58 Americans Held in Argentina Sex-Sect Raid
The Family, founded in O.C. in 1968 as the Children of God, is accused of carnal abuse of children
Los Angeles Times/1993-09-04
By DAVID HALDANE
Argentine officials, horrified by emerging signs of a global child-sex network, said Friday they had counted 58 Americans and people of 18 other nationalities among the hundreds detained after a raid on a sex-for-salvation sect with roots in Orange County.
"There could well be a few more people or a few less," Emilio Senise, secretary to the judge whose investigation led to the raid, told the Reuters new service in Buenos Aires. "This sect is made up of open couples, so there are children from one and from the other. It's horrible. Nationalities are all mixed up."
Officials of the U.S. State Department and the Argentine prosecutor's office declined to identify those taken into custody or to say whether any were from California.
"Basically we don't know a whole lot," Gary Sheaffer, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs told The Times. "This is pretty much an Argentine arrest. We are sorting out who are Americans and who are not and will probably have more information next week."
While 87 of the 227 detainees were adults, prosecutors said, 140 were children under the age of 17 taken into protective custody. The arrests were made early Wednesday during a raid that included the seizure of adult-child sex videos and literature in seven houses run by a religious sect called The Family, formerly known as the Children of God. At least some of the children showed clear signs of severe emotional trauma, prosecutor Carlos Villafuerte said.
As word of the raid spread Friday, present and former members of the sect-which began in a Huntington Beach coffee house in 1968 and later spread worldwide-offered conflicting views.
The moment she heard of the charges she "knew it was outlandish," said Dawn McCarrey, 20, a lifelong member who lives with 14 other members in a house in La Habra Heights-just across the border in Los Angeles County-from which she helps "serve" Orange County.
Although she worked as an assistant teacher in The Family's school in Buenos Aires four years ago, McCarrey said, she never witnessed any physical or sexual abuse.
"It's a very normal school," she said. "If someone is a child abuser in the religion, they are excommunicated."
John Francis, an international spokesman for The Family, said in a prepared statement: "These raids are a clear-cut case of religious persecution... Our detractors have been provoking the Argentine authorities to investigate our churches since 1987, and there have been no less than 10 separate investigations. In each instance our members have been found innocent of all charges raised against them. To date, the Argentine authorities have physically and psychologically examined 173 of our children and have not found one instance of any abuse."
Francis blamed the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network for fomenting a campaign against the group.
Priscilla Coates, chairwoman of the network's Los Angeles affiliate, denied any involvement in the Argentine investigation that led to the charges against the cult members.
"Over the years, I've talked to hundreds of people who have been affected by this group," she said, adding that there was no evidence of any sexual abuse by sect members in Southern California.
An Orange County resident who said she was among the original Huntington Beach founders of the group and remained a member until the early 1970s, however, said that she had personally experienced sexual, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of cult members and had heard first-hand accounts of the sexual abuse of children.
"I think it's about time we gave this cancer a name and start helping these children," said the former member, speaking on the condition that her name not be used. "It's time that the government and the regular citizens know how dangerous and insidious this thing has become."
In Buenos Aires, meanwhile, 13 cult members were released from custody Friday, including one who accused authorities of persecuting them and planting pornographic videocassettes during the raids on their homes.
"They couldn't prove any of the charges against us," said Enrique Lacuesta, an Argentine who was among the adults freed.
Argentine authorities involved in Wednesday's raid said they noted repeated evidence of sexual themes, including posters of nude couples on walls of tiny bedrooms shared by children of both sexes. Buenos Aires television channels showed film clips of nude children dancing, allegedly taken from videocassettes confiscated in the raids.
Prosecutor Villafuerte told reporters that the confiscated material included "many things that were not normal," including "free and explicit sex between father and daughter."
Similar raids on the group have been made in other countries, including one in France last month in which at least 72 children were placed under foster care. The Family has been accused in past years of using female members to seduce prospective male members, and of encouraging children to engage in sexual practices.
"Sex is the fundamental doctrine of the sect's leaders, and the most warped," said Lizzi Romanone, an ex-member now living in Argentina. "Everything revolves around it."
Times staff writers David Reyes and Roy Rivenburg, correspondent Shelby Grad and wire services contributed to this report.