The Children of God
60 Minutes New Zealand/2005-08-22
Watch video: 60 Minutes New Zealand: The Children of God (27:15, 81.7MB)
See also: 60 Minutes Australia: Sinful Acts — 2005-10-16
ANCHOR MAN: It’s a most bizarre religious group. A mixture of ardent Christianity and equally ardent sex. The Children of God was formed in the late 1960s and soon there were followers all round the world, loving God, and each other. Dozens of Kiwis were caught up in it, many of them dispatched to poor countries to make converts. Even today there are two communes in New Zealand and plenty of Kiwis still overseas. So, what have they been getting up to? Well, we’ll show you home movies from inside the group. Though I should warn you, some of them are of a sexual nature. Sarah Hall with this investigation:
(Footage from Ricky Rodriguez video).
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: I'm not trained in torture methods, which is why I’m gonna have to make do. I’ve got my drill here. The reason why I’ve got this f….. padding on it is to try to silence it a bit. I’m in an apartment…
SARAH HALL: His name was Ricky Rodriguez. Earlier this year he made a chilling one hour long video tape.
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: I’m just loading some of my mags here. I hope you guys don’t mind if I do that while I talk…
SARAH HALL: Ricky was planning to kill his own mother, then kill himself.
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: I’m doing it for justice, and I’m doing it for myself, and I’m doing it for a lot of other people who’d like to see these f….ers go down…
SARAH HALL: Ricky did not find his mother. Instead he murdered one of her associates. He them committed suicide.
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: And I feel good to do some damage, even if it’s not much. As far as I can go. That’s what I’m gonna do. And I feel so f….in’ good. It’s liberating…
SARAH HALL: Ricky Rodriguez was a murderer, but thousands of people have sympathy for what he did. To understand why, we must take you back to the beginning, to the bizarre religious group that Ricky was raised in. A religious group that dozens of New Zealanders were, and still are, involved with. New Zealanders who raised their children the way that Ricky Rodriguez was raised.
(Old footage of Children of God singing together on a bus from the 1970s).
SARAH HALL: It was the early 1970s. Kids all over the world were tuning in and dropping out. American preacher David Berg slowly began converting hippies to his new kind of religion - doing the work of Jesus, with a healthy dose of free love.
BERG’S VOICE: I practice what I preach, and I preach sex, boys and girls. Hallelujah!
SARAH HALL: David Berg formed the Children of God. Among the followers were the parents of actors River and Joaquin Phoenix, and actress Rose McGowan. Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer left the band mid-tour and joined up. He remains a member today.
(Family video footage. Group meeting of teens and adults singing): We have declared war of the spirit….
SARAH HALL: There were plenty of everyday people attracted to the Children of God, as well. Six of their communes sprang up around New Zealand. Eva St John now lives in Australia. She was just sixteen when she met the Children of God on the streets of Auckland. She was with the group for more than eighteen years.
EVA ST JOHN: At that stage they were just, quite literally, Jesus hippies. They just lived in a hippy commune and everybody loved each other and it was all just ‘love and happiness’, and playing guitars and dancing and…
SARAH HALL: You must’ve thought that you’d found a fantastic community.
EVA ST JOHN: Yes, exactly. This was exactly what I’d dreamed of, a community where everybody loved each other and shared everything and had higher ideals and spiritual ideals and they had spiritual practices…
(Footage of children waking up on mattresses on the floor at a Jumbo Home).
WOMEN’S VOICE: Hello, good morning, we love you.
SARAH HALL: Sixty Minutes has obtained videos from the 1980s of the Children of God. They’ve been kept hidden in a storage room for more than 15 years. Their quality is poor, but it gives a rare insight into the workings of the organization.
(Family video footage of adults and children holding hands around a long dining table).
WOMAN: Children, shall we pray together? CHILDREN: Yes, Maam.
SARAH HALL: It’s the first time much of this has been seen anywhere in the world.
(Family video footage of large group meeting of teens singing).
SARAH HALL: Eva says that while she thought the group was just Jesus hippies, it had a far more sinister side. They made her change her name. She was isolated from friends and family. For the first six months they were called ‘babes’ and were not left alone for a second.
EVA ST JOHN: They used to say, “If you think, think, think, you’ll sink, sink, sink, because you stink, stink, stink.” When I was a babe you’d get assigned a buddy, and you weren’t even allowed to go to the toilet without your buddy standing outside the toilet door quoting verses to you so you wouldn’t think, so you wouldn’t let the devil get into your mind. And babes weren’t even allowed to talk to each other in case they shared their doubts. And so by the end of six months we were so fully indoctrinated, we were just…um…psychologists call it ‘snapping’.
