London Times: The day the 'Martians' woke up

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Editor's note: Some names have been partially redacted to protect individual privacy or for other reasons at the discretion of the editors of

The day the 'Martians' woke up

Children of God - Focus

The Sunday Times/1993-09-05

By Maurice Chittenden and Maria Laura Avignolo.

It was an unholy hour when the police swept through the religious group's iron gates and drove up to the redbrick mansion set in a 13-acre walled estate with its own swimming pool. The 72 children were asleep upstairs and it seemed a shame to wake them.

Clara Borowick, 33, the leader of the "family" of the Children of God, was more alert. "I'm used to it," she told the Argentinian police officers pouring through her front door at 2am as she got dressed. "I've already been involved in so many raids."

Even so, the neighbours and the nouveau riche clientele of the nearby Mapuche country club were taken aback by the raid. To them the children and the 30 adults who lived with them were a weird but essentially harmless community who lived on a diet of vegetables and milk and occasionally ventured out to bother them with offers of bran cakes and religious tracts.

However, damning evidence was found in two large trunks in the house, 45 miles from Buenos Aires. They contained videos showing the children, some of whom had been separated from their parents at the age of 12, performing various sexual acts with adults and each other. Not only was it imperative that the children should be woken, say the Argentinian authorities, but they should be taken to an immediate place of safety.

Juan Carlos Rebello, the police commissioner in charge of the operation, was taken aback by the children's condition. "They seemed like Martians, autistic," he said. "They were living in compartmented cells and answered questions like automatons. Whenever one of them tried to say something, another would look at him and he would fall silent, terrified."

At the same time, the 180 officers in his squad were raiding another six homes in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. In all, 137 children were found and taken into care, including four British children, the youngest eight months old, from one family and a six-year-old Irish girl. Arrests were made on 98 adults, including the American-born mother of the British children.

This weekend the Argentinian authorities are investigating claims that the Children of God supported themselves by prostitution sending teenagers to tour five-star hotels and the sale of the pornographic videos in the capital. Police and social workers have counted 19 nationalities among those arrested and taken into care and fear the children may have been part of a global child-sex network; some are thought to have been moved to South America after previous raids on Children of God communities in Australia and France.

Scotland Yard's obscene publications squad, conducting its own inquiry into the sect's activities in Britain, has already been in touch to exchange information. Social services in Newcastle upon Tyne confirmed yesterday that it had taken several children into care while investigating the cult locally.

Meanwhile, the older children found in Argentina are recovering at a hostel run by the National Council for Minors. "They are playing football and appear to be under enormous pressure to obey," said Atilio Alvarez, president of the council.

The Children of God, a sect as curiously compelling and dangerous to its members as the Branch Davidians of Waco or the Moonies, was born out of the hippy movement in California in 1968. David Brant Berg, a long-haired "Jesus freak", began ministering the gospel to fellow hippies at a cafe in Huntingdon Beach. Only this was unlike any other gospel preached before. If a Christian was motivated by unselfish love, proclaimed Berg, then the commandments against adultery and fornication were not binding. Christ's invitation to the fishermen of Galilee in Matthew's gospel "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" was used as an excuse for a practice known as "flirty fishing", or "FFing", in which girl members of the sect, many revelling in the nickname "hookers for Jesus", would set out to seduce men and recruit them to the cult. Even more sinister was Berg's excuse for having sex with children. "Children should be taught that there is nothing wrong with their bodies, nothing evil about sex and nothing catastrophic about masturbation," he said. His own grand-daughter has since accused him of starting sexual practices with her when she was five.

By the time the American attorney-general had gathered evidence to accuse the cult of incest, kidnapping, rape, polygamy and tax evasion, it was too late. Berg had fled, to spread the message abroad. In 1972 there were 130 Children of God "colonies" in 15 countries.

The millionaire father of a recruit to the sect donated an empty factory in Bromley, south London, which became the cult's European headquarters. Susan, one of their first British recruits, said: "To us David had practically replaced Jesus. The Children of God were nice, bright, young, attractive, caring, idealistic. I was an easy recruit. To be told you are important and that you are going to save the world is a big ego boost for a teenager."

The Children set up "teen houses" for youngsters who had run away from home to join and regimented their lives so that they were told what they could and could not eat. In addition to FFing, Berg introduced escort services or "ES"; it was a thinly-veiled euphemism for prostitution to raise funds for the cult.

It was the AIDS epidemic, not the cult's widespread denunciation or its fear of prosecution, that is supposed to have led to a ban on FFing in 1987. Berg, now 74, lives in seclusion with his secretary in Japan, keeping in contact with the sect members in other communes through the sect's "world services", a secretive organisation operating from a PO box number in Zurich that has kept computerised control of cult membership since 1974. The sect claims to have 3,000 adult members and 6,000 children in 50 countries.

This headquarters collects a tenth of each community's income. Computer discs found in Argentina detail some of the "tithes", but there is no ready explanation as to how the money is spent.

The British branch of the sect has a redbrick mansion of its own, a Tudor manor house in the Domesday village of Dunton Bassett, Leicestershire. It calls itself the Family and claims utter respectability. Its 35 members some newly arrived invite the vicar for tea, open the gardens to villagers and play croquet on the lawn.

Gideon Scott, the commune's leader, is a former public schoolboy who worked as a psychiatric nurse in Kent and a fireman in Derbyshire. Scott, who has 11 children, said there was nothing unusual about the sect's activities in Britain. "We've never practised or promoted prostitution as policy within our group. Flirty fishing is something entirely different. It was used to attract the man for a woman or vice versa in order to make initial contact, in order to lead someone to the knowledge of Jesus.

"Since 1987 it's been our policy that no member of our group is allowed to have sex with someone outside our group."

Scott admitted that he knew some of the sect's members in Argentina from missionary work together in Africa and Europe.

"We've had similar allegations before, in Argentina, France and Australia. We've had our houses raided by SAS types with machine guns and combat uniforms. In every case the children have been released back to their parents. There just has not been any evidence that these things are taking place."

Perhaps the message from Zurich never got through to Argentina. Perhaps the community there chose to ignore it, but sex was very much part of the faith in Buenos Aires.

The police finally acted after receiving complaints for at least four years. One of the most recent came from the father of the six-year-old Irish girl, who complained that his wife had kidnapped their two children and alleged that they were being sexually abused and used in pornographic videos.

The Children of God has now been going for so long that many of its adult members were born into it and know no other life.

Abigail Berry, 20, lowered her gaze in a Buenos Aires cafe last week as she described how she was raped four years ago while living with the cult in Argentina. She claimed that the leaders sexually abused and psychologically manipulated children, who had no choice but to obey.

"I was born into the cult on a commune in Texas. They didn't need to brainwash me. I was indoctrinated from the start. Everything is obedience. Individuals don't count."

This poses a problem for Rebello, the police commissioner. He has to decide who to charge with child enslavement and who to release as victims of the sect.