Child abuse, prostitution, promiscuity. That's all in the past for the shiny, happy people of the Family of Love. Or is it? Hugh Muir reports
The Sunday Telegraph Magazine/1997-01-05
Lord Justice Ward, like many senior judges, has an appealing way with words. But in November 1995, his words sent shock waves through the High Court in London. "The Family have been black, very black and they are still not white, but the shade of grey grows lighter by the month," he said. "I have decided to trust them to continue to bring lightness to their darkness... The Family cannot hide from the world any longer. The Family does not wish to hide from the world any longer. I hope the world will accept them back into the fold...
Times have changed and so have the Family. They have come in from the cold. They carry some mud from the past on their coat but if they choose they can wash it off. Then they can sit at society's supper table, eccentric guests perhaps, but welcome for all that."
Lord Justice Ward was speaking at the end of a bitter child custody battle involving a four-year-old boy, known as Child S, whose mother is a member of a religious sect called the Family of Love (formerly known as the children of God, or CoG). Although he settled the issue of custody, the judge's comments only fanned the flames of controversy surrounding the sect.
Throughout its 29 years on the wilder shores of Christianity, the Family of Love, which has branches all over the world, has been dogged by claims that some of its members practice child abuse. In several countries, there have been official investigations into the sect but all have failed to make criminal charges stick. None the less, the Family of Love's opponents in Britain hoped that the case of Child S would cast doubt on the sect's recent claims to have reformed itself.
Child S's grandmother had argued that the boy would suffer serious harm if he remained with in the Family of Love. But after a hearing lasting 75 days, and a year spent considering the evidence, Lord Justice Ward disagreed. He accepted that child abuse had occurred within the sect in the past but gave the Family of Love his cautious endorsement, with the proviso that the case of Child S should be reviewed a year later.
The boy's grandmother was devastated. Former members of the Family of Love and activists who oppose controversial sects were appalled. But they have not given up. When the case of Child S is reviewed later this month under the auspices of Peter Harris, the government's Official Solicitor, they will point to documents that are still circulating among members of the sect. These, the activists claim, prove that far from being allowed to sit at society's supper table, the Family of Love should once again be cast out into the cold.
For more than a century, whoever has lived in the manor at Dunton Bassett, Leicestershire, has enjoyed loyal support from the villagers. When, for instance, Major Hugh Henry Robertson-Aikman became the squire in 1896, he and his wife were welcomed to the village by a choir of schoolchildren.
Forty-four-year-old Gideon Scott's welcome was warm if not quite as public. A short, stocky figure with a gingery moustache, orange freckles and a slightly troubled demeanor, he moved into the manor four years ago with his wife Rachel, also 44, and their associates. The Scotts take their community responsibilities as seriously as did the previous occupants. But pretty much everything else has changed since the Major's day.
The manor is the headquarters for the Family of Love in Britain. There are 100 British members, among them 66 children under the age of 16, most of whom live elsewhere. The sect refuses to reveal exact locations. But the manor is more than an administrative center. It is also a symbol of the Family of Love's new policy of openness, and Gideon and Rachel Scott are its public face. They live at the manor with five other adults and seven children.
Visitors to the manor are told by Gideon and Rachel that the group has progressively moved away from the more extreme teachings of David Berg, its founder and spiritual leader, since the late Seventies -- but most notably since 1981, when the Children of God changed its name to the Family of Love.
They insist that Berg's advocacy of sex between children and adults no longer forms part of the sect's theology. They also point out that after years spent living in fear of the authorities, the Family of Love's 12,000 members around the world now count social workers, theologians and academics among their friends.
But the Family remains a shadowy organization. It keeps the whereabouts of its leaders and most of its members around the world secret, and continues to restrict the distribution of literature outlining the tenets of its faith.
Gideon, born plain Martin, was 19 when he joined the CoG 25 years ago and changed his name. He does not like to talk about his life before he joined the sect, all he will say is that his parents were members of the Salvation Army and that as a teenager he was a Salvation Army bandsman. Gideon had already become disillusioned with mainstream Christianity when he met Rachel (then called Linda), who was a psychology student at the psychiatric hospital where Gideon worked as a nurse. Like Gideon, Rachel had been brought up an orthodox Christian.
Within a month of their meeting, Gideon had been introduced to the CoG by a friend. As he became more interested in the group, so did Rachel. Today, the Scotts, with their mild manners and neat, freshly scrubbed appearance, seem worlds away from the hippyish origins of the sect, which was started in California in 1968 by David Berg, a traveling evangelist who also went under the names of Father David, Grandpa, Dad, the End time Prophet and, appropriately, given his long white beard and grey hair, Moses.
