Children of God Sect Grips Thousands of Parents
The Progress (Clearfield, Pa.)/1974-11-20
EDITOR'S NOTE - Even after he was "deprogrammed," the Neves felt they were losing their son, and they were right. Derek soon returned to his commune, and to his devotion to the Children of God. "Forget about me," he had said. But his parents couldn't.
By PETER ARNETT
AP Special Correspondent
BETHEL, Conn.(AP) - A week after Derek Neve abruptly joined a secretive religious sect called the Children of God, his worried parents were startled by the suggestion of a senior Canadian police officer: "If I were you, I'd knock him on the head, bundle him in your car and take him home." Three years later they did just that. But even that didn't work.
In the intervening years Brenda and David Neve said they used tears, angry words and hours of patient argument to change their son's mind. They flew in an evangelical preacher from Texas to reason with him. They brought in a Roman Catholic priest who specialized in exorcism. They said they finally decided to kidnap Derek, and to hand him over to a team of professional "deprogrammers" flown in from San Diego, Calif., to do overnight what they had failed to do in four years. "It was a cold, calculating thing I was doing. I was going 100 per cent against what I always thought was right. And it was probably illegal," said the father, David C. Neve, general manager of an electronics company with a factory here.
His 25-year-old son was furious. "You've gone too far this time, Dad," his father quoted him as saying after the first few hours of captivity. Ten days later Derek was back with the Children of God; his parents' expenditure of heavy emotional stress and $2,600 all in vain. The frustration that pushed the Neves toward direct action has gripped thousands of other parents in America. Their sons and daughters have helped swell the ranks of the proliferating religious sects spawned by the hippie and Jesus movements of the 1960s.
Some parents have resigned themselves to the aberrant way of life of the youngsters. Others fight back. The most visible battle is against the Children of God, with more than 100 communes in North America and Europe. It is a fundamentalist sect which applies a sexual as well as a spiritual interpretation to the Bible. According to a recent report by the New York attorney general's office, the sect has changed "from a religious hippie-oriented group to a cult subservient to the whims and desires of its leaders." The report outlined what it called "shocking testimony of sexual abuse, rape, brainwashing, solitary confinement of recalcitrant proselytes and demands that children kill their parents."
But the report said the attorney general could take no direct action because the Children of God has an "outwardly religious appearance" giving it First Amendment protection. A leader at the sect's Dallas headquarters, Cornelius Copp, charged that the attorney general's report relied "on false witnesses to vilify us" and resulted from religious intolerance. "The accounts contained in the report of incest, rape, sexual promiscuity and cultish behavior, while sensational and lurid, are simply false. We deny them," Copp said. The Neves had never heard of the Children of God when the phone rang at 2 one morning at 1971. It was Derek, their eldest son. They said he calmly told them: "I have called to say goodbye, you will never see me again. We are going underground, because God will destroy America."
When his parents tried to remonstrate, to seek an explanation, they said Derek slammed the phone down. That was the first of a series of shocks. And the Neves were ill-prepared. They had raised three children in the Canadian arctic where Neve worked as a government administrator after migrating from England in 1957. Derek went to grade school in places like Great Whale, Yellowknife and Annlavik, remote settlements at the edge of the Arctic Ocean where he was one of a handful of white kids among scores of Eskimos and Indians. "He was a big, good looking boy and a born leader," said his mother. "He loved dog sledding and the everyday tests of endurance required when you spend a lot of your life in below zero weather."
The Neves said they were brought together as a family not only by the elements but also by their faith in God. They were members of the theologically conservative Christian Missionary Alliance that has 1,000 churches in the U.S. and emphasizes missionary work in undeveloped areas such as Indochina and Africa. "We prayed together and he believed in high moral principles," said the elder Neve. Derek had wanted to be a minister and was ending his second year at the Canadian Bible College at Regina, with a year to go for his doctorate of divinity, when he had his fateful meeting with the Children of God.
The Neves had moved to Connecticut by then. The shock of their son's phone call was not tempered by a letter a few days later explaining: "I am as sure of it as anything I have done. It is radical but so was Jesus. We are selling out to God. We are the underground church of America."
Neve said he decided that his son had become involved with something evil, "I wouldn't say he was possessed by a demon. Oppressed by a demon is more like it." The parents said they thought their son was undergoing a Jekyll and Hyde transformation. He had been a trim 6-foot-3, with neatly clipped dark hair when he entered the Children of God. But since then we have seen him always in dirty, tattered clothes, bearded and with unkempt scraggly hair," Mrs. Neve said. And they felt he abused his sister Wendy's trust by attempting to have her join his sect. "My parents asked him to leave me alone, but he wrote me convincing letters, and in a visit home at Christmas, 1972, he won me over," Wendy said in an interview. Her parents told Wendy: "You're 21,you know what you're doing. But you are breaking our hearts." Wendy changed her mind in the end, "because I couldn't answer the question that if the Children of God has a worthy movement, how come it hurt my parents so much?" It was after Derek's attempt to have his sister Wendy join the sect that her parents said they began feeling serious concern.
At first, they thought the Children of God was just a youthful, rigidly fundamentalist group of Christians who were disillusioned with the world and sought isolation in communes. But as the Neves acquired more literature and information about the movement, they said a seamy side appeared.
Through a national organization called "The Parents Committee to Free our Sons and Daughters from the Children of God" (FREECOG), they learned about the "Mo" letters written by the man who founded the sect in 1968, David (Moses)Berg. These rambling letters written from Europe, where Berg is in hiding, give the movement guidance on everything from international politics to sex.
They are spiced with four letter words, sexual instructions and crude line drawings. The New York attorney general's report interpreted the Mo letters as advocating incestuous behavior and the non sanctity of marriage and family. This reporter phoned Derek at his commune in London, Ontario, to get his comments. A man who identified himself as Derek said that a "general statement" on what he called "press misrepresentation" of the sect would be issued soon. Then he hung up.
Increasingly concerned about their son, the Neves flew in to Toronto the Rev. Buddy Hicks, a Texas preacher who had worked with young sect members. A Roman Catholic priest, a specialist in exorcism, also talked with their son. He said he could do nothing. So Neve decided that force was necessary to remove his son from the sect. That meant "deprogramming," a technique requiring that his son be kidnapped and held in seclusion while a team of skilled operatives tried to talk him out of his beliefs.
Derek agreed never to return to the Children of God. "It was just too wonderful to hear," said his mother, and soon afterward they all left for Bethel, Conn. But the ordeal was not over. Derek didn't settle down in the Neves' white frame ranch house with blue shutters. He was restless, and his parents said they wanted to separate him from his wife "because we know that at night they are talking about the sect, the old days."
They felt they were losing their son, and they were right. Ten days after he had gone home to Bethel, Derek left again, and his parents reluctantly paid his bus fare back to Toronto.
The Neves say they still haven't given up. They recalled that during the deprogramming, Derek said to them: "Mom and Dad, why don't you give it up, go home, forget about me." "We told him we're doing this because we love him. We're not going to stop," the Neves said.