Hunt for the lost child of God
By Andrew Lycett
Irene Fearn faced a nightmare when her husband, a successful businessman, suddenly abandoned home and career after a young woman converted him to a notorious religious cult. Andrew Lycett reports on the efforts to bring Peter Fearn back from South America.
You're happily married and living in an attractive Essex village. Suddenly your husband, a director of a major multinational company, announces he is leaving you to become a missionary overseas.
You later discover he is joining the Children of God, whose main means of proselytism is to offer sexual favours as 'the highest expression of God's love'. Not only that, but your husband's conversion dates from his night with a 'hooker for Jesus' from this notorious cult.
You're beside yourself with worry about your husband's well-being but, despite your entreaties, his company seems unable to help and - to your amazement - concludes a substantial voluntary redundancy agreement over the telephone with a man you feel is sick and brainwashed.
The nightmare began for 48-year-old Irene Fearn one Saturday in June 1984, the day before her husband, Peter, was leaving for a week in Venezuela on business.
A director of the Ford Motor Company in Britain, Peter, 52, visited South America regularly but had been acting strangely since returning from Brazil in May. Normally calm and sceptical, he had started quoting strange religious texts and saying such things as that God had told him he needed a new pair of spectacles. When Irene asked how he knew God was communicating, he replied he had 'warm feelings' coming up inside him.
That Saturday, Peter told Irene that after his trip to Venezuela he intended leaving the company where he had worked for more than 30 years. He quoted St Matthew Ch. 19 verse 29 - 'And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name's sake will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life' - and said he wanted to give up all his possessions and go to 'witness [on] God's behalf'.
'He took hold of me and said a prayer that went on and on', she says. 'He seemed to be in a state of trance, shaking and chanting. Then he said, 'Lord, take the devil out of Irene. We pray that you bring her to salvation'.
'At this point I became frightened. When the prayer finally finished I released my hand gently and said my own prayer. For the first time I realized my husband was mad. Distressed and alarmed, I knew I had to take some action.'
She telephoned Peter's boss, Adrian Castilla, vice-president of export operations. 'I begged Adrian not to let Peter go to Venezuela as I thought he was mentally ill. I told him Peter was praying and reading the Bible all the time. He replied: 'Reading the Bible, that's no bad thing'. I said: 'But he's obsessed with it. There's something drastically wrong.
She says Castilla told her he could not call Peter's trip off at such short notice but that, although the company saw nothing to be alarmed about, it would keep an eye on him.
On the Monday after Peter returned from Venezuela, he handed a letter to Castilla asking for early retirement. The request was refused, but Castilla allowed him a month off to work out what he felt about his religious experience and about the company.
Irene felt betrayed and the following day telephoned Castilla to demand an explanation. She insisted Peter should see the company doctor and this was arranged. That evening Peter came home jubilant, saying that Ford's doctor, Dr Brill, had pronounced him fit. Peter had also bought an air ticket for Brazil and was to leave on Saturday.
Still not satisfied, Irene arranged for Peter to see a psychiatrist, an appointment Castilla encouraged him to keep. But that weekend Irene resignedly drove Peter to Gatwick airport, feeling all the time, she says, she would never see him again. 'I shall never forget his face. It was full of anguish and tears. He held me close and said he was desperately sorry but he had to go.'
On July 17, four days before Peter's expected return, Castilla told Irene that Peter had telephoned from Brazil asking for a second month's leave. Would she give her permission? 'I reacted angrily and with tears. I shouted: 'Get him back at once or he'll never come back. I told you not to let him go.' Adrian said he thought Peter would not come back if he insisted. Therefore Ford had decided to let Peter have another month off, provided he call the office regularly twice a week.'
Irene was beginning to suspect Peter was involved in an unorthodox religious cult. This fear grew when a note from the National Westminster Bank showed Peter had withdrawn about pounds 12,000 from his personal account.
Feeling she was getting nowhere with Castilla, she asked to see someone else at the company and subsequently met Wayne Kyle and Paul Roots, respectively vice-president and director of industrial relations. 'Mr Kyle advised me to get a good solicitor,' she says, 'and I can honestly say that is the only helpful advice I received from Ford Motor Company.
