SEX IN THE NAME OF GOD
Secret, worldwide cult preys on children
By Evan Moore
Such evil deeds could religion prompt. - Titus Lucretius Carus, 99-55 B.C.
BAHIA BLANCA, Argentina - The laughter of children, many children, cascades often from the large, well-kept brick home on "Calle Rodriguez." It jingles through the early morning air in this upper-class Argentine neighborhood and in the sultry late afternoon as the "ninos" troop around the block, a miniature choir singing religious songs in English.
And as the children pass, raising their sing-song praise to God, the neighbors look on in quiet horror.
Until recently, until the "federales" came one afternoon and began arresting the adults, the inhabitants of the house were known to their neighbors only as "those people," a clean-cut, pleasant looking group. A few recognized them as "el culto", a few as "La Familia", but none knew them as "The Children of God" and none knew exactly what went on behind the wrought iron fence, or within the red brick walls, at 1787 Rodriguez Street.
The neighbors knew the men and women didn't work - at least at any regular employment - but still had no trouble paying 1,100 American dollars monthly rent for one of the largest houses in the best neighborhood of the city. They knew their numbers waxed and waned (sometimes as many as 12 adults and 20 or more children, sometimes as few as four and 12). They knew the house had many mattresses and almost no other furniture.
But the stories of prostitution and orgies, of incest and child molestation, hadn't spread then. The tales of a strange, underground religion that calls for the sexual seduction of its converts were unknown. And it was a safe bet that few in Bahia Blanca had ever heard of "Moses David" and his peculiar, worldwide following of "sheep.' All that changed one afternoon in November when police descended on the house looking for drugs, arrested a dozen adults and picked up 21 children, most of whom appeared to be Americans.
Inside the home the officers found a small amount of cocaine, but that didn't raise many Latin American eyebrows. What was surprising were the strange, lurid posters, the large amount of video reproduction equipment, the pornographic tapes, the odd pamphlets with their mixture of religious images and lascivious cartoons, the children's primers with condoms between the pages.
The police detained only one of the adults: Brian Pickus, 41, an American named in an Interpol burglary warrant stemming from his abduction of two of his sons in Hawaii in 1980. Pickus was held for extradition until early January, when bail of $70,000 was set and the other members of his sect promptly posted it in cash.
In the meantime, stories of "Los Ninos De Dios" - The Children of God - began to spread through Bahia Blanca and residents of the conservative, industrial city soon learned what most of Latin America already knew: that the bizarre tales about the American-born cult and the perverted legacy it threatens to leave are true, and that the group is growing here at an alarming rate despite sanctions against it.
In Argentina that is not surprising. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon has made his home here and is building a huge hotel in Montevideo. Escaped Third-Reich Nazis have found refuge and recreated German villages in the hills. In fact, the country has 2,554 sects registered with the "Secretaria De Cultos. " Those don't include The Children of God, however. It is the only cult prohibited in Argentina, although that prohibition does little to stop its members from entering or staying once they are here. They are frowned on similarly in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and other neighboring countries, but their numbers are growing there also.
And, while Latin America is a far cry from the streets of Los Angeles and the Texas Soul Clinic where the seeds of the group were planted, it is a more fertile bed.
Genesis of `Moses David'
But to understand the cult and its odd membership of about 13,000 scattered through more than 80 countries, it is necessary to know what little has been recorded about "Dad," "Mo," "Moses David,"or the man who lurks behind all those names.
David Brant Berg was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1919, the son of a Disciples of Christ minister and a mother who was a radio evangelist. Berg was naturally drawn to preaching and found his way into the Missionary Alliance Church in Arizona.
In 1950, for reasons lost to obscurity, Berg was forced out of that church and began a peripatetic wandering. He married along the way and, in 1964, began working for Los Angeles evangelist J. Fred Jordan as a radio preacher with a "Church in the Home" broadcast.
