Family's leader sends top aide to secret talks
By Alex Messina
The right-hand man to the world leader of the religious group the Family has visited Australia secretly twice in the past 18 months - unbeknown to many members of the local group.
On his last visit two months ago, Peter Amsterdam met lawyers for the Family in the Melbourne Children's Court child-protection case.
The world leadership has been concerned by the court action against the Australian chapter. Mr Amsterdam has twice flown to Sydney for clandestine talks with a doctor of theology who is a "cult buster".
The Reverend Dr David Millikan, of the Uniting Church, told `The Age' that he had also succeeded in opening correspondence with the group's reclusive and ailing 72-year-old leader, David Berg - also known as the "Endtime Prophet," "Moses David", "Dad" and "Grandpa" - whose location is secret.
One of the 120 dossiers held by Dr Millikan on Australian fringe religions is on the group. But since the court action he has studied the group intensely.
He said the leadership was concerned by Children's Court action in Melbourne and was revising its educational curriculum partly because of it.
Dr Millikan describes himself as the world authority on the history and beliefs of the Family, formerly known as the Children of God.
The Victorian Department of Health and Community Services is arguing in the Children's Court that 86 children from the group need protection from cultural isolation and their parents' religious, educational and sexual practices.
One concern of the department is that literature held by the Family suggests that it encourages and might practice sex between children and children and children and adults.
Mr Berg certainly experimented with and encouraged child sex with adults and other children almost 20 years ago, Dr Millikan said.
Mr Berg's rationale had been that Jesus had taught that love was to be humanity's guide: the ethics of an act was not to be judged by the act, but whether it was done with genuine love.
In the 1970s, during a leadership struggle when the group was almost directionless, child sex was practised in islolated places around the world, but not in Australia, Dr Millikan said.
The sex practices alarmed many group members and eventually even the reformed leadership. Five years ago, the group denounced the "experiment" and repudiated child sex.
The department's concerns are based on Mr Berg's literature. It uses the literature to define the group, according to Dr Millikan. But when the literature condemns child sex, the department argues that this is a ruse. "You can't have it both ways."
He said he was convinced that none of the Victorian children had taken part in the experiment.
The group's earlier literature raised genuine concern. But the group had changed radically. It was now no more defined by that literature than Vatican II documents on contraception defined whether Roman Catholics used contraception, Dr Millikan said.
In Victoria, the department makes no direct allegations of sexual abuse of any child. Instead, it argues that promiscuity among adults and exposure to the literature might damage the children.
But Dr Millikan is adamant that the group is not a harmful cult. He said the reputation of the department secretary, Dr John Paterson, was at stake in the Victorian case.
In Australian meetings with the top leadership, Dr Millikan said he had amassed 600 pages of notes and 30 hours of tape recordings. He is circumspect about the contents because he is preparing a 400-page manuscript for the publisher Harper Collins.
The first contact came at Christmas 1992 after Dr Millikan had publicly questioned the raids by child-protection workers in Sydney and Melbourne in May of that year.
But that contact came after a scathing article he wrote for `HQ' magazine last year: it quoted literature that made Family members "wince".
Soon after, local leaders told him that Mr Amsterdam wanted a meeting.
"It was fascinatingly clandestine," Dr Millikan said. "I was met in a square; we had to change taxis; all of that." The word from Mr Berg was that Dr Millikan was tough, but fair.
Dr Millikan began corresponding with Mr Berg through the group. He accused him of encouraging child sexual abuse. Mr Berg responded that he had retreated from the experiment. But the department will argue that this is a deception.
The claims of cultural isolation are based on the communal living of the group, home-schooling of children, and alleged "thought control" and indoctrination about the "evil" outside world.
Although education authorities approved the home-schooling, World Service (the Family's administration arm) has revised the curriculum and showed it to Dr Millikan two weeks ago.
According to Dr Millikan, the group is isolationist. But less so than about 15 other fundamentalist religious groups he could name.