ABC News Nightline: Faith Matters: The Tragic Legacy of the Children of God

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[edit] Faith Matters: The Tragic Legacy of the Children of God

ABC News: Nightline/2007-11-01



MARTIN BASHIR (ABC NEWS)

(OC) The so-called Children of God sect, founded in the 1960s, has been infamous for decades and remains incredibly secretive. But a new book says some of the things – that went on in the group, unspeakable acts, were not only allowed, but actually encouraged. Could those practices even have driven a former member to commit suicide? Jay Schadler has the latest installment of our series, 'Faith Matters."

GRAPHICS: FAITH MATTERS

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

No, anger does not begin, does not begin to describe how I feel about these people and what they've done.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) 29-year-old Ricky Rodriguez is going to kill, twice.

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

Maybe they will grant me happy hunting.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) Raised to be a prophet and a savior...

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

This is my weapon of choice.

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

(VO) ...Ricky is about to become an executioner and a grim lesson in religious fanaticism.

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

There is this need that I have, this need, it's not a want, it's a (censored by network) need. And I wish it wasn't, but it is. It's a need for revenge. It's a need for justice, because I can't go on like this.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) Ricky Rodriguez was once in line to be the next holy prince in the infamous Christian sect called Children of God, now known as The Family International.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) You knew about this group. When did you start following them, basically.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

Well, I started writing, writing about cults, new religious movements back in the '70s.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) Don Lattin has spent the last two years investigating the motives behind Ricky's chilling video...

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

I went with the Glock 23.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) ...and the rampage that would follow. His just released book, 'Jesus Freaks," is the result.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

What could turn a kid, who was raised to be the prophet in a group that claimed to be Christian, claimed to have love and compassion to mankind, what could turn him into this just raging monster?

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

I'm not trained in torture methods, which is why I'm gonna have to make do, I got my drill here.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

And the drama of loading these bullets and sharpening his knife, he loved action movies. And so he almost saw himself in a movie, I think. But I just had to get to the bottom, what, what was really behind this.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) Behind it stands a story of charismatic Christianity, sexual abuse and revenge. In the late 1960s, David Berg, the self-proclaimed prophet and Children of God founder, began preaching a bizarre brew of sex and scripture.

DAVID BERG (FOUNDER)

All the wonderful, beautiful things you enjoyed right here on Earth, including beautiful people, beautiful men and women, beautiful youth, even beautiful sex.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) In writings and rantings, Berg advocated free love among his disciples, including adult-child sex.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

Berg was actually a genius because he would test drive these bizarre theologies, bizarre teachings within his inner circle. So very early on, like – in, in – still in the late '60s, he was starting to have these sharing parties, where he would go around naked with a bottle of wine saying, 'To the pure, all things are pure." And they would have these orgies, but no one knew that outside of the inner circle.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) Clearly, this guy was a madman, he was a drunk, he was a tyrant. Was he also an evangelical?

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

That's an important thing to remember because these guys just don't drop out of the sky. Berg came directly out of the Christian evangelical tradition.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) Though that notion infuriates most evangelicals, Lattin points to Berg's own mother, who was one of the first famous radio evangelists. And though her son failed in the pulpit early on, he found his voice just as the 1960s rolled into town.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

There were these two very strong social forces going on. There was the counterculture, the youth movement, all these people living on the street, living on the road, backpacks, a lot of drugs, a lot of people with problems with drugs and other things. And there was the beginnings of this, of evangelical revival in the country.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) By the 1970s, Berg's following grew into the tens of thousands.

FOLLOWER (FEMALE)

Oh, I love you. I love you.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) His so-called Law of Love urged young women to win converts to the group by prostituting themselves, something he called flirty fishing.

INTERVIEWEE (FEMALE)

Berg had this revelation that his women needed to be fishers of men. Like Jesus called his disciples who were fishers of fish, they should be fishers of men and basically go out and share God's love with lonely businessmen.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) According to Lattin, it was through flirty fishing that Ricky Rodriguez was conceived. His mother was Karen Zerby, a close confidante of Berg's. Together, they anointed Ricky, Davidito, the future prophet of the sect. Other children in the inner circle were given their own roles, including Davida Kelley, who became the princess to Ricky's prince.

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

We were both sort of raised and nurtured to be like the, the future leaders of the Family or the end-time prophets, so to speak.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) Did you buy into that? Did you believe that?

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

Well, we were, of course, we were, we were programmed to believe that.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) What was David Berg like?

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

Well, he was, I mean, he was obviously very inspired, very possessed and very fanatical, but he was also a pedophile.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) In fact, provocative adult-child photos lace the pages of the group's manual entitled "The Story of Davidito." And according to Davida, sexual interaction between adults and children was not just an expectation, it was a commandment.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) Did you ever witness Ricky being sexually abused?