By that time California had begun to see its first hippies and there was a chemistry between the young radicals and the 45-year-old evangelist. Berg moved his wife, Jane, and his four children to Huntington Beach, a Los Angeles suburb, and began a ministry at "The Light Club.' He preached revolution, cursed the "system" churches and sent his teen-age followers out to appear at public demonstrations and rallies. He promised a form of rigorous redemption through celestial magic and fervent adherence to his word, and he attracted the drug addicts and runaways who longed for a source of strength and decision.
Berg gave them new names to go with new personalities. He cured them, converted them, brainwashed them, then made them "Jesus Freaks." He changed them from long-haired youths with idiot smiles of narcosis to long-haired youths with beatific smiles of rapture, ever-present guitars, songs about salvation and reams of religious literature to sell at intersections.
And, like other cult leaders, he was the ultimate prophet. He adopted the name "Moses" and dictated to his followers through "Mo Letters," which his artists illustrated with cartoons depicting Berg as a lion and Christ as a leering debaucher in paradise, usually accompanied by scantily clad women.
The group went through several titles: "Teens for Christ,""Revolutionaries for Jesus" and, finally, "The Children of God."By 1970, Berg had gathered 500 followers and was housing most of them at Jordan's "Texas Soul Clinic," a former Baptist missionary training camp on 200 acres near Mineral Wells.
He'd also become convinced that California was going to fall into the ocean and the entire United States would suffer economic collapse soon after, two of many prophecies of doom he would later revise. Berg took himself seriously, however, and in 1971 he dispatched a number of his followers to Europe and Asia and set up his own headquarters in London.
By 1974 The Children of God had grown to 6,000 and spread through 70 countries. It was then that Berg began to reveal another side of his character. He introduced "Flirty Fishing," or "FFing," a form of prostitution in which women members became "Happy Hookers for Jesus" and were sent out to seduce wealthy, influential men, either as converts or "friends" who would help promote his group.
His "sheep" were soldiers in a sexual revolution, he wrote, and he revealed to a select few that he'd always harbored a sexual desire for his mother and both his daughters and had been engaging in sex with his younger daughter, "Faithy," for years.
All this was in keeping with "God's highest order," he wrote. He based these declarations, in part, on revelations he received through "Abrahim," the spirit of an ancient Gypsy who had first contacted him in Houston in 1970.
He also was a self-acknowledged alcoholic who seemed to see Abrahim most often after he had consumed huge quantities of wine. Among the things Berg claimed to have gained from his aged ghost was the "revelation" that Jesus had several wives and concubines and suffered from venereal disease.
He exhorted his followers to incest and orgies, homosexuality and lesbianism. He advocated their children be taught to engage in sex acts, with adults and other children, beginning with experimentation at age 2 or 3 and culminating with intercourse at age 12.
An ex-member speaks out
"And you wonder why anybody ever went along with it, but they did. I did," said Dahlva Lynch. Lynch, 39, is a former member who now lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the group has its South American headquarters.
Like many other ex-members, Lynch joined The Children of God as a recovering drug addict in the early 1970s. More than an addict, however, she was a well-educated, bilingual Brazilian and valuable to the cult . Like many others, she was "mated" in the group and has an ex-husband and three children still with The Children of God.
"Look at me and you must wonder, `how dumb,"' she said. "I stayed with them at first because they got me off drugs when I couldn't do it myself and I thought they were wonderful. I didn't realize I'd been a slave to drugs first, then a slave to them.
"I stayed with them later out of blindness and cowardice. I was afraid I couldn't make it on my own without them. I was afraid I'd be turning my back on God if I left them. I still thought they were the `way.'
"I stayed with them finally to try and keep my children, but I lost them anyway.' During almost 14 years with The Children of God, however, she watched Berg's following grow and change and watched Berg grow rich. She saw how the women refined their seductive techniques to ingratiate themselves with high-ranking military officers and politicians throughout the world. She helped fill out "fishing"reports (detailed accounts of seductions, including vital information about the "fish") and computerize them.
