How we escaped the clutches of a cult
By Steve Tooze
As this month's Coronation Street storyline highlighted, religious cults lurk on the outskirts of our society, constantly on the look-out for new recruits. Steve Tooze hears how three former cult members managed to break free.
Sylvia Padilla, 57, is a divorcee with six grown-up children who lives in Coulsdon, Surrey. For 19 years she was a member of the bizarre Children of God sect.
The Children Of God are a parasite on the face of the planet. They pose as a Christian evangelical movement but in reality they are an evil group who set out to control the minds of their members every second of every day.
My ex-husband Arnoldo and I joined the cult in our mid-twenties. They literally took over our lives and our minds.
I was 22 when I met Arnoldo in Costa Rica, where I had gone to escape the hassle of life in London. He was the charming playboy son of a rich local businessman. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic - a fact I didn't discover until I had fallen pregnant and married him.
Our marriage was a nightmare at first because of his drinking. Then we both discovered Christianity. It mended our marriage and we wanted to do much more than simply go to church on Sunday, so we joined the Children Of God.
We'd heard incredible things about these young people in the US who dedicated their lives to God and got things done. They preached and turned whole poor communities around almost overnight. And we wanted to be part of it.
They pounced the minute we approached them. They were so charismatic and dedicated that they bullied and charmed us into joining them. Within ten days, we gave up our whole life in Costa Rica and moved into a communal house in an old factory in Bromley with our children. More than 100 of us slept on mats on the concrete floor with no heating.
It was only then that we discovered the group had a leader - David Moses - who preached that the world was going to end in 1993.
He saw himself as an ordained prophet of God and his word was law. We were told to read the scriptures according to David Moses. They were beautiful and moving, and I took in every word - this was the '60s when old values were crumbling and we were all desperate for a new spiritual direction.
We were watched and preached to every second of every day until it never occurred to us to disobey the "prophet".
For the first few years, we moved back to Costa Rica where our old home was taken over by the cult as a headquarters. Then, slowly and cleverly, Moses began converting us all to his evil way of thinking.
Firstly, he introduced the idea that the original Christians had shared their women with each other. He backed this up with carefully-chosen quotes from The Bible.
Our families were split up among different communes. Then all the women were coaxed into sleeping with any male member who wanted sex with us. We were told it was our Christian duty to meet the men's needs. We were all so brainwashed that we did what we were told.
Once we'd all got used to the idea of swapping partners he introduced "flirty fishing" - using sex to win new converts. He told us it was our duty to spread love to the unenlightened. By love he meant sex.
Arnoldo and I had been married for 14 years by then and we tried to resist the new orders, but we were worn down by constant accusations of being selfish and not loving God enough to trust His prophet. The first time my husband told me he had slept with one of the other women was like a knife through my heart. It destroyed our marriage.
I "shared" with some of the single male members, but because I was so busy looking after the children I managed to mostly avoid it. Apparently, there were orgies on a daily basis in many of the communal houses.
Over the next few years the situation became intolerable. Moses banned birth control, so women were having babies by different fathers all over the place. The female members became virtual sex slaves who did all the drudge work.
We weren't given time to think for ourselves. On top of the housework and childcare, we had to submit regular reports on how many people we had saved - ie recruited through sex - and attend Bible study classes several times each day. In the evening there was a "sharing schedule" which dictated who we would be sleeping with that night.
In my mid-forties I was sent to India where the bullying and mind control was worse. I became desperately unhappy - it was the beginning of my break with the cult.
When I returned to England, I was allowed a little more freedom to spend time on my own. I think the leaders thought I was completely broken and submissive by then. One day I visited a little Pentecostal church in the North of England. I was astounded by the friendliness and knowledge of the pastor because the Children Of God taught us that other church ministers were fakes who knew nothing. I began to go to Christian counselling sessions which helped me see through the cult's lies.
The final straw came when the cult forbade one of my daughters to talk to me unless there was a church official in the room. I gathered my family, wrote a letter of resignation and fled. After 19 years of mind control, I was free. Of course, that was only the beginning. It was worse for my children who had grown up as Children Of God. Let loose from the cult's control, they went off the rails for a while, experimenting with drink, sex and drugs.
One of the most awful things I discovered was that two of my daughters had been sexually abused by church officials. I was horrified and heartbroken and felt useless as a mother. The two girls went through hell and needed lots of counselling to recover.
I divorced my husband who, after years of having his morals and behaviour perverted by the cult, had become an uncontrollable womaniser. Since then I've joined a proper Christian church and tried, with words and love, to show my children how sorry I am for getting them involved in such an evil group. We're all still struggling to make a life and cope with our memories. I hope that, somehow, someday, we can succeed.
[Scientology and ICOC sections redacted]