At first it was an orthodox, if fervent, evangelical group. But within a year, Berg was living in a menage a trois with his first wife, Eve, and his wife-to-be, Maria, now a leader of the sect. As membership of the sect grew, and branches sprang up in different countries, Berg introduced the principle of "sharing," so that male evangelists working away from home could have sex with their female colleagues. Under the banner of free love, Berg declared promiscuity to be the will of God. Children as young as six, he said, could be encouraged to have sex with adults and with each other. He introduced a compendium of different punishments for disobedient children: isolation, enforced silence, hard labor or "paddling" (a beating administered with a sailing paddle an inch thick).
Prostitution, or "flirty fishing," was a favorite method of luring new recruits and it earned CoG members the nickname "hookers for Jesus." It was effective, too; in the heyday of the CoG, up to 35,000 people submitted to a hierarchy which said how they should live, love and rear their children. Members of the sect included the family of River Phoenix, the late actor, and Jeremy Spencer, a former guitarist with Fleetwood Mac.
While flirty fishing was abandoned in 1987, partly because of the fear of Aids, other unorthodox practices such as "sharing" (but only between married adult members) are still practiced by the Family of Love today.
Berg communicated with sect members via pamphlets known as the Mo Letters, a fiery mix of religious doctrine and graphic sexual imagery -- some cover illustrations depicted cartoon figures in the act of sexual intercourse. And although the Family of Love does study the Bible, the Mo Letters are regarded as foundation stones of the sect's theology. To outsiders, however, they make curious reading. In Deceivers Yet True, a Mo letter distributed in 1979, Berg advised his disciples that "the Lord allowed His people to deceive their enemies," implying that CoG members could, in certain circumstances, tell lies.
In God's Only Law is Love, a 1977 Mo Letter, Berg announced: "We do not have to keep the Ten Commandments. For us they are gone forever, Thank God! We now only keep God's Law of Love." He explained what he meant in Child Brides, another Mo Letter distributed the same year: "I hope all our young kids have plenty of sex," he wrote. "Why did the Lord make you able to have children at the age of 11, 12, 13 if you weren't supposed to have sex then?" This inflammatory theme was taken up in subsequent Mo Letters such as The Devil Hates Sex But God Loves It and Teen Sex, in which he described sex between adults and children.
Berg, who died in 1994 at the age of 75, matched his words with deeds. Among those who claim they were sexually abused by him is Linda, one of his daughters, who disclosed in her autobiography and in several newspaper articles that her father first had sex with her when she was eight.
Last year, too, in a crucial part of their defense in the High Court, the leaders of the sect acknowledged the Mo Letters which encouraged sex with and between children, but they assured the judge they were unaware of any actual child abuse until 1986, when several teenagers at a training camp in Mexico complained that they had been molested. This discovery, they say, prompted Maria, Berg's wife, who became increasingly influential in her husband's later years, to issue new edicts banning unlawful sex and threatening transgressors with excommunication. But she did so with a heavy heart. In a letter circulated to members of the sect in 1990, she said that the Family of Love had been forced to ban such relationships because "the System [was] getting so freaked out and infuriated about anything that they suspect may be ‘child sex abuse.'" "But," she added, "that's not to say any intimacies or loving relationships that may have taken place in the past were necessarily all wrong, wicked, sinful or of the Devil."
Lord Justice Ward balked at this sentiment, but Maria's testimony in court, together with statements from other witnesses, convinced him that the Family of Love had indeed broken with its dubious past. When the Official Solicitor reviews the case of Child S this month, however, he will have to take a view on two other Mo Letters, both of which have come to light since Ward's judgement. These letters, leaked to critics of the Family of Love, are being cited as proof that some of Berg's more distasteful teachings have survived him.
One of them, circulated two months after last year's High Court judgement, informed members about a new revelation from Berg, apparently delivered from beyond the grave. It said: "In part four of this series, the Lord presented to us the possibility of loving Him intimately with words of love while masturbating. He said: ‘In the quietness of your chamber when you are alone, you can tell Me you love Me and you can show Me you love Me. For this is a very intimate and special way of loving Me.'"
Rachel and Gideon Scott argue that the Family of Love should not be castigated for a suggestion to consenting adults about how they might behave in private. More importantly, they point out, the "Loving Jesus Revelation" does not encourage anyone to break the law.
