Los Angeles Times: A True Conversion?

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A True Conversion?

Los Angeles Times/1993-03-21


5 years ago, the Children of God's gospel of free love outraged critics. Under fire from deprogrammers and child-abuse authorities, the cult virtually disappeared. It's back-calling itself "the Family" and saying it has changed. But former members are skeptical.

In the beginning, there was controversy: predictions that Comet Kohoutek signaled God's destruction of America, claims that Douglas MacArthur and the Pied Piper were speaking from beyond the grave, and charges that Jews and blacks were conspiring to ruin the world.

There was also sex. Lots of sex. All in the name of Jesus.

The Children of God - a Christian hippie movement that started 25 years ago in a Huntington Beach coffeehouse-outraged critics with a free-love gospel that urged women to use their bodies to hook new converts.

Then the group seemingly disappeared.

Badgered by cult deprogrammers and condemned by New York's charity-fraud bureau, the Children all but abandoned the United States in the mid-1970s. The controversy followed them, but the sect survived and sociologists defended the group as authorities in several countries unsuccessfully leveled charges of child abuse.

Now, with a new name -the Family -and what they hope is a new image, they have brought their "Jesus revolution" back to the U. S. Last Christmas season, they even sang for Barbara Bush in the East Room of the White House.

In Southern California, several hundred members have worked quietly for the past four years, evangelizing at juvenile homes, colleges and YMCAs while collecting donations from business people and service clubs apparently unaware of their nonviolent but strange history.

The group asks to be judged by its current actions, not by its past. But some former members