Abuse within "The Family"
BBC World Service: Outlook /2006-09-18
Listen to Abuse within "The Family (25:55, 4.4MB)
Fred Dove (BBC): Sarah and Don are young Americans who say they struggled to adjust to a normal life after leaving a religious group once known as the Children of God and now called The Family International. It grew out of the California hippie movement in the 1960s and was started by David Brandt Berg. Though he died in 1994, the group still has thousands of members on several continents. However, it's been dogged by controversy and allegations of institutionalized sexual abuse. In January last year, 29-year-old Ricky Rodriguez, once seen as David Berg's chosen successor, killed himself after murdering Angela Smith, she too had been a member of The Family. A TV documentary about Ricky Rodriguez has just been shown on British television. We'll hear an extract and we'll meet Sarah and Don shortly. First, Rick Ross, who's worked with former members and their families. Tell me more about this movement and its mission.
Rick Ross: Well, essentially its mission was to evangelize the world and to share the Gospel with as many people as possible, bringing them to what they would see as salvation.
Fred Dove (BBC): Now, David Berg was a man of much charisma. I mean, he became known later among the group as Moses David, he communicated with his followers by so-called "Mo Letters." I mean, how charismatic was he? Was he really pivotal to the growth of this group?
Ross: Well, the group has often been called a cult and perhaps the most salient feature of a group that bears that label would be that it's personality driven and certainly Berg's followers saw him as a defining element of their organization. He was a prophet, perhaps likened to an Apostle. That through his vision, through his personality he really defined what the Children of God were, now known as the Family.
Fred Dove (BBC): The group became known for sex being very important to its activities. Sex among the members. New members were sometimes recruited through a tactic of Flirty Fishing. But, when did allegations surface of child abuse?
Ross: Well, the allegations regarding child abuse really surfaced as a direct result of complaints from families and from former members. This would have become very widely known during the 80s. And of course the group distributed literature that literally depicted children being sexualized and some of its more radical teachings. Perhaps the family that was most widely known to be associated with Berg was the Phoenix family which included the actor River Phoenix and his brother Joaquin Phoenix. Eventually, River Phoenix, like many former members, children that had grown up in the Children of God, became involved in drugs and died at the age of 26. But many, many of these children who left the group have struggled after leaving.
Fred Dove (BBC): One of the other young members within the group was Ricky Rodriguez. What was the connection between Ricky Rodriguez and David Berg?
Ross: Well, the connection was that Karen Zerby, now who is the leader of the group, known as Karen Berg; Rodriguez was her child and he was raised as a member of the immediate family of Berg and he, like all the children in the group, and you mentioned I think aptly when you said "institutionalized sexual abuse" which means essentially that the group taught sexual abuse of children as an article of faith and Rodriguez did not escape that. He, at a very early age, was molested. Even though he was designated not only as a potential successor but as a messianic figure widely recognized by the group.
Fred Dove (BBC): A documentary about the events leading up to Ricky Rodriguez's death has just been shown on Britain's Channel 4 TV network. Included in the program were these extracts from the suicide note Ricky Rodriguez recorded on video before taking his life.
Rick Rodriguez: Well, hey everyone, this is Rick and I am making this video. I want there to be some record of who I was really... I hope I don't blow my nose off instead of my head... How can you do that to kids? How can you do that to kids and sleep at night? I can only imagine what my sister goes through, she has nightmares about, you know, being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to go have sex with Berg... You know, anger does not begin to describe how I feel about these people and what they've done... Yeah, I mean I guess I've said all I can say. What can I say? [sighs] I would have had a happy, peaceful life... I tried. I did. I tried and I gave it what I could, you know. I did.
Fred Dove (BBC): Extracts from the documentary Cult Killer: The Ricky Rodriguez Story, a WagTV production for Channel 4. Sarah Martin and Don Irwin both spent their childhood growing up as junior members of The Family and left after becoming disillusioned. Both spent time with Ricky Rodriguez in Southern California before he murdered Angela Smith and killed himself. Sarah Martin told me how she got to know Ricky Rodriguez.
Sarah: I'd known him for a few years although I feel we knew him better just because we basically grew with him. His life was publicized within our group. He started talking to me when my brother had... my brother committed suicide a couple years ago; and he was quite a big help to me. He would chat with me online until the late hours of the night and just email back and forth as friends. I invited him to come out here a couple times and then eventually he moved out here and that's how I became friends with him.
Fred Dove (BBC): How much did this idea that he was the heir apparent of The Family of the Children of God; how much did that weigh on his shoulders? Was that something that was intricately bound up with his life?
