IRE Journal: Records, sources help show link between charity, religious sect

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Global Cult

Records, sources help show link between charity, religious sect

Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal/2005-09-01
Volume 28; Issue 5

By Don Lattin

"Follow the money," one of the cardinal rules of journalism, applies as much to churches and not-for-profit charities as it does to profit-making organizations. It was worth remembering earlier this year when I was investigating the connections between a San Diego-based charity and one of the most infamous religious sects in the United States.

Officials with the Family International and the Family Care Foundation claimed they had nothing to do with one another, but the public record tells a different story.

My reporting on the Family International, formerly known as the Children of God, dates to a conference I attended in the late 1990s with academics and activists who study cults, sects and/or new religious movements. That is where I first met Donna Collins.

Collins was conceived in the spring of 1969, shortly after her parents were joined together in one of the first mass marriages presided over by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, then a little-known Korean sect leader. As the first "blessed child" born in the West, this cute, curly-haired blonde was supposed to embody Moon's vision that the world's religions would come together under his messianic leadership. Moon and his wife were to be the "True Parents" of a spiritual master race that would spread his message - a mix of Christianity, spiritualism and right-wing politics - to the four corners of the Earth.

Collins' childhood and subsequent defection from Moon's Unification Church was an incredible story, and it got me wondering about other kids who grew up in religious cults in the 1970s and 1980s. That interest led to a four-part series in the San Francisco Chronicle (Feb. 11 -14, 2001) titled "Children of a Lesser God," then a book on the larger legacy of 1960s' spirituality titled "Following Our Bliss" (Harper San Francisco, 2003).

Funding source

My work as the religion writer for the San Francisco Examiner (1983-88) and San Francisco Chronicle (1988-2005) was originally sparked by a fascination with the religious cults, including People's Temple, the revolutionary, messianic movement that was founded by the Rev. Jim Jones and imploded in a hellish mass murder and suicide in Guyana. South America, in November 1978.

One of the groups I reported on in the Chronicle series was the Family, a sect started in the late 1960s by Oakland native David "Moses" Berg, a twisted prophet who attracted tens of thousands of devotees in the 1970s with his strange brew of evangelical Christianity and sexual license.

Sources I developed during that series paid off with a tip in January 2005 about a sensational murder/suicide involving Ricky "Davidito" Rodriguez, the 29-year-old estranged son of Karen "Maria" Zerby, the chief prophet and current spiritual leader of the Family. Rodriguez, once anointed as a child prophet in his mother's church, shot himself in the head after murdering Angela Smith, a member of the Family Care Foundation board of directors and Zerby's one-time personal secretary.

In chilling videotape shot before the murder/suicide, Rodriguez revealed his plan to torture Smith to get information about the whereabouts of his mother and her husband, Peter Amsterdam, both of whom Rodriguez blamed for years of sexual abuse that he and other second-generation members suffered while growing up in the movement.

Defectors from the Children of God had told me the Family Care Foundation was a charitable front for the Family International. As a not-for-profit charity, the foundation is required to file IRS 990 forms that disclose, among other things, the source of its funding and grants it makes to other charities.

Charities are required to show IRS 990 forms to anyone who wants to see them. In fact, the Family Care Foundation posted some of them on its Web site, but Chronicle reporter Todd Wallack and I got a much better look at the organization's finances by using the research tools at www.guidestar.com. It just takes a couple of minutes to register, get a password and begin to search a database of 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. Once you find the organization you're investigating, scroll down to the 990 section and call up PDF files for a particular fiscal year.

We soon learned that the Family Care Foundation raised close to $10 million in cash and gifts from 1997 to 2003 for projects around the globe. Those documents also showed deep, ongoing ties between the charity and the cult.

Foundation leaders insisted there was no connection between it and the Family International. Former members, on the other hand, told us most projects funded by the foundation were, in fact, run by the Family. Those IRS 990 forms proved the ex-members were telling the truth.

Two children's programs the foundation funded were run by one-time cult members who had faced separate allegations of child sexual abuse. On top of that, all six officers listed on the IRS documents - including Smith - had ties to the Children of God/Family International. Grant Montgomery, the program director and highest paid official with the Family Care Foundation, is the former "prime minister" and third-ranking leader of the Family International, according to former members.

Understanding the spin

Connecting to the Family Care Foundation and the Family was hindered by the fact that several of the principals in the story - including victim Angela Smith - used numerous aliases and had legally changed their names to "Smith" or "Brown."

Once again, information from defectors was essential in order to makes sense of the public record.

Two of the figures linked to the Family and the foundation were accused of sexual molestation in child custody cases in England and California in the 1990s. They went on to start charities funded by the Family Care Foundation.

One of those cases is described in sealed court documents filed in San Diego in connection with a 1998 custody case and obtained by the Chronicle. We were able to get the sealed files through relatives who, like former members, are often good sources in cult investigations.

One thing to remember, however, is that defectors and disgruntled relatives will often put the worst possible spin on the activities of a religious sect. People who leave cults can be as fanatically against the sect as they were in support of it when they were members. That doesn't mean they are lying, but make sure you try to talk to current members, remembering that they are putting the best spin on the story.

In our investigation, those San Diego documents helped us tell the story of a girl born into the Family in 1981 and sexually abused from ages 5 to 16. Her alleged abusers included a stepfather and longtime Family member, Phillip Slown, who she says repeatedly molested her in Thailand, where her mother was serving as a missionary for the Family International.

Slown went on to start a charity called From the Heart to help "at-risk youth." It was based in San Francisco's Mission District between 1997 and 1999 - during which time the organization received more than $70,000 in donations collected by the Family Care Foundation.

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Don Lattin, the religion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of "Following Our Bliss - How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today" (HarperCollins 2003) and coauthor of "Shopping for Faith - American Religion in the New Millennium" (Jossey-Bass 1998). He is currently on leave from the Chronicle and writing a book on Ricky "Davidito" Rodriguez and the Family.