Children of God
ANNOUNCER: Now once again, Tom Brokaw.
BROKAW: Is it a religious movement or is it a cult? Is it dedicated to spreading the gospel, or is that just a cover for free love and sex abuse? Last week the headline came out of Argentina--"Sex Cult Enslaves 268 Children." Police had raided the Family, a religious group that began in California as the Children of God, and today claims some 10,000 members in some 60 countries. Fifty-eight Americans were among those taken into custody in Argentina. There were allegations of prostitution and child abuse.
NBC has been following the Family for some 20 years now. This year we met with members and former members in Argentina, Florida, and California, and just--just last month in Washington DC, where they held a vigil announcing the end of the world. Tonight, senior NOW correspondent Fred Francis takes you deep inside this mysterious and controversial organization.
FRED FRANCIS reporting:
(Voiceover) Our world is ending, but theirs is just beginning. That is their message. They call themselves the Family and the Children of God. They are missionaries of doom. We approached the Family several months ago to gain access to their world. The Family asked us not to describe it using the word, "cult," or to call its homes, "compounds." They did not want to be identified with the madness that was going on at that very time in Waco with David Koresh and his Branch Davidians.
(Footage, Family members dressed in robes; Waco compound burning)
Unidentified Girl #1: (Talking to two young men) We just believe in Jesus, and we believe in the Bible, and we believe in winning souls. Do you guys know if you're going to heaven or not?
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) The Family portrayed themselves as a sincere group of devoted religious young people. But then we met former members. Abigail B...
(Footage of girl talking to young men)
Abigail: I was molested very young, and it disgusted me. And it really made me feel awkward, and it really made me feel bad.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Merry Berg...
MERRY: They'll be, `Now--now smile children,' if they put the kids on a show, or singing for someone. And they--they may be beating them and abusing them in the back room, like they were to me when I was nine years old. They were sexually abusing me.
FRANCIS: Accusations are one thing; visual proof is another. We have acquired hours of videotape from a disaffected Family member. The Family claims these tapes were stolen. The tapes are very explicit sexually. We have had to edit them carefully for this report.
(Voiceover) The tapes bear witness to what Abigail and Merry were talking about--child abuse, child sex, and using adult female members of the Children of God as sexual lures to get converts.
(Footage of young girl dancing topless; woman seducing a young man)
Unidentified Woman #2: Do you believe in Jesus?
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) The Family has spread its doctrine from the United States to Europe, Asia, and South America, and has come under the scrutiny of police in all those places.
(Footage of Family members proselyting; band playing; police arresting Family members)
Unidentified Man #4: Tell the whole world there is religious persecution!
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Last week in Argentina, 10 Family homes were raided, with more than 100 adults and children taken into custody.
(Footage of children in beds)
Unidentified Man #5: In a civilized country, a gross example of human rights being blatantly disregarded...
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) The charges--child abuse, kidnapping, and fraud. This summer French police busted the Family, but their evidence is inconclusive. The Family calls the raids `religious persecution.'
Spokesman Daniel Alexander...
(Footage of Family member being incarcerated)
DANIEL ALEXANDER: The same false allegations--none of them provable. And that's a point I want to completely make here. Because I say you're a child abuser, does that make you a child abuser? No! I'm going to have to prove it. But they can't prove it!
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) These young California members of the Family say they have never been abused.
Unidentified Girl #2: No.
Unidentified Girl #3: Definitely not.
Unidentified Girl #4: Not at all.
Unidentified Boy #1: No.
Unidentified Girl #5: Not in any way.
Girl #4: I feel like our care has been superior to that of most children, if anything.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) But when you start to peel back the layers of what the Family is or isn't, you enter a maze of contradictions.
Just last year they were serenading first lady Barbara Bush in the White House. They were out on the front lines of relief workers after Hurricane Andrew, and they gave away tons of food to the hungry and homeless in Los Angeles. It is their mission, they say, as they save souls for Jesus.
(Footage of children in school; young girls singing; children working)
Unidentified Girl #6: And then those of us who have Jesus in our hearts will go to heaven, see, for a big party in the sky.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) All this at the very same time defectors tell us of their nightmares with the Family. Rick Dupuy...
(Footage of young people dressed in black)
RICK DUPUY: Everything that you cherish as a human being is being turned around and used to destroy you from the inside out.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Teachings that instruct members to lie. Former member Ed Priebe...
ED PRIEBE: I mean, look at this. "Deceivers yet true!" This is an official Children of God publication teaching Family children to lie. I wrote it.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) And most frightening, a doctrine of seemingly indiscriminate sex. Miriam Padilla...
(Footage of man and woman kissing)
MIRIAM: ...having to have sex with people you don't love; being groped about; or having to, you know, do videos of--of naked dancing and stuff like that.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Those secret videos were made for David Berg, also known as "Moses David" or "Father David," the self-proclaimed prophet who founded the Children of God in his own image.
(Footage of young girls dancing naked; photos of Mr. Berg)
FRANCIS: Berg founded his radical religious sect here on the California coast a quarter of a century ago. But for the past dozen years he's been a recluse, controlling his flock from places like England and the Philippines with a series of letters, at times dictating some shocking doctrine, like winning souls with sex, prostitution--a practice that David Berg called `flirty fishing.'
Offscreen Voice #2: Welcome to our latest FF party, which was a real success.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) The Family made recruiting tapes of FF-ing, or flirty fishing. Defectors say it was using sex for profit. Daniel Alexander says absolutely not.
(Footage of people at a party; in bed)
Mr. ALEXANDER: Flirty fishing was a method of witnessing. It was just a continuation of our commitment to reach the world for Jesus. That was not against the law for, them to engage in a relationship with the men.
FRANCIS: But to take money for it?
Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, if that man decided to--to help them wi--with the work, that was up to him; just like we get donations from people all the time.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) When NBC first reported on the Children of God and their commitment in a 1971 documentary, The Ultimate Trip, hippies were turning off of drugs and onto God. The program introduced us to Black Simon.
(Footage of Family members greeting a bus full of people)
BLACK SIMON: Jesus, as one--I heard one brother put it--was a dirty, funky, degenerate hippie out of the slums of Galilee, and the cat was for real.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Today, Black Simon still believes.
(Footage of people singing and dancing)
SIMON: It's 22 years later, and I have the same--I have the same fervency--the--the same passion as I had then. I mean, today I am called--I am called a cultist; before I was called a nigger. I relate the two; they're the same to me. New religious movements today are being attacked because of people that are jealous.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) These people are not jealous. Many were original members of the Children of God, and they did not find the paradise that David Berg promised. They say God's kingdom became David Berg's kingdom. He even took Deborah Davis, his own daughter, as one of his many queens.
(Footage of Family ex-members; Ms. Davis)
DEBORAH DAVIS: I mean, what an awful perversion, to take the beautiful relationship of father and daughter, and your father who you love to admire and look up to, and turn it into a sexual relationship! How perverted!
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) There were other converts who became David Berg's queens.
(Fotoage of woman with her face shadowed)
Unidentified Woman #3: As nice as a person as he was--or seemed to be--I was 17 years old and I was pregnant by him. I now look at that as if I were raped or molested.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Merry Berg, David Berg's granddaughter, then and now.
(Footage of Ms. Berg as a child)
MERRY: They put this silver ring on my hand, and they--he said `I now wed thee,' you know--`I David now wed thee.' And I was supposed to be now one of his wives, and I was his grand--grandchild. He also wanted to have sexual relations with me.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Merry Berg was born into the Children of God. Separated from her mother at age nine, she ended up living in her grandfather David Berg's house in the Philippines.
(Merry in video; photo of David Berg surrounded by members)
MERRY: I thought, you know, `If he's supposed to be the prophet of God, and he's so weird and strange and--and perverted and--and such a hypocrite, you know, maybe God's that way, too.'
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Merry says confessing her doubts to Family members brought on the wrath of the man she called "Grandpa."
(Footage of Merry as a child)
MERRY: And he started yelling real loud in tongues, and--and--and took ahold of my head and started shaking it real hard. And--and I thought, you know, `This is it. I mean, I have reached the end of the line. This is the bottom.'
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Former members say the Family controlled everything.
(Footage of Ex-members)
ABIGAIL: They control you; not only your mind, but your body and your ego and your personality and your possessions--your time. They control everything about you.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Parents were separated from children.
DUPUY: They figured that if they could separate me from my emotional support system, which was Katrina and my family, that I would be in a much more vulnerable position. And they're right; it worked pretty good.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) When we raised these issues with members of the Family, they admitted that mistakes were made in the past, but they say the evil-doers were purged in 1978, and the rules changed in 1987.
(Footage of Family members holding hands in a circle; pornographic publications)
ALEXANDER: I don't deny that mistakes weren't made, but our basic motivation with our children have always been to love them and to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) Abigail lived with the Family in Argentina.
ABIGAIL: I never thought I'd live to be older than 20, because Jesus was going to come back in 1993. I grew up for 13 years thinking that.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) She says that she was sexually molested from the time she was seven, and that the Family letter in 1987 banning child/adult sex did not stop the practice.
(Visual; cult publication)
ABIGAIL: After the letter came out in mid-1987, I know that another girl continued to be seriously--seriously abused sexually. And I was molested by one of the shepherds in a home where I lived in 1988 when I was 15 years old.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) She escaped the Family in 1991.
ABIGAIL: I survived because I knew that if I gave up, the group would have proof to show other young people like me, who maybe wanted out, that those who try to leave, or those who go after freedom are judged.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) And in California, Merry Berg, now 21 years old, has rescued her life and is starting over. Her burning wish came true--being reunited with her mother, whom she hadn't seen since age nine.
(Footage of Mary riding bicycle; being reunited with her [[mother)
Unidentified Woman #4: Oh, you're so pretty. I didn't know you'd look like that.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) So who are these people that Mary and Abigail say they had to escape? Whom do you believe? With all the allegations of mind control, the tales of physical abuse, the testimony of sexual perversion, why do so many still follow the Family?
(Footage of young girls singing)
Boy #1: In the Family, we have that positive peer pressure that, you know, helps us--everybody--do the right thing, morally and everything.
Girl #2: You know, I think one of the main things is loneliness--that they're lonely. They don't have anyone to be with, no one to share their life with, have fun with. And we always had that, so we don't really experience that.
Girl #4: I think--I mean, I don't know if I will have children, but if I ever did have them, I think the best place and the best way that I would want to raise them is exactly how I was raised.
FRANCIS: (Voiceover) The Family members say they are on their way to heaven. They are using slick videos to hawk their message, their belief in doomsday, and their vision of the hereafter.
They sing their praises to the Lord, luring new converts. To them, the Family, the Children of God, is the only reality--the only truth.
(Footage of Family videotapes; young girls singing)
BROKAW: The Family supports its operation through contributions and sale of its religious videos and music. And as of today, Argentine authorities have filed preliminary charges against 19 adult members of the Family, including six Americans. They were accused of rape, sodomy, kidnapping, and involuntary servitude. And, as for David Berg, well, he would be 74 years old now. But we don't know where he is or even if he remains alive. He had been reported to be living in seclusion in Switzerland, the Philippines, and Japan.
When we come back, the NRA under fire in Colorado.
Editor's note: Some names have been partially redacted to protect individual privacy or for other reasons at the discretion of the editors of xFamily.org.