(Family video footage continues).
MAN’S VOICE: It’s a Revolution!
CROWD OF TEENS: For Jesus!
MAN’S VOICE: Holy Ghost!
CROWD OF TEENS: Power!
SARAH HALL: The group was highly secretive. Members had very little contact with the outside world. Followers were told that David Berg was the right-hand man of God, and that everyone outside the group was evil. (To Eva): Did you love David Berg when you were in the Children of God?
EVA ST JOHN: Well…I loved the representation, because I never met him or saw him, and we never saw any photos of him. He was top secret . Because the ‘enemies of the Lord’ were after him, and he was always living in top secret locations. We weren’t allowed to know what he looked like, just in case we saw him and then we defected.
(Family video footage of a half-naked young woman dancing to the song lyrics ‘Yes, there’s sex in heaven…’)
SARAH HALL: As time went on, Berg’s teachings became more and more bizarre. And his followers believed every word he told them.
EVA ST JOHN: He introduced that..um..the sisters should make themselves available to all the single brothers sexually, because that was their service for God and the single brothers needed sex, and so the sisters’ service for God was...um…if brothers wanted sex, they had to give it to them. And it was called ‘The Law of Love’.
(Picture of a Flirty Fishing illustration).
SARAH HALL: Berg did not stop there. Next the women were told to use sex to get men into the group. It was called Flirty Fishing.
(Family video footage). MAN’S VOICE: Here we have three of our beautiful FFer’s. From left to right, there’s Cherie, Ellie and Shilo.
SARAH HALL: This video shows women from the group out Flirty Fishing. Often they were men in power. Ambassadors, the police, anyone who could help the group. Even David Berg’s own daughter Faith became one of the fishes.
(Family video footage of flirty fishing continues.)
WOMAN’S VOICE: And here Faithy was really shining that night as she was with the Commissioner General of the French Pavilion, whom she then followed up on in Tokyo and he really fell in love that night.
EVA ST JOHN: He always made it like, only the most privileged and the most boldest and the most liberated and the strongest spiritually can do this kind of work, and always…you know…the reverse psychology, so that we were all going, “Oh wow, you know, maybe one day I’ll be able to be that liberated and that spiritual”.
SARAH HALL: Eva will not say how many men she slept with, but says women were told to convert as many men as possible.
EVA ST JOHN: It always kind of disturbs me a little bit how much it shocks other people, and then I realize how shocking it is. It’s…you know its…um…to me at the time it was…because I was so brainwashed, it was…a ‘good thing’. You know, we were being ‘God’s compassionate love slaves’. That’s what we were being taught…you know…and a great reward was going to be ours in heaven.
(Family video footage of a Flirty Fisher speaking to the camera).
WOMAN: You know these people are individuals, these big important men, but they’re so hungry for love and for the truth. And the Lord is miraculously leading us to the real key ones, the real sheep. It’s really beautiful.
SARAH HALL: Berg then told them that, since they were Flirty Fishing, they might as well be paid for the sex. In effect, they became prostitutes for God.
(Family video footage of a mostly naked mother and children speaking to the camera).
WOMAN: Thank you Lord. God bless you. I’d like to introduce my two children first. Honey, what is your name?
SARAH HALL: As the communes spread throughout the world, followers would make videos to send back to David Berg, now known as either Moses, or simply Dad.
(Family video footage of another half naked young woman speaking to the camera).
WOMAN: When I read about what you, Dad, wrote about Aquarius, how it’s prophetic about the birth of our Family, I got inspired to do a little dance for you. So, here we go. Thank you Lord.
(Family video footage of a naked young woman dancing to music and words narrated by SIMON PETER): The ultimate picture of God’s created love to man is a beautiful woman.
SARAH HALL: The videos became more and more sexually explicit, more soft porn than what we’d normally associate with Christian values.
(Family video footage of Jeremy Spencer and a woman making love while SIMON PETER narrates the words): Do you want the key to every heart? Try love, it never fails because God is love and it’s impossible for him to fail.
(More sexual Family video footage).
SARAH HALL: In this one this woman is masturbating to God.
(More Family video footage of Tamar about to do a dance).
SARAH HALL: And this is a New Zealand member stripping for Jesus.
