Chapter 4: Examples of problematic group functioning

Explanations of how groups function internally and externally, presented in Chapter 3, sheds light on how difficulties can arise when living in a community. In this chapter, we apply these theories to three case studies.

These examples explore the path towards violence of three groups: Roch “Moïse” Thériault's group, the Order of the Solar Temple (OTS) and Heaven's Gate.

Although many groups exist in our society, only a minute number of them end in tragedy. The three cases examined here help to illustrate the process by which a group, with a philosophy similar to other organizations, can ultimately resort to violence to achieve its goals.

Each case study provides a history of the group, an analysis of how the group functioned internally and externally as well as an examination of the group's behaviour through the lens of the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Roch “Moïse” Thériault's group

Between the late 1970s and the end of the '80s, a small group of men and women accepted Roch Thériault as their leader.

Roch Thériault believed that God had entrusted him with a special mission to build a better world in preparation for the impending apocalypse, followed by the dawning of a new world.

The group's initial goal was to offer detoxification services, an initiative that attracted a few people who followed Roch Thériault across various regions of Quebec. Most of these individuals believed that this project would bring new meaning to their lives.fn 99

Over a period of about 12 years, some 20 people left their family and friends to live what they believed to be a pure existence, sheltered from temptation and sin. While members were initially motivated to save people from their addictions, their reasons for participating in the group gradually changed. After a few months, they were not only committed to helping people in their detoxification process, but also to helping Roch Thériault achieve his “divine” mission.

During this period, the members of the group pursued the dream of becoming God's chosen people. For some, the experience was difficult at times but generally satisfying. For others, however, the pursuit of the ideal became a nightmare. Some of the members suffered enormously in order to be seen as obedient followers, deserving of acceptance into the Kingdom of God. Others continue, to this day, to suffer physical, psychological and financial scars from their experience. The following section tells their story.

Group history


At the end of the '70s, Roch Thériault was a member of the 7th Day Adventist Church. Driven by a desire to help people free themselves from drug and nicotine addiction, Roch Thériault searched for effective means to achieve that end. He decided to offer health seminars for smokers across Quebec. He described his service as follows:

I organized detoxification sessions in several cities across Quebec, in the counties of Beauce, Lotbinière, Dorchester, Bellechasse. A five-day program based on healthy eating, psychology and group therapy achieved excellent results.fn 100

Thériault talked about his seminars during meetings organized by the 7th Day Adventist Church as well as his plan to help Quebecers overcome their addictions. Following a number of such meetings and discussions, a few Church members decided to join Thériault and pursue his mission of detoxifying Quebecers.

While Thériault did not set out with the objective of founding a group or commune, several members decided to live with him and pursue his mission. According to Thériault, the idea of creating a commune was fortuitous, rather than part of a plan:

The fact that colleagues came to live and work with me led to some serious organizational problems. They had all left paid jobs to devote their time to this new work. Since my courses had no set fee and participants paid what they could at the end of each session, it was impossible for me to pay my helpers. That is what prompted us to create a commune.fn 101

Daily life: the beginnings of group life

At its inception, the group organized free banquets for the underprivileged. In one case it took in a young girl suffering from multiple sclerosis, providing her with care and comfort.

According to Thériault, the free care that was offered to the population created a conflict with members of the 7th Day Adventist Church. Following much discussion between the Church, Thériault and his disciples were banned from the Church.

Despite this conflict, the members continued to offer their detoxification services in various regions of Quebec. After a few months, however, the drop in participants led the members to withdraw to a remote region of Quebec. Thériault perceived that the public had an uncompromising attitude toward his group and asked his members to cut off all contact with family and friends. Referring to the Bible, he justified his demand by stating, “Keep Evil at arm's length.fn 102

During this period, he also asked all the members of the group to wear identical clothes.

