Macleans: Not a normal family

From XFamily - Children of God

Not a normal family

Canadians face allegations of child sexual abuse

Macleans/1993-09-20, p. 34

Like many Rotary Club exchange students, Susana Clara Borowick returned from her year in South America with fond memories and new friends. After graduating from high school two years later, in 1978, the Burlington, Ont. teen returned to visit Argentina, fell in love and got married. Through her new husband, Manuel José Sabatasso, Borowick became involved with The Family of Love, a local branch of an alleged sex-for-salvation cult known as The Children of God. The couple’s marriage ended two years ago, but Borowick remains wedded to the cult. Articulate and vivacious, she became spokesperson for the group. In fact, police in Buenos Aires identified Borowick, now 33, as one of the Family’s two leaders last week when they filed preliminary charges - which allow authorities to hold suspects in prison pending formal charges - against her and 17 other cult members, including a 21-year-old Canadian named Jesse Jude Mara. Their alleged activities include prostitution, holding members against their will and sexually abusing children. For Borowick’s family in Canada, the charges came as a shock. "Susan would never do any of that," said her brother, Steve Borowick, an investment counselor in Burlington. "Her goal is to help the destitute."

But Argentine authorities insist that the Family is less focused on destitution than prostitution as a tool to recruit new members. Judge Roberto Marquevich, who ordered a Sept. 1 raid of the group’s 10 communal homes and laid the charges last week, said the information from wiretaps and sexually provacative videotapes involving children convinced him that the group’s mandate was far from Christian. "This is not a normal family as we know it," said Marquevich who kept 143 children under the age of 18 in protective custody." But apart from some indication of sexual activity among girls as young as 9, investigators produced no concrete evidence of criminal wrongdoing. And members of the Family, which has known Canadian chapters in Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver and claims up to 12,000 members in 70 countries worldwide, strenously denied the allegations. They portrayed the scandal as an attempt to discredit what they say is an unorthodox but clean-living group of fundamentalist Christian missionaries. "I grew up in this group," said Darius Hopper, 20, an American in Buenos Aires, "and I nver saw any signs of abuse."

But many ex-cult members say that such abuse forms the foundation of Family beliefs. The group began on the beaches of Southern California in 1968 when a hippe preacher named David Berg proclaimed himself God’s chosen successor to the Old Testament’s King David and soon attracted followers. Through his group, dubbed the Children of God, Berg preached sexual promiscuity and free love. By the late 1970s, he was promoting "flirty fishing" or "FFing" as practice in which female members tried to recruit new members by seducing men. In 1982, the cult produced a book, The Story of Davidito, which included suggestive photographs of naked toddlers. "God made’em able to enjoy it practically from the time they’re born," wrote the self-described Father David, who encouraged his followers to go underground or abroad to avoid police harassment. "Sex with kids was clearly permissible," said David Hiebert of Richmond, B.C., a 15-year member who left the cult with his wife Mary Lou in 1986. Said Hiebert, who runs a support group for former cult members called No Longer Children: "The Family is just Children of God by another name."

Argentine authorities started to ask questions about the Family three years ago when a former member, Ruth de Frouman, sued for custody of her four children, then aged 10 to 17. Frouman, an American, said that Family leaders had expelled her - but kept her children - when she developed the "biblical punishment" of breast cancer. The disease eventually killed in March, 1991. Investigators later took on the case. Said Hugo Gabutti, a federal police officer in Buenos Aires: "They began stumbling on disturbing details."

Once evidence was gathered, Marquevich ordered the raid. Within days. TV stations across Argentina were airing images from the seized videos, of unknown origin, that included young girls dancing naked and what was said to be a father having sex with his daughter. "I thought they were religious fantatics," said Osvaldo Bernard, who lives near a raided home.. But I couldn’t believe this thing about sex with children until I saw the videos.

Borowick, however, insisted that child abuse and prostitution are strictly forbidden within the group. "All the children are in perfect health," she said outside the court, adding that she considered herself a victim of "religious persecution." Indeed, similar charges of child abuse against Family members in Australia last year were dismissed, and a Spanish judge accused police in Barcelona of launching an "inquisition" against the group last July. "We get reports of child abuse and mental abuse." said RCMP Cpl. Reed Leary, an Edmondton-based cult specialist, "but nothing has been proved." So far, the clearest victims in the scandal are the children, three of whom are Canadian. Even if they are found to be free from signs of abuse, most face the prospect of being separated from their parents until the investigation is over. "They have a difficult battle ahead," said Argentine cult expert Jose Marie Baamonde. But growing up in a cult under constant scrutiny, the children might already take hardship as part of Family life.