Miss Indonesia's links to religious cult
Press » Mail & Guardian Online » 2009-12-11
By Niren Tolsi; Durban, South Africa
The grimace-smiles through which Miss World contestants usually force out their platitudes about helping the little children of the planet will have a more sinister resonance when the pageant gets under way at the Gallagher Convention Centre on Saturday.
One of the contestants belongs to an organisation directly linked to an American religious cult with a litany of child and sexual abuse scandals clouding its past.
Following her national coronation, Miss Indonesia, 23-year-old Kerenina Sunny Halim, admitted to the Jakarta Globe that she is a member of The Family International, a "non-governmental-organisation" for which she did humanitarian work in Aceh after the Asian tsunami in 2004. Halim, whose American mother and Indonesian father were members, was born into the organisation.
The Family International is the modern day spawn of The Children of God -- and admits as much on its website. The name was changed in the 1980s after negative publicity forced it "underground".
Founded in California in 1968 by David Brandt Berg, The Children of God was a counter-culture evangelical group with a foundation of biblical fundamentalism -- and bonking.
Berg, who was also addressed as "Moses", "Chairman Mo" or "Dad", preached free love to his followers, to the extent that females were encouraged to go into the world and engage in "flirty-fishing" of men: essentially to use sex to proselytise.
Perry Bulwer, a Canadian lawyer and blogger who "escaped" the cult in 1991, described the now deceased Berg to the Mail & Guardian as "a self-professed prophet who was an alcoholic, incestuous, paedophile".
During the 1990s the group, which sets up large communes for families to live together, was investigated for prostitution, child abuse and kidnapping in countries such as Argentina, France and Spain, with some members jailed briefly.
Thomas Bergstrom of Family Care, the Indonesian arm of The Family International, said Berg's sexual-healing approach to lost souls was "ancient history" and that while "there have been allegations, these were all proven untrue in court".
"Some members may have done things that maybe they shouldn't have, but that is like any other family, or group or company," said Bergstrom who pointed to the Catholic Church's perennial child abuse scandals by way of example.
Bergstrom said Halim should be judged "as any other individual who is associated with a church ... I know her parents and they are wonderful people and I couldn't find anything negative to say about them."
But allegations of child abuse have dogged the cult.
Berg is alleged to have written religious tracts for followers promoting sexual contact between children and adults. In 1982 the cult released a how-to parenting guide, The Davidito Book. Written by one of the several topless nannies who tended to Ricky Rodriguez -- Berg's stepson, son of his second wife (Karen Zerby, aka Queen or Mama Maria, who now leads the organisation) -- it has Ricky, then a toddler, as its main subject.
Rodriguez committed suicide in 2005 after stabbing Angela Smith, another former nanny, to death. According to the New York Times, which was sent "several pages" of The Davidito Book after the murder-suicide, there were pictures and pages where "the toddler Ricky is described or else pictured as watching intercourse and orgies, fondling his nannies' breasts and having his genitals fondled. All that is recounted in a tone of amusement and delight."
Ex-members have, on various internet forums, blamed the cult's unconventional lifestyle for the high incidence of suicide among children who grew up then left the cult.
The Children of God changed these child-rearing guidelines in 1986 with the threat of excommunication for anyone found having sexual contact with minors. Following Rodriguez's suicide, The Family sent out "purge notices" to members detailing which cult literature and pages of The Davidito Book to excise or destroy. [Editor's note: These "purge notices" were sent out long before Rodriguez's suicide.]
At Berg's behest, cult members spread around the world in the early 1970s after the organisation was accused by the New York State attorney general of tax evasion, rape, polygamy, draft dodging, incest and kidnapping. The Family now operates in countries around the world and as Family Africa in South Africa.
The Miss World press office refused to allow the M&G access to Miss Indonesia or to forward to her questions relating to this story.
A spokesperson, who refused to be named, said: "Miss World neither inquires, nor comments, on the religious or political affiliations of its contestants."
When pressed on whether this procedure would be followed if a contestant was, hypothetically, involved in genocide or war crimes, the spokesperson said again that "Miss World neither inquires, nor comments, on the religious or political affiliations of its contestants".
Just goes to show, anyone can grow up to be Miss World.
- Actress Rose McGowan (the TV series, Charmed, Black Dahlia), grew up in a Children of God commune in Italy before "legally emancipating" herself from her parents at the age of 15.
- The parents of the late actor River Phoenix belonged to the Children of God. [Editor's note: River Phoenix was, himself, a member of the group as a child.]
- Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer was another high-profile member. [Editor's note: Jeremy Spencer, as of 2009, is still an active member.]
- Christopher Owens, frontman for the pop-rock band Girls, described his experiences of growing up in the cult with his mother practising "flirty-fishing" as "pretty hellish".