Houston Press: Family Ties

From XFamily - Children of God

Family Ties

Ex-members of a cult that once advocated sex between adults and children want the group's leaders exposed and punished

Houston Press/2005-11-17

By Craig Malisow

Family Ties
David Berg's sexual obsessions became Family doctrine. (www.xfamily.org)

In late September, a group of middle-aged and young adults walked into Reliant Center to minister to Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

They were part of an organization called The Family International, which, in the 1980s, advocated sex between adults and children. The evacuees didn't know it. The Red Cross didn't know it. And the younger members of the group probably didn't know it, either.

The Family claims a membership of 12,000 people in 100 different countries. Members mix Christian fundamentalism with the words of their own prophet, founder David Berg, who died in 1994. Today's members say they establish schools in impoverished countries, rehabilitate drug addicts and gang members, and raise money for families uprooted by natural disasters.

This was the group known in the 1970s for "Flirty Fishing," where young women were told to prostitute themselves for converts and cash. Their leader later preached the virtues of pedophilia.

While present-day Family members say the Family abolished Flirty Fishing and purged illicit literature in the 1980s, ex-members say the group's leaders are responsible for the physical and sexual abuse they suffered as kids. Several key members live in Texas.

"This is way beyond my personal vendetta against any one person who beat the crap out of me," ex-member Andrew Stone says from his home in Austin. "This is essentially an organization that to this day is still composed of people who committed crimes against children. And is still living in the lap of luxury, is still taking in money from other sources…and using it to live with impunity until the day they die. And that's just fucking wrong."

Stone, 30, is part of the "second generation" -- those born into the Family. This population, now in their twenties and thirties, is speaking out against the first generation. In many instances, they are speaking out against parents and siblings they left behind.

With the help of leaked internal documents, these ex-members are attempting to show that the Family's core beliefs are different from its public face.

Based in San Diego, but with publishing and video arms throughout the world, the Family is good at keeping secrets. It has had decades of practice. Members shun secular media, and what happens in the System (the Family's name for the outside world) is explained in an us-versus-them manner. According to internal Family documents, America is a "whore," and Katrina was God's vengeance upon the bacchanalian spirit of New Orleans. That knowledge is selah, meaning it's just for the Family. (This application of selah is different from its use in the Old Testament, the exact translation of which is disputed.)

Last January, Ricky Rodriguez, the former heir to the Family's throne, killed another member and himself. Rodriguez's childhood sexual abuse was documented in a book intended as a Family child-rearing manual (see "Bedtime Stories"). The Story of Davidito described Rodriguez, a.k.a. Davidito, being fellated by his nanny at age three. Other activities at this age included tweaking his nanny's nipples and dry-humping a three-year-old girl. The nanny's last known address is a Family home in Houston.

Rodriguez was once the chosen one, but outside the Family he was a ghost. Years of living a nomadic, insular, brainwashed existence set him up for failure. Haunted by memories of his own abuse and that of so many of his friends, the 29-year-old Rodriguez planned to kill his mother, current Family leader Karen Zerby. But Rodriguez settled for Family member Angela Smith instead. In January, he invited her over to his Tucson apartment for dinner, killed her, then drove to a small California town, where he put a bullet in his head.

The Family says ex-members drove Ricky to madness by filling his mind with false memories.

Unfortunately for the Family, Rodriguez had the warped sense to make a videotape of his crossover from victim to vigilante. Sitting at a table in his Spartan apartment, pointing to a military-grade knife and a .40-caliber Glock on the table before him, Rodriguez talked about the abuse he endured at the hands of Zerby and her second husband, fellow Family leader Peter Amsterdam.

Ricky looked straight into the camera and said, "The goal is to bring down those sick fuckers -- Mama and Peter. My own mother! That evil little cunt. Goddamn! How can you do that to kids? How can you do that to kids and sleep at night?"

Berg's daughter, Faith Berg Fischer, was a longtime Family leader. (www.xfamily.org)

He was talking about the second-generation Family members who have complained of sexual and physical abuse in Family-run compounds in the 1980s.

Shortly after Rodriguez's death, a wave of second-generation members who left the Family gathered on Web sites to expose their alleged abusers.

They tracked down names, addresses and photographs of the men and women who they claimed destroyed their childhood. On www.xfamily.org, they posted dozens of pages of internal Family memos detailing the sadistic treatment allegedly meted out to them. On www.MovingOn.org, which claims more than 3,000 registered users, ex-members talk about how they are trying to put their lives back together. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Don Lattin, who is writing a book about the Family, estimates the number of disgruntled ex-second-generation members in the low thousands. The Houston Press conducted phone and e-mail interviews with 11 former first- and second-generation members. Most requested anonymity, for the sake of their spouses and children, or out of fear that they'd be hounded by current members. Several others refused to be interviewed, saying they were still too traumatized to talk about their experiences.