Don: I think it's something that was promoted by Berg in his writings; from the time he was very young and it was a huge responsibility. He could never go and hang out and just sort of be one the guys because his mother would always require the cult members to send her reports so that she could monitor what influence or impact he was having on cult members and that was something that he really rebelled against because he didn't want to be anyone else's person. He wanted to be his own man and from the very first time I started talking with him in 2000, his hatred and abhorrence of his mother's and Berg's legacy was very apparent.
Sarah: He used to talk about suicide a lot. But at the same time he did want to do something to help his peers. I don't think any of us realized the extent he would go to to do that. But one of the main things that bothered him was actually what happened to Don's sister, who was living with him at the time.
Don: To Merry Berg who was actually Berg's granddaughter. She's my sister on my mother's side. Her father, Paul Berg, committed suicide in 1973. And she was later sexually molested, assaulted, raped by Rick's father, if you will, David Brandt Berg, the leader of the cult, and then when she began to rebel when she was 14, 15, they began to administer this horrific corporal punishment, they would tie to bed, they would beat her for hours as a sort of exorcism and Rick was privy to that, he saw that and she'd ask him for help but there was nothing that he could do because he was a 10, 11 year old boy and he was freaked out that if he would do anything then what was happening to her would happen to him.
Fred Dove (BBC): Because of your parents being members of the Children of God, of The Family, you were also on the inside. How would you, what would sum up, what this organization stood for, what their central beliefs were?
Don: There were some central beliefs like you had to believe that Berg was the prophet, you had to believe that we were living in the Endtime, that Jesus was going to come back anytime. But then it was this central doctrine, this bizarre sexual doctrine that extended to children, was introduced and was something that Berg talked about almost incessantly and a lot of the whole doctrine was focused around this sort of communal living but also very isolationist sort of communal living. Like when I left, I had no education, I had no money, I had no formal work experience and I think that sense of abandonment has really, really hurtful to a lot of survivors and it's reflected in the very high rates of suicide. the very high rates of substance abuse amongst survivors. There's... in many cases we're suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, we're suffering from all the symptoms associated with systematic abuse and we don't have adequate support to help us in this transitional period and that's something that as a group of survivors we need help because we can't continue to suffer the losses that we have on a year to year basis due to suicide, to self destructive behavior because it's horrific by any standards.
Sarah: One thing that really never changed is that they always abided by the one law - the Law of Love - it's still all based on that one law of love and they basically use it to do whatever they want to do. I remember going to this one Home where they told us that we had to wear sarongs around our waists, which meant we had to be topless and I was only like 11 or 12 years old and I remember being very uncomfortable with that and trying to cover my breasts with my hair so that I wouldn't be so obvious and I got in trouble for that. They pulled my hair back and basically they told me that you shouldn't be ashamed of your body. I mean you grew up with that basically as normal, it was normal to be naked and it was normal to see your parents having sex in the next bed. I mean you never really thought much of it, the only thing you thought was if it made you uncomfortable but you never thought it was wrong and when the Letters came out about his sister and her problems and how to handle rebellion, they started isolating the children that were rebellious, that had questions about the doctrine and they took us away from our parents. They took me and my brother away and sent us to this... what they called a "Victor program" and I was there for about 2 years in Japan and then another year and a half in Italy and my parents didn't know what was going on to us there because they told us they were sending us away for retraining, Christian beliefs, yada, ya when really it was just brainwashing, torture...
Don: Corporal punishment, manual labor. It was false imprisonment, the whole...
Fred Dove (BBC): And being away from your parents the whole time?
Sarah: Yeah and we couldn't write our parents to tell them what was happening because they would read all of our letters and if we said anything negative in those letters they would make us rewrite it.
Don: In my case, we were living fairly happily as a family unit until I was about 8 years old and that's when Berg said that he wanted his granddaughter, that was my sister, to go and record music at this music studio and they told us it was going to be for three months and she never came back. I didn't see her again for... well, 13 years. My father was asked to go and work on this project and again they didn't let him come back and finally when my mom left the cult, that was in 1985, I sort of became an orphan in the group, if you will, at about 10 years of age. From that time on until I was 21, I basically lived without my biological parents.
Fred Dove (BBC): At what point in your own life did you decide it was time to leave and when you started thinking along those lines, how difficult was it to do so?
Sarah: Well, for me it was very difficult because I was at that Victor program and when I had asked them if I could leave, I was about 15 I think at the time, basically I was told No. In fact, because of voicing those doubts I was taken out and isolated and put on a fast and prayer session where I had to listen to headphones 24 hours a day except when they had someone reading to me. I wasn't allowed to have any food other than liquid - a soup or something that they blended. That was for about two weeks so I wasn't able to leave until I was 18 years old.