TAMAR: I love you so much Dad, and I’d love to show you how much I do love you right now.
(More Family video footage of couples undressing and dancing together).
SARAH HALL: It would have been strange but acceptable amongst consenting adults, if this is where David Berg’s teachings had ended. But it didn’t.
(Picture of the front cover of the Mo Letter ‘Revolutionary Sex’).
SARAH HALL: David Berg’s wife Maria gave birth to a child called Davidito. He was to be the next heir. Berg and Maria then published a book on how they were raising Davidito as a guide to followers.
(Pictures shown from the Story of Davidito).
To most, the book of Davidito is nothing short of pedophilia. It reads, “God made children able to enjoy sex, so he must have expected them to,” and goes into detail about Davidito’s sexual experiences as a toddler. Most of the images are too explicit to broadcast. Eva says she realizes now how terrible this was, but at the time it seemed normal.
EVA ST JOHN: It was just rampant in all the teachings. It was constantly indoctrinated. It was ‘a wonderful thing’. That…you know… ‘we are so liberated. We’re God’s children playing in the garden of God and we have no taboos. And the children are going to grow up with no issues around sex’…um… ‘it’s just another thing, a normal, natural human activity that we partake of in order to share love’.
(More pictures from the Davidito book and footage from Family videos of half-naked children dancing).
SARAH HALL: The Children of God have long denied they promoted sex between children and adults, but their secret teachings obtained by 60 Minutes suggest a different story. Berg wrote to one woman regarding her 5 year old son that it was perfectly natural for the child to have sex with his own mother. In another message he said girls should have sex until they start menstruating. Then they must stop so they don’t have babies and shock the authorities. Just what this type of education did to some of the children is clear. Davidito, the child raised to one day lead the Children of God was none other than Ricky Rodriguez, the man who, earlier this year, murdered one of his mother’s associates, and then killed himself.
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: You know anger does not begin…does not begin to describe how I feel about these people and what they’ve done. You know, I mean…rage…I get livid…you know…just…that’s a lot closer to the way I feel.
ANCHOR MAN: When we come back, Sarah Hall talks to New Zealand kids raised in the Children of God, and comes face-to-face with one of the groups current leaders.
ANCHOR MAN: This year, after the murder-suicide of Ricky Rodriguez, the FBI launched a major investigation into the Children of God. It asked the thousands of children who grew up in the group to come forward. That includes a number of Kiwi kids. No-one knows exactly how many, but it’s estimated to be between fifty and two hundred. Some are now in their twenties and have left, others remain inside. Sarah Hall continues her report which, I should warn you again, contains sexually explicit material.
(Family video footage of Mexico Teen Training Camp. Music and narration).
MAN’S VOICE: But wait! I hear the sounds of drums down below at the camp. Could it be God’s end time army of Heaven’s Girl’s and Boys marching on to victory? (Footage of a large group of teens forming a marching army coming down a street to music and song).
SARAH HALL: These are just some of the children who grew up in the strange religious cult the Children of God. They were told by leader David Berg that they were the end time army, the chosen ones who would go to heaven when the world ended in 1993. As you’ve seen tonight, Berg did not only tell his female followers to have sex with outsiders to convert them, but he advocated sex with children as well. This young New Zealand woman was born into the group. We will call her Tracey. (To Tracey): Tracey, a lot of New Zealanders don’t even know that there were New Zealand children raised in the Children of God. Does that surprise you?
TRACEY: It doesn’t just surprise me, it devastates me. If there’s something I can say to New Zealand, it’s ‘Wake up! Protect your own. Try and do something before they breed more…’
(Family video footage of young girl dancing and undressing for the camera).
SARAH HALL: Tracey was taken to one of the group’s communes in Indonesia as a baby, and lives mainly in Australia. She says scenes like this were common. Prepubescent girls stripping for the camera. The children were home schooled, were taught the outside world was evil, and spent their days reading the teachings of David Berg.
TRACEY: The main reading for children was a book called ‘Marie Claire’. And, you know, within…sort of…two pages of…reading the first two pages of the first comic book release, it was her being gang raped by a whole squadron of soldiers. And that was glorified. And that was…um…told that was good…(footage of illustration from Heaven's Girl showing Marie Claire being gang raped by soldiers)…that was ‘what should be going on’. I mean, she was like 11 or 12 or something?
SARAH HALL: Natalie left the group just a few years ago. She grew up in 27 countries.
