Moses David's children
By Kevin Childs
When followers of the Children of God cult say they have changed their ways, there is little reason to doubt their sincerity. As a clergyman who has studied them over many years has found, whenever the cult attracts unwelcome attention, its professed beliefs change.
A Christian minister who has worked with former cult members for almost 20 years says that public exposure brings about a metamorphosis. "They come up with a whole new image," he says. "Inside the group, every person takes on a new mind-set." The power of the cult is such that he describes its methods as an extreme form of mind control. Members become what he calls "ideology clones" of the founder, David Berg, or of local leaders.
"It is not brainwashing, for there is no enemy," he says. "Your physical reality is controlled and there is a prolific amount of singing, which is mind-stopping. Guilt and fear are the means by which they can control a person's emotional range. Coercive persuasion totally eradicates any former belief and indoctrination complements a person's phobias." A former cult member says quotations from Berg's letters have to be memorised.
Within four weeks, this technique can change a person's emotions, actions and thought processes. Those who want to leave are threatened. Death threats, the minister says, are not unknown.
So who is David Berg, also at various times known as Moses David, or Chairman Mo, or Father David? And how much can we learn of what he and his followers believe?
From the start of the Melbourne hearing of a case mounted by police and Community Services Victoria against members of the sect, leaders of the cult declined to talk in detail about their beliefs, saying they were too complicated. However, this week, cult members did make pointed denials to many of the claims reported in this article, saying that out-of-context quotations were being used by opponents of the sect to attack it. A Melbourne leader of the sect said it was diametrically opposed to child abuse. "I have personally been involved in excommunicating people from the group who have been in any child abuse," he said. He would not elaborate on what form this abuse had taken.
"Moses David is a calculating, evil man, bent on destroying children and adults." _ a former cult member.
David Brant Berg was born in Oakland, California, in 1919, the son of a Disciples of Christ minister and a radio evangelist mother. Drawn to preaching, he joined the Missionary Alliance Church in Arizona, but in 1950 was forced out for a sexual affair with a 17-year-old girl and began his wanderings. He married and, in 1964, began working for a Los Angeles evangelist as a radio preacher with a 'Church in the Home' broadcast.
The hippies had begun sprouting in California when Berg, then 45, moved his wife Jane and their four children to a San Francisco suburb and began a ministry at the Light Club, preaching revolution, cursing the "system" churches and sending his teenage followers to public demonstrations and rallies.
He attracted drug addicts and runaways who longed for a source of strength and decision. Berg gave them new names and new personalities, curing them and converting them. The group was led by his wife, daughter and son-in-law. Control was tight, with marriages encouraged but arranged.
Berg transformed himself into "Moses" and dictated his "Mo Letters", with illustrations showing him as a lion and Christ as a leering debaucher in paradise, usually accompanied by scantily clad women. Illustrations from a cult publication show a woman making love with Jesus. This was defended as not sacrilegious because "the Bible clearly states that all of God's born-again children are married to Jesus and are the brides of Christ".
The group became "Teens for Christ", then "Revolutionaries for Jesus" and finally "The Children of God". Berg became Moses David and even Chairman Mo, proclaiming that the world would end in 1993. By 1974, there were 6000 members in 70 countries. This figure is now thought to have doubled, including perhaps 1000 in Australia, most of them children. Sexual freedom had begun to be advocated early in 1978, with the result that the cult now has a large number of children.
About 12 years ago, the cult was reorganised to reinforce its pyramid structure. Control of the Australian members is exerted from Japan under a reporting office, which is ultimately run by Berg, who is called Dad by sect members.
Some critics of the sect believe Berg is now dead. The sect says he remains in seclusion because of the way "our dangerous and vicious religious enemies have harassed and persecuted us. As you know, Father David is quite old, so in order to have the rest and peace he needs in order to retain his health, he found it necessary to retire from the public scene." After all, Berg is "just like the Apostle Paul was to the churches and groups of believers he founded". Berg, it says, is "merely an instrument of God". He is not God.
The Children of God often use other names: The Family or Family of Love. Their videos and posters are sold under the name Heaven's Magic. In Melbourne court hearings, cult leaders have insisted the group is called The Family.
