For God's sake
Sydney Morning Herald/1996-10-23
When a government department "kidnapped" 72 children from The Family religious sect, alleging each had been sexually abused, a landmark hearing began. Four years later, reports COL ALLISON, who covered the extraordinary case, the sect is still fighting for legitimacy and justice.
By Col Allison
It was unprecedented official drama, codenamed "Project-A". In the pre-dawn chill of May 15, 1992, a contingent of 30 police, accompanied by officials of the Department of Community Services (DoCS), slowed their vans and cars to a quiet halt outside three large houses in The Hills district of Sydney. The rented mansions were communal homes of a formerly obscure Christian fundamentalist sect, The Family.
As a similar raid was taking place in Melbourne amid fears 19 sect families there might abscond, the NSW crime and welfare troopers - on a "fishing" expedition, a court heard later - pounced. (The swoop was the culmination of five months of shaky police surveillance so embarrassing the police quickly withdrew from the case.)
Convinced they would find members of the sect - once the notorious Children of God cult of the 1970s - indecently abed with brainwashed children, the agents, apparently buoyed by the righteousness of their cause, kicked in doors and barged through. Brushing parents aside, they pulled terrified children from their beds.
Sleepy, bewildered and crying for their elders, the children, aged three to 16, were driven off to "three departmental residential care units" where they were interviewed at length about their lifestyles and any sexual activity. Many were puzzled. Separated from siblings, they were denied access to the adults. Later, DoCS brought them before Cobham Children's Court, seeking to take them into State care for their protection.
What followed was a $4 million, four-month-long, David v Goliath court battle which set the legal establishment agog and tongues wagging around the world. Coloured daily by sexual innuendo and occasionally by the judge-baiting taunts of one of the instructing solicitors, Chris Murphy, the proceedings were peppered by unaccustomed press conferences outside the children's court, American-style.
It was the Sect v the State - and the State lost. Badly.
There were always misgivings about the salacious case against The Family, whose members insisted lurid practices such as "flirty-fishing" (also called "hooking for Jesus" or "sex for salvation") had been abandoned long ago.
Sect members were branded child abusers on little more than hearsay and suggestion and some historical cult books found in the communes. Then came the extraordinary admission by a DoCS officer, Ms Pauline Rockley, after a gruelling month of cross-examination, that the department "had no specific evidence" to prove its claims.
Dramatically abandoned a few months later following a sensational settlement deal negotiated by a retired judge, the controversial care case ended in a blaze of page-one newspaper headlines and radio and TV news leads. Exactly as it had all begun.
A year's stay of proceedings was negotiated to allow the children of The Family to socialise with outsiders in 54 leisure activities, ranging from soccer and horse-riding to needlework and music. The cost? About $350,000.
There were inquiries. Some heads rolled in the witch-hunts. Bureaucrats were shuffled sideways and changed departments. Lawyers became judges and university lecturers. The children's magistrate became a missionary in Western Australia.
Eventually, after what some lawyers labelled the most shameful episode in NSW child-care history since the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in the 1950s, the news spotlight moved on.
But now the banner headlines are set to return. This time around it's finally The Family's day in court. In the Supreme Court, it is seeking civil damages against an indignant State determined to defend itself after a longrunning stalling action.
Next April, having originally vowed to sue for about $10 million, the sect - which claims it has never fully recovered from the legal mud-slinging earlier this decade - is going for unspecified damages, legal redress for assault, for the false imprisonment of children, nervous shock, etc, etc.
Members of The Family could never be named throughout the proceedings because of suppression of any material that could identify those minors who were the subject of care applications. For this reason, The Family must remain in the legal shadows as the new court action looms.
After a chance reunion in a Chatswood street, I visited "Paul" and "Joy" (the sect names of the leaders of the faceless group of 1992) at their communal home behind the high wire and tea-tree walls of an upper North Shore home. The sect maintains seven Sydney communes, mostly still based in and around Castle Hill.
