More accusations against Children of God
South China Morning Post/1993-09-12
By Peter Woolrich
Peter Woolrich visited the Christian sect with a history of controversy at its branch in Macau, where it is known as "The Family".
His father, self-styled successor to an Old Testament king, is said to be hiding out in Japan from the world's press. His sister maintains she was sexually abused as a child for years.
One of his two "wives" admits to sleeping around "for Jesus" - known as "flirty fishing" in the parlance.
But Jonathan Berg, one-time member of the notorious Children of God, son of its founder and now "shepherd" to a sect known as "The Family", shrugs off allegations of mixing child sex and religion, claiming it is just persecution.
And, ironically, he points to his own children as proof. "I know I've done something right because of the way my kids have turned out," he said. "They are all good people who don't smoke or take drugs and are spreading the word all over the world."
The 43-year-old American's sect, repeatedly renamed since the Children of God was officially disbanded in 1978, is based around a rambling 100-year-old, ivy-covered, 15-room Chinese cottage in Hac Sa, a village tucked away on the island of Coloane.
Hac Sa is an unlikely setting for a small community whose very name is enough to strike fear into so many people. Worldwide, the 15,000-strong Children of God is associated with sexual assaults on young children, incest and mass brain-washing; it has been expelled from China, harassed in Hong Kong and physically assaulted in the United States.
At the zenith of the local movement a few years ago, the sleepy Macau village played host to 70 members of The Family, once called the Family of Love.
It was to Berg that recruits from around the world gravitated for a grounding in the ways and writings of his father - self-styled Father David Moses, the founder of the Children of God - before moving on to begin their own Families in places as far flung as Russia, South America and Europe.
Seven of his children have done that, leaving the two youngest to grow up in Macau before they too go to spread the word.
"Other kids that they were at school with are now taking heroin, in trouble with the police and having all sorts of problems," he said.
When the children were still together they even performed as the Whole Family singers, making regular appearances at Government House and on the long-running Enjoy Yourself Tonight television show.
The spotlight has been aimed at the cult after a police raid in Argentina.
Eighteen members of the Children of God have been formally indicted with a string of charges stemming from the religious sect's alleged mistreatment of scores of children in Buenos Aires.
Federal Judge Roberto Marquevich has ordered the 18 adults to remain under arrest, setting bail for each of them at US$5 million.
The suspects were charged with corruption of minors, keeping children in virtual slavery, deprivation of freedom for religious ends, racial and religious discrimination and kidnapping.
Police raided several homes belonging to the sect on September 1, taking 268 children into protective custody and seizing allegedly pornographic videos which, it is claimed, show adult sect members involved in sexual activities with minors.
Former members have told horrific stories of child abuse, and several women have claimed they were used as sex slaves.
One of these disaffected members is Jonathan Berg's sister, Debbie Davis, 47, who claims to have been interfered with as a child by their father. Last week she described life in the cult as "sex, sex, sex", adding that "my hope is that they can save the children".
Berg insists there is an orchestrated and well-financed campaign by a small band of people seeking to destroy "our church".
"Why did they hate Jesus? Why did they put him on the cross?"
In comparison with the practices of other Christian denominations, the Children of God's experimentation with "free love" in the '70s and '80s can be considered more than a little out of the ordinary.
Its "flirty fishing" policy of enlisting new members by getting its women to offer their bodies to potential recruits as a show of Jesus' love for them is based on the loosest interpretation of the Bible.
Berg's marital status is certainly unusual. He was married to his first wife, Esther, for eight years, who gave birth to six of his children, including five boys.
During this time his second "wife" Ruth worked as a secretary to Berg's sister and after Berg moved to Hong Kong in 1976, leaving Esther and the children behind in Europe, she worked directly for him.
An office romance blossomed and within a month Ruth was pregnant. This time it was her turn to be left behind as Berg went to Europe to help with the prearranged plan for Esther and the children to move to Hong Kong.
Berg said: "You hear of bosses and secretaries falling in love. Well, that happened to us."
Esther came to accept the affair her husband was having with Ruth and in September 1977, the three set up home - with the six children.
In 1978, the family moved to the house at Hac Sa, which had no running water, electricity or lavatory, but was to see the birth of three more children by Ruth.
This extraordinary arrangement lasted 10 years, with Berg spending at least some time sharing a bed with the two women.
Ruth said: "It's harder than people think, you have to have a lot of tolerance. My mother and father came to visit and although it was a bit of a shock at first, they were OK about it after the first couple of days.
"It can be difficult not to be affected by things like jealousy, but I helped Esther to raise her children and she was a tremendous support helping me to raise mine.