Their stories might be unbelievable were it not for a 1995 British custody case that exposed thousands of internal Family memos.

That case supports what these ex-members say today: Their parents placed the Family before their kids. Many children were sent to "re-education" camps around the world, where some were forced to beg in the streets for the people who allegedly beat and raped them at will. They were allegedly told to lie to outsiders, and that if they uttered a word about their treatment, the devil's minions would take away their parents and brothers and sisters forever, and it would be all their fault.

It started in the mid-'60s, with one man: David Berg.

According to published materials, Berg was born in Oakland in 1919 to fundamentalist Christians; Berg would ultimately preach the gospel for a denomination known as the Christian and Missionary Alliance. After he was booted out in 1954, he longed to find someone to heed his Endtime, anti-authoritarian screeds. Plus, he had a wife and four children to feed.

Serendipity hooked him up with Los Angeles televangelist Fred Jordan, who took Berg under his wing. Berg also had assistance from his mother, who preached to hippies in Huntington Beach. Distraught over the military-industrial complex and in dire need of a sandwich, these disillusioned souls seemed to wash up in SoCal by the busload.

Jordan operated a ministry called The Soul Clinic out of a bombed-out building in downtown L.A. He also owned a godforsaken patch of rural Texas wasteland near Thurber, 70 miles west of Fort Worth, which Berg dubbed the Texas Soul Clinic. At the clinics, Berg and his cadre of leaders began his brainwashing techniques.

By the '90s, Berg would become an incestuous, sherry-swilling pedophile, but back in the hippy-dippy days, his charisma was unquestionable. The kids called him Dad or Grandpa or Moses David. He was already a bit off his rocker, but he gave his flock purpose. He preached of the Endtime, and how he and his buddy J.C. had the key to eternal salvation. He called his movement The Children of God, and they incorporated in Dallas. To the outside world, they were kooky but harmless.

Once Berg made it known he was a prophet, he could live in secrecy, corresponding with his flock via Mo letters (short for "Moses"), a series of increasingly bizarre commandments. By the mid-'70s, the Mo letters advocated the fund-raising practice he called Flirty Fishing. He called the women of the group "God's whores" and "hookers for Jesus."

Berg's sexual obsessions became group doctrine. Soon the Mo letters described how sex was appropriate at any age. Berg explained this in a 1977 Mo letter called "My Childhood Sex," in which he discussed a woman who baby-sat him when he was three or four.

"She used to suck me to sleep for my nap every afternoon," Berg wrote. "I loved it! But my mother began to get curious…I wasn't any little angel, I was just waiting to get sucked! I had orgasms and really enjoyed it." He then added, "Look at me, I don't think it did me any harm!"

His daughter Faithy seconded that emotion when she cheerfully recalled her molestation at the hands of her own father when "My Childhood Sex" was revamped in 1978. (By this time, Faithy operated as her father's emissary to his pal Mu'ammar Gadhafi.)

Ex-members say Dallas artist Hugo Westphal illustrated Mo letters in the 1970s. (www.xfamily.org)

"Childhood sex: I like it! It reminded me of how you [Berg] used to put me to sleep when I was a little girl, three or four. Wow! Daddy did it best! Back rubbin' that is, and front rubbin', too…Praise the Lord! I don't think it perverted me, none at all, but it sure converted me to his call! So I believe our parents should try it and help our kids to get the natural habit! We pray it'll work, then junior won't be a sexual jerk! It worked for me as you can see, I just do what comes naturally!"

Faith Berg Fischer, whose love of pedophilia was apparently matched only by her love of exclamation points, lives in Houston, in an apartment complex off Westheimer. Faithy, now 54, refused to answer questions about allegations of systematic sexual abuse in the Family. It's not clear whether she is still part of the Family, but her position is similar to the Family's. She waffled from denying sexual abuse ever happened to saying it happened so long ago that it's not worth dwelling on. She said there are more important things to worry about, like hurricane evacuees. She also said she was too busy taking care of her elderly mother. (Jane Miller Berg, David Berg's first wife, is part of the Katy-based Star Family Singers.)