Their beliefs have been described in a report by an American Jewish organisation, the Anti-Defamation League, as a frenzied pot-pourri of messages involving dreams and "revelations", biblical misquotations (others say misinterpreting), gossip, sex and anti-Semitism. Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is idolised as "a powerful and welcome Messiah" in Berg's diatribes.
The cult preaches a Final Judgment in which a Great Dictator will arise, an anti-Christ, possessed by Satan, who will dispose of all religious and ideological differences, the threat of nuclear war and all economic problems. Then he will invade Israel and abolish all forms of religion. The United States will be destroyed in the clean-up and once the world has been purged, Christ will reappear, welcomed by loyal Children of God followers in the Third World, who will have survived.
Much of the sect's philosophy and control over its members is centred on sex. Berg's own attitude to sex has been notorious. American newspapers once reported that Berg had revealed to a select few that he had always harbored a sexual desire for his mother and both his daughters and had been engaging in sex with his younger daughter, "Faithy", for years. The Melbourne sect leader said this report was a lie.
The American reports also said Berg claimed all this was in keeping with "God's highest order". He based these declarations partly on revelations he had received through "Abrahim", the spirit of an ancient gipsy, who first contacted him in 1970.
A self-acknowledged alcoholic, Berg mostly seemed to see Abrahim and other spiritual apparitions (some of whom he had sex with) after drinking large amounts of wine. Berg claimed to have gained from his ghost the "revelation" that Jesus had several wives and concubines and suffered from venereal disease. The sect vehemently denies this.
In the late 1970s, Berg also began advocating incest and sex between children. His newsletters included graphic photographs of the acts, accompanied by joky captions. Again, the sect says this is not true.
However, evidence of this came during a Children's Court hearing in Melbourne this year when a former schoolteacher, who left the sect two years ago, said it advocated sex between adults and children. She was giving evidence during a long-running custody battle.
A 14-year-old girl gave evidence in this case that at the age of 12 she lived in a sect house, sleeping in a room with several other girls and an older couple. On several occasions, the couple stripped naked, lay on a bed drinking wine and performed sex before the children.
In about 1977, Berg introduced "flirty fishing", using Christ's instruction to his disciples: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Men are "fish" and cult women "happy hookers for Jesus".
Berg ordered the women to make detailed reports on sexual contacts, what acts were most sought and the professions of the "fish". Computerised reports were kept of how women refined their seductive techniques to ingratiate themselves with high-ranking politicians and military officers across the world.
At one stage, the sect claimed 971,489 flirty fishing "witness contacts" (attempted seductions) in 10 years, 222,280 "fish loved" (sexual encounters), and 105,706 "souls won" (some contribution gained).
A former Melbourne solicitor has told the Children's Court hearing that he was "fished" by a married cult member, with whom he had a relationship for four years, presenting her with clothes, money, food and an $8500 van.
One of the more astonishing cases concerns Peter Fearn, the head of Ford of Britain in Latin America, where in 1983 he met a woman calling herself Cathy who was wearing jeans and carrying a guitar through a hotel. He was a quick convert, returned to England and behaved so strangely his wife thought he had lost his mind.
Fearn took early retirement with a settlement of $170,000 and withdrew his $90,000 savings and vanished. His wife, worried that he may have been kidnapped, traced him back to Sao Paulo, to a sect bungalow near the house where Nazi war ciminal Josef Mengele was arrested. But Fearn and other cult members were gone when investigators arrived. He was last seen collecting his mail from a post office box in Sao Paulo. "I have seen the light," he reportedly told police. "If you can believe St Paul, you can believe me." A Texas woman who worked as a prostitute for the cult left after nine years. "If I'd been thinking all along," she said, "I'd have realised there was something wrong, something evil underlying it from the first." When she got two of her sons back from her husband, who stayed in the cult, she found pornographic pictures of children in their bags.
However, the Melbourne sect leader said "flirty fishing" prostitution by sect members involved only a very small group called the Family of Love. "Sex, flirty fishing is over, it's past," the leader said.
"The Children of God ended in 1971 after Father David told 300 leaders of the Children of God that they were `hirelings', as it says in the Bible, and were not living up to his teachings." Other documentary evidence of the cult's sexual practices comes from a booklet published by members after the Philippines Government banned the sect in 1987, saying it promoted promiscuity and incest and encouraged children to leave home.