"In The Family we want everyone to be happy and we are happy that everyone else is."
The couple have never been officially married but regard themselves as such. "That doesn't make them any less my children," said Berg. "I'm not the only one in Macau to have two wives, it's just that I've been doing it more openly than everyone else. It's not against my law, it's a love and understanding between people."
A few years ago, Esther moved to a Family in Japan, which is also where Ruth's eldest daughter Faith is, and where it is rumoured Berg's 74-year-old father lives.
The whereabouts of Father David is a closely guarded secret for fear of the battering he would receive from the world's media.
Ruth is not without a colourful background. The attractive 43-year-old American went from being a straight-A student to a chain-smoker at 13, a drug addict at 16 and a convict soon after.
She also admits to having indulged in "flirty fishing", but has no regrets as it was done in the name of the Lord.
Ruth joined the Children of God in 1971 after severe LSD abuse: "I had been a radical hippie and had done plenty of things.
"We were hip. We weren't old blue rinse churchwomen. I don't feel we did anything morally wrong or illegal.
"Everything we did we did for the Lord. We weren't trying to entice people with sex. If they joined us there was a ban on sex between members for six months anyway.
"We are about winning souls for the Lord, not getting numbers for membership.
"I'm still a free-thinking person, I don't think it did me any damage."
The literature they pump out remains loosely worded. Under the heading Extramarital Relationships, a section containing the Law of Love, reads: "Sexual relations between a married person and someone other than that person's spouse are not usually subject to group intervention and censure if the parties involved are of legal age, knowledgeable and discreet in their conduct, and if it is with the full agreement and consent of their spouse."
The sect has long claimed to be the victim of religious persecution and hysteria whipped up by a small number of disaffected members.
Its most convincing support to these claims is dozens of police raids on its communes worldwide - during which children have been snatched from their mothers and placed in the care of social services - without a single criminal prosecution.
In every case the children have been returned to their mothers, and the only people to end up in jail have been the cult-bashers who charge tens of thousands of US dollars to kidnap "victims" from the clutches of the movement and return them to the "sanctity" of their families.
The Children of God began on the beaches of southern California in the late '60s. David Berg was a fundamentalist preacher who told his first small group of followers in the Los Angeles suburb of Huntington Beach that God had chosen him as the successor to the Old Testament's King David.
Calling himself the End-time Prophet, Berg attracted youthful hippie-type followers, and the group spread out from California.
Shortly before the New York attorney-general investigated the cult in the early '70s, Berg Snr moved many of his followers abroad. Today The Family claims to have 15,000 members in 70 countries.
The Children of God, and The Family, have been condemned by most other religious groups, with the possible exception of Macau's Mormon community, and the authorities look on them with suspicion.
Today, whenever Berg or any of his children pass through Hong Kong immigration they are stopped and questioned, sometimes for hours.
"We are on the computers as 'right to refuse entry to a dubious person'. My kids were put on it when they were little and they are still on it. That's just unfair," Berg said.
The Macau commune consists of three families with a total of 13 children living in three houses.
The commune is centred on the enclave's only horse riding stables, which is also its main source of income. Several leading figures stable their horses there.
The three houses lie a short walk up a dirt track from the training ring, in a tranquil rural environment unchanged for hundreds of years.
The other two families, who asked not to be identified for fear of similar immigration problems as the Bergs, have a total of 11 children.
Gideon and Claire are a Chinese couple with seven children, while Bob, a Briton, and his Hong Kong- Chinese wife Beth have four. State schools were shunned two years ago and the children are being taught by Ruth.
Christian correspondence courses from the US are used and the education standard of the children is said to be a year ahead of their age group. It is so good in fact, other parents have asked to send their children there. There is no compulsory state education in Macau.
Bob is a 36-year-old Londoner who has been at the commune for the past two years, having been a member of different Families around Asia.
He too is a former drug addict, having overdosed on heroin at the age of 17. It was a year later while lying on his back on Tooting Bec common in London, tripping on LSD, that he met God.
Bob had already done the hippie trip to India on the Magic Bus, and been picked up by the Children of God in Delhi.
"I was really impressed by them. I was really searching for something and thought they were really genuine. I'd looked at the church and realised it was just dead," he enthused.
It was on his return to London that life changed for Bob, a former employee of the Department of Health and Social Security.
He continued: "See if you can handle this. It was a beautiful clear blue night with a full moon, and I was lying on the grass looking up at the stars.
"All of a sudden this bright light came in from both sides and I saw God sitting on a throne."