The second Mo Letter is likely to excite more controversy. Written in July 1995 by Maria, to whom spiritual control of the sect passed after Berg's death, it reassured members that the Family of Love's theology would not become more conservative simply because its prophet and founder was dead. "Dad's taken over more than ever and Mama Maria is just being a very yielded vessel now, much more so than before," she wrote. "He's delighting in it because he can control me better than ever!"
The document, entitled Good News, also republishes an epistle, first circulated in 1973, in which Berg gave advice to a female by the name of Heidi, "You know that boy you like -- that boy with the pipe," he said. "I remember his name -- it's Peter. I'm not too sick to remember. Will you bring Peter here and make love to him like you do to Grandpa? He'll like it very much. He can inject you with children."
Until my recent trip to Dunton Bassett, I had not seen Gideon since one bright Saturday morning in 1990 when I turned up unannounced at one of the sect's addresses in Hendon, north of London. The Family of Love was a covert organization then and my arrival with a photographer sparked anger and then panic. An hour later, the occupants of the house had fled, bundling their bewildered children into a beige van. We gave chase, and I last glimpsed Gideon as the van disappeared up the Edgware Road.
Weeks before, claiming to be a student who was depressed and "seeking direct," I had contacted the group through its central London post office box. Two days later the phone rang and I arranged to meet Mark, a balding Australian, and Vicky, a stern-faced Swiss, for Bible study in a branch of McDonald's in Oxford Street. It was the first of several encounters, at the end of which my counselors would behave like Cold War spies. According to a colleague of mine who tried to follow them, Mark and Vicky would dash into the crowds at Marble Arch Tube station and then spend a frantic hour changing trains all over the network. The destination was always different and waiting for them at street level would be a man sitting at the wheel of a "getaway" car, ready to whisk them off to a secret destination.
The time around, lunch with Gideon and Rachel at the manor -- salad, brown bread and water -- seems a little tame. We are joined by one of their 12 children, Rebecca, a softly spoken, pretty 14 year old with long, crinkly red hair and her father's freckles. Eight of Rachel and Gideon's children, whose ages range from 18 months to 24 years, are still members of the sect but four have left. One who did leave -- Katie, now 20 -- made headlines in November 1994, when she said that she wanted to become a mother but did not want to raise a child in the Family of Love. Her parents reacted calmly: "All teenagers have a free choice," Rachel told the press at the time.
As if to bear this out, Rebecca chats openly during lunch about her own views of the sect and her life in Dunton Bassett. She is happy here now, she says, but is unsure about whether she'll remain in the Family of Love forever.
Gideon and Rachel's attitude towards me is more cautious. Our encounter is set-piece, arranged on their terms, with the subject matter agreed in advance. Even when we have eaten and Gideon invites me into the sitting room for coffee, the conversation is labored.
In the spirit of openness, however, Gideon and Rachel are happy to talk about the role of Berg in the sect today. "We believe he was a prophet in the same way that Moslems believe in Mohammed as a prophet," says Gideon. "I would not deny that Father David was a flawed prophet. But he was a man of God. I could never see a time when we would denounce him."
He is visibly irritated by my suggestion that the sect promotes promiscuity. "If someone is hungry you should feed them and if they are thirsty you should give them something to drink," he snaps, jabbing at his moustache with his index finger. "That is Christian charity. Father David teaches that if someone in our community needs sex, we can give it to them. The sexual urge is like water. You can't compress it."
I ask Rachel about flirty fishing. Did she ever use sex to recruit new members? "I never discuss my private life," she says in a soothing, motherly tone. "I hope you understand."
Gideon, prickly now, intervenes: "We don't do it now but that is for pragmatic reasons. One reason we stopped was Aids. The number of growing families was another problem. We found there are other ways to witness to people. But I am not ashamed of flirty fishing or sharing."
When the time comes, I am more embarrassed at talking about the "Loving Jesus Revelation" than Gideon and Rachel are. "Why shouldn't you bring prayer into your lovemaking as much as anything else?" protests Gideon. "For the majority of Christians it will be impossible to accept. We are quite prepared for that. But it is a personal conviction on the part of the members of our group."
On the subject of the Mo Letter concerning "Heidi," Gideon is dismissive: "I can't see there's a problem with that. We are quite open about the fact that adults can have sexual relations with anyone they agree it with. Heidi is Maria [Berg] and Peter is Peter Amsterdam, who is now her husband. He would have been about 20 then. She would have been about 20 as well. It is a phrase from a man in his fifties talking about someone of 20 and referring to him as a boy."