On June 5, 1978, a few members talked about exploring the Gaspé region in eastern Quebec to find a new home. Roch Thériault explains his decision to leave the Beauce region in southern Quebec, for the Gaspé:

We had been living all together for close to a year when I decided to move there, without entertaining the idea of bringing the rest of the group with me. I have to admit that my desire to isolate myself in this magical place was irrational, inexplicable and very personal. But time had strengthened our bonds and we were united more than ever in this endeavour. While I had been the catalyst of the group, every major decision concerning the life of the group was always made with the consent of the majority of the members. Thus, I was not surprised that all of the members decided, without hesitation, to join me in preparing for our departure for the mountain.fn 103

On July 9, 1978, the group settled in an isolated area of forest in the Gaspé. Two days later, the group began building a chalet.

Shortly after their arrival in the Gaspé, Roch Thériault decided to give each member a new name to mark their new beginning. Members were asked to draw names from a hat such as: Cain, Judah, Gideon, Rachel, Shuah, Thina, Salome, Elon, Keturah and Ahab. As for Roch Thériault, the members decided to rename him Moïse (Moses).fn 104

On January 3, 1979, Moses fathered his first child in the commune.fn 105 In the ensuing 12 years more than 20 children were born to five women in the group. Moses fathered most of them.

The end of the worldfn 106

Roch Thériault had announced that the world would end on February 19, 1979. When this date came and went, and nothing happened, Thériault explained to his members that God had indicated that date to him but that nothing was certain. He added that one second in the life of God could be 40 years of life on earth and, inversely, one second on earth could be 40 years in God's life, thus, the most likely explanation was that there had been a miscalculation.

The members were not troubled by Thériault's mistaken prediction and together they continued to pursue their goal to assist him in his divine mission.

Roch Thériault's problems with the law and social services

Following a radio interview with Roch Thériault, the police located the group and enforced an existing court order against one of its members. They took him to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation. The police also took Thériault and three other members to the police station for questioning.

The members were freed shortly thereafter but Thériault was accused of obstructing justice for having refused to release the member who was the target of the court order. Following his own psychiatric evaluation, Thériault was deemed unfit to stand trial and was transferred to a psychiatric institution in the Quebec City area.

A second psychiatric evaluation reversed the initial assessment, and Thériault was brought to trial on charges of obstructing justice. He was found guilty and given a suspended sentence. Roch Thériault returned to the commune on April 27, 1979.fn 107

Soon after, physical abuse within the group began. Thériault beat a member (Gabrielle Lavallée) with a belt, punishing her for falling asleep in the bathroom during one of his speeches.

Following this episode, physical punishment of members was meted out more and more frequently. Members even participated in these punishments. Gabrielle Lavallée describes one such episode in which she was the victim:

- Admit that you are less than nothing! (Moses) - It's true, Papy! (Gabrielle) - So then I should punish you? (Moses). - Yes… Actually no… I don't know! (Gabrielle) He turns to the others. - You punish her. Do what you think you should to her. (Moses) Everyone surrounded me, kicking me, pulling my hair, my pubic hair, my armpit hair. I screamed. I was so scared, I soiled myself. Schua screamed and Moses punched her, knocking her off her feet. - When you punish a friend you shouldn't do that. Now hit Tirzah [Gabrielle] the way you deserve to be hit (Moses). She got up off the floor, shaking, walked over to me and kicked me hard in the stomach, which made me double over.fn 108

Roch Thériault increasingly viewed himself as all-powerful. He even believed he had the powers of a shaman and healer. He started forcing treatments on members who were sick. In one case, he gave an enema using warm wine to cure the illness of one of his disciples.

During one wintertime punishment session, he told two members to go outside naked. When one of the punished members exclaimed: “But, Papy, we're freezing outside, we're going to get sick,” Moses answered: “You won't get sick unless I decide you will. Nothing happens here without my consent, as is my Master's desire. Get out! Babylonians.”fn 109

Moses demanded absolute obedience from the members of his group. During one punishment session, he asked a male member to cut off his wife's toe. He obeyed the order. Then, Moses asked this man to cut off Gabrielle's finger, which he also complied with.fn 110

One of the children in the group, named Ezekiel was beaten by another member and injured. To heal him, Moses, assisted by Gabrielle, injected rubbing alcohol into his stomach and partially excised the child's foreskin. On March 23, 1981, a few days after this “operation,” the child died.

With Gabrielle's assistance, Moses then castrated the man who beat the child, believing that this would purify the aggressor.