The huge, two-storey Federation mansion, set in palatial grounds, boasts Gothic and marble columns, stained glass, a swimming pool and tennis court. The $660 a week rental tag is paid for by government child support, Christian sponsors and the sales of in-house evangelical videos, musical tapes and literature (all funds are pooled by each community).
The promotional material is produced in Japan where the sect's 1960s founder, the late David Brant Berg - also known as Moses David, Father David or just plain Dad or Mo - died in 1994, aged 75. He was a former alcoholic radio evangelist from California who allegedly fled America ahead of tax-evasion charges against the cult.
Berg's attitude to sex was notorious. It is claimed he had a sexual desire for his mother and both his daughters and was engaged in sex with his youngest daughter, "Faithy", for years. His granddaughter, Merry Berg, told the Japanese Shukun Bunshun magazine that she was seduced by her grandad when she was 11. The sect today denies all this.
Nevertheless, Father David began advocating incest and sex between children in his Mo Letters in the late 1970s.
He introduced "flirty-fishing" (in which women had sex with men in return for money and the men's conversion to the sect) using Christ's instructions to his disciples: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men". Men were captioned in jokey cartoons as "fish", cult women over 16 became the "happy hookers for Jesus". One US report said the cult claimed 971,480 flirty-fishing "witness contacts" (attempted seductions) in 10 years, 222,280 "fish loved" (sexual encounters) and 105,706 "souls won" (financial contributions gained).
Sex was a major plank in the former cult's philosophy and the underlying reason the case was launched against The Family sect in Sydney and Melbourne. Children of God (CoG) material was found in sect houses, which in some minds contradicted The Family's assertion that it had broken away from the Children of God in 1978 in dissatisfaction with the leadership.
Surprisingly, at the sect's North Shore headquarters, Berg's photo remains respectfully centred on the lounge room mantelpiece, but only for its historical association, they say.
Three families of god-fearing Christians - six adults and 17 children - live in the main community, not far from the rising towers of Chatsworth Plaza in Chatswood.
Home-schoolers who admit to being "pretty open and positive about painless sex between consenting adults of the opposite sex", according to Joy, the sect is isolationist, non-smoking and wowserish. Believing the world is becoming more violent, wicked and dangerous, TV is restricted to SBS news and educational documentaries. Adult and child alike expect the return of Jesus Christ within the next 40 years, a core belief of this doomsday-in-our-lifetime sect, which claims 500 members in Australia and 12,000 worldwide.
Joy is a tall, ebullient Canadian-born nurse and flower power hippie of yore. Eight months' pregnant with her 10th child, she admits straight-in-the-eye to having been a "flirty-fisher" in her much-travelled youth.
"Yes, I flirty-fished as part of our religious outreach," she told me frankly as we sipped coffee around a glass-topped table in the immaculately maintained home. "We'd be excommunicated for it today ... We made mistakes in the past and many families were hurt by it. Look, we were single then and in the '70s people got tripped off on all that.
"But we were never child abusers. Never. I never saw any of this. I wouldn't still be around ..."
Paul, 44, a clean-cut and athletic fourth-generation member of the Salvation Army born in England, was raised in Brisbane and spent much of his early Family life in foreign climes. The couple are only remaining in Australia to see out the court saga and intend following sect members to overseas homes in Bosnia, Russia, or, most likely, India, where they once lived happily.
Paul admitted that the stigma of history, the legacy of the Children of God years, never went away. "We've had radical changes in our lives, yet 20 years later we're still branded with the same cult stereotype. Everything changes, but to some eyes, we never do."
His wife added: "We're trying so hard to get away from the past, but there are those who won't let us."
I'm reminded of our last meeting at the sect's former 10-bedroom home in Kellyville in 1993 on the first anniversary of the triumphant conclusion of the court case. The media were treated to a typical American-style religious song-fest performed by the sect's children (there were 87 then, 15 more having been born since the raid).
