Woman breaks away from religious cult that promoted prostitution and sexual abuse of their children
Announcer: (Voiceover) Now from CBS News in New York, here is Bryant Gumbel.
BRYANT GUMBEL, host:
Good evening. We begin tonight with a disturbing look at the practices of a cult that viewed itself as a church. Only this church was no sanctuary for its youngest members. Instead of protecting their children, this self-styled religious group abused its own. Maggie Cooper traces the contentious history of the so-called Children of God.
(Footage from the 1970s)
MAGGIE COOPER reporting:
(Voiceover) It was 1971. War was raging in Vietnam, but at home, it was flower power not firepower that had captured American youth. Peace and free love were the order of the day for restless young people searching for meaning in a troubled world. Some turned to drugs, some to music. Miriam Williams turned to religion.
(Photo of Miriam Williams)
Ms. MIRIAM WILLIAMS: I've been taught this since childhood--to believe that miracles happen, to believe that the world can change through the love of God.
(Close-up of book cover)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Miriam didn't realize she'd be asked to change the world with her body.
Now she's written a book offering a rare inside look at a bizarre cult called the Children of God. Today they call themselves The Family and claim nearly 10,000 members. But in Miriam's early days, membership was nearly double that, at compounds all around the world.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Some people call it brainwashed, some call it mind control.
COOPER: What was the reason that you gave yourself?
Ms. WILLIAMS: For Jesus, of course. That I saw people getting saved all the time.
(Photo of cult members; of David Berg; footage of books; photo of Miriam and her husband)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Miriam immersed herself in the teachings of the group's founder, a failed mainstream preacher named David Berg. Calling himself Moses David, he guided his young followers through writings called "The Mo Letters," volume after volume of his beliefs dictating every facet of the group's life from prayer to marriage. The husband selected for Miriam was the drummer in the group's Christian rock band, a man she didn't know and didn't love.
Ms. WILLIAMS: They convinced me that it was me, that there's something wrong with me and I should get the victory. You know, rise above this. Don't be so egoist.
COOPER: Was that part of the pattern, Miriam, is that when you had doubts and when you had questions...
Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.
COOPER: ...that would come up for you that the idea was that something's wrong with you?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, definitely. Yeah. These are all the things that we have to change. The ideal is to love everybody equally. And how can I say I don't love this man who's my husband? You know, I should love everybody.
(Close-up of New Nation News magazine; footage of band performing)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Miriam had a baby and moved to a group compound in Europe. By now the band was thriving and she became a dancer. They recorded a number of albums and made regular TV appearances on a popular French variety show. Yet Miriam never saw a dime.
(Close-up of publication)
COOPER: (Voiceover) All money was sent back to cult leaders who were churning out new lifestyle policies that were increasingly sexual in nature.
Ms. WILLIAMS: At that time, a letter came out called "One Wife," which said that we're all married to everyone. Just as the Bible says that we should lay down our lives for one another, we should lay down our wives for one another.
COOPER: You were required to submit to any man who wanted to have sex with you.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
(Close-up of various newsletters)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Sexual sharing within the group became common practice, but David Berg wanted more. He directed members to start sharing with outsiders as a way to lure them into the group. This practice was called flirty fishing.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, flirty fishing was sharing your body with another man, and while you're sharing your body with him, you tell him about Jesus.
COOPER: So while you were making love to this person, you were preaching to them about Jesus?
Ms. WILLIAMS: That's the way Mo said to do it.
(Footage of handbook pages)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Step by step, it was all laid out in the FFer's handbook, written by Berg and billed as a complete instruction manual on flirty fishing. Female members were called hookers for Jesus and God's whores, implying it was OK to accept money for sex.
(Footage of the Riviera)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Miriam, who by this time had left her husband, was living on the Riviera, spending her days in prayer and her nights in clubs and discos enticing the rich and powerful men of Monaco.
(Photo of Williams)
Ms. WILLIAMS: These were the international jet-setters. Princes--a lot of princes, a lot of nobility.
COOPER: When you think back, I mean, how many people in seven years could there have been?
Ms. WILLIAMS: I can't--I can't...
COOPER: Dozens of people?
Ms. WILLIAMS: More than dozens. More than dozens.
COOPER: Hundreds of men?
Ms. WILLIAMS: I don't know. Hundreds I don't know. I mean, I'd have to sit down and--I tried sitting down one time and counting them, and it just got so depressing that I couldn't continue.