The sect's 42-page booklet, `Answers of the Children of God', is overwhelmingly about sex. It confirms that "a few of our heartier male members do live with more than one woman and, according to the Bible, there is nothing wrong with it"!
In answer to the question why their literature is so full of drawings of naked or near-naked women, it says: "Why not _ that's half the beauty of worldwide classical art, the gorgeous female figure! We don't believe that there is anything wrong with God-created sex or nudity, so why should we hide it?" It says the cult's "private sex educational publications" are "distributed exclusively to the adult members within our community".
The booklet later says: "We do not try to hide the fact that we are a sexy religion with a sexy leader who believes in a sexy God and we see nothing wrong with sex." Sex, it says, is only a small part of the cult, but because the world is so interested in matters sexual "our religious enemies use our sexual liberties to condemn and turn the public against us; our sex views are what make the news".
The booklet argues that God and not the sect should take the blame for the breaking-up of marriages and families. It says it is perhaps the hardest test for many sect members to leave their loved ones in order to "take up our cross and follow Jesus daily", but the Bible says "a man's foes shall be their own household".
Women in the group who made love to men not their husbands were not committing adultery because the sect does not hold itself bound by the laws of Moses, in particular the commandment against adultery. Neither, they say, was Jesus and that is why the religious leaders of his day were determined to kill him.
Evidence of young cult women working in escort agencies to raise money has been given in the Melbourne Children's Court. "So what?" says a cult newsletter to this question. "Many of us have taken secular jobs at different times and in most countries escort services are perfectly legal, respectable agencies to which lonely travellers and visitors can go to find someone to show them around town, to take out to dinner, to interpret for them and to have someone to talk with. Thus offering us an ideal opportunity to witness and tell them about Jesus!" Elsewhere it says: "As long as what we're doing is done in genuine, unselfish, sacrificial love of God and not hurting any innocent party then, according to the scriptures, there is no longer any law of God against it. It is neither sin, nor adultery, nor fornication." A cornerstone of the sect is that relationships are less important than the group. As a former member said: "You're reminded of the need to deny yourself. They worked you until you were exhausted, they trained you intensely. You're taught to give token responses to all questions. Finally, they strip you of everything that's you." The cult has attracted much criticism for its anti-Semitism. Argentine police arrested 12 cult members in 1990, seizing many books and videos, including a copy of the notorious hoax `The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', as well as anti-Israel propaganda. A court hearing was told one reason the cult moved from a Melbourne street was because too many Jews lived there.
The cult's claims to be a Christian fundamentalist community have also been questioned. Critics ask: how can a Christian group abandon one of the fundamentals, the Ten Commandments? And how can it not take its basic beliefs from the fundamentals _ the Bible or Christ _ but from a self-styled prophet?
In the booklet titled `Answers', the cult says that the Holy Trinity consists of God, Jesus and a female Holy Spirit, although it adds that it is unimportant whether the Spirit is a male or female, a pigeon or a dove. "It's the churches that have taken offence at our beliefs along this line and who obviously enjoy wasting time and energy debating and arguing over such doctrines, as they have amongst themselves for centuries," the booklet says.
With the collapse of communism, Eastern Europe has become a fertile field for sects. A Bulgarian teenager who started attending the cult's Bible classes became suspicious because of the emphasis on astrology, the occult, polygamy, the use of pornographic literature, and the disapproval of contacts with other Christians.
"Nobody joins a cult, they just postpone a decision to leave." _ Steven Hassan in `Combatting Cult Mind Control'.
Dahlva Lynch was a drug addict in the early 1970s. A well-educated, bilingual Brazilian, she was "mated" in the cult and has an ex-husband and three children still in it.
"I stayed with them at first because they got me off drugs when I couldn't do it myself and I thought they were wonderful. I didn't realise I'd been a slave to drugs first, then a slave to them.
