Haunted by a dark past
Press » Sunday Vision » 2008-03-01
by Esther Namugoji
Following last week’s story about The Family International’s controversial sexual and religious practices, Gideon Scott , of the Family liaision office in South Africa talked to Esther Namugoji. He said that the Family apologised for the sexual abuse and such mistakes will not be repeated ...
The Family International is a worldwide religious group that is marked by a checkered history and a present spent defending that past. They say anything negative happened more than 20 years ago, although some former members insist not much has changed.
Amidst much controversy, David Brandt Berg turned a generation of love-seeking hippies into a family that has survived 40 years of being different.
The hippies were mostly young people who were disillusioned with the American government of the late 1960s and sought the ideals of peace and love. Berg’s mother, a charismatic evangelist, tapped into their restlessness and started a ministry in Huntington Beach, California.
Berg was a Methodist pastor for over 20 years. His mother invited him to California to reach out to the hippies more effectively, especially through the music of Teens for Christ, a group formed by his children.
After the death of his mother in 1968, Berg concentrated on his own ministry. It was at this time that he denounced mainstream religions and government and declared himself God’s prophet, calling himself ‘Moses David’. Group members knew him as Mo, Father David, King David, Dad and the children called him Grandpa.
Followers left their families and jobs on conversion, and took to witnessing with members of the group’s communes.
Members dropped their birth names and took on new names. They were dubbed The Children of God (COG). Berg later separated from his wife and took on his young secretary Karen Zerby with whom he had been having an affair. In 1978, Berg dismantled the middle leadership in a reorganisation that saw a name change to the Family of Love.
As the COG grew, Berg directed its affairs from secluded locations using ‘Mo Letters’. In a period of 24 years, more than 3,000 letters were sent out to members. These were crafted in a Bible-like format, with verses that can easily be quoted. To this date, sections of Mo’s words and prophecies are quoted by members.
A peculiarity of these letters was the graphic language and drawings set easily among Bible verses. Berg claimed he communicated with people from the spiritual realm. Members can also prophesy messages from the departed soul of Berg and other ‘good people’. He taught extensively about the end times and that his wife, Maria and her son Davidito would be the two witnesses spoken of in the book of Revelation.
Letters also featured drawings of naked women and pictures of Berg in bed with women. It was with copies of these letters that former members insist that the leadership promoted the abuse of children.
Since Christians are ‘dead to the Law’ through faith in Jesus, Berg concluded that they were free to do almost anything as long as it was done in love. In order to sell his doctrine, it became necessary for Berg to use or misuse scripture, in the process distorting Christian beliefs.
He also had numerous revelations and prophecies to cement these beliefs. The ‘Law of Love’ opened the door for all sorts of sexual liberties. In 1974, he introduced Flirty Fishing (FFing) where members were encouraged to flirt and even have sexual relations with potential converts as a way of winning their souls. FFing was abandoned for fear of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and officially dropped in 1987.
Following raids on homes in different countries, the group’s current leader Mama Maria, ordered a ‘pubs purge’ from 1990. Controversial publications were either burned or sanitised. For instance, former members say clothes were drawn onto pictures of semi-nude women and pages of sexual content torn out of books.
The Family states that Berg wrote widely on many topics, of which sex was only 5% of the content.
A judicial inquiry in Britain in the early 1990s exposed the group to a lot of scrutiny. The outcome of Lord Justice Ward’s inquiry is interpreted differently by the Family and its detractors, each using quotes from the judgment to validate their view.
Things quieted down, until 2005 when Davidito (Ricky Rodriguez) stabbed one of his childhood minders and later shot himself dead. The murder-suicide of Davidito brought the media hounds back to haunt the Family. This was not helped by the number of second generation former members who identified with Davidito.
The Family accuses the media of seizing on the Davidito incidents, because he was the leader’s son, to persecute the group. The Family says Davidito maintained a good relationship with members until he got in touch with bitter former members.
“Many people who backslide become actively anti-religious. If they no longer believe, they become bitter, especially if they were in high commitment groups like ours,” explains Simon Peterson. “What happened with Davidito (Berg’s son) is that he fell into the hands of apostates after he left. Who knows what videos or literature he was watching?” However, the group did publish a 762-page childcare manual in January 1982 centred on the way Davidito was being raised.
According to former members, the book featured photographs depicting the child in sexual play with his older nannies. The book, like many sexually explicit publications, was ordered destroyed and is no longer part of the group’s material. A cleaner version was reprinted in the late 1990s.
Berg regarded sex as a God-given gift that anyone, including children, could participate in. Some female members, including Berg’s daughter and daughter-in-law, have said they were sexually abused by him. Sometimes even videos of sexual activity were shot in full view of children for this purpose. Berg’s bedroom wall was said to be covered with photographs of women and children in semi-nude poses. He believed that he would have many women and lots of sex in heaven.
Many of Berg’s controversial publications were burnt and removed from Family material, although the family continues to use and sell some of his inspirational works.
Rachel Scott, who was involved in the three-year long court case told Sunday Vision that Justice Ward cleared the group of all the charges. However, the judge took issue with publications on Davidito, saying, “Exposure of a young child to a sexual activity of that kind is in my judgment utterly deplorable. Those guilty of abusing Davidito by wholly inappropriate exposure to sex included the leader and his likely successor.”
Gideon and Rachel Scott head a Family home of 26 people in South Africa, but flew to Uganda to lend support to the home here following last Sunday’s story about the Family. They have been members for 38 years and they claim that in their experience they have never seen any kind of abuse. Second generation ex-members have claimed that they were instructed and coached to lie to investigators, in line with a strategy called ‘deceivers yet true’.