In the late '70s, there was unrest in the ranks, and Berg kicked out a bunch of naysayers and renamed the group the Family. But they were still hounded by allegations of sexual abuse of children. To counter the bad publicity, the Family adopted an anti-child-abuse policy in 1986. They said that some individual members, unbeknownst to the leadership, may have had inappropriate sexual contact with minors.

Although Berg died in Portugal in 1994, the Family still receives his prophecies. They've also received prophecies from Jesus, Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe and -- until someone told them that he was still alive -- Art Linkletter, according to www.xfamily.org. According to documents posted on the Web site, Zerby is still in charge, although she is not mentioned in current Family literature. In 1997, she moved to Seattle and was there long enough to change her name to Katherine Rianna Smith, and then disappeared. (Even before Berg's death, many key members legally changed their names.) Her present location is the Family's well-guarded secret.

Family officials deny the accusations of systematic abuse. They point out that none of the alleged perpetrators was ever charged with such crimes. Family spokesperson Claire Borowik says the Family is a persecuted minority religion that has been unfairly hounded by unsubstantiated allegations. Moreover, she says, the media never pays attention to the group's extensive charity work.

"It would behoove you in the interest of fairness and accuracy to make note of the important fact that approximately half the young people born into the Family continue to be members and tell a very different story than that being aired by a handful of former members," Borowik e-mailed from the Family's Washington, D.C., office.

Houston attorney Valorie Davenport agrees. Davenport serves on the board of a Family-operated company that distributes books and videos, but she says she's strictly a Family advocate and not a member. (Her brother Jeff Wells is a first-generation member.)

In an e-mail to the Press, Davenport wrote, "Every society has their share of crimes and it is not cause for an indictment of all of that [society's] members. I know that today and for at least a decade, the family has made sex between an adult and minor an excommunicable offense."

According to the xfamily Web site, internal documents show that leader Karen Zerby never believed that pedophilia was wrong to begin with. Seven years after the Family adopted its anti-child-abuse policy, the ex-family members' Web site claimed Zerby issued the following statement:

"I'm sorry that we couldn't come out a little more forthrightly in the Child Abuse statement, bringing out the point that all sex between adults and minors is not bad, sinful, harmful or abusive. However, the problem was that we didn't know how much we could say without putting The Family at legal risk."

But Borowik and Davenport miss the point: Ex-members are not accusing the Family of ongoing violence toward children. They are accusing the Family of keeping child sexual abusers in positions of authority.

Earlier this year, a former first-generation member in San Diego organized an effort to launch an FBI investigation into the allegations. Ex-members across the country say they have submitted affidavits and Family publications. A spokesperson for the FBI's San Diego branch said the bureau was conducting a "preliminary inquiry." Many ex-members are not optimistic, saying the investigation has hit a dead end because of expired statutes of limitation, as well as jurisdiction (many, if not most, of the alleged crimes occurred outside the United States).

Berg's writings are still doctrine, even the ones that were ordered BAR ("burn after reading"). The most notorious of these involve his granddaughter, known in the group as Mene. She was the daughter of Berg's son Aaron, who either jumped or fell off a cliff in Switzerland in 1973, when he was 26.

When Berg tired of diddling his daughter, he moved on to his 11-year-old granddaughter, Mene. Or at least he tried to. In 1983, Berg requested that Mene be sent from the Family's Music with Meaning compound to his home in the Philippines.

In the aforementioned 1995 British custody case, Mene told the judge about her experience with Berg. The judge recounted Mene's story in his ruling:

"I find that Berg and Maria came down to [Mene's] bedroom and whilst Maria and Sarah were talking, Berg got into her bed in their presence and fondled her. This happened on a number of occasions. She was called to his quarters. He was invariably impotent and they did not have sexual intercourse though he once tried to penetrate her, so there is no evidence of incest strictly defined. He did rupture her hymen with his finger. They had oral sex. That was oral sex by him on her, not so far as she could recollect by her on him. At one point they went through a mock celebration of marriage. [Zerby] was fully aware of what was happening."

By the time Mene was 14, her complaints about the molestation had upset Berg, who decided she had to be punished. Berg's official explanation for the punishment was that Mene suffered from an inflated sense of self, brought on by the devil. According to ex-members, one of her "exorcisms" was transcribed for a Mo letter called "The Last State? The Dangers of Demonism." Ex-members claim the letter was one of the most important and widely spread dispatches from Berg. If Family children didn't know the cost of questioning this way of life before, they would now. The 19-page transcript was first revealed in the course of the British custody case, and contains an account of Berg's beating of Mene. According to the transcript, current Family leaders Karen Zerby and Peter Amsterdam were complicit in the event.

