A Child Lost
NBC News: Dateline NBC/2005-08-19
Announcer: From our studios in New York, here again is Stone Phillips.
STONE PHILLIPS: You'd think a religious group would protect and defend its children, especially one called Children of God. That was the name of a controversial group founded in the 1960s that preached a gospel of free love. But many who grew up in the group say free love meant sexual abuse of young children. Tonight one of them speaks out in a haunting tormented voice, an extraordinary videotaped message that comes from beyond the grave. He was a boy groomed to be a prophet but doomed to a life of pain. And Keith Morrison tells us that life would end in an explosion of violence.
Mr. RICKY RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) Well, hey, everyone. This is Rick.
KEITH MORRISON reporting: (Voiceover) As the awful business begins, there is simply no sign of what is to come. He seems friendly, cordial, a young man making a video for friends.
(Video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) I want there to be some record of the way I feel, my ideas, just who I was really.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But then that past tense, "who I was."
(Video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) Wow!
MORRISON: (Voiceover) How he came to make this strange, sad, desperate tape and what is still coming as he talks to the camera nearly defies comprehension.
(Video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) I think it's kind of easy to just one night, you know, just one day just decide to end it, just do it. But I think it's pretty...(censored by network)...hard to do what I'm trying to do.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He is Ricky Rodriguez, not quite 30, suicidal, on the edge. How different it was when he was Davidito, the blessed child, son and heir of the founder of the Children of God. It was David Berg, Moses David, who founded the Children of God in the late 1960s .
(Video diary excerpt; photos of Davidito and David Berg; people marching; photo of Berg; people standing in row)
Unidentified Man #1: (Praying) (Foreign language spoken)
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And at a time when many new sects sprang up in America, imprinted his with something unique. He decreed that one of the best expression of divine love was Earthly sex, lots of sex.
(People bowing while man prays; people singing; black and white drawings; people dancing)
Professor JAMES CHANCELLOR: The family began to view sexuality as their--sort of their distinctive freedom mark.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) James Chancellor is a professor of religion who interviewed hundreds of Children of God members for a book he wrote about the group. He says Berg encouraged his followers to have sex freely with each other. They even filmed their exploits, as these tapes obtained by NBC show.
(Morrison and James Chancellor walking; book; videotape of woman dancing while people watch)
Prof. CHANCELLOR: God gave sex as a pure and true gift to humankind. If your brother is hungry you feed them, if they were thirsty you give them drink, and if they have sexual needs you help fulfill those needs.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And Berg instructed women believers to have sex with outsiders to bring them into the group. He even had a name for that, "flirty fishing" he called it.
(Photo of Berg; couple in bed)
Prof. CHANCELLOR: They would go into hotel bars, hotel waiting rooms, lounges and essentially pick up men.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) It may have been on one such fishing expedition that Berg's second wife got pregnant by another man. Berg adopted the son she bore and named him Davidito, "Little David," heir apparent to David Berg.
(Photo of Berg and woman; photos of Berg and Davidito)
Prof. CHANCELLOR: And there was this understanding that God had blessed this couple who leads the family with an heir, a son who would inherit the mantle, who would carry the prophetic spirit until the end times . And so he, from his earliest stages, he had these expectations constantly with him.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Was it that pressure and the strange theology of the Children of God that eventually twisted the beautiful boy Davidito into Ricky Rodriguez, the troubled man on the videotape?
(Photo of Davidito; photos of Ricky Rodriguez)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) Man, everybody is going--everybody has said, who I've talked to about this, `Well, you know, you--everybody has their problems. Everybody has a...(censored by network)...up life. But those people who say that, no, they have no clue as to what actually went on because they weren't part of the cult.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He used the word "cult," and certainly the group was secretive, constantly on the move, keeping the kids out of school. Chancellor believes it has moved past that stage now. And while still quite radical, years ago abandoned the idea that children can learn about life through sex. The idea that David Berg explained this way.
(Lights; people singing and dancing)
Prof. CHANCELLOR: Only the law of love controlled their lives. So whatever was done in love is above the law.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Back then Davidito was the first to experience the new teachings.
(Photo of Berg and Davidito)
Prof. CHANCELLOR: He was raised in the very--in the very pinnacle of all of this where all the experimentation began, where much of the very unusual practices with the children were initiated.
MORRISON: And those unusual sexual practices would have been used with him...
Prof. CHANCELLOR: Oh, yes.
MORRISON: ...earlier and more than all the others.
Prof. CHANCELLOR: Yeah. It started when he was two years old.
MORRISON: Far from hiding the details of Davidito's upbringing, the group actually produced a book about it, written by one of his early nannies and distributed to church members. It is called "The Story of Davidito." It's a daily dairy of the little boy's accomplishments, full of snapshots and tips on parenting. Tips on parenting that might seem to an outsider not only bizarre but even criminal. In here are photographs and stories of a three and four-year-old boy having sex with adults and with other children his age. Photos so graphic we've decided we shouldn't show them to you.