NATALIE: Well, sex was taught from…you know…as young as I can remember. Um…that it was good, there was nothing wrong with it, you should…um…not be afraid to hide…you know…how you feel if someone’s…you know…touching you. It doesn’t matter, it’s God…you know…it’s love, and everything’s normal, like…you know… there’s nothing to be afraid of…
SARAH HALL: What did they tell you about the outside world?
NATALIE: That it was evil, that they were Systemites, and everyone out there was out to get us. That we were the only chosen ones, pretty much. Um, that as long as you stayed within there doing God’s will, that you would go to heaven.
(Family video footage of a female child dancing naked outdoors with a shawl).
SARAH HALL: Apart from their highly sexualized upbringing, many of the children who have grown up and left say they were routinely beaten if they ever questioned the adult leaders.
TRACEY: If you were…you know…got sick…because that was…you could only get sick if you were a doubter. Um, so if you were a doubter then you had to be exorcised, which would involve tying someone to a bed and…you know…whole groups of people trying to do an ‘exorcist’, which quite commonly involved sex, or basically raping the person to try to get the devil out of them.
NATALIE: Anyone that knows me knows that I would always get beaten. I…um…’cause I was…like I told you before, I was always considered a ‘rotten apple’ because I’d…you know…stand up. Or I’d try and…you know…not let my little sister get hurt and stuff like that, and instead I’d get it. Or, they’d make you stand there and watch while they hurt your brothers and sisters…(begins to cry and whispers)…sorry…
(Family video footage of teens singing to ‘Grandpa’): We believe in you, we believe in your love….
SARAH HALL: The girls say they learnt at an early age never to disclose what went on inside the group.
TRACEY: The first thing that we were taught to memorize as a child in the group is a set of pat questions and answers should any government or outside ‘systemite’ – ‘systemite’ being anyone that’s not in the group – ask you questions about your welfare, or the welfare of other people, or the runnings…the way that it operates or what goes on. Things like…you know, ‘Were you abused?’ ‘Did this ever happen?’
SARAH HALL: Tracey was one of the lucky ones. Her mother left the Children of God when she was eleven. But by then, Tracey was so indoctrinated, she thought she’d go to hell.
TRACEY: When Mum left the cult, I used to lay in bed for probably the first three years and plan my way out of the house, and plan how I would run away from her and go back to the cult, because my mother was gonna burn in hell, and so was I because of her decision. (Family video footage of a young, underwear-clad child sitting on his mattress reading a Family Kids Komic book). Because of things like ‘Marie Claire’ and the magazines showing you how to get out of bad situations using sex, my plans involved…you know…giving sexual favors for a truckie to drive me to where I needed to go, and hitch-hike my way to where I needed to be.
SARAH HALL: How old were you then?
TRACEY: Um, ten, eleven, twelve.
SARAH HALL: So you were planning to have sex with anyone just to get back to the cult?
TRACEY: Yes…to…so that I wouldn’t die and go to hell.
SARAH HALL: Eva St John now lives in Australia. She’s the New Zealand mother who raised four of her children with the group. She says the abuse of here kids was the final straw. After 18 years with the Children of God, she left.
EVA ST JOHN: I’m still dealing daily with a deep sense of remorse and guilt and um…you know…wishing that…had I only known, had somebody only been able to tell me. I was so…I was just an uneducated 16 year old. I didn’t know any psychology. I didn’t even know what a cult was when I joined. And…ah…I didn’t know about manipulation and control and indoctrination. These were things that weren’t even in my vocabulary.
(Family video footage of a young girl dancing mostly naked before a group of adults and children, followed by an adult female striptease dancing).
SARAH HALL: The Children of God has admitted some abuses took place. But they say they were only isolated cases. They renounced David Berg’s teachings about sex and children after the authorities began raiding the communes in the 1980’s.
PAUL HARTINGDON: The Family homes at that time were quite sexually oriented, and that…ah…that we didn’t see as a problem. But then later on it became clear that…that… ah…those lines had become…those lines had become blurred, and that…ah…that in…in…ah…in some…ah…instances…um…ah…children had…had been…ah… become involved in things they shouldn’t be.
SARAH HALL: Paul Hartingdon is the South Pacific leader of the Children of God, now known as The Family. He says, to them, David Berg remains the one and only Prophet.