On November 12, 1981, the police showed up at the commune. They questioned some of the members about an altercation that had taken place between the members and some lumberjacks.

On December 9, 1981, the police returned to the commune after the member who had been castrated told them his story. The police arrested four members, including Moses, for Ezekiel's death. On December 18, they were charged with criminal responsibility for the child's death.

In addition, Gabrielle Lavallée was accused of having deliberately assisted Moses during the castration, and that as a nurse she should have known that the procedure could be dangerous.

On December 23, Judge Jean-Roch Roy sent the disciples of the group an eviction notice. On January 18, 1982, the members who were still living in the commune were evicted by forest rangers.

On September 28, 1982, the four accused members were found guilty of illegally practising medicine, causing the death of young Ezekiel. They all received jail sentences ranging from nine months to one year. During his incarceration, Moses wrote a book about the group's life in the Gaspé forest.fn 111

Departure from Quebec

On May 1, 1984, the group left the Gaspé for Burnt River, Ontario, where the members built a new settlement in a field far from the village.fn 112

But the move did not bring a stop to the group's morbid activities and, on January 26, 1985,fn 113 Gabrielle's son died. The autopsy concluded sudden infant death syndrome. Shortly after this death, a child fled after having been severely beaten. He told police he had been sexually assaulted by Moses. Following this incident, 17 children born in the commune were taken from the group and put in the care of the Children's Aid Society.

On September 29, 1988, a female member (Solange Boilard) died following an operation by Moses for a stomach ache. The group buried her then disinterred her a few days later. This happened three times before her final burial. Moses kept a piece of one of her bones tied on a string around his neck, concealed by his beard.

The group raised money for its basic needs by making and selling bread and pastries door-to-door. On November 5, 1988, Moses extracted eight of Gabrielle's teeth to punish her for low pastry sales. Gabrielle fled after this event, but returned to the group a few days later.

Following this episode, Gabrielle left and returned to the group several times. After a visit to her brother's home on May 23, 1989, Gabrielle returned to the group. By then she had acknowledged that she was scared of Moses but could not live without him.

Shortly after her return, Moses noticed that one of Gabrielle's fingers was paralyzed. He ordered her to show it to him. When she did so, he punctured her hand with a hunting knife. He then insisted that he needed to amputate her hand to prevent gangrene, and proceeded instead to amputate her arm.

Following this event, Gabrielle stashed her clothing and waited for the right time to leave the group. On August 14, she fled the commune for good. Once she arrived in town she was immediately hospitalized and told the police her story.

Five days after Gabrielle's hospitalization, Moses, two of his wives and two children were stopped by the police while trying to flee to the United States. In October 1990, Thériault was found guilty of:

· Extracting eight of Gabrielle's teeth using pliers;

· Injuring her hand;

· Amputating her arm;

· Cauterizing her wound.

Moses was also accused and found guilty of murdering Solange Boilard. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Here is Roch Thériault's account of the events that led to his imprisonment:

A lot of things happened in Burnt River. My alcoholism accounts for much of it, serving as a catalyst for my psychosomatic imbalances. I was criticized in particular for my exploratory surgery on Simone (Solange Boilard), my dear love, when she was at death's door. She died the next day, and I have never recovered. I was also criticized for amputating the arm of one of the members of the group. In addition to the brutal acts I committed under the influence of alcohol and the ascetic fury that possessed me, my illegal practice of medicine exacerbated the situation.fn 114

Roch Thériault's situation in 2005

Roch “Moses” Thériault is still in prison. Since his incarceration in 1989, he has been transferred several times to different Canadian prisons. In each of these prisons, he has received frequent visits from three female members of his group and has fathered four children.fn 115

On July 12, 2002, the National Parole Board refused Thériault's request for parole. It based its decision on various psychological and psychiatric evaluations and concluded that Thériault still represents a danger to society. At that hearing Thériault stated that he was not seeking parole because of his fear of reprisal from the community.fn 116

Analysis of the internal and external functioning of the group

Group norms

Initially, the group's norms consisted of endeavouring to live free of sin. To achieve this, the members had to cut to a minimum their possessions and share what they had.