(Voiceover) The sex was supposed to welcome Davidito into God's loving embrace. Instead, as he made clear on his videotape, he thought his parents and others simply exploited their children.
(Book pages; video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) You just...them over because you're a sick...pervert. And you don't have anything better to do with your life than to...your little kids. It's just so far beyond me, I just can't...imagine it. (Multiple words censored by network). But yet it happened. It happened right before me. It happened to all of you, thousands of us.
Unidentified Man #2: (Church service) Praise the Lord!
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Thousands of us? Exactly how many is not certain, but some, like ex-member Julia McNeil, have come forward with harrowing tales.
(People singing and clapping; Julia McNeil walking)
Ms. JULIA McNEIL: My parents would send me off with two adult members from the group, and we'd all sleep in one big bed together. And the man would start touching me in the night and molesting me. And I would just kind of block it all out and pretend this was happening to somebody else.
MORRISON: How old were you?
Ms. McNEIL: I was 11 at that time.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) The group was free with sex but also extremely authoritarian. When Julia and Davidito rebelled against its teachings, they were sent to so-called teen training, which featured hard labor and sometimes, they say, physical abuse . Ricky Rodriguez says teen training is where he first thought seriously of suicide.
(People dancing; photo of Davidito; photo of McNeil; dirt road; video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) I was thinking, `Well, you know, what kind of poisons are there?' Poisons are, you know, easy--or so I thought.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Back then he never acted on those suicidal thoughts. He kept rebelling and eventually left the Children of God and so did Julia. But then they discovered that fleeing the group did not mean they could escape from the demons hiding in their pasts.
(Photo of Rodriguez; McNeil walking; photo of Berg and Davidito)
Announcer: The message and the bitter legacy of Rick Rodriguez for other children of the group.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) Keep fighting. Some day in some way, some of us are going to be around to see those...(censored by network)...burn. They're going down.
Announcer: A former Child of God consumed by a thirst for revenge.
Announcer: From our studios in New York, here again is Ann Curry.
ANN CURRY: Returning to our story. From the time he was born, Ricky Rodriguez was raised to be a leader of the Children of God. And like other children who grew up in the religious group, he rebelled and left, describing a tormented childhood filled with sexual and sometimes physical abuse. But no matter how hard he tried to escape, he remained haunted by his past. Here again Keith Morrison.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) In the year 2000, Ricky Rodriguez, now 25 and no longer the blessed Davidito of years ago, made his break, disgusted with the secretive religious group into which he had been born. But once in the real world, he found--like so many others who left--that he had no way to cope.
(Photos of Rodriguez; photo of Berg and Davidito; people singing; photo of Davidito; video diary excerpt)
Prof. CHANCELLOR: They went out into this strange world. They went out oftentimes without resources, both financial resources and educational social skills. And he struggled greatly.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Julia McNeil says she was absolutely lost when she left at age 19.
(Photo of McNeil)
Ms. McNEIL: (Voiceover) How do I even interact with people in the real world?
(Photo of McNeil)
Ms. McNEIL: You know, I've never took a bus nor used a vending machine.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) To survive, she says, she exploited the one skill she learned from the church. She became a prostitute and before long attempted suicide. Julia pulled her life together and helped form a support group for former church members. They connect on a Web site called movingon.org.
(City streets at night; photo of McNeil; McNeil walking; Web page)
MORRISON: The group claims that at least 25 former members of the Children of God killed themselves over the past 13 years. The religion itself says those numbers are exaggerated and actually claims that the rate of suicide among former members is lower than it is for the population as a whole. There is no way to verify any of those numbers.
(Voiceover) Still some of the survivors began to wonder, shouldn't the people who raised us pay for our pain?
(Group marching and singing)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) Where is our apology? They are not even...(censored by network)...sorry.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) In fact, the church has apologized and says it has moved on, too. It has a new name The Family . And as of the late '80s, no more flirty fishing and a theology renouncing child sex, threatening to excommunicate any member who has sex with a child. David Berg died in 1994. The group says what is past is past. But Ricky Rodriguez, the former Davidito, could not let the past go. He contacted his mother, now leader of The Family, and demanded money.
(Prayer circle; people singing; photo of Berg and others; excerpt from church service; video diary excerpt; photo of Berg and others)
MORRISON: And for $40,00 he would go away and leave them alone and...
Prof. CHANCELLOR: That's what their correspondence that I saw indicated. Yeah.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But his mother refused to pay. At the time Rick said he wasn't bitter but that clearly changed as time went on. Even though he found work and got married, his wife is a former member of the group. Her name is Elixcia. She was interviewed by NBC affiliate KBOA. She asked us to obscure her identity.
