Alberta Report Western Report: Chilling reminders of "free love": an Argentine incest bust stirs gruesome memories in Alberta

From XFamily - Children of God

Chilling reminders of "free love": an Argentine incest bust stirs gruesome memories in Alberta

Alberta-Western Report/1993-09-26

Red Deer teenager Lorinda Stewart saw the scruffy group that had come to live with her family as revolutionaries of peace and love.

The year was 1972, and the visitors called themselves the Children of God. Twenty-one years later -- a harrowing six of which were spent with the secretive sect -- Lorinda is still trying to rebuild her life.

Three weeks ago, 18 adult COG members -- including several Canadians -- and 143 children were detained by Argentine authorities following a slew of child sex abuse and prostitution allegations.

In fact it is rumoured that two of the cult's top people are formerly from Alberta, and police believe others may still be present.

Founded in the late '60s by aging California - based preacher David Berg, a former Alliance Church pastor, COG drew thousands of youths in the early '70s, when bummed-out acidheads discovered they could get high on religion.

Berg's new gospel presented Christ as a fun-loving, radical hippie who would free people's minds and bodies -- and give them an eternal turn-on.

Hawking pamphlets written by "Moses David" (Berg), ponchoed vagrant evangelists took to the streets.

Often setting up around high schools and youth centres, COG competed for recruits with Hare Krishnas and others.

In 1972, 16-year-old Lorinda Stewart was introduced to COG through a cousin who had joined a fledgling eight-member commune on the edge of Red Deer.

Her Lutheran parents, Larry and Jean, approved of the commune's drug - free, guitar - playing caring and sharing lifestyle. They supplied the colony with milk and Mr. Stewart--a mechanic--sometimes fixed their bus.

Communications between founder Berg and his followers seemed scant. While it is now reported the cult had a telephone directives system, most contact then appeared to be through the "Mo letters" as Berg's general epistles became known.

Early ones were a hodgepodge of Berg's impulsive biblical interpretations and end-times predictions.

The instruction, however, was clear.

He told his faithful to give up all their possessions to the group and go out into the world to spread his message.

That year, Lorinda moved to the Seattle COG outpost to street-vend Mo letters and beg, keeping detailed reports on their success and failure and turning over proceeds to the head "shepherd." Like all cult members she got a new name, hers was "Peninnah." About the same time, their reclusive guru began focusing on sex as an essential component of God's love.

In 1975, Lorinda - now living in Japan - married a fellow cult member and had her first child.

That was when she was introduced to Berg's new "flirty fishing" -- having sex with people to recruit them or get money from them.

For several years the Mo letters had been increasingly fixated with sexual liberation. In one, Berg's common - law wife "Maria" told how she flirty-fished a man named "Arthur" into God's kingdom.

Sex was a need, she explained, and good members were supposed to supply people's needs, which in turn would strengthen the COG family. It was a line Lorinda, now pregnant in a foreign country, found troubling.

Her husband didn't. He began with sect "sisters" and then went on to bar pick-ups in a sexual odyssey. "He would go to northern Japan," she recalls, "and come back telling me how he shared God's love" with other cult women.

It made me sicker than I already was." Occasionally he brought women into their bed and made love to them beside her.

Lorinda says pressure from the other women for her to share her body became intense.

"I would try to," she says.

"We would go out to bars, 'FFing' as we called it, but I couldn't do it.

Then I started making any kind of excuse to stay home -- house cleaning, whatever."

As the friction increased, her first child became deathly ill. "They told me," says Lorinda, "that God was punishing me for refusing to share my love.

Afterwards I cried all day and night."

The child recovered, but hours after giving birth in September, 1978, to her second son, the baby died.

More condemnation followed. Within a month she began "FFing." "I was scared God was going to take my other child," she explains.

She says the group required members to file detailed productivity and revenue reports.

"We had to tell how many guys we picked up, which ones we slept with, how many 'brothers' we slept with, how many 'sisters'."

Berg, she says, "had written a letter saying that lesbianism was okay."

In November, 1978, a crisis struck. Guyana cult leader Jim Jones led 907 of his followers to commit mass suicide in the South American jungle.

Jones had no association with COG, but the scale of his destruction ignited anti-cult sentiment around the world.

From hiding, Berg told his faithful to return home, partly to reassure kin, but also to secure more money.

In January of 1979 Lorinda and her son were back living in familiar Alberta while her American husband went to the U.S. She decided to sever the relationship.

"The fact he had slept with other women, and coerced me into 'FFing,' ended the marriage.

It was like he had been my pimp."

Today Berg is either dead or still hiding -- possibly in Eastern Europe where Interpol can't track him.

Ms. Stewart is living in Sylvan Lake and writing about her experiences.

A second marriage in the '80s produced two more children but also ended in divorce.

"Nobody," she notes, "realized how much damage had been done to us."

The Argentine allegations of mass incestuous ritual pedophilia do not shock her either. Berg, she says, was dismantling one taboo after another.

Before she left he had begun writing about the beauties of adult-child sex.

University of Alberta sociology professor Stephen Kent reports that the COG outposts in Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and even little communities like Morinville appear to be long gone.

But occasionally he comes across evidence that some may still exist.

In 1991, while picking up a pizza near the Edmonton campus, he was astonished to see one of the group's cartoon posters on a fridge.

Someone begging food had left it there.

RCMP cult specialist Corporal Reed Leary says known COG communities survive in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, and he believes the group retains a furtive Alberta presence. Though there have been abuse accusations levelled against it from time to time, most recently in Vancouver, none has been proven.