Just a reminder: Mene was 14 years old.


Berg: "Do you hear me?" (slaps Mene)

Mene: "Yes sir!"

Berg: "Do you hear me?"

Mene: "Yes sir!"

Berg: "Do you hear me?"

Mene: "Yes sir!"


Berg: "Tonight, you're going to go without your supper and you're going to fast and pray and pray with somebody every hour of the day and night until you get delivered and you don't let those goddamn dirty, slimy evil little things back into your mind! Is that clear? (face to face with Mene)

Mene: "Yes sir!"


Berg: "Has anyone ever punished you like that before?"

Mene: "Yes."

Berg: "Who?"

Mene: "Uncle Peter [Amsterdam]."

Peter: "I spanked her once real hard."

Berg: "Well, she undoubtedly needed it."

Zerby: "It wasn't anything like what you just gave her, though."


Berg: (to Zerby or Amsterdam) "I have a rod here. Will you please bring it to me? You see this? Pass it to her, let her feel it. I want you to feel how heavy this, how heavy it is…I am going to take this rod to you and I am going to beat you with it the next time any of this stuff comes up…Do you want me to help you know what you're going to get? Come here, I'll let you feel it just one time. Bend over. (spanks her) Did you feel that? Well, next time your buttocks are going to be bare and you're really going to feel it!…Your mother Shula's insane. Your father Aaron was insane! If it hadn't been for the Lord, he would have jumped off the cliff a long time before that…You think you're going to make it up there [in the System] somehow? The only way you could make it is to be a whore, that's all! You wouldn't even be an FFer [Flirty Fisher], you wouldn't even be doing it for God, you'd just be doing it for a living. You'd probably end up on drugs -- a demon-possessed, alcoholic diseased whore and soon dead!"


Berg: "If beating doesn't get the hell out of you, you're going to get the hell out of here. I want you to memorize that."

Mene: "If beating you doesn't get the hell out of you, you're going to get the hell out of here."

Andrew Stone's parents joined the Family in 1971, and he was born four years later in Nashville.

By the time he was 12, Zerby implemented the Discipleship Training Revolution, a system of "Teen Combos" and "Victor Camps" established to curb anti-Family sentiment among teens. That's when Stone began his career as a real pain in the Family's ass.

He smuggled secular books into the camps. If you needed a dictionary or any other book written by the devil, Stone was your guy.

Stone's job at the Teen Combo was to haul five-gallon buckets of raw sewage to a nearby river. After that, he was handed a pickax, sent out to the yard and told to dig until he hit rocks, then haul the rocks and make a pile. He says that, after a while, the repetitive, tedious tasks led to OCD-like symptoms. Stone says that a Teen Combo leader named Daniel Roselle Sr. figured that Stone must have been possessed. So, Stone claims, two adults pinned him to the ground while Roselle beat him with a stick.

(Roselle's 33-year-old son, Daniel Roselle Jr., also alleges that his father played a role in physically abusing children. The younger Roselle -- a former Family spokesman -- left the Family eight years ago and is now one of its most vocal critics. Daniel Roselle Sr. did not respond to numerous phone messages from the Press. People reported in July that Roselle Sr. denied his son's allegations online, describing the younger Roselle's childhood as "one of joy and happiness.")

Anthony (not his real name) is a current second-generation member in Houston. He says a small number of claims might be true, but that the abuse was not as widespread as alleged. Vicious ex-members are bent on destroying today's Family for a few controversial things Berg might have written decades ago, Anthony says.

"I'm sure [Berg] made mistakes…who gives a hoot?" he asks. "What is the purpose of this article? It's to destroy the Family now, it's to hurt the Family now, the good it's doing now. So in other words, obviously, if we're doing good for Jesus, if we're trying to prove the Kingdom of God, then who is the enemy of that? The devil is. And he's going to try to get anything out there that's going to try to stop the current Family as it is. Even if it means pulling up a bunch of garbage that happened 30, 25 years ago."

Stone might have endured worse had it not been for his prodigious gift of gab. Stone was a real moneymaker for the Family. He and other ex-members say the Family would attach itself to causes and send out an army of moppets to separate decent, unsuspecting folk from their money. In North America, the money went to the North American Central Reporting Office (NACRO), operating out of a Dallas home. A former NACRO manager told the Press that $20,000 to $30,000 in outside donations and Family tithes passed through the office each month. From there, it allegedly wound up in the pockets of Berg, Zerby and Amsterdam, according to the former manager.