Fred Dove (BBC): When you were 18, were you able to just walk out the door?
Sarah: Well, at that point, I was back with my parents so I was able to call my grandmother and ask her for help. So she took me in when I first left. Otherwise, I don't even know if I would have been able to leave because I had nowhere to go and I had no knowledge of how to live in the outside world. I hadn't even used a phone until I was 18 years old. There are no phones in the places, nowhere to call 911. But beyond that, one of the reasons that I speak about this is because of what happened to Ricky and other children who have left. I don't want it to get to that point where it got with Ricky because they don't have anywhere to go and it's very hard for them to adjust to the outside world and they have no help and things need to change in our court system because we have tried for years to bring our abusers to justice and it's very difficult because we were very young when all this happened and it happened in other countries and due to the statute of limitations her in the U.S. you can no longer prosecute them for their crimes no matter how horrific they were.
Fred Dove (BBC): Because it was too long ago.
Sarah: Too long ago. I think that's why Ricky felt so.. so stuck, because he felt like they system had failed us and it's important that abused children do not feel like the system fails us because then they have nothing to do and they have to live with it and that's why I believe it was frustrating for Rick and possibly why he turned to do what he had to do. He felt there was no other option.
Fred Dove (BBC): Don, let me ask you, you said your mum left the organization in 1985, your father was still a member, you left about 9 years ago, how difficult was it for you to do so?
Don: Well I did the same thing as what Sarah did. When I was about 14 I said, you know what, I started looking around and there was just too many inconsistencies and I knew this was wrong, I knew there was abuse happening. I wanted to leave. I wanted to get an education. I wanted to have a normal life. I wanted to... my little fantasy was to be a pilot. So I told them when I was 14, "hey, I don't believe in this, I'd like to leave. I want to go to university and I want to have a normal life" and they did the exact same thing to me as what they did to Sarah. They immediately took me away from the rest of the group, they put me into isolation, they sent me from my country, where I was living in Indonesia to Thailand and they had control of my passport. I couldn't go to the consulate if I wanted to, to ask for help. I didn't have any idea of how that was done. I grew up in this isolationist environment. And I just evaluated the situation and I was like, you know what, I've got no options so I'm just going to toe the party line and just buckle down and try to keep myself out of the line of fire and what I ended up doing is I ended up going to their main publications unit where I thought OK, let me give this one more go, maybe these were just bad people at the lower levels and the prophet didn't intend for any of these horrible things to happen... They kept us in the dark a lot and deception was institutionalized. So I went to their main sort of administrative headquarters, if you will, and I worked more closely with the top leadership and I had been there for about 15 minutes and I realized, "Oh, my God. Every allegation, everything that I've heard bad about these people is all true" and I just realized I really had to leave. I was scared and around about that time, thankfully, my mother had been trying to write me the whole time and I was able to... they finally let me go and visit her. So I visited her for 10 days and then I went back to the cult's unit and I told them that, how I was going to leave and at that point they took me again out of that house, put me in isolation for three months where they kind of tried to figure out what they were going to do with me. Finally, they just said, well, go and live with your estranged mother in San Diego and so I did that. I went and started trying to put my life together.
Fred Dove (BBC): Have you been able to retain links with your father?
Don: Up until the whole tragedy with Ricky, I did maintain links with him. He actually came out to my graduation when I graduated from university. But when this whole thing with Ricky came and I have been collecting information on the activities of these criminals for a long time and I sat down with my dad and I said, " Look, maybe you were young when you joined this group, maybe you didn't know what it was about, maybe you got caught up in something because you had some deficiency in your own past but now this is what has come out, this is the truth, this is not a lie, this is not an allegation, this is what happened and it's so incredibly hurtful of you to continue to support these perpetrators by your membership, by your money, by all these things and you need to do something, you need to take a stand." That was last year and I haven't heard from him for about 16 or 17 months.
Fred Dove (BBC): No contact at all?
Don: No contact at all. He used to sometimes call, send me an email. Once this thing happened, and I told him, I said "Look, I don't want to hurt anybody, I don't want Family Homes now to get raided and children to be traumatized but I do want justice and I'm going to say something in terms of making some sense of why somebody would be so damaged that they would go to the lengths that Ricky went to in order to pursue justice. There's a reason, these things don't just happen. The cult's been giving out this canned statement about how journalists should take care not to casually dismiss, whatever it is that they're writing, 'a disturbed young man' I think is what they're using and you know what, he was disturbed but children don't come into the world disturbed like that. They become disturbed because of what you did to them. "
Fred Dove (BBC): Looking for justice, but you've got things going back a long way as you say, possibly exceeding the statute of limitations. Is justice realistic, do you think, as far as you see it?
