Cult experts explain why R. Kelly's accusers would stay in his orbit despite harrowing abuse allegations

·6 min read
r kelly trial addie courtroom sketch
Witness "Addie" points to R. Kelly as she testifies during Kelly's sex abuse trial at Brooklyn's Federal District Court in a courtroom sketch in New York, U.S., August 30, 2021. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
  • Testimony from accusers in R. Kelly's federal sex crimes trial lines up with the behavior of a cult leader, experts say.

  • Cult experts believe that Kelly used fear, charisma, and behavior modification tactics to keep his accusers from leaving him.

  • Kelly is charged with running a criminal enterprise that recruited girls, boys, and women for him to sexually abuse.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

On the witness stand in R. Kelly's federal sex crimes trial, several women who were in a sexual relationship with the R&B singer accused him of brutal and humiliating abuse, from not allowing them to use the bathroom without permission to collecting blackmail.

One accuser, identified as "Jane," testified that Kelly kept her locked in a room for more than three days as punishment for buying pants in a size much smaller than he wanted her to wear. While there was no lock on the door, the woman said she was afraid to leave without Kelly's permission because the punishment for that would be "even worse."

The fear the accuser described is familiar to cult experts.

"In my opinion, he created a sex cult and became an object of worship," Rick Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute, said of R. Kelly. "The women that are under his control, or have been under his control, they're not functioning independently. He's engendered dependency upon himself to make value judgments, to critically think, to analyze things - it's incapacitated these women from being able to think for themselves."

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have accused Kelly, whose real name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, of running a criminal enterprise where his employees recruited women and girls for the singer to have sex with and abuse. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him.

Ross and another cult expert, Steven Hassan, have each dedicated their lives to researching the dynamics of destructive cults. Both told Insider they believe that Kelly used fear, charisma, and behavior modification tactics to keep his accusers around.

"R. Kelly was, for them, almost like a messianic figure, someone that they completely trusted, that they were dependent upon to think and, you know, analyze any situation for them," Ross said. "And I'm sure that he made them feel that there was nowhere they could go that would ever equal being with him."

Jerhonda Pace testifies against R&B star R. Kelly
In this courtroom sketch Jerhonda Pace testifies against R. Kelly. Elizabeth Williams/AP

'Super fans'

Several of the women who accused R. Kelly of grooming and sexually abusing them as teenagers were longtime fans of his music who had attended concerts or other venues in an attempt to meet the star.

Some went on to be Kelly's "live-in girlfriends," who, according to one accuser's testimony, all resided together in one of Kelly's Georgia homes and were forced to have sex with him and each other on demand.

Prosecutors say Kelly had members of his entourage hand out his number to fans who would then be introduced to the singer. If he was sexually interested in them, Kelly would arrange for the fan's travel to meet him at other concerts, or at one of his homes and studios around the country.

Hassan, who belonged to the Unification Church - a cult widely known as the Moonies - for more than two years in the 1970s, later became a counselor to victims of undue influence, a cult researcher, and an author. Hassan compared Kelly's influence over the people he's accused of abusing to Keith Raniere - the imprisoned founder of the NXIVM sex cult - and Michael Jackson.

Several families had accused Jackson of sexually abusing young boys who were allowed to have sleepovers at his California mansion, Neverland Ranch, in the late '80s and '90s. The pop icon, who died in 2009, denied the allegations when he was alive.

"Michael Jackson used his fame and his music and groomed the boys. He gave them presents and made them feel special," Hassan said, citing the allegations of two men featured in the HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland" who claimed Jackson sexually abused them as children.

stephanie r kelly trial testimony
R. Kelly listens as witness "Stephanie" testifies. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Using collateral as a means of control

Once people come under the control of a destructive cult leader or abusive partner, it's not easy to break away, Ross told Insider.

The followers are afraid of leaving for a number of reasons, including that they won't be able to survive outside of the control of their abuser.

"It takes us back to a group like Keith Raniere's NXIVM, which I dealt with extensively," Ross said. "Of course all those women could have walked away, they didn't have to be tortured and mutilated the way they were. But they were not able to think critically or independently because Raniere had indoctrinated them so intensely. He was so adept at it that they didn't really have the freedom to go."

Raniere, who ran an MLM-style cult that branded members and forced them to turn over damaging information, like naked photos and confessions, was ultimately convicted of sex trafficking and sentenced to 120 years in prison.

Ross said it's common for destructive cults and abusive partners to collect collateral, like embarrassing stories or confessions from their followers' pasts, that the follower is afraid could be released should they leave.

One of R. Kelly's accusers testified last week that his live-in girlfriends were made to write and sign five letters a year that detailed abuse allegations against their parents, or admitted to crimes they'd committed. The accuser said Kelly dictated the letters, which were full of lies, and told them that he would hand the material over to his attorneys.

Ross and Hassan said that destructive cults commonly use this method of blackmail, which they said comes from Scientology.

"In Scientology, they have what's called pre-clear folders and in all of their auditing sessions, everything that they say gets written down," Hassan said. "So if you confess to having sex with your younger brother when you were 10, that's in your folder. If you cheated on your income taxes, that's in your folder. And it's made very clear to people that if you ever leave we're going to use this."

Ross said Kelly, like Raniere, used this method to protect himself.

"Of course, Raniere requested that they give him collateral, which was a means of leveraging them and essentially keeping them in line, and I think R. Kelly did the same," Ross said. "I think those women have shared all of their secrets with R. Kelly on demand."

The experts said that it can take years for a survivor to feel in control of their own lives after leaving a destructive cult. Seeking counseling, reading about mind control, and learning how they were manipulated in the first place can help, they said.

"How do you recover from unethical mind control?" Hassan said. "You need to identify how it was done to you, undo it, and have a toolbox for assessing it in the future so nobody ever does anything like that to you again."

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