"What really keeps the cult going is this widespread fundamentalist circle-jerk that we call the Bible Belt," Stone says. "These are the people who give to televangelists. These are the people who gave to the PTL Club back in the day, when Jim Bakker was having sex with his secretary…You tug those fundamentalist heartstrings and the checkbooks will open."

Ex-member Ashley (not her real name) says she worked at NACRO in the 1990s, which functioned in a state of perpetual paranoia.

"It's what the Family terms a selah home," Ashley says. "You would never call from your house to anywhere that would possibly connect that you were with NACRO."

For security purposes, NACRO workers were told not to send e-mails from the home.

"They never knew if someone down the line was being followed," she says, later adding, "it's very much like a cell structure, where information is given on a need-to-know basis…They don't trust their own people. And the people that they do trust enough…they've got something on them."

Working in NACRO meant you were working as a money launderer, but, for a female Family member, it was a safe environment. Ashley says she was raped at age 12, and she worked hard to bite her tongue and be a good little automaton so she could get that job.

"My whole life, the Family leadership has told me I was not abused," she says. "And to this day, I cannot get the words out of my mouth that, yes, I was abused…Because I've been told my whole life that, you know, 'When people poke your eyes out with hot irons, that's abuse. But what happened to you was not abuse.' "

She says that when the Family instituted the Child Abuse Policy, they didn't tell the kids.

"So if I didn't know, and a guy came and did something with me, how was I supposed to know that it's wrong?" she asks.

She describes Zerby's Discipleship Training Revolution this way: "These are children. Beaten. Silence restrictions. Food restrictions. Exorcisms. Removed from their parents and from anybody who should be caring about or loving them, and put into these homes-slash-camps where they were forced to do hard labor, where their mouths were duct-taped shut because they had a problem with being 'silly.' "

Still, Ashley says she's frustrated by the media's focus on the sexual abuse allowed by the Family.

"It's getting to the point now where me and a lot of people that I know are pretty upset," she says. "Because that was just a small fraction of our lives. There was physical abuse, emotional abuse, educational neglect -- my education stopped when I was 12 years old. Imagine what it's like for me now…to try to put my life back together when I barely even understand sixth-grade math. Nobody writes about that. What about not being able to adapt to society because you've got PTSD up the kazoo?"

Today, ex-members claim the Family has established front organizations to launder its money.

Earlier this year, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Lattin uncovered the Family's ties to a charity called Family Care Foundation. The Foundation's board consists of Family members and relatives of Family members. Until she was killed by Rodriguez in January, Angela Smith also served on the board.

According to the Foundation's Web site, its "Focus on Kidz" children's outreach program in the Ivory Coast is run by Paul Peloquin today. In the sweeping 1995 British court case, Peloquin was accused of molesting girls -- including Mene Berg -- in the Family's Music with Meaning compound in Greece. As a gift to Berg, Peloquin videotaped girls (including a nine-year-old Mene) and women dancing naked.

The judge in the 1995 case wrote of Peloquin:

"He was another member of the Music with Meaning team. He corrupted and abused the young girls who were part of the singing and dancing troupe. What troubles me gravely is that he is now the European Shepherd [chief officer]."

A former first-generation member provided the Press with excerpts from Peloquin's videos, which feature girls who appear to be as young as four dancing naked. In an interview portion, Peloquin asks an adult dancer identified as Joan to describe her scene.

"Paul was videoing two songs that I was dancing to…at the end of the take, I was masturbating to you [Berg], and when I came, I broke out in strong tongues. I couldn't control it. And the last few words were 'Father, I love you.' "

Peloquin's work for the Foundation puts him in direct contact with children. In one photo on the Foundation's current Web site, he's holding a girl who is about the same age as girls he used to videotaped dancing naked for Berg.

Lawrence Corley, the Foundation's executive director, told the Chronicle that his foundation is not connected to the Family. The Foundation collected $9.9 million in cash and in-kind gifts between 1997 and 2003.

Lattin, the Chronicle reporter, has interviewed many current and former members. He says a sense of abandonment pervades ex-second-generation members, especially those whose parents are still in the Family and who have not recognized past abuses.

Many current second-generation members, especially the younger ones, never experienced abuse and cannot understand the allegations, Lattin says.

"People experienced it to different degrees, depending on where they were, who they were around, what level they were at in the organization," Lattin says from his home in San Francisco. He says that, today, "this is the most decentralized movement…they have all different kinds of names, and people don't know they're connected with the Family. They go to great lengths to conceal the connections between the Family Care Foundation and the missionary organizations, and there are…sincere, well-meaning missionaries who are part of the Family that are out there in the world trying to do some good work…There are also some real [bad people] out there working for the Family…and these people don't even know each other. It's not like the same thing's happening everywhere."