Don: I think that we have to be idealistic in this situation. We have to have some type of hope because this was a holocaust, what happened to us, it was a silent holocaust and we're paying the price every day with suicides, with drug overdoses, with people who have no education who are just thrown out into the world with no training.
Sarah: The people who did these things need to be removed from their positions of leadership and their victims need to have the opportunity to bring them to court; because that's the thing, they didn't report to anyone. They don't report to any law but themselves.
Don: It's so sad because even in their canned statements that they give to the press they say "Yes, there was some instances of abuse and it's since become an excommunicable offense but what I've never heard media people ask is "Oh, so you admit that there were these instances of abuse. What have you done about them? Have you done anything to provide any type of services to the victims, psychological services, medical services?" I mean there's one girl who can't have children because she was raped when she was 12 years old and so they acknowledge that these things happened, that there were instances of abuse. Really? Did you turn the people over to the police? There's no sense of moral outrage. They're more concerned with protecting their own behinds, if you will, than protecting children. So, we don't have an ideological agenda to dismantle the group. There's people who are doing good things, more power to them. But they have to be accountable, the secret society type of thing where everyone covers for themselves, that's got to stop.
Fred Dove (BBC): Don Irwin and Sarah Martin, who both decided to leave the The Family International. You're listening to Outlook from the BBC World Service. Joining us now from California is Claire Borowik from the public affairs desk for The Family International. Claire, do you accept that there have been cases of child abuse within The Family International?
Borowik: I think we've acknowledged on several occasions that in a past era there had occurred some cases. However, we definitely do not accept the picture being portrayed here of institutionalized abuse, of coverups and hiding. The Family was subjected to raids in several countries around the world and children were evaluated, examined, over 700 children and never a single case of abuse emerged in all those children. I just don't buy this story that's being peddled here.
Fred Dove (BBC): As you say, there have been a few cases, you accept that. Now, if there have been a few cases, what happened to the people involved in those, those found guilty within the organization of having done things they shouldn't have? Were they expelled? Were they handed to the police?
Borowik: You have to understand how this historically came about, Fred. The Family grew out of the hippie movement and Father David did preach a liberal doctrine regarding sexuality and he failed to put in strong safeguards for the protection of minors and this was his responsibility. In the late 80s, in 1986 actually, when it came to the ears of leadership that some young people were feeling that they were being subjected to unwanted advances and they were unhappy with this, immediate action was taken, absolutely banned any kind of interaction with any minor and in 1988 it was announced as an excommunicable offense. This policy hasn't changed in the last nearly 20 years. So I would say that our church took immediate and stringent action,
Fred Dove (BBC): And since those safeguards were brought in as you describe, has anyone been expelled, has anyone had to justify what happened before then?
Borowik: It depends on if the people report. Again, Sarah and Don are presenting very sweeping allegations of suicides and drugs but actually we have 32000 former members and most of them have adapted fairly well and are doing well and I don't believe that the rate of suicides is any higher than that of society at large.
Fred Dove (BBC): You say that David Berg didn't put in certain safeguards which were then put in. Is that saying that some of the things he did were not, shall we say, up to scratch, were wrong?
Borowik: Absolutely and Karen Zerby made a public acknowledgment of this for a British judge, Lord Justice Ward and apologized and his comments were that it was a very fulsome apology and The Family has done everything possible to implement stringent safeguards to protect children and not only that but, for example, Don and Sarah have talked about children in The Family not receiving an education. Well, I find that prejudicial. Our children are home schooled. Learning three or four languages is an education. Participating in humanitarian efforts such as tsunami relief, helping victims in Africa, building orphanages, schools, working with the deaf, that is an education and that is training.
Fred Dove (BBC): You mentioned Karen Zerby or Karen Berg as she's also known, now she's in charge now as you say, does that imply though that essentially, although some things have changed, as you say you have acknowledged that some the things that David Berg did were nor right but essentially the organization remains the same as it was, shall we say, during the early 70s?
Borowik: Well, what remains the same is is that The Family is devoted to carrying the message of God's love and to attending to the needs of the poor. That has remained unchanged. However, The Family of the 70s and The Family of today are very different. Now we have our second generation, the peers of Don and Sarah, who are themselves parents and half the young people born in The Family are currently members and have a very different take on this entire issue.
Fred Dove (BBC): I was talking to Claire Borowik from the public affairs desk for The Family International, formerly known as the Children of God. My thanks also to former members Sarah Martin and Don Irwin and to Rick Ross from whom we heard earlier. Any thoughts or comments do email outlook at bbc.co.uk. The program's back the same time tomorrow. Do join us then.