Some of the norms in place in the early years included:

· Living the lifestyle of the early Christians;

· Living free of sin;

· Renouncing all possessions;

· Devoting one's time to community work;

· Eating as little as possible in order to avoid the sin of greed;

· Submitting to communal confessions;

· Consulting with Moses on any decision;

· Respecting Moses' dress code: a tunic with no undergarments.

Gradually, Moses' control over the members grew, as did the number of rules governing, among other things, their sexual life, daily decisions and interactions with non-members. For example:

· Members wishing to engage in sexual activity had first to be blessed by Moses through the sacraments of marriage, and then obtain his approval for any reproductive activity. Thériault decided which members would have sexual activity and with whom;

· Members were required to have as little contact as possible with people outside the commune, since they were considered impure;

· Mothers were not allowed to personally look after their children. In the group, children's education was the exclusive responsibility of one or two women;

· Members had to learn to follow Moses' every word. They were not allowed to listen to their inner voice, which was considered the voice of the Devil.

Double standard

A few weeks after the group was created, Thériault established one set of norms for the group, and another for himself. For example, while the members could only eat grains and vegetables, Thériault's diet included all four food groups. And while members were not allowed to engage in extramarital sexual relations, he freely engaged in relations with most of the women in the group.

He justified his right to deviate from the established norms by pointing to the sacred nature of his role in the group. As a representative of God, he was permitted to have sexual relations with all of the women so as to sow God's seed on earth. As for his more complete diet, he explained to the group that consuming fresh produce had a devastating effect on his body and, thus, his diet was in fact a way of suffering, and not a sin of greed.


To avoid being punished by Moses, members had to adhere to all of the rules and control their behaviour. Thériault viewed himself as a judge, scrutinizing the members' purity and ability to respect the group's norms. Transgressions resulted in beatings by Moses and sometimes by other members. In fact, purification sessions through violence were one of Moses' favoured methods of punishment.

There were purification periods when, completely naked, Moses would tear us to pieces until we could find the inspiration we needed to write about our wrongdoings in the Journal des enfants d'Israël, our community newsletter. Following these sessions, we would lay all over the house, so wounded that, once, I had to fill a five-gallon pail five times with water to wash away the puddles of blood on the floor.fn 117

Thériault would dissuade members who expressed a desire to leave. Here is an excerpt of one particular episode:

She returned, walking in front of him, holding her back, her face twisted in pain and covered in tears. I realized with shock that he had beaten her. “It's for her own good. I beat her because I love her. Nothing like taking a stick to the back. Roberte no longer wishes to leave; I wrenched the stray sheep from the Devil's clutches and brought her back into the flock.fn 118

Moses' demands for conformity in the commune became more and more extreme. And the sanctions he imposed encouraged extreme submission from the members.fn 119 A former member states:

Today, I realize that the interactions between members of the group, including its leader, were based in large part on a kind of camouflage, a kind of hide-and-seek with the self. All of this was going on under the lofty and sincere pretext of achieving divine Grace through the intercession of the presumed representative of the Supreme Being—a most serious game. As for the so-called representative, the privilege of guarding his flock enabled him to achieve the triumph of heavenly glory.fn 120

I would like to point out that during this entire communal existence, our voyage took place in total silence; conversation among the members was nonexistent. The members followed their zeal inspired by their faith and devotion to a cause that, over the years, had become more and more obscure, a game that had become more and more dangerous. His followers, in their respective roles as dramatic actors, carried out dangerous stunts as part of various episodes in a script for their own salvation from catastrophe. Some tried to initiate dialogue, but in vain; we had fallen victim to fanaticism. We were all stuck in the ideal of a sacrifice that would make us God's children. Daily tasks, in addition to other work, were our only salvation. In our ignorance, we were slipping into the depths of personal degeneration. And this created traps in our relationships; affection for each other had disappeared. Each of us wallowed in dreadful and depressing isolation.fn 121

This is how Moses explained why the members had to follow his rules to the letter:

If you are ready, I want you to promise that you will not complain, whatever happens. In this venture, you need a guide; the Hebrews were not able to free themselves from Egyptian slavery without Moses; the same applies to you. Even if I don't understand why—in any event, my role is not to interpret the Lord's ways—my Master chose me to guide you. If you follow, you must follow my teachings and refrain from criticizing them, whatever happens. I am not acting on my will but on the will of the Master. You are not following me, but the Master through me. I am therefore asking you now, before we go any further toward the mountain that the Master is giving us to protect us from His wrath, I am asking you to take an oath.fn 122

This is one member's assessment of Thériault's expectations:

I realized that Papy was asking us to renounce all forms of democracy, to put our life in God's hands through him, to recognize from now on a kind of new alliance with him as the Shepherd, and us as the sheep.fn 123


The group viewed the world as divided into two universes: good and evil; members and non-members; members who respected the norms and those who did not. This worldview had the effect of isolating the members from the outside world, so as not to be influenced by their impurity.

The leader's role

Roch Thériault came to believe he had a special mission on earth and that he was different from other human beings. He described himself as the one chosen by God:

Don't take this badly, but you are all at degrees of spiritual development distinctly inferior to mine; that is why you cannot accompany me up there. I am the last prophet on this earth and my Master speaks directly to me as he did to my distant ancestor, Moses.fn 124

The fact that he perceived himself as different from the masses justified, in his mind, all of the demands he made on his disciples. For example, the fact that he was God's representative on Earth and spoke with God, allowed him to engage in sexual relations with the women in the commune:

I must announce to all of you that my Master has ordered me to take many wives in order to instruct them (…). My Master has authorized me to take as concubines the women who will follow me so that I can teach them true love.fn 125

Thériault believed that he possessed mystical powers and considered himself a shaman and healer, despite the fact that he had no medical qualifications. This new talent gave him the right to impose treatments that he deemed appropriate to heal the members of his group. This was another means to impose his power over the members' lifes.

In one instance, Moses' insistence that he operate on a boy to heal him.

He injected rubbing alcohol into his stomach; then he sterilized a pair of scissors and, while I held Ezekiel, he carried out a partial circumcision of a part of the foreskin that had a lump filled with serous fluid.fn 126

This “treatment” led to the boy's death.

Leader-follower relationship

A complex relationship bound Roch Thériault and the members of his group. From the inception of the group, members talked about their love and admiration for this man who they described as infinitely good and all-powerful. This description by an ex-member illustrates the love for this “representative of God.

I was fascinated by this man, and in love with him. However, I knew that he was one of those exceptional beings who you could never really be close to, but can only respect.fn 127

Thériault saw himself as superior to the members of the group and he had a constant need to be reassured of his this. As time went on, his demands for this recognition became more extreme and physically destructive to his disciples. For example:

- Cain, faithful servant, said Moses, will you obey me right to the end? - Of course, Papy! - Prove it to me, Cain. Cut off one of your unruly wife's toes. I couldn't believe my eyes: while the others held Salomé down, her husband put her toe between the blades of the pliers and, in one clean cut, the toe fell off, followed by a gush of blood.fn 128

While certain members were starting to have qualms, no one left the group.

I remembered the Charles Manson cult in the United States, and wondered if this was the same thing. Then I'd shake myself: no! This is not the same thing, it can't be the same. Moses is a good person. Didn't the voices tell me that he would see it through to the end! And who am I to judge him? Isn't it written in Matthew: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.fn 129

Who was crazier? Me or Roch? We both were. He claimed to be the only representative of God, and I believed I was a child of the Lord, obedient before his representative. We both ate from the same plate, that of ignorance and illumination.fn 130

It was only later, in the commune's last three years that I started to see him differently and to suspect that he did not at all correspond with my image of him. Once I realized this, watching his behaviour more and more closely, it became increasingly clear to me that Thériault had a serious problem that I could not explain. That's when I felt something very poignant grip my very being, as if the veil of divinity and legend had just been torn away, and my dream shattered, leaving only my natural love for him to show through.fn 131

Relationships between members

The members felt love towards one another and the cohesion among the followers fostered a feeling of separateness from the outside world.

We formed a kind of cloistered, very intimate community. One of the features of our belief was to observe Sabbath. Thus, all work stopped on Saturday.fn 132

When the group was first formed, conflicts arose among the members. But harmony was quickly restored and disagreements were attributed to the flawed behaviour of members who were still attached to their impure ways.

