Members of sect say they're being persecuted
By CARMEN PIGNOTTI
Reuters News Services
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Members of the Family sect Monday said they were victims of religious persecution as authorities brought them into an Argentine court for questioning on charges of sexual abuse and other crimes.
Seventeen members of the sect, including four U.S. citizens, two Canadians, two Spanish nationals and a French woman, were escorted by police into a courthouse early Monday to be questioned by Federal Judge Roberto Marquevich.
Sect leaders face charges ranging from rape and sexual abuse to racketeering, prostitution, kidnapping and concealing of children, court officials said.
Former members of the Family, a California-founded Children of God sect, charge that its leaders forced female followers into prostitution to raise money for the sect.
Cult members deny such charges and argue that they are a plain Christian community that regularly does charity work at hospitals, orphanages and senior citizens' homes.
Marquevich initially placed 30 sect members under arrest after police raided their homes in suburban Buenos Aires Wednesday. Thirteen were later released.
The judge also took 68 adults and 137 children of 19 nationalities into custody after the raids. Minors are being tested for physical and psychological damage.
"The judge plans to question all suspects today. Whether or not any are released is exclusively his decision," court officer Juan Del Sel said Monday.
Del Sel said Marquevich was still sifting through evidence -- which court officers say includes videotapes of children having sex with adults -- and screening the results of forensic examinations before moving ahead with the probe.
In a statement issued from the group's Whittier, Calif., office, the sect said pornographic videos and literature were strictly forbidden in the community and "if such video tapes were indeed found in Buenos Aires homes, they were planted there by corrupt officials as 'evidence' to justify the raids."
It also said that "worldwide, court-appointed officials have thoroughly examined over 600 of our children and not once has there been any evidence of abuse."
Spokesman John Francis acknowledged that ""although some communities did make video recordings of dancing seminude female members in the late '70s and early '80s, these "dance videos' definitely were not "hard-core pornography' as some media sources have implied.
"Such tapes were made during a phase of our movement when we were discovering and proclaiming our sexuality, an era when we, like much of society, were much more naive about sexual matters than we are today."
Photo: Canadian Clara Susan Borowick, 33, alleged leader of the Family sect, arrives at court in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in handcuffs.; Credit: Associated Press