"I stayed with them later out of blindness and cowardice. I was afraid I couldn't make it on my own without them. I was afraid I'd be turning my back on God if I left them. I still thought that they were the `way'. I stayed with them finally to try and keep my children, but I lost them anyway." The anger of the sect towards those who turn against it may be judged by the case of Berg's second daughter, Deborah Davis, who left in 1984 and wrote a book denouncing him and the cult. A cult pamphlet says: "Deborah herself did not write that book _ her insane, demon-possessed, drug-addicted second husband wrote it as a vicious attack on us for firing him." Deborah, her first husband, Jethro, and "her power-crazed lover whom she has now legally married" were excommunicated for abusing their positions of power, it continues. The booklet says they acted dictatorially and did not hesitate to take money, personal items and property "from many of our Latin American disciples".
"I'd love to see them outlawed, but I imagine there is nothing the law can do but deal with the aberrant behavior." _ A "de-programmer" of cult members.
A large file on the sect has been compiled in Chicago by the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), which has 28 volunteer groups across the US, supporting meetings for families victimised by cults, as they put it.
This records the arrest of 11 people in Spain on charges of abducting children from their parents after a police operation freed 22 children held illegally by the cult.
In the mid-1970s, US taxation authorities denied the group tax exemption as a religious institution. The New York Attorney-General's Charity Frauds Bureau charged the sect with brainwashing, forced membership, and practices leading to personality distortion. Berg left the US to avoid government investigation into the cult's finances.
The sect says it was "persecuted" in America because it exposed the "evils of that decadent nation".
The cult's activities were further restricted by a 1984 resolution of the European Parliament, which banned it.
In the Philippines, before it was banned there, the sect recruited among the armed forces, which, it says, were "despised, rejected, defamed, lied about and virtually persecuted by the new government..." Asked whether this was done by sex, the cult says: "If they are hungry we will try to give them something to eat..." In Hong Kong "a massive media campaign generated by our religious enemies" pressured authorities into harassing and persecuting them and most of the sect's "missionaries" left.
As soon as they were discovered in China in 1986, 20 sect members were expelled for preaching free sex.
The Melbourne sect leader said it was clear that much of the information in this article had come from disgruntled former sect members who had been involved in CAN.
He said the cult was attacked for telling the truth, "saying it like it is", and because its members were active in preaching the Bible.
He showed no fear of court proceedings in Australia. "Worldwide, we have never had one legal defeat," he said. "We have never been proven guilty of anything. Court after court after court has exonerated our children. That is why this vicious attack is going on.
"Once there is a substantial hearing, the Bible will be on trial. The Bible is what we live by, what we believe in. We train our children according to the Bible and this will be brought up here."
Pearl E. Gates goes missing
The voice across the phone wire from a tiny community in the mountains of North Carolina did not hide the pain that David Cole still feels. At the age of 69, Cole, a retired high school teacher, is a dedicated enemy of the Children of God, which has two of his children and nine of his grandchildren. His daughters Sandy, 40, and Carol, 37, have been members since 1971.
In 1988, he flew to Costa Rica to find Sandy. He believes she was then prostituting herself for the cult. Her four children, aged between two and eight, were living next door to their mother in the home of two prostitutes. "My daughter was so fanatical with the cult that she wasn't taking care of the children," he says.
His daughter began going out at 7.45 at night, returning at about 5am. For four months, Mr Cole made every effort to get Sandy away from the prostitutes to meet a counsellor. Finally he went to the government social services department, which went to investigate. Next day, the houses were empty. The children, Sandy, the prostitutes and the furniture were missing.
He stayed on a month and hired private detectives, but has never seen these members of his family again. "That was at the end of August. She called between Christmas and New Year and kind of apologised." A former cult member says the cult leaders have changed their policy on prostitution because of a fear of AIDS.
The predilection for name changes among cult members makes tracing them even harder. Sandy became Pearl E. Gates (get it?) and is now Martia. Carol became Israel Mohair, but her name would now have changed again.
Later in 1988, Mr Cole accompanied a 35-year-old woman to Thailand to help rescue her four children, all aged under 15, from her former husband, a cult member. Mr Cole said the husband had returned to the United States and obtained visiting rights under court supervision, but now had three of the children with him and was defying court orders.
Mr Cole, whose home has been used as a "safe house" to deprogram former cult members (although this failed with one of his daughters), said the cult masqueraded as a fundamentalist Christian church but ended up gathering money for its leader. Because the cult had toughened its policy, he had lost touch with his daughters.