The Scotts argue that the investigations were done by experts, including sociologists, psychologists and physicians, people skilled in examining and assessing children. “These visits were at random in different continents and in all cases they found no evidence of abuse,” Gideon Scott argues.
They state that authorities in different continents carried out raids on family homes to rescue abused children, and more than 700 children have been found happy and healthy. Gideon Scott explains any abuse that occurred between 1978 and 1987 after Berg dismantled the leadership structure and the management structure was not well formed.
“We do know that it (Sexual abuse) was not widespread and that it was not representative of what the Family was like then. We do admit and it is on record that we apologised for it. We made sure such mistakes have not and will not be repeated,” Scott said. “We’ve got the greatest proof these things are not happening now. Our concern is that people will read this and think that this is how it is in the Family today.”
By the time the British High Court judgment was made, Berg had died and it was a good time to bury a thorny past. Justice Ward noted that the new leadership was adjusting to standards that were safe for children.
On the inside, Maria, (who became the Family leader after Berg died) said the changes were being made in order not to ‘stumble’ the weaker brothers in the ‘system’. Nonetheless, changes have been taking place ever since.
Mama or Queen Maria who took over after Mo’s death in 1994 spearheaded many changes in the Family. Together with her lover Steven Douglas Kelly (Peter Amsterdam or King Peter), they introduced The Love Charter, which allowed members more freedom to choose and follow their own pursuits.
From 16 years of age, the children are free to choose whether to stay or leave. From being secluded, they become actively involved in the communities and do creative charity activities. The total number of people that have passed through the group is estimated at 35,000.
Numbers today waver between 10,000 and 12,000 in over 100 countries on all continents.
Current and former members continue to put out contrasting interpretations of Family life at websites like MovingOn.org, MyConclusion.com and thecreed.com. Most of these were set up after the Davidito incident.
“The Family have been black, very black and they are still not white, but the shade of grey grows lighter by the month. I have decided to trust them to continue to bring lightness to their darkness,” Justice Ward wrote in his 1995 verdict.
The Family continues to contend with that challenge even today; to convince the world to trust that they are bringing light. The work of anti-cult movements is not making this easy at all.
The Family’s activities in Uganda
The Family work in Uganda according to the Gideon Scott who heads a Family home in South Africa, is among the best in Africa and they do not want to jeopardise that.
Some of their activities are RadioActive headed by Simon Peterson, which spreads the word of God through radio, email and the Activated magazine. They also had a dance group, The RadioActive Dancers although it is now defunct.
In addition to a weekly Bible study course for anyone interested, there is a service on Sunday afternoons at their home in Old Kampala. All members living in the home are non-Ugandans. Kathleen explains that they are cautious about Christians who would just want to live with whites when they are not serious about Jesus.
The Family is more liberal today. For example, Robin of Family Care Uganda revealed that her daughter fell in love with a Muslim and she is still supportive of her. “Because it is sincere, we back her. A lot of our donations are from Muslims and Hindus. We have changed our perception of non-members.” She said they no longer used the term ‘systemites’ to refer to non-Family members.
“We adapt to every community we are in. We want to hook them onto Jesus and not ourselves. We are not like those churches where everything revolves around a charismatic leader,” she says. The group does not need churches because they believe Jesus is in their hearts.
“Billions are being wasted on buildings that can be used in the gospel; this body is our building,” Kathleen explains, but adds, “We are not against church and we recognise other denominations. We do not set ourselves up as being better than anyone.”
There are four levels of membership in the group. Before taking the ‘12 Foundation stones’ course, those who attend services are called General Members. Active members have taken the ‘12 Foundation Stones’ and participate in outreach. If they complete the ‘12 Bridges’ course, active members can become Missionary Members.
Missionary members need to express a desire, according to a calling from God, in order to become Family Disciples. Family Disciples are those who live the communal life where everything is shared. Jakisa Mungu is a Ugandan Missionary Member who believes his destiny is tied to the Family. He says God told him he would have a son and after that meet two white people with whom his destiny was linked.
This prophecy came true and by chance he met two members of The Family which he later joined. He also dropped one of his names, Ajarova, which means ‘I am unfortunate’. He says he has worked with many missionaries and many white people before, but none of them was ‘very sweet’ like the Family.
“They are like my brothers. My problems are their problems. When my late wife was hospitalised and I was not around, they took care of her in hospital, something others would not do.” Jakisa says.
According to Family statistics, by 2005 there were 1,238 Family homes and 10,202 members worldwide.
Was David Brandt Berg , mentally ill?
Stephen A. Kent of the Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Canada studied Berg’s history and concluded that Berg had repressed sexual emotions that burst forth after the death of a mother who had punished him for sexual experimentation as a child.
When he found himself at the helm of this big group of free love hippies, he opened up and encouraged them to experiment with their sexuality as he was now doing.
In Lustful Prophet: A Psychosexual Historical Study of the Children of God’s Leader published in 2002, Kent writes: “Berg, alas, is not a great religious figure, and his solution to his own childhood-based guilt brought havoc unto those who relied upon him for guidance.
He alienated the older generation of his mother’s friends, destroyed his own marriage along with the marriages of others, probably lost a son to suicide, eroticised the relationships with his daughters and granddaughters, and denounced his eldest daughter, all in the process of the pursuit of his own passions.”
The group's current policy (as of 1995) forbids sexual contact with minors. The Family also denounce Berg's writings which were responsible for past sexual abuse.