Cult's image unfairly soiled, member says
Media gets blame for negative publicity
By Jo Ann Zuniga
A member of a religious group that has a 10-acre site in northwest Harris County protested before journalists attending the Freedom of Information conference in Austin on Friday, saying her sect is being smeared by the media.
Christie Richards, who said the name was her adopted "Bible name," said The Family, an international religious group being prosecuted in Argentina for allegedly promoting sex with children, said the charges in Argentina are false and that the Houston branch has come under attack because of those charges. She made her statements during a discussion of the media's coverage of the Branch Davidian siege at Mount Carmel near Waco.
Worried about mounting public hysteria during the Branch Davidian compound siege in Waco, the Houston-area Family of 35 people -- 25 of them under the age of 18 -- asked attorney Mike DeGeurin to help protect them against false accusations.
"They came to me during the siege at Waco concerned that their neighbors would also say, "We have to do something about these cults,'" DeGeurin said Friday.
He added their request for help came before DeGeurin's brother, attorney Dick DeGuerin (the brothers spell their surnames differently), traveled to Waco to represent David Koresh, leader of the Davidians who challenged Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. The standoff ended with more than 90 church members and federal agents dead.
"Such (out-of-the-mainstream religious) groups sure are discriminated against right now. Anyone considered a little bit different in society is subject to being criticized," Mike DeGeurin said.
Richards has been with The Family, formerly known as The Children of God, for 22 years. At age 40, she is the mother of nine children, ranging from 20 years old to 2 months.
A recent raid of members' homes by police in Buenos Aires confiscated videotapes that showed adults and minors engaging in sex acts. Although the people appearing in the tape have not been identified, police arrested 30 adults and took into custody 137 children in coordinated raids on 10 homes operated by the group.
The prosecutor in the Argentina case has acknowledged that the children appear to be in good health and show no signs of physical or sexual abuse. Examinations have not been completed.
In the past five years, similar raids have been launched in Argentina, Spain, France, Venezuela and Australia. In every case, cult members have been released for lack of evidence.
In a phone interview from Austin, Richards denies that any of the local group supports sex with minors.
"You can be ex-communicated from the group for engaging in sex with anyone under 18. We absolutely do not condone it," she said.
Instead, Family members sing and pray with their children and preach at juvenile halfway houses and homeless shelters, Richards said.
"Every evening we have family time where we all sit and talk with one another, which is good because so often families don't talk to each other," she said.
Richards said the group lives mostly on donations from "people who like our work."
"We live spartan-like. It's certainly not luxurious, but it's the life we chose, Richards said.
In addition to the Houston household, about 150 members reside in Texas with branches in Dallas and San Antonio, she estimated.
"But I do feel for them having their children taken away," Richards said.
"All of these charges of sex abuse with children are absolutely unfounded and spread by people disgruntled with us, she said.
The group still follows the word of former Pentecostal preacher David Berg, who left his wife and four children in 1969 at the age of 49 to live with a 23-year-old girlfriend. Claiming to have received a message from Jesus, he founded the Children of God movement in Huntington Beach, Calif. The sect adopted the notion of free love for all ages. It also used young women members to prostitute themselves to recruit new members.
But current members say the group has evolved away from the free love principle because of AIDS and changing morality.
"He (Berg) sends us Letters of Council. We don't have to follow every word, and sometimes I don't. But it's usually good advice," Richards said.