Two Canadian cult members arrested in Argentina
by Dale Brazao
BUENOS AIRES - Two Canadian members of a religious cult at the centre of a probe into the alleged sexual abuse of children were remanded in custody yesterday after being questioned by a federal judge.
One of the Canadians, Jesse Jude Mara, loudly protested his innocence as he was escorted into court in handcuffs past a throng of jostling journalists.
"We are the subject of religious persecution," Mara yelled, before being being hustled by police officers into the federal courthouse in San Isidro, a suburb of Buenos Aires.
Mara was the first of 17 sect members to be questioned by Federal Judge Roberto Marquevich.
The last, late last night, was the other Canadian, Susan Claire Borowick, 33, of Burlington.
She arrived smiling and apparently at ease. She said outside the courthouse that she has nothing to fear, adding that allegations against the sect are lies.
"It will be proven, by the (medical and psychological) tests, that all the children are in perfect health.
"I am a victim of religious persecution," she said in Spanish. "In a democratic country, one would hope that we could sustain the values that the entire country holds dear."
Borowick has been identified by Argentinian police as co-leader of the Family of Love, a communal group embroiled in allegations of promiscuity, including sexual abuse of children and prostitution.
Her family in Canada has denied the charge, saying she is merely the spokesperson and education co-ordinator for the group.
Several other accused brought to court yesterday denounced the Argentinian government, saying they are victims of religious persecution and were set up by local police.
"This is a house of witches," yelled one man as he was escorted in. "Everything the police are telling you is lies. I have five children. I want my children back."
Guards assigned to watch the prisoners said the accused were refusing to accept food, had locked their arms in unison and were reading the Bible and praying.
Under Argentine law, the accused remain incommunicado until after they have been questioned by the judge and prosecutor. The judge has 48 hours after interrogating the detainees to decide whether to lay charges.
Both Mara and Borowick were also arrested in 1989 during a police sweep of the commune for drugs. They were held for a month, but charges were never laid.
They were among the 18 people detained after police raided 11 homes last week owned by the group, arresting 30 adults and taking 130 children into protective custody.
A third unidentified Canadian woman and her two daughters are among the mothers and children being housed in child welfare centres pending the outcome of medical and psychological testing of the children.
Canadian consul Gary Ogiack said the woman, whose daughters are 6 and 11, rejected any offer of help from embassy staff who visited her yesterday.
"We went there to verify that the children were okay, and they appear to be," Ogiack said. "The mother didn't want our help. She said she's been arrested before, that the group is used to being persecuted."
Judge Marquevich ordered the raids last Wednesday after former cult members reported alleged incidents of kidnapping, incest, prostitution and physical and sexual abuse of children.
One former cult member, Abigail B., told of being moved around 10 of the sect's homes and being forced to engage in prostitution as a way of attracting new members.
In an interview in his chambers yesterday, Marquevich said he ordered police to move in after receiving numerous complaints from foreign embassies that children were being held against their will and were being abused by cult members.
"What I find very interesting is that most of the complaints have come from embassies and not from the parents of these children," Marquevich said, adding that, so far, 21 embassies had registered complaints.
"Some 80 to 90 per cent of the complaints have been made by ambassadors or consuls," said Marquevich.
The Canadian embassy was not among those that lodged complaints.
The group's activities had been under surveillance for several months. Marquevich said wiretapping, intelligence reports, and even information furnished by the CIA convinced him the children were at risk.
"The group was engaged in a clandestine lifestyle. This is not a normal family as we know it," he said, adding that police had seized some 200 videos in the raids, many of which he categorized as child pornography.
The 130 children removed from the commune are currently being housed in seven child welfare institutes around Buenos Aires and will remain in protective custody until doctors finish examining them, he said.
Results of the testing will play a large part in what charges, if any, are laid against cult members, he said.