Ex-members also accuse Dallas artist Hugo Westphal, 55, of sexually abusing girls in the 1980s. They say Westphal illustrated many Mo letters in the 1970s.

According to www.xfamily.org, Westphal was excommunicated in the early 1980s, only to be allowed back in as a leader of the Family's Heavenly City School in Japan.

In a 1980 Mo letter posted on the site, Berg wrote, "You could hardly believe that a man like that who could draw such gorgeous pictures & be such a marvelous inspired artist could let himself go like that with such a horrible temper & beat up every woman we ever gave him or ever tried to live with him, & threw his children across the room & all kinds of horrible things! -- We just couldn't take it any longer, that's all!"

Westphal currently illustrates children's books for the Family's Swiss-based publishing company, Aurora. The books are distributed by the Family's Activated ministry group. Davenport, an Activated board member, said she was unable to contact Westphal for an interview.

Talking to current Family members about this stuff is like banging your head against the wall, only slightly less productive.

As far as they're concerned, ex-members are involved in a conspiracy to destroy them. The Family did not answer questions about why the conspiracy exists, but, given the Family's attitude about the System, any critics are tools of the devil.

If they do acknowledge abuse occurred, Family members invariably dismiss it as something that happened "a long time ago."

The Family's official spokesperson, Claire Borowik, did not address most of the Press's questions, which she asked for in writing. In her e-mail response, Borowik stated, "Our members have lived under a microscope for the past 20 years, with every aspect of our lives being placed in the public forum via the media, academics and the courts…I don't know if you have or will have children in the future that don't agree with their upbringing, but I don't believe that it would be necessary to explain it to me or the public. Why would you expect members of a minority religion to be less deserving of their right to privacy?"

The Family has always considered itself the victim of religious persecution. In 1993, when authorities in France, Argentina and Australia received videotapes of very young girls dancing naked and heard ex-members' testimony of abuse, they launched a series of horribly executed raids.

The governments alerted the media and barged into Family homes, ripping children from their beds and making their parents do the perp walk in their skivvies. They threw adults in jail for months while they examined more than 600 of their kids. Doctors found no signs of sexual abuse. Moreover, none of the children said they were molested. The raids did not yield a single conviction.

Borowik was a victim of the Argentinean raid.

"I have personally suffered, along with my son, due to the false allegations of a few ex-members in Argentina," she wrote. "I was in prison for four months on a pre-trial basis, and my son and nearly 200 children stuck in a warehouse with few facilities. Our members were vindicated by a judge who compared these draconian measures to the Spanish Inquisition…But what about the trauma those children suffered, due to the allegations of people who were proved to have perjured themselves by the court?"

She continues: "You can either choose to swallow the line that [current members] are 'brainwashed' and just towing [sic] a party line, or you can realize that the extreme tales of our apostates just don't add up and there's a big other side of the picture they're neglecting to tell you. Can you be so certain our detractors are being 'transparent' and honest with you? Not if the findings of the courts are any indication."

Perhaps the most visible case in Family history is the 1995 British custody battle, known as the Lord Justice Ward case.

At nearly four years, it was the longest custody case in British history. A woman who was not in the Family was suing for custody of her granddaughter, who was being raised in the Family. The judge assigned to the case, Lord Justice Alan Ward, reviewed thousands of pages of Family documents and personally interviewed ex-members who said they had been abused. In his ruling, he said Family members routinely lied to the court and withheld documents from their own attorneys.

After 145 pages detailing an organization built on deception and child abuse, Lord Justice Alan Ward allowed the three-year-old boy to stay in the Family. He stated that Zerby helped stamp out the abuse and that the Family of 1995 was a different organization from the Family of the 1980s.

Although the Justice Ward case exposed Family secrets, the group ultimately considers it a victory.

They also point out pro-Family books written by outsiders, including religious scholar and vampire buff J. Gordon Melton. Melton is a part-time lecturer at the University of California-Santa Barbara and president of the American chapter of the Transylvania Society of Dracula. He is the author of both The Encyclopedia of American Religions and The Encyclopedia of the Undead.

Here's Melton on The Story of Davidito, from his 2004 book on the Family:

"Very much in line with the instructions on childhood sexuality were passing references to it in the otherwise lengthy treatment of child-raising issues contained in The Story of Davidito…a book about a Jesus baby."