(Video diary excerpt; photo of Rodriguez; Elixcia; photos of Rodriguez)
ELIXCIA: He was very--he was a very sad person. He was a very sad person. He had dealt with a lot, a lot of depression.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Depression and eventually rage.
(Video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) There is this need that I have. This need, not a want. It's a...(censored by network)...need and I wish it wasn't, but it is. It's a need for revenge. It's a need for justice because I can't go on like this.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Ricky was obsessed with the fate of the siblings in the group. Guilt ridden at the idea that the story of Davidito, his book, may have encouraged more sexual abuse, his memories of The Family consumed him.
(Photo of Berg and Davidito; pages of book and photos)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) You know, if it had just gotten a little better, a little better, even emotionally, mentally for me, it would have been OK, would have given me hope. But it has gotten worse. Every...(censored by network)...day has been a little worse than the day before.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Rick moved to Tucson, Arizona and made contact with a longtime church member named Angela Smith. She had been a secretary to Ricky's mom and knew him as a boy. James Chancellor interviewed her for his book.
(Tucson, Arizona; photo of Angela Smith; Chancellor and Morrison talking)
Prof. CHANCELLOR: Wonderful person as far as I knew. I don't believe there is any evidence that--that she was involved in the mistreatment of this child or the sexual exploitation of him. Of course, she was, of course, there and cognizant of all that went--went on.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) But Ricky didn't look up Angela to discuss old times. He had a chilling plan. His mother, as head of The Family, always kept her whereabouts secret. Ricky wanted to find her and he was going to force Angela Smith to tell him where she was, whatever it took.
(Highway; photo of Berg and others; video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) I am not trained in torture methods which is why I'm going to have to make do. I got my drill here. The reason I've got this...padding on it is to try and silence it a bit because I am in a apartment. I got gags...socks. I've got lots of...duct tape. I got a soldering iron, heat. Rather crude implements, I think, can work wonders, especially if it is used in the right way. But I am not trained. I don't know how to...use it. I don't even want to...use it. (Multiple words censored by network)
MORRISON: (Voiceover) On January 8th, after making this videotape, Ricky Rodriguez invited Angela Smith to his apartment. Police say there is no evidence that he tortured her, but he did stab her to death. If she told him where his mom was, he did not go there. Instead he drove to Blythe, California, and on the way he called his wife.
(Los Altos Village sign; photo of Smith; photo of woman; Blythe sign)
ELIXCIA: He thought that killing her would make him feel better. He's like, `Don't let anyone ever tell you that taking someone's life is easy.' He said, `It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.' He said it was so hard.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) He checked into a motel in Blythe, but he didn't stay there. Instead Ricky Rodriguez drove his car to a crossroads and shot himself in the head.
(Empty motel room; lights; fence; photo of car)
Ms. CLARE BOROWIK: These are very trying and difficult circumstances for our fellowship.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Clare Borowik speaks for The Family. She says the group deeply regrets the deaths of both Angela Smith and Ricky Rodriguez but that it is not responsible for them.
(Clare Borowik walking; photos of Smith and Rodriguez)
Ms. BOROWIK: When Ricky Rodriguez left the organization, there was the intent for him to do well and for him to be helped to the best of their ability, but then he began to demand that, well, `If you don't pay me x-amount of money, then I'm going to cause harm to The Family.' And, of course, his parents explained to him that, you know, `We have been helping you quite a while now and you are on your feet and, you know, you--you'll have to do what you have to do.'
MORRISON: The Family acknowledges that some church members may have harmed children in the past but it also says that, despite criminal investigations and civil charges, it has never lost a case in court. Borowik says the church has changed its ways now, and it urged former members to move on. And then she said something remarkable about Ricky Rodriguez.
Ms. BOROWIK: Ricky had the Lord and he's in the Lord's hands now. So we know that he's in good hands despite the terrible circumstances around it.
MORRISON: That answer makes it seem as if, even after the terrible incident, somehow Ricky is forgiven for it.
Ms. BOROWIK: We are Christians. Christianity is about forgiveness.
MORRISON: Even for that?
Ms. BOROWIK: Even for that. I have no doubt that he's repented very deeply of what he did.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) Whether Ricky Rodriguez ever repented, we cannot know. These were the last words he left.
(Photo of Rodriguez; video diary excerpt)
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (From video diary) Keep fighting, keep the faith, all that other stuff, and some day in some way, some of us are going to be around to see those...(censored by network)...burn. Literally or figuratively, they're going down. So with that happy thought, I shall leave you.
MORRISON: (Voiceover) And whether all of those other damaged children to whom he addressed his tape ever learned to forgive the church to which they were born, they all know now too graphically that the blessed boy they called Davidito could not.
(Woman dancing; people praying; children dancing; people in row; photo of Davidito)
CURRY: While the controversy over the Children of God continues, The Family claims to have some 12,000 members today working in ministries in more than 100 countries.