By: Chanel Chasanov

On July 19, 2017, the famous musician known as R. Kelly was accused of running a cult of women in his homes in both Chicago and the Atlanta area. While this is not his first time in the spotlight for sexual assault allegations, it is the first in which the families of the victims are unsure how to obtain legal recourse for their daughters.[1]  Kelly’s former personal assistant, Cheryl Mack, claimed that R. Kelly would punish the women that lived with him physically and verbally if they broke one of his rules.[2]  Two parents of an alleged victim insisted that Kelly brainwashed their daughter as she has barely spoken to them since living with him and looks like a prisoner.[3]  Legally, the issue becomes what the parents can do since all of the alleged victims that have come forward are consenting adults that have denied the cult allegations.[4]

Currently, there are no federal laws that prohibit the existence of cults. While many people disprove of these groups, criticism of a group is not enough to make its existence illegal. Cults become illegal when their leaders and members commit illegal acts.[5] In R. Kelly’s case the alleged cult is likely not religious, but if it were the Constitution strongly protects the freedom of religion and a court would likely not rule that the group is illegal on its own.[6]  The Rules of Evidence in the United States present a unique challenge for prosecutors in cult cases since the hearsay rules make it difficult to introduce evidence of coercion and brainwashing.[7]  Additionally, Courts have had a hard time accepting the defense of brainwashing when a crime has been committed by cult members.[8]

Unfortunately, if the accusations against R. Kelly’s are true, there is likely little that the parents of the victims can do without any evidence of physical abuse or criminal activity. In Atlanta, one of the cities that R. Kelly is allegedly housing women in his cult, the leader of a commercial cult was convicted based on human trafficking laws.[9]  The cult leader, Jimmie Jones, preyed on young women by promising them modeling work; Jones proceeded to use violence, threats, and deception to compel these young women into prostitution.[10]  However, the case did not make waves until victims came forward to report Jones.[11]  While R. Kelly purportedly promised these women that he would help them in the music industry[12], similar to Jones and the modeling industry, without victims coming forward there is little that can be done under the law. While R. Kelly may not have to defend himself in the court of law, these allegations will definitely affect his career in music as consumers often find it difficult to separate a musician from his personal life.  Hopefully the mass media attention to this issue will prompt a legal change that creates an easier way to prosecute alleged cult leaders and save potential victims from suffering the same fate. Until a legal change occurs, victims’ families will be left without legal action to protect their loved ones.


[1] See Elias Leight, R. Kelly’s Scandals and Alleged Crimes: From Aaliyah Marriage to Cult Reports, Rolling Stone (July 18, 2017), (recognizing that Kelly has experienced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct since his marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah).

[2] See Jim DeRogatis, R. Kelly is Holding Women Against Their Will in a “Cult,” Parents Told Police, BuzzFeed News (July 17, 2017),

[3] See id.

[4] See id. (commenting on how welfare checks by Georgia and Illinois police have not resulted in any charges).

[5] See generally California v. Manson, 132 Cal. Rptr. 265 (Cal. App. 1976) (affirming the conviction of cult leader Charles Manson for orchestrating seven murders).

[6] See U.S. Const. amend. I.

[7] See Fed. R. Evid. 801-807 (stating that hearsay cannot be admitted in court for the truth of the matter).

[8] See United States v. Hearst, 466 F. Supp. 1068, 1071 (N.D. Cal. 1988), aff’d in part, vacated in part, 638 F.2d 1190 (9th Cir. 1980) (finding that brainwashing was not a proper defense for a woman that committed crimes after being brainwashed by a cult); see also United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931 (1988) (holding that the prosecution could not prove a violation through psychological coercion since physical coercion is necessary).

[9] See Dep’t of Justice, Georgia Man Sentenced to 15 Years on Sex Trafficking and Mann Act Charges (Jan. 24, 2008),

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See DeRogatis, supra, note 2.

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