The Family liked Melton's uncritical works so much that The Family Care Foundation gave him a $10,000 "grant" in 2000. (Melton wrote a similarly uncritical book about Scientology and also testified on behalf of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks.)

Melton did not reply to numerous phone calls left at his home and office in Santa Barbara.

The Endtime Family, a book written by William Sims Bainbridge, a staff associate for the National Science Foundation, makes absolutely no mention of institutionalized child abuse. It shares the Family's viewpoint that its members are a persecuted minority religion.

"Even if we are unprepared to embrace the faith of the Family, we can be inspired by it," Bainbridge wrote.

When asked by phone why he did not address controversial Mo letters and ex-members' allegations, Bainbridge explained that his goal was "scientific," not "journalistic." Then he hung up.

One sociologist the Family doesn't like is Stephen Kent of the University of Alberta, whose papers on the Family include a "psycho-sexual history" of Berg.

From his office in Alberta, he describes an atmosphere of "situational pedophilia" in the Family of the 1970s and 1980s.

"In the Family, the theology caused the breakdown of normal adult relationships at the same time that it sanctioned adult-child sex," he says, adding later, "I've had to wrestle with how otherwise normal, intelligent people can get involved with a group like this…What [Berg] and other controversial leaders do, however, is use elaborate religious or otherwise ideological claims to give a supernatural justification for actions. Now, most ordinary people do not have experience with mental illness, and they fail to see that the leader is deeply troubled…so they saw [Berg] as God's prophet as opposed to a pedophile."

After the embarrassment of the 1993 Australian raids, the government there paid several hundred thousand dollars to families found to be unjustly imprisoned.

But a Family video shown for the first time in an October 2005 Australian 60 Minutes report tells a different story.

In the undated video, the voice of a male Family member, identified by ex-members as Berg, is heard saying, "God created boys and girls able to have children by about the age of 12 years of age. God, now he's going to advocate childhood sex? Yes."

For the most part, current Family members did not consent to interviews.

Residents of a Family home in southwest Houston refused to comment for the story. The Web editors of MyConclusion.com, a pro-Family site with postings by current second-generation members, refused to post a query asking to speak to them about their positive experiences in the Family. Members referred questions to Borowik or Davenport.

Davenport says she's unaware of Berg's writings on incest, rape and child pornography. However, these writings have been public record for years.

For example, Berg's instructions on developing explicit photographs of underage girls was excerpted in the Lord Justice Ward case: "As much as Dad loves to receive your nudie-cuties, girls, he wanted to mention a word of caution about getting these developed in commercial photo shops, especially if there are any shots of underage girls on the roll…So keep those gorgeous nudie-cuties coming, girls, but please use discretion in getting them developed."

Anthony, the Houston second-generation member, says he and other second-generation members have never even seen the purged Mo letters about the videos with children on them.

According to Anthony, The Story of Davidito was not an explicit documentation of child abuse but a benign child-care manual.

So what about a picture of three-year-old Ricky pouncing on Sara Kelley's bare breasts as she lay naked in bed?

"He was a baby and she was nursing him," Anthony says. "You can have a sense of humor in there; there's nothing wrong with that, right?"

And what about the picture of three-year-old Ricky in bed with his naked nanny? She holds him close to her and kisses him on the lips. The caption reads, "When two lie together, they shall have heat!"

"Nowadays, that would definitely be inappropriate wording, right?" Anthony says. "In the '70s, I tell you, it was the hippie movement. That would be totally normal back then. You know what, in most European countries…the kids kiss the parents on the mouth even when they're adults."

Anthony is quick to point out that he's "not some brainwashed moron who just believes what I was taught when I was a kid."

He says no one is paying attention to all the good the Family is doing, but instead focusing on Berg.

"Our founder is Jesus…not David Berg, okay? Jesus Christ, he is the one we follow. The Bible is our No. 1 book. Now, these Mo letters are inspirational writings, okay?"

Yet the Family's Web site, www.thefamily.org, lists Berg as their founder. His bio states, "David Berg's lively, down to earth, and sometimes unconventional approach to heavenly matters makes his writings a unique contribution to Christian literature."

The bio and photos of Berg on the site violate Lord Justice Ward's 1995 ruling, in which he wrote that leaders had to "denounce David Berg," adding, "They must acknowledge that through his writings he was personally responsible for children in The Family having been subjected to sexually inappropriate behaviour; that it is now recognized that it was not just a mistake to have written as he did but wrong to have done so; and that as a result children have been harmed by their experiences."

Instead of denouncing him, the Family praises him.