But on that day, on the footpath outside the 2.5-hectare grounds, placard-waving protesters greeted visitors. The demonstrators, describing themselves as disgruntled members of the Children of God, demanding their day in court, waved banners which read: "The Family Cult - Another Waco?" and "The Facts Vs The Lies - The Family Cult did not win the court case".
As a miffed Paul called Castle Hill police on that day, a woman demonstrator, demanding her day in court, told the Herald : "Like all destructive cults, the Children of God uses deceptive proselytising techniques. Smiling faces, obedient, beautiful children, colourful posters, wholesome music cassettes and videos ... all designed to convey an image of happy, dedicated Christians."
I asked Paul if, as he insisted, the past is just that, doesn't retaining the photo of Berg in pride of place on the mantelpiece give critics ammunition?
"He was the leader of The Family and we still regard him with a lot of respect. It was phenomenal how he got the community together," he replied.
"Some might say it's a little like adoring Hitler," I ventured.
"Some will never look beyond the sensational," Paul said.
"We say this man (Berg) was a great Christian leader who taught his followers how to follow Jesus ... as to sex, here you have a Christian group that takes a positive attitude towards it. But we are very discreet in anything we do because we're very concerned about the welfare of our children."
Reflecting on the raid and the aftermath, he said: "What DoCS didn't expect was to find such family cohesion. They thought we were monsters when they kicked in the doors and rushed in with perverted glee.
"They never ever apologised and their words still haunt us - 'each and every one of those 65 kids had been sexually abused and will continue to be'. They never said sorry once."
Could it happen again?
"We're still vulnerable and we're all still very concerned," Paul said. "A police bus parked outside on the highway recently. It had nothing to do with us, but everyone was worried. Oh, Oh, I thought, could this be another raid?
"Our group has been arrested wholesale around the world. Some 600 of our children have been tested and not one has shown any signs of abuse. We've been vindicated, but the reality is (that) at the back of our minds the concern remains."
Joy added: "Some of our kids still burst into tears talking about it (the raid). A 10-year-old had a dream the other night. Something happened to us and the DocS came and took us away. He was terrified.
"They (the department) reckon there was no damage done in that raid, but we've got to counsel the kids often. We actually took them on a group visit to the police in Castle Hill once so they wouldn't continue to fear the police and police cars."
The care case against the sect effectively closed with the first witness still in the box after a world-record-breaking three months. Ms Pauline Rockley, the then 41-year-old who managed the department's Campbelltown office and is known by her peers as Rocky, earned the nickname "The Rock" for her steadfast testimony. It's no secret that many district officers and executives in Community Services, some of the Children's Court hierarchy and certainly more than a few former cult members, were piqued that the allegations against the sect were never completely tested in court. The coming civil action will certainly reopen some old wounds.
In preparation for the case, the sect has been ordered to have all 65 of the children originally the subject of care proceedings psychologically examined in Sydney.
"It's been something of a nightmare," Joy told The Northern Herald. "The Crown insists the examinations have to be done here, but some of our children involved in the raid are scattered around the world - in Bosnia, South Africa, South America.
"We've had to orchestrate all this and getting them back to appointments has been very stressful all round." She said that acting on legal advice, the sect refused to let its children be examined without a witness present.
"So one of our kids comes down from, say, Brisbane with a parent and we're told, 'It's not on like this', so back we go. And so on.
"Frankly, we don't trust them. The kids know the Government is out to win the case."
Just now, the sect has more pressing problems. Three teenagers, including one of Joy and Paul's own children, have left The Family and have gone to live elsewhere in Sydney, where they are seeking regular jobs.
"They want to launch off and do their own thing," Paul said, resignedly. "Right now they're into smoking and drinking. They're caught up in materialism and have been corrupted by the outside world."
The phone rings towards the end of the interview. Joy is called away. She returns a few minutes later, all smiles. "That was my son. He wants to come over for a meal tonight. He's eaten all his food."
The couple look at each other and laugh hysterically. Even in a sect with a pipeline to God, raising kids is still not easy.