PAUL HARTINGDON: The way we look at…ah…ah…the way that we look at...ah…um…him and…and his message is…is positively. We believe that…that he was trying to do… ah…um…ah…something that was very good and…and there are unique things about the Family. Ah…for instance…um…our…our sexual beliefs. We…we do have a…a positive outlook about sex. We believe it’s a…a God-given. That God created sex and that it…that it is a…a…a wonderful creation of his.
SARAH HALL: But people would say, ‘Sex between adults and children isn’t positive’.
PAUL HARTINGDON: Well, we…we have a strong stand about that. We don’t…we don’t believe that…ah…sex between children and…and adults is…is right and…
SARAH HALL: But he did preach that at the time.
PAUL HARTINGDON: He made some…he made some…ah…some statements that…ah…have been…ah…um…recanted, and have been…have been removed from…from our publications because…um…ah…
SARAH HALL: He was wrong.
PAUL HARTINGDON: …he was wrong.
(Family video footage of a group of young children lying on mattresses on the floor side-by-side crammed into one room, waking up together).
WOMAN’S VOICE: Now in our room here…in our group we have 16 children and four adult shepherds...
SARAH HALL: Despite the policy change, some of those who have left believe the group isn’t sorry for what happened, and doubt whether anything has changed. Natalie got out of the group a few years ago, a decade after the group had outlawed practices involving children. She claims it still goes on, but it’s become more secretive. (To Natalie): The Family is adamant that this has been wiped out. What do you say about that?
NATALIE: That they’re full of shit…full of shit basically…um…sorry. Um…they…um… never admitted that it went on back then either. They admitted that there were isolated cases, but I’ll tell you what, I know a lot of people, and maybe one out of every ten people I know hadn’t had anything happen to them – physically – as in sexually. But they were still exposed to these sexual materials, they saw it happen… In some way or another every person I know has been sexually abused.
SARAH HALL: (To Tracey): Do you believe the group has changed?
TRACEY: Um…not for even so much as a millisecond. I cannot see a possible way that a group can one day go from being that, to saying, “Oh, but we learnt our lesson. Yeap. Because the media did a story on us, all of a sudden we’ve changed everything. We’re much better now.”
PAUL HARTINGDON: Oh, that’s a load of rubbish. That’s a load of absolute rubbish. Um…there…there are a few…ah…young people, or a few people who have left the Family…ah…who have…who are very…um…ah…ah…bitter…
SARAH HALL: Is that just how you see them, as being bitter?
PAUL HARTINGDON: Um…yeah…er…you know what people are like. Some people are like that. You try to help people to see positively what their experiences have been and …and get something good out of it, but…um…you know…you can’t do that with some people.
(Family video footage of a very young girl dressed sexily saying to the camera): Love you Davidito.
SARAH HALL: There is much bitterness between the opposing groups. The children say they were robbed of their childhood. The Family say they’re exaggerating. Nowhere is that bitterness better illustrated than over the death of Ricky Rodriguez. As you saw earlier tonight, he was the subject of a book on how to sexualize children within the group. Instead of growing up to lead the children of God, he set out to kill his own mother, David Berg’s wife, Maria.
(Brief clip of Ricky’s video).
PAUL HARTINGDON: Well…I…I…I know that he (Ricky) had a wonderful childhood in many respects, and if at some later stage..ah…someone got in his ear and told him, “Oh, you’ve had a horrible childhood and look how…how badly you were treated,” and all of that, and…and… ah…and he was beaten down enough in that way…ah…I…I think that would have the effect that it did on him.
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: It should never have happened at all to anybody. That’s the point. What about us? What about our apology? They’re not even f….. sorry! They’re not even f…. sorry. Can you imagine?
(Family video footage of teens marching to the song ‘Soldiers of the cross…’)
SARAH HALL: Since Ricky’s murder-suicide earlier this year, the FBI has announced a major investigation into what went on within the Children of God. Several countries have tried to prosecute in the past after raiding the communities and uplifting the children. After drawn-out court battles, prosecutors failed to convict. This time the second generation has asked the group to name the perpetrators and help the authorities with their investigation. Despite the death of David Berg in 1994, ten thousand people around the world still follow his teachings. David Berg’s wife Maria is now the leader and she remains in hiding. Her son Ricky Rodriguez, who had set out to kill her, murdered someone else, then took his own life in search of his own kind of justice.
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: Okay, well, keep fighting. Keep the faith, and all that other stuff. And some day, in some way some of us are going to be around to see those f……s burn. Literally or figuratively, they’re going down. So, with that happy thought I shall leave you.