In one of the pictures, Berg cradles two cute, smiling children in his lap. One is his granddaughter, Techi. Her childhood was documented in Berg's "unique contribution to Christian literature," as with the following, which describes the dances she performed for her grandfather:

"When Techi was just four years old, she started off with one of her favorites. 'Sex in Heaven.' Techi was dressed just with a scarf and played during her dance with a big plume feather. Dad, after viewing the children's show, warned us that it wasn't very wise to film Techi all naked. At that time, we lived in South Africa, which has real strict laws regarding pornography!…A drape to cover her pubic area would have been much better!"

The other child in the photo is Ricky Rodriguez.

Source: houstonpress.com

Letters to the Editor

Houston Press/2005-11-24

Family Matters

Remembering the victims: I just wanted to write you a short note to thank you for this article ["Family Ties," by Craig Malisow, November 17]. I was born in the Children of God in the early 1970s and left around six years ago. Your article was very well researched and thorough. Sometimes journalists are attracted to the more sensational aspects of growing up in a cult and the many wild events that occurred, and they overlook the victims. The Family International/Children of God has gone to great lengths to rewrite its sordid history and marginalize its victims as "liars" and "discontents." An article that covers this history in such great detail and makes such a compelling case serves as an important affirmation of what many in my generation suffered. We can't change our past, but I think we all feel unanimously that we never want to see any child in any new religious movement or cult experience some of the things and observe some of the things that we did. As you accurately pointed out, things have changed for children and young people in The Family International, but the organization will never be trusted until it truly comes clean and accepts responsibility for its actions in the '70s, '80s and early '90s and purges its leaders and members who participated. Thank you.

Erik M. Lehnsher
Wheaton, Maryland

Shame on you: I don't know where Craig Malisow got some of the information he used in his article "Family Ties," but I can say from firsthand encounters with the Family that the article is riddled with distortions and misconceptions. For some undisclosed reason, Malisow seems bent on targeting this international religious group with serious (false) accusations. I seriously doubt Malisow has ever even spent time visiting one of the Family's homes -- has he? And if he hasn't, how in the world can he dare to write such accusations? Anyone who has had extensive dealings with the Family would be shocked at many of the blatant lies that he states in the article. Some of the quotations that he used in the article were not taken from the group's writings. Who has fed this poor reporter the distortions that he has written in this article, and how in the name of journalism can you allow something so utterly untrue to be published? Shame on you! Of course, I doubt you would publish the comments I am making here, which will be one more evidence that you are not really interested in the truth about a young and genuine Christian movement that continues to have a profound effect on the lives of many needy people around the world.

John Donahue
Newport Beach, California

Houston Press/2005-12-01

Cult Classic

Defending the indefensible: It is not a simple task to encapsulate in 6,500 words the twisted and disturbing history of The Family International ["Family Ties," November 17], yet Craig Malisow did so brilliantly in his well-researched article. I spent the first 24 years of my life in the Family, and the article imparted to me a sense of validation of my own experiences in the cult.

I found myself smiling in amusement at the defensive statements of current members, because there was a time when I, too, would have defended my abusers and their actions in precisely the same naive manner. Sadly, the second-generation Family members are now left to defend the indefensible, enabling the abusers being decried by their siblings and former friends to slink silently into the background.

Stephan Schmidt

Best yet: I just wanted to say that your article "Family Ties" was right on the money, perhaps the best anybody's written about the Children of God/Family International yet. Many media sources make the Family out to be an ultra-sinister organization, which isn't really true -- it is an organization with a lot of skeletons in its closet and some pretty fucked-up leaders, but many of the average members are great people who are trying to do some useful things. The group's current leaders are responsible for the abuse of thousands of children in the 1980s, and if they would admit to their crimes and resign, it's possible that the group could become a legitimate part of society. Thanks again for the excellent article.

Peter Markoff
Geneva, Switzerland

Great service: Thank you for objectivity and for performing a journalist's role with honor -- you should be commended in some official capacity.

For more than 23 years, I was conned by this group's cult leadership. My children woke me up finally, and we left. We have had a long, difficult road out of cultic sycophancy and religious coercion. It takes years to recover from such abuses, if it happens at all. You have performed a service to society with your article.

In Shakespeare's Henry IV, when Hotspur is being bored by an unctuous guy who claims he can call spirits from the dead, Hotspur says, "Yes, but will they come? You should shame the devil and speak the truth, shame the devil and speak the truth."

Thank you for speaking the truth, even though some people can feel no shame.

Name withheld by request