Elusive Cult Leader Moses David and friends during Canary Islands sojourn.Be "Happy Hookers for Jesus," the prophet told female followers.
Tracking the Children of God
Will the real Moses please come down from the mountain?
Even in the contemporary profusion of exotic religious cults, the Children of God stand out as, well, exotic. Once the most zealous of America's Jesus People, they used to disrupt other church services and denounce public schools, capitalism and what they considered the System. About 3½ years ago, inspired by a belief that the Comet Kohoutek heralded the destruction of America and the onset of the End Times, they began closing most of their 100 "colonies" and drifted off to Europe.
Over the years they have evolved into a brigade of international nomads, embracing a new religion proclaimed in hundreds of rambling "Mo Letters" from their founder and prophet, "Moses David" (né David Brandt Berg), 58. These Mo Letters have, among other things, encouraged the female Children of God to become "Happy Hookers for Jesus."
Mo lives in secrecy, whereabouts unknown, seen only by a handful of his apostles. The mysteries of Mo have escalated with the distribution of a document purporting to be the latest Mo Letter and titled "God Bless You—And: Good-Bye!" In the letter, Mo confesses that he has been a "false prophet" who passed off his own thoughts as divinely inspired and "led you by your faith in Jesus into the darkness of my mind." The movement, he announces, "has come to an end now and forever." Far from disbanding, however, the Children are arguing that the letter is a fraud.
Since Moses David refuses to be interviewed, it is hard to know for sure what is going on within the organization. Last week, however, TIME was given a tape-recorded message from "the real Moses David" that called the resignation letter "nothing but a completely fraudulent and lying forgery, rather shabbily concocted by some crackpot who is apparently partially demented." It only shows, the real Moses David continued, "what slimy stinking depths our enemies do not hesitate to slither to to try to stop us, including criminal acts of kidnaping, involuntary incarceration, mental and physical torture and even murder!"* Despite resemblances to earlier letters, Moses David argues, rather convincingly, that details of the language and format in the resignation letter prove it to be a hoax.
The "real Mo" tape was released by Barbara Canevaro, 23, a.k.a. Queen Rachel, who says she is the prophet's "official representative" and "authorized to speak for him in all matters." She is also the No. 2 leader and Berg's designated successor. A tall and glamorous figure with waistlong chestnut hair, Queen Rachel has been with the Children since they began in 1968. At one point she lived with a disciple named Samson and bore him a son when she was 16 years old, but denies claims by defectors that she cohabited with Moses David for a couple of years. In 1973 she married another Mo disciple named Emanuele Canevaro, 35, who also happened to be the Italian Duke of Zoagli and Castelvari. The duke has welcomed the Children to Poggiosecco, his family's idyllic farm and wine-producing estate near Florence. Police raided the farm headquarters two years ago but found no evidence of wrongdoing. Indeed, neighbors in the nearby village of Grassina described the Children to a TIME correspondent as unfailingly well behaved and polite.
According to the mass-circulation German magazine Stern, however, the estate has a school where the Children train good-looking disciples in the arts of seduction. Such allegations are amply corroborated by the Mo Letters, which advocate not only Mo's version of the Playboy philosophy but the ancient practice of religious prostitution. In a 1974 epistle called "God's Love Slave!" for example, Moses describes how he gave his wife "Maria" to numerous men and then questioned her afterward to enjoy a "detailed description" of the action.
Stern and Spain's Interviu also reported that Berg resided in the Canary Islands until recently and appeared every night at a bar in Puerto de la Cruz with a harem of girls looking for pickups. The Stern report said he fled to Libya earlier this year, when an investigating judge summoned him for questioning.
Asked about all this, the Duchess Canevaro denied the magazines' reports but said: "There is nothing wrong with a sexy conversion. We believe sex is a human necessity, and in certain cases we may go to bed with someone to show people God's love." But "this is the exception rather than the rule," she added. As to the question of whether the Children engage in sex to raise money, the Duchess stoutly denied it. "No one has ever charged one penny for this and never will," she declared. (The Children support themselves by begging in the streets and selling literature and records.)
So far Children of God leaders have had no serious trouble with the law. And if the elusive Mo's claims are to be believed, his sect is indeed prospering. He claims to have 8,000 missionaries at work in 80 countries and even to have made 2 million conversions. That is "the most explosive growth of a brand-new religious movement in history," says Mo.
*Unhappy parents of some of the Children of God have formed organizations to combat the cult and have called in help from various professional "deprogrammers." The Children blame unspecified "enemies" for the death of at least one disciple, whose nude body, with several internal organs crushed, was found last year at a medieval fortress in Belgium. Opponents suspect the sect itself, and police have never solved the case. Moses David's son Paul died under similar circumstances in Switzerland in 1973.