The Family's values disputed
Former members challenge religious group's practices
By Tim O'Leary
PASADENA - A recent seminar held in a church at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains proved one thing: Controversy continues to rage over The Family, a religious sect with 25-year-old roots in an era of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
The seminar, which attracted about 20 former members, was hosted by Samuel Ajemian, who left the group in 1979 after 10 years and formed an organization to expose alleged abuses of the group and urge current members to leave. His organization is called Counter-COG (Children of God was an earlier name of The Family).
Ajemian and some former members describe The Family as a cult that has permitted sexual abuse of children, incest, mind control, prostitution and efforts to influence government and business leaders on the local, national and international levels.
Frank Kiefer and other members of The Family who live in a Romoland communal home say their church has been improperly labeled a cult by detractors. They blame its critics for spreading lies about current and past practices.
Kiefer and others have denied allegations of sexual abuse and said that no members have been charged with any crimes. They said that certain controversial practices including "flirty fishing," or using sex to attract new members, have been discontinued.
The church was known as the Teens for Christ and then the Children of God when it was formed in Huntington Beach in 1968 by David Berg. In 1971, the Children of God operated a ranch in Coachella where up to 100 youths from 18 to 24 lived and based their outreach work.
Berg, a reclusive spiritual leader who is revered as a prophet by members, calls himself Dad and Moses David. Now 74, Berg has released more than 35,000 pages of controversial writings known as "Mo Letters."
Berg, whose whereabouts are not known, wrote about adult and teen sexual relations, his sexual liberation theories and experiences, and the use of sex to attract new group members.
Flirty fishing was promoted by Berg and other church leaders for many years. Berg wrote that the practice was used to demonstrate God's love to outsiders and assist others in need. Some female church members worked for "escort services" to raise money for group homes abroad, according to group documents printed about 10 years ago.
In 1983, church officials began to impose restrictions on sexual relations. In part because of the AIDS epidemic, the practice of flirty fishing was banned as an outreach method in 1987 and a series of warnings regarding teen sex and other practices began.
Former member David Coleman, who left the group three years ago, said at the seminar that female members were expected to have sex with any member interested in them and "sharing schedules" were posted inside group homes. He said there were "no barriers at all" to prevent adults from having sex with minors. Coleman said sex is a fundamental part of the group, and it is viewed as a way to become closer to Jesus.
Another former member, Bithia Sherman, said during her 14 years as a member, she had sex with dozens of men on behalf of the group, including a corporate vice president and a Libyan ambassador in Malta.
She said her five children were fathered by three different church members and sex among adults and youths was widespread. Sherman, who became disillusioned with the group and left 1984, said one of her children tried to commit suicide because of remorse over the past.
Complaints about the Children of God began to surface in 1972, when approximately 60 people gathered in San Diego to form a national parents committee called Free Our Children from the Children of God.
That same year, many members left for Europe and the Far East to establish group homes and escape the devastation of the comet Kohoutek that Berg prophesied would destroy the United States. At that time, there were 130 Children of God communities or "colonies" in 15 countries, according to brochures provided by The Family.
Today, there are about 9,000 members living in Family group homes worldwide and there are several thousand associate members who live on their own but still provide financial support or other assistance.
Outside interest in The Family has intensified in the past year with a return to the United States by many members. Residents of group homes in communities such as Romoland east of Perris, San Diego, La Habra Heights and the Bay Area are becoming more active, according to former members and news reports. And, there is heightened concern about religious sects in general since April when David Koresh and his Branch Davidian disciples clashed with authorities and died in a massive fire in Waco, Texas.
Coleman said Berg has urged many Family missionaries in other countries to return to the United States because "there's a whole new harvest, a whole new generation to reach in the states."