She translated Berg's writings into Portuguese for distribution in Brazil and was there when the group began its big push into Latin America. Berg was living in the Canary Islands in 1978 when his unbridled "flirty fishing" resulted in a massive outbreak of venereal disease in the cult . Some of his elite questioned the "FFing," so he fired 300 of the dissenters and sought a new headquarters.
He found it in Latin America in 1981, and his followers began setting up radio programs called "Musica Con Vida," translated by the cult to mean "Music With Meaning." Working under a policy of "quality, not quantity" they lured listeners to parties where they plied them with wine and attempted to seduce those with the most potential value to the group.
They also continued to cruise the hotel bars, particularly those of the more expensive hotels in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. There, they found a large number of "souls" to save, and among them was Peter Fearn's.
Fateful contact with `Cathy'
Fearn, now 56, was head of Ford of Britain in Latin America when he met one of The Children of God in Sao Paulo in 1983. Her name was "Cathy" and she was wearing jeans and carrying a guitar through a hotel lobby when they met.
Fearn was a quick convert. He returned home to England and acted so peculiarly that his wife became convinced that he'd lost his mind. He took early retirement from Ford with a settlement of 70,000 pounds ($93,800), withdrew his savings of 30,000 pounds ($40,200) and disappeared.
His wife, thinking he might have been kidnapped, traced him back to Sao Paulo, to a Children of God bungalow near the home where Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele was arrested. But Fearn and the other cult members had left when investigators arrived.
Investigators kept up the search, however, and he was last seen by federal police when he gathered mail at a post office box in Sao Paulo.
"I have seen the light," he reportedly told the "federales. ""If you can believe St. Paul, you can believe me.' Police at least believed Fearn was not kidnapped and had broken no laws. He was allowed to go back to the cult and has not been heard from since. Like other members, he gave The Children of God his savings and they gave him a biblical name.
"The thing about them is ... they are disgusting," said Paulo Romero, head of the Christian Research Institute in Sao Paulo. The institute keeps files on various sects in Brazil and one of their larger ones is on The Children of God.
"If they sold their pornography in an alley, or ran their prostitutes like other pimps, they would still be bad. But they are so horrible because they do it in the name of God," Romero said.
"And the worst thing is what they do to the children.' When police raided the home in Bahia Blanca, one of the officers was looking through children's reading primers when he began to find condoms between the pages, said Ana Maria Vives, attorney for the criminal section of the federal court in Bahia Blanca.
"He asked one of the little girls what they were for and, before she could answer, an older boy, a teen-ager, told her in English, `Say they are to tie your hair.'
The boy didn't know the officer spoke English.
"We really can't do much with them," said Vives. "The cocaine is too small an amount and the children won't tell us anything. The books and pictures indicate the adults are molesting them, but we can't prove it. We had the children examined, but they're not injured.
"And we really don't know who these children are. They appear to be American. The leader of this bunch in Bahia Blanca is named Berne Alan Edson, an American. Edson apparently had some children by one woman, then took another woman who already had some children and all the children took his name.
"When you look at the list of children, it reads, `Edson, Edson, Edson' and so on, 10 of them. All `Edson.' And all the children always call the one in charge `Father,' so we really don't know who their parents are.' Neither may many of the children. Internal publications produced by the cult in April 1988, and intended only for members, show 6,788 children born in the group since 1978. Of those, 594 are "Jesus Babies," or children resulting from unions with potential "fish.' Of the others, many result from polygamous unions and still others have only one parent still in the cult . Although the literature claims an average of 4.5 children per couple, all are brought up in a communal style and taught to call their local leader "Father.' Although the membership now includes 22 nationalities, 3 ,512, or 27.3 percent, are from the United States. The next largest group is from Brazil, with 1,019 members, or 7.9 percent.
The publications are extremely detailed and contain many other figures, all dating to Berg's reorganization in 1978. They show a total membership of 12,879. Most of the adults (4,458) are between 20 and 40 years old and most of the children (5,551) are between 2 and 12.
