accused of using his organization Nxivm to facilitate sex trafficking and child pornography.
Vicente said he was commissioned to create videos about Raniere that the upstate New York group intended to debunk what it called lies about him and to head off concerns that it was viewed as a cult. New recruits were not allowed direct contact with Raniere.
“By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing some kind of god,” Vicente recalled in testimony last week.
Raniere’s lawyer has argued at trial that Nxivm’s members, including the “slaves” of a secretive inner sorority who submitted themselves to Raniere’s sexual demands, joined voluntarily and were never forced to do anything against their will. Raniere faces life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors say Raniere traded on his status to force “slaves” to have sex with him and follow near-starvation diets, using the threat of blackmail to bend them to his desires.
Senior figures inside Nxivm were aware of reports suggesting the group was more akin to a cult than the self-improvement training organization it purported to be, Vicente said. The sales pitch, he said, was designed to get around people’s fear of cults.
If recruits said they had read negative stories, instructors would appeal to their egos by saying they were looking for people who were critical thinkers and did not blindly believe the media.
At one point during the introductory course, teachers would bring up the word “cult” themselves, calling it a term without meaning that outsiders who opposed their mission would throw around, Vicente said.
Vicente told jurors last week he was asked by the group’s president, Nancy Salzman, to make videos showing Raniere in a positive light.
“I really would love it if Keith Raniere does not die a criminal in the eyes of the world,” Salzman told Vicente, according to his testimony.
Five of Raniere’s co-defendants, including Salzman, Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and former “Smallville” television actress Allison Mack, have pleaded guilty to related crimes.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and James Dalgleish
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