Days would go by and certain conflicts would arise for nothing. Someone would stay in the bathroom too long, someone's whistling would irritate another member. We all had our personal habits and these clashed with the communal life we were trying to build that reproduced how real Christians would live […] His words [Roch] were wise and generally served to patch things up between members who were arguing over a grunt or slammed door. All he had to do was remind us of our past errors for us to realize that what we were doing here was good for all of us.fn 133

Gradually, the ideal pursued by the group—to live in a pure world free of sin—had significant effects on the relationships among members. Vigilance and jealousy became more and more pronounced. Each member monitored the behaviour of the others to prevent the emergence of deviant behaviour.

With every passing day, I found Moses a little harsher. He explained this by telling us that it was only through mortification that we would overcome the weaknesses of the flesh, but even so…sometimes I felt that love was lacking. Little by little, the wonderful camaraderie of the early days turned into suspicion. As if each one wanted to gain Moses' approval. And some members joined forces. I had the impression that our community was divided into two groups: the favourites and the others. What could I do to win back his esteem?fn 134

With time, it became clear that there was a division among the members of the group: the favourites and the victims. This split contributed to conflicts between members. It even led some members to accept the violence that Moses used against other members as proof of his favouritism towards them.

I was conflicted. I could not approve of this treatment and, yet, part of me felt that because he punished his favourites, I felt like he was closer to me. That maybe he would allow me to get closer to him. I knew I was wrong, but I so wanted to be closer to him. Was it the same for the others when it was my turn to be punished?fn 135

The history of the group as well as a partial analysis of its functioning reveals a radicalization of the group's rules and an increase in Thériault's power. While the group started out with norms that were similar to those of other spiritual groups, conformism and extreme submission by members to Thériault's authority led to the acceptance of the use of violence to punish deviant members.

The Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the members of Roch Thériault's group

Life in Roch Thériault's group was often alienating for certain members. In fact, some of the information provided by Gabrielle Lavallée to police led to an investigation and criminal charges against Roch Thériault who was sentenced for a number of crimes, including the murder of Solange Boilard.

Besides the criminal proceedings against the leader of this group, would a preliminary intervention have protected the life and the safety of certain members? This is difficult to determine. A number of officials came into contact with Thériault's group during its period in the Gaspé: police officers, forest rangers, psychiatrists and so on. Not one of them noted any psychological or physical violence in the group. It was only following a complaint by a male member who had fled the group, after being castrated by Thériault, that the leader of the group was imprisoned and the members were evicted from their forest dwelling in the Gaspé.

Could these officials have acted any differently? It is important to point out that the “law of silence” reigned among the members. Consequently, it was difficult for the police and forest rangers to obtain information, except what was provided by Roch Thériault himself. The members' living conditions were, therefore, difficult to evaluate. Furthermore, at that time, the members constantly repeated that life was beautiful and that they were happy together. The group cohesion was so strong that it was difficult to believe that a member would have been able to express any dissatisfaction with life in the group. In addition, shortly after his release from prison in 1985, Thériault and his group left the Quebec jurisdiction for Ontario, effectively ending the capacity of Quebec officials to monitor the group.

The intervention by Ontario's Children's Aid Society, following the flight of one of the children from the group, meant that school age children from the group were able to go to school and live a more stable life with new families.

The violence perpetrated against the members, the healing sessions, the operations: could these have been avoided? While the police certainly had their concerns about the treatment that was reserved for members of the group, they could do nothing without proof and the cooperation of group members.

In conclusion, life in Roch Thériault's group was difficult for the members. On numerous occasions, their rights and freedoms were violated. Indeed, Thériault was incarcerated for several criminal acts that he committed against group members. Nevertheless, the numerous interventions by government agencies in Quebec and Ontario were not able to prevent the physical, psychological and monetary damage inflicted on the members. Lack of proof and the absence of cooperation from the victims prolonged the suffering of men, women and children. The law of silence imposed by Thériault and the extreme submission of his disciples protected him for a long time from being accountable for his acts.


©Info-Cult 2006