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

Oh, yes, of course.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) By?

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

All the adult women, most of them, at least, in the unit.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) Including Karen Zerby?

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

Yes.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) You saw that?

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

Yes, I actually witnessed that.

MARTIN BASHIR (ABC NEWS)

(OC) And when we come back, what happened to Ricky.

ANNOUNCER

For more video and articles from the 'Nightline" team, visit 'Nightline" online at ABCNEWS.com, where you can also see our free daily webcast.

COMMERCIAL BREAK

ANNOUNCER

'Nightline" continues from New York City with Martin Bashir.

MARTIN BASHIR (ABC NEWS)

(OC) We return now to Jay Schadler's report on the sect known as Family International, once called the Children of God, infamous for their reputed sexual abuse of children. A new book about the group says the rumors are true, and that abuse may have led one member to kill another and then himself.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) In 1994, Children of God founder David Berg died and Karen Zerby, Ricky's mom, took over as spiritual leader. After a series of official investigations and lawsuits, the group renounced sexual contact between adults and children, but the damage had been done. Ricky and Davida both eventually broke off from the sect. and soon, rumors spread that many of the other children of the Children of God, who were dropping out of the sect, were in trouble.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

There have been dozens of people who have committed suicide. And the Family disputes this and say, 'Well, some were drug overdoses." Well, that's another way of killing yourself, is a drug overdose.

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

My own mother, what an evil, little (censored by network), goddamn. How can you do that to kids? How can you do that to kids and sleep at night?

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) The day after finishing his videotape, Ricky went in search of his mom, but could not find her. She had long gone underground. Seeking a clue to her whereabouts, Ricky arranged a meeting with Angela Smith at his Tucson, Arizona apartment. Smith had been a trusted assistant to his mother and allegedly had taken part in his childhood abuse. On January 8th, he killed her by slashing her throat before driving into the nighttime desert...

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

I don't think there's gonna be much time to feel anything. It might hurt for a split second, but...

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) ...and killing himself.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

Ricky was a combination of emotions that he was feeling. He was incredibly angry at his mother and the leaders. He was also very guilty. He blamed himself for a lot of the abuse that went on. He was just a time bomb waiting to go off.

RICKY RODRIGUEZ (FORMER MEMBER)

My mom's gonna pay for that. She's gonna pay dearly one way or another.

DON LATTIN (AUTHOR)

No leaders of the Family have ever been brought to justice for, you know, what they acknowledged was child abuse. And people – 'Why? How could that be?" You know, we have to, well, there's the statue of limitations. A lot of this happened a long time ago. And almost all that happened outside of the US by people who kept constantly changing their names. So even the victims, the kids themselves don't really know often who it was who abused them.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) As for Karen Zerby, Ricky's mom, she remains the spiritual leader of the Family International, though the group refuses or is unable to report her whereabouts. The group also continues to deny that Ricky suffered any abuse as a child and takes no responsibility in his suicide. Last week, by e-mail, the group's spokeswoman, Claire Borowik, declined our request for an interview, leaving us with this, her last on-camera answer delivered two years ago.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) Karen Zerby is nowhere to be found. Do you know where she is?

CLAIRE BOROWIK (SPOKESWOMAN)

Do I know where? No, not necessarily. No.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(OC) You don't? Claire, the, the Pope is a spiritual leader. We know where he is. Karen is a spiritual leader and we don't know where she is. And her son just committed suicide and murder.

CLAIRE BOROWIK (SPOKESWOMAN)

I'm aware of that.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) So why don't we know where she is?

CLAIRE BOROWIK (SPOKESWOMAN)

That's her policy. That's all I can tell you.

JAY SCHADLER (ABC NEWS)

(VO) With its leader still in hiding, the story of the Children of God remains unfinished. Each child will have to write his or her own ending.

DAVIDA KELLEY (FORMER FAMILY INTERNATIONAL MEMBER)

Rick - as far as feeling guilty, you know what? I'm, I think he does now because I think he realizes that now that he's looking down on us, and rest in peace, Ricky, I think now he realizes, you know, that, I think that's, I think now he's, knows that he, he could have done a lot more if he was still here.

MARTIN BASHIR (ABC NEWS)

(OC) Don Lattin's book, "Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge," is in bookstores now. In Family International statement on the book, they say it has 'some sound research and factual information, but is laced with inaccuracies, misconceptions and erroneous conclusions," adding that Lattin's characterization of the group amounts to 'manifest bias and religious intolerance." Our thanks to Jay Schadler. And when we come back, Stephen Colbert's run for the White House takes an unexpected turn.

COMMERCIAL BREAK

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