(Footage of resort; photo of Miriam and others; page from book)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Some dates generated hundreds of dollars or political favors while others yielded very little. But statistics from 1981 show more than 50,000 men were loved in the name of God in only three years.
But, Miriam, basically what they were telling you was, you need to go out and prostitute yourself.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, I mean...
COOPER: I mean, you're an intelligent woman. How could you look at that and say, 'This sounds like a good idea'?
Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, I--you know, of course, I've thought of this over and over again. And, yeah, I had a nervous breakdown when I came out. And it wasn't like I was getting anything from it. I--I wasn't enjoying sex. I wasn't getting money. The only thing I was getting from it is a feeling of accomplishment, doing something greater than anyone else ever did, so...
COOPER: Which was...
Ms. WILLIAMS: Giving my body.
COOPER: Witnessing to these men.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. With my body. How many people can do that? Not many of us could do that, and I was one of them. So you felt, like, special, you know?
(Photos of Miriam and her children; video of children doing veil dances)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Miriam finally gave up flirty fishing to marry husband number two, this time by choice. With their four kids, they sang at local hospitals and schools to support themselves. And it was around this time that Moses David began implying that sexual freedoms should extend to children. He had them perform veil dances, strip teases done as an offering to God but shot on videotape for review by David Berg. Some of the little girls on the tape appear to be no more than four or five years old. Professor Stephen Kent has been studying the Children of God for 12 years.
Professor STEPHEN KENT: Many people convert to this group and others out of the highest of motives. What's extraordinary for researchers is to figure out how--how those exemplary motives get translated into extremely deviant behavior.
Ms. WILLIAMS: All of a sudden I realized that this was pornography. As soon as I snapped, everything became clear. Like, 'This is pornography. I--you know, I am allowing this in my house. How--what a horrible mother I could be.' And I remember looking out the window at the kids, thinking, 'They're so innocent. I hope that they haven't been touched by this.'
(Footage of former members of cult)
COOPER: (Voiceover) But as these young people can tell you, it's difficult to walk away unscathed after growing up in that environment.
Ms. JULIA McNEIL: The problem is is that for them it's just a phase, it was the '70s, you know. Everyone was wild in the '70s. Yes, but everyone didn't involve their kids in the '70s.
(Footage of Julia)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Julia McNeil's parents were typical Mo disciples, turning a blind eye towards sexual abuse of children within the group. Unlike her parents' generation, who joined seeking an alternative to mainstream society, 23-year-old Julia had no choice; she was born into the Children of God.
Ms. McNEIL: Well, they had a policy called sexual sharing, and what this meant is they actually had a schedule for it where all single members of the home were supposed to sexually have dates.
COOPER: All single members meaning 11- and 12-year-old children?
Ms. McNEIL: Twelve years old and up were supposed to have sex. So I was put on a schedule.
(Footage of former members of cult)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Julia is not alone. PUBLIC EYE spoke to several former members born into the group, and every one of them had a heart-breaking story to tell.
Did the family take your childhoods away from you?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Unidentified Man #1: Absolutely.
Woman: In an environment like that, you can't help but be forced to grow up before time. You--you're an adult by the time you're born.
Man #1: I lived in an environment where sex was everywhere.
COOPER: So you were sexually experimenting as a--as a very young child?
Man #1: Right. Exactly.
COOPER: With other children or with adults?
Man #1: As well. Just because that was the environment, but also with adult women as well. By adult, I guess they were probably in their late 20s at the time.
COOPER: And you were what?
Man #1: I was six, seven, eight.
Unidentified Man #2: To me, that was like the normal thing. It was like getting up in the morning and having a cup of coffee. You don't think anything's wrong with it.
COOPER: Getting up in the morning and having a cup of coffee or getting up in the morning and having sex with an adult?
Man #2: Exactly.
Prof. KENT: What's extraordinary about the Children of God, however, is that the eroticized policies may have actually created pedophiles, may have caused people to engage in sexual activity with children because they believed--they told themselves they were doing God's work.
(Video of children in retraining camp)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Many of the children didn't have a commitment to David Berg, so teen camps were created to retrain this new generation. Julia was sent to this camp in the Philippines, where severe discipline often included fasting and physical punishment.
Did you ever try going to the leadership and saying, 'This just doesn't seem right to me'?
Ms. McNEIL: Yes.