They include population breakdowns showing 4,335 members, or almost 34 percent of their group, in Latin America; 2,191 members in India; 2,000 in Europe; 1,963 in the Orient; 737 in North America; 294 in the Pacific; 86 in Africa.
And they've broken their prostitution down to statistics. They claim 971,489 "Flirty Fishing" witness contacts (attempted seductions) in 10 years; 222,280 "fish loved" (sexual encounters) and 105,706 "souls won" (some form of contribution gained) through those.
Berg's location a mystery
What they don't show is where Berg is. His last known residence was in Hong Kong in 1984, when his older daughter, Deborah Davis, broke from the group and published a book in which she denounced her father and his group for their depravity. His publications are now printed in Zurich, Switzerland, but it is not clear whether he is there.
"There are a lot of people who'd like to get their hands around David Berg's neck," said Bert Sifler of Minneapolis, the father of Berne Edson's first wife and grandfather of six children in the Bahia Blanca group.
Sifler has seen his daughter and grandchildren twice in the last 10 years and plans to go to Argentina later this month to see them again.
"They seem like normal children, intelligent, happy," he said. "It's puzzling to me how these kids can be such great kids - gentle, smart, so well-behaved - and be raised in that atmosphere. It must do something to them, but you can't see it on the surface.
"Oh, I think The Children of God are terrible. I've seen some of the things they publish. I just don't understand the group at all.' And Berg's followers are not talking. Edson, when approached in Bahia Blanca, would say only that the press "has not been fair to us. They've printed lies about us.
"We were set up by the drug dealers and the Catholic Church.' Edson would not elaborate, but the sexual aspects of The Children of God have been condemned by the Catholic Church throughout Latin America. The cult also has been banned by secular authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia and was suspected of espionage in Mysore, India, when members were found with contraband infrared photographic equipment there in 1985.
In each case, however, puzzled authorities have released individual members after finding no specific crime to charge them with. In Argentina alone, they have been arrested in Buenos Aires, Florida and Bahia Blanca without appreciable result.
"We don't understand these people," Vives said. "They appear very pure until you start really looking at them. First, they all use names different from their true name. Edson goes by "Phillip." Brian Pickus is "Uncle Sam." A man named David Bruman is called "Lucas."
"All the adults say they are ex-drug addicts. Several of the women say they are prostitutes and acknowledge that freely. They have no jobs, but we find a pile of 10 gold Krugerrands and lots of pounds sterling in the house. They live in the best neighborhood, drive new cars, travel abroad.
"They say most of their money comes from donations from the United States, through something called `Charity of the People,' but we don't believe that. Pickus claims to be the gigolo of a widow in Buenos Aires who supports them, but we don't believe that's where all this money comes from either.
"And the children ... they're strange. They learn to read at 3 . They speak Spanish and English, know Argentine literature. But they won't talk to you. There is no dialogue, just `yes' and `no.' In the whole house - with 21 children - there were no toys. They all call one man and one woman `father and mother' and they don't seem to know who their real parents are.
"And all the adults are always ready to flee, like Gypsies. Wherever they go, they carry a package with a change of clothes, a toothbrush, other things so they can get up and leave at a moment's notice.
"But none of this is illegal. Prostitution is a minor crime here. If it's done from one's house, it's ignored and we don't even have a case to hold them on that.
"They are sickening, but what do we do about it?' Apparently, very little has been accomplished by authorities who pursued the group. Berg was investigated by a state commission in New York in 1971. Among other things, the commission concluded that he was probably evading taxes, but he left the country before the Internal Revenue Service could take any action against him.
To mask the operation from those who may know of The Children of God, the group often uses the names "The Family" or "Family of Love." Members sell musical videotapes and posters under those names, or the name "Heaven's Magic." If confronted with their true identity, they refuse to discuss it.
"You have to wonder what will become of the children," said Romero, whose research institute has helped a number of former cult members become self-supporting.
"With what they teach them: to lie, that we are all the enemy, that even their mother or father is part of the devil if they leave the group, all that twisted sex and immorality ...
"You wonder what sort of monsters they will produce.'