'My solicitor told me to ask if Ford felt responsible for Peter. Paul Roots said yes, Peter was their employee and as such they would do everything they could to get him home. He said Ford would make it extremely difficult for Peter to receive any more money from the company without coming home to sign for it. He added that if I sent a medical certificate they would try to put Peter on paid sick leave and bring him to pension age at 55.'
The following day, however, and before Ford could have taken any action with Peter's salary payments, the bank informed her that Peter had removed his entire July salary from his account.
Then Irene was told by Alan Bratt, a Ford manager, that in February, he, Peter and two others had been waiting in the lobby of the Hotel Mak Soud Plaza in Sao Paulo, Brazil, when an attractive young American girl asked them to guard her guitar.
When she did not immediately return, Peter offered to wait for her while the others went for dinner. He did not turn up that evening, and later told Bratt he had spent the night with the girl, called Kathy.
Bratt said Peter met Kathy again when visiting Brazil in March, after which Peter confided in him: 'Man, I've got religion'.
According to Irene, Bratt recalled meeting Kathy, who said she worked with 'the children' in Sao Paulo - a phrase which he thought referred to deprived infants in the city. However after he and Irene had independently contacted FAIR, (Family Action Information and Rescue), an organization which helps families with members in cults, they agreed it sounded like a covert reference to the Children of God.
FAIR said that Peter's behaviour suggested he had been brainwashed by the Children of God.
Irene took this information to Ford - only to hear that Peter had instructed the company not to contact her. However, two further letters from the company in September and October assured her it would be in touch if there was any news and asked her to 'trust us a little'.
At the beginning of January, Ford's legal department informed her solicitor it had negotiated a redundancy agreement with Peter and would be repossessing his two company cars by the end of the month, when his employment formally ended.
To prevent the proceeds of the agreement (more than pounds 70,000) leaving the country, Irene sought, and was granted, an injunction. Despite having a job as a teacher, she was beginning to suffer financially because of solicitors' fees, the maintenance of a large house, and her campaign to force Ford to take responsibility for her husband.
She would like Ford to 'admit Peter was brainwashed and therefore sick and not in a fit state to enter any agreement'. This would open the door to getting Peter home, hospitalized, and perhaps back in his old job.
Ford argues it did everything possible to counsel Peter against going to Brazil. A spokesman says it could not prevent him going on what amounted to a private holiday. The company adds that though it had the interests of both Peter and Irene at heart, its legal obligation was to its employee rather than his wife. It says it had no idea Peter was involved in a cult, let alone the Children of God, and denies there was any question of Peter being sick or unable to enter an agreement.
However, at some stage Ford apparently came to the conclusion that something was wrong. In a letter dated October 4, 1984, Paul Roots wrote to Mrs Teresa Maria Kuintella, minister at the Brazilian Consulate General in London, requesting assistance in locating Peter. He said: 'There is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that he had come under the influence, if not control, of a religious sect. It would appear from the nature of his conversation in the telephone calls (to the company) and from letters addressed to his family, which I have seen, that he has completely changed in his mental approach and is no longer the responsible, balanced individual who has worked for us the last 30 years.'Ford, with a major operation in Brazil, was unable to track Peter down, but Irene, with limited resources, travelled to Sao Paulo and discovered her husband lived in a small seaside village. Moreover he was known at the central post office where he regularly collected mail.
The Brazilian police ascertained that Peter had overstayed his visa. When he next came to collect his mail, he was detained and in August was given eight days to leave the country. However, he could go anywhere else he liked and it is not known where he is now.
THE CHILDREN OF GOD
The Children of God, a religious movement also known as the Family of Love, started in California in the late 1960s. Under its reclusive leader, Moses David, it moved progressively towards prostitution as a means of conversion and its emphasis on sexual relations with minors has led to conflict with the legal authorities in many countries.
Attempts to track down the movement in Britain have proved fruitless. Literature distributed by the cult refers interested parties to a box number in Zurich. Former members say there is no headquarters as such.
The organizational emphasis is on peripatetic, decentralized communities, based mainly in India, the Far East and South America, joined together by tithe-giving.