COOPER: What was their response?
Ms. McNEIL: I was put in isolation. I was put on--on a very vigorous program. I had to "fast," not eat, for three days.
COOPER: They were breaking your spirit.
Ms. McNEIL: They did. They broke my spirit. I got to the point where I just didn't care anymore. I would just get up that day and only think about that day. It was the only way to survive.
COOPER: (Voiceover) Survival depended on keeping her mouth shut, but for Julia, that was impossible. When she again started questioning, she was forced to leave The Family.
Ms. McNEIL: First thing I tried to do was rejoin. I was, like, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do?' This was my whole life.
COOPER: Did you have any money? Did you have any skills?
Ms. McNEIL: No, no money. I had the clothes on my back and my passport. All my stuff had been sold before I left. And I had nothing--no education, nothing. And my--I hadn't even thought of a life outside of the group. Never, never occurred to me.
(Photo of Julia)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Julia turned to the only profession she knew: prostitution.
Ms. McNEIL: I worked as a call girl for two years. I didn't ha--feel I had any other options, so I--I moved into a brothel. I had somewhere to live. I started actually having money. It was very familiar, this sort of situation, this schedule.
Ms. CLAIRE BOROWIK: We don't see sex as something evil and dirty and sinful; we see it as something beautiful God created.
COOPER: (Voiceover) Claire Borowik is a member and spokesperson for The Family.
Terms like 'God's whores' and 'hookers for Jesus'--those don't sound very pure. Those don't sound like they're really about God's love. That sounds like something entirely different.
Ms. BOROWIK: I can understand how you would see it that way because some of the language that Father David uses is very provocative and has offended people.
COOPER: I mean, this is language that--that sounds like it's perverting some really basic religious beliefs. God is a pimp.
Ms. BOROWIK: Father David often used terms like that to shock people.
COOPER: But, Claire, a pimp! I mean, a pimp is someone who sends women out to prostitute themselves.
Ms. BOROWIK: I--I understand. But that's not what was happening in our case. God was sending them out to love these people into his kingdom, which is different.
COOPER: (Voiceover) Borowik says all Family policies were reviewed in 1987, and anything sexually suggestive was thrown out.
Ms. BOROWIK: I'd say that it was over--overly sexually charged at that time, and we feel that the mistake made on our part was that boundaries should have been drawn very clear and very specific relating to children, to minors. And looking in hindsight, they should have been set much quicker than what they were.
(Photos of Berg)
COOPER: (Voiceover) The group's founder, David Berg, died in 1994, but the cult he created lives on. Today The Family is run by his second wife, Maria, and her colleagues, who say the group's sexual history makes members easy targets for criticism and retribution.
(Footage of raid in Argentina)
Ms. BOROWIK: (Voiceover) We had raids in Argentina, Australia, Spain, France, and all the children were taken in for intense examinations--psychological, physical, medical. They didn't find a single case of abuse in 600 children. Now where is the abuse, then?
Ms. WILLIAMS: I felt responsible that...
COOPER: Because she didn't leave?
Ms. WILLIAMS: I feel like I helped this group be able to do what they did to these people.
(Footage of Miriam and her children; promotional photo of The Family; footage of cult member)
COOPER: (Voiceover) Miriam left the group after 15 years, when she sensed the pervasive sexuality coming dangerously close to her own children. By not allowing their faces to be shown, Miriam hopes to shield them from her own promiscuous past. Today, between motherhood and graduate school, Miriam's life is a world away from her days in the cult, but The Family is still active in more than 50 countries around the world. We caught up with a Family member in Miami, Florida, fund-raising in, of all places, a Kmart by selling balloon animals.
Unidentified Man #1: What's the name of the group you're with?
Unidentified Man #2: It's called The Family missionaries.
Man #1: You been it in your whole life?
Man #2: Twenty-five years.
Man #1: Wow.
COOPER: (Voiceover) The image hardly reflects the sexuality we've heard so much about, but regardless of how the group has evolved, Julia is more concerned with her own progress.
(Childhood photo of Julia)
COOPER: (Voiceover) She recently attended an international conference for sexually exploited children and hopes to start college in the fall.
Ms. McNEIL: For me, leaving was about finding out who I am, about not being ashamed of who I am, not being ashamed of things that have happened to me, not being ashamed of my past, but being empowered, saying, 'This happened to me. This has made me a stronger person.'