But did members of the sect molest children? Gideon, jabbing at his moustache again, admits that Lord Justice Ward had indeed found that child abuse had occurred in the Family of Love. But, he says, "I can put my hand on my heart and say I never saw any of those things. I think there were isolated cases in different parts of the world. But people should remember that this was not a rogue judgment. Six hundred of our children have been checked following numerous raids and no one has ever found anything wrong."
But if abuse did occur, how can the Family of Love still revere Berg as a prophet? "You might as well ask how someone can remain a Catholic when there have been proven instances of child abuse in that church," Rachel retorts. The clash between the Family of Love and its opponents has become increasingly bitter, with both sides making provocative claims about the other. Gideon suggests that critics of the sect might be allowing themselves to be manipulated by Satan. They, in turn, say that Gideon and Rachel are just the friendly face of something far more sinister.
Kristina Jones, a lively 20 year old law student, certainly thinks so. She was born into the Family of Love and in 1994 was awarded £5,000 by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for sexual abuse she had suffered from the age of three. Kristina left the Family of Love when she was 12, but says that before that she was molested by at least 25 men in Britain and in India. (Her mother had left the sect before her, but returned to remove her daughter from the Family of Love under the pretense of taking her on an outing to the library.) Both Kristina's father and stepfather remain members of the Family of Love; after years of estrangement she has begun to rebuild a relationship with both of them.
Kristina, who now lives in Nottingham with her four-year-old son, claims that she grew up watching adults pairing off for "sharing nights" and was once videoed dancing naked for David Berg with other girls as young as five. Being brought up in the Family of Love, she says, left her psychologically damaged.
Kristina is part of an informal network of ex-Family of Love members, academics and activists who gather and disseminate information about the sect, including its classified documents. This network, which publishes its own newsletter in California, receives information from people who leave the Family of Love and take its secrets and its literature with them.
Kristina believes that the Family of Love has always had a contingency plan should it find itself under attack, and that it is now carrying it out. According to this plan, the sect gives the appearance of being open and accountable, while actually concealing the truth. "We were always taught that a day would come when we would have to lie to keep our secrets," she says. "There were even comics to teach the children about it."
The sect's continued deification of David Berg, she argues, is evidence that the reforms have only gone so far. And she is scathing about the manor at Dunton Bassett: "It is just the open house. The people who live there were handpicked to be able to answer all the questions and deal with the authorities. Ask yourself," she continues, "How much do the police really know about groups such as the Family? How much do social workers know about the conditioning children go through? They can't see beyond the smiling faces."
Sylvia Padilla, a 55 year old housewife from Surrey, takes a similar line. She left the Family of Love in 1991, taking her daughters with her, but last year her husband, Arnoldo, rejoined the sect. Now a mainstream Christian, Sylvia is a full-time campaigner against the Family. "They will loosen things up for a while but the shutters will come back down," she says. "It's a facelift. There are still a lot of disgusting teachings coming out because basically they have no sense of right and wrong. Berg was undoubtedly evil and yet they still revere him."
Other critics take a similar tack. Graham Baldwin, a former chaplain of the London University who has counseled former members of the sect, says: "Nothing they say adds up. What about the Mo Letter Deceivers Yet True? They've never renounced that, but it gives them carte blanche to lie. And why don't they open all of their homes to scrutiny? Why do Maria and their other leaders live in secret locations?
In Dunton Bassett, though, the debate is a dead issue. The Scotts and their fellow residents at the manor have been accepted into the local community. Leicestershire social services have given the Family of Love a clean bill of health, schoolchildren often picnic in the grounds of the manor, and each Christmas a village pageant is held there.
Reverend Clifford Bradley, the Anglican rector of All Saints, the local church, is occasionally seen visiting the manor, too. He understands why some people remain skeptical, but, echoing the sentiments expressed by Lord Justice Ward, he believes that redemption is possible for the Family of Love: "If people realize they have made a mistake, particularly in the religious sphere, and feel God is leading them to clean up their act, I don't see why they can't do it."
Like the judge, Rev. Bradley wants to believe in the Family of Love's apparent break with its notorious past. Yet many things still cloud the picture: the continuing influence of David Berg, the tone of the sect's literature and the secrecy that still surrounds most of its activities. Whatever the Official Solicitor decides in the case of Child S, it is unlikely that speculation about the Family of Love will die away. Because, as Rev. Bradley says, "The truth is, you don't really know what goes on behind closed doors."