Keeping it in the Family
By Vanessa Walker
A tip-off from disaffected former members prompted police to seize the children of a sect that offended the moral mainstream. Religious affairs writer Vanessa Walker reports on the long aftermath
Eleven years after police raided the Family's premises and seized its children, members of the sect are inching towards the mainstream. Unlikely helpers include Uniting Church minister Bill Crews, who is director of the Exodus Foundation in Sydney, and professionals who are guiding the isolated sect in from the cold.
Founded in the counter-cultural 1960s in California, the Family, also known as the Children of God, has been called a "bizarre and unstable fusion of Christian fundamentalism and free love".
Ken Buttrum, now assistant manager for the NSW Department of Community Services, recalls the days after the police raids in 1992 when he had to lift the morale of bewildered staff. DOCS staff were pondering the mess they were in after 65 children had been seized in NSW. Buttrum remembers seeing a sect comic book. It showed "a naked young woman hanging on a cross like Jesus Christ with a nail through her vagina. Underneath it said, `Get Nailed for Jesus'."
Just weeks earlier, police, alerted by former sect members to group literature, busted through the doors of three communal Family homes in Sydney in pre-dawn raids to snatch the children. In Victoria, another 56 children were taken into protective custody while hundreds of other children were seized from communal houses in Argentina, Spain and France.
The raids happened on Friday, May 15. By the following Monday, police hadn't found what they were after: irrefutable evidence of sexual, emotional or physical abuse of children and a link to the group's unorthodox beliefs.
The cases, which wound through courts in NSW for seven years and almost two in Victoria, became a disaster. The children were released and, in NSW, were awarded $1.7 million in compensation from the state Government. None was sought in Victoria.
Despite forays into the wider world seeking supporters, members of the Family had come to shun society. In Australia, they were patiently waiting in suburban Sydney for an apocalyptic end-time foretold by their leader David Berg.
An expert on new religious movements, author David Millikan, says the group, which he met in 1992, "challenged the limits of pluralism in society".
"Most of their homes had red lines drawn across their doors to remind them they had to stop at that line and pray for protection because they were stepping into a hostile and demonic world," Millikan says. "It was symptomatic of their sense of relationship with the world."
Followers believe Berg had a direct line to God and expect his epistles, called the Mo Letters, to supersede the Bible.
Early on, Berg drew parallels between sex and religious devotion. As he accumulated more followers (there are said to be 10,000 members worldwide and about 300 in Australia), this idea became a perverse theological motif to most people. His corpus described God as a "sexy, naked god in a wild orgy of the Spirit" and "a pimp" who lived like a businessman in a fortress in the sky and was constantly burdened with appointments with angels, overseeing tribunals and negotiating with Satan.
Berg encouraged the group's women, married or not, to go to bars, discos and salesmen's conventions to find and seduce lonely men. They then seized the intimate opportunity to convert the men to their version of Christianity.
He dubbed it "flirty fishing". Outsiders labelled them "hookers for Jesus". Critics of the group have also accused them of permitting child sexual abuse, but no charges have been successful.
Millikan says the raids failed in their aim to break up the Family (all proceedings across the world eventually failed), but the long court cases forced sect members to meet outsiders and confront society's structures. This introduced the Family into a highly sophisticated relationship to the world, Millikan says.
Lawyer Greg Walsh, who represented the children in court, says the children had "a deep under standing of basic issues like right and wrong, justice and forgiveness and compassion".
"Historically it's true that this group adhered to practices that were utterly wrong, but the case exposed the group to the closeness of public scrutiny and they passed the test," says Walsh.
Millikan says: "All extreme groups start off by defining themselves in rejection to what is happening in society. If they survive the major crisis points such as the death of the leader, financial problems, internal strife or heavy pressure from society, you tend to see a long movement back to respectability."
One member of the Family, Paul Hartingdon, the son of a prominent Queensland Salvation Army family, has been in the sect since its inception here. Clear-skinned and calm, like many members he is a former hippie -- one of those who rejected conventional values in the '60s and '70s. Hartingdon is the father of eight children, six of whom remain with the group. He is in contact with the other two.
At the Family's home at Baulkham Hills in northwest Sydney's Bible belt, Hartingdon agrees the group has become more conservative and points to a charter established in the wake of the raids, which outlines each member's rights and responsibilities in the group's homes. He considers himself a committed Christian but doesn't renounce the sect's past and places it in a historical context ("flirty fishing" was stopped by Berg's successor, his wife Maria, in 1987).
"We don't resile from our past. `Flirty fishing' was a fruitful witnessing venture but it wasn't without problems," says Hartingdon, 51. "It happened at a unique time in history. There was a window to use this tool during the sexual revolution and before the start of AIDS. Now the world has changed forever."
Berg died in 1994, but the Family continues with most of his ideals. They give their children home-schooling and share a doctrine of renouncing individuality and of sharing everything. Members don't do paid work but "provision" -- approach businesses to donate their excess food and clothing. "We live the life people do if they follow the Lord through to discipleship," says Hartingdon.
Many of the children in the raids who have stayed with the Family are in their early 20s. They are aware of the old publications that alarmed outsiders.
Vincent Miller, 23, who was 12 at the time of the raids, says his generation was never really associated with "these things that came to be a point of contention for other people".
"Even mainstream religious organisations have things that go on within their communities that were wrong or questionable to people outside the group," Miller says. "The investigation of the Family as a religious community was based on books that were outdated by 10-20 years."
He describes the Family as focusing on missionary outreach across the world. In Australia, groups of the children also visit jails and occasionally do door-to-door street ministry.
Deep in Sydney suburbia, the children in the Family home share the same American accent. There are 12 children, six of them Paul and Joy Hartingdon's. The sum of their ambitions is to evangelise their faith at Family ventures across the globe.
Crews, who has invited members to visit his Ashfield church, sees them "as like a lot of others struggling to find the truth in their own ways".
"I decided a long time ago they needed support to become mainstream. A lot of anxieties people had in the past were justified, but it can really drive groups into a corner," says Crews.
One former member who is now a mainstream church cleric was introduced to the Family as a young man by a brother in 1993. "They sat me down and said, `God's calling you.' It was three or four days of bantering about scripture but, you know, in the end, the thing that won me over was their accommodating warmth and love," the former member says.
But a week after Family members moved into his home, his father, who had already lost one son to the sect, smuggled him out in the dead of night. He quickly gave up the faith. "My interpretation was that it seemed you were no longer your own. You had lost your uniqueness and individuality. You were part of a group, so didn't have close intimate relationships with one person but multiples," he says.
He says another relative left the group after 13 years and, as a result, he has seen the potential effects of secluded and unorthodox beliefs first-hand. "It really mucked him up. It was the `flirty fishing' era, so he and his wife had multiple partners. It really fragmented his understanding of what it means to have a relationship with someone," he says.
But is the sect a danger to society? "No less than any other. In the end I believed they were using scripture poorly and this is destructive."