CBS News "Eyes" the U of A
Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel team interviews sociologist on campus
University of Alberta Folio/1998-05-15
It's not everyday the phone rings and an American network television producer from New York City calls. But that's exactly what happened to sociology professor Dr. Stephen Kent several weeks ago. And a six-person crew from CBS News' Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel flew up for two days of on-campus shooting and interviews May 4 and 5.
Correspondent Maggie Cooper and producer Hillari Palatnik were working on a story about the life experiences of former members of "Children of God," or the "Family" as it's commonly known. It's a worldwide Christian-based group based on the teachings of its late founder, David Berg.
"Increasingly, by the 1980s, his teachings became heavily laced with sexuality and the group became very controversial because of its many practices," says Kent. He believes that in some cases, sex may have been used to recruit members and gain resources. Cooper says the book "Heaven's Harlots" by former member Mary Williams, who spent 15 years in the group, mentioned Kent's name. A month of research proved Kent was the expert about the Family they were looking for. "We did our research and he has the most knowledge about this particular group as an objective researcher," says Cooper.
"He also has the most extensive collection of interviews with members and former members," says Palatnik who says the Public Eye team is trying to gather as much information about the group before they talk to Family members and former members.
They came to the right place.
"The [CBS] researchers seemed impressed by the quality of research material at the U of A. They were almost disbelieving about the materials' content," says Kent. "It's one thing to describe doctrines and publications. It's another thing to place it in their hands."
Kent says the Family attracted many Canadians, including Edmontonians, over the years since it was founded in 1967 in Huntington Beach, Calif. It grew in the early '70s, attracting disaffected and idealistically religious youth searching for some purpose in their lives, says Kent. "I began this research by examining how this group operated in Canada and how it affected the lives of Canadians. Very quickly, the story became global."
"One of the reasons my perspective on this group differs from many other researchers is because I have interviewed so many former members born in the group and who can talk objectively about their experience, having grown up in it," says Kent. He estimates he has spoken with about three dozen former and current members, having gained the trust of young people in their early twenties and thirties.
"[Their accounts] are not all bad but many people indicate they've experienced significant forms of physical, sexual and emotional abuse."
To Kent's knowledge, however, none of the allegations have resulted in a member of the Family being charged.
Yet evidence suggests 700-800 children around the world in this group were swept up in the 1980s by social service agencies because of allegations of child abuse, says Kent.
"There's a huge debate in my field about the accuracy of former members' accounts," says Kent. "Therefore, what researchers must do is seek other kinds of information and other accounts to support or contradict what particular individuals say. In my research about the Family, I've been able to support accounts of former members with an extensive collection of primary documents. Together, the accounts and documents suggest that widespread abuse of various kinds took place in the 1980s and now many people who suffered that abuse and have left the group are speaking about their experiences."
Kent says he has alerted the FBI in the U.S. with his findings. But with allegations of abuse occurring all over the world, there are jurisdictional and financial resource problems to overcome. He does not have evidence of abuses occurring on Canadian soil.
Kent's interview is scheduled to appear on Public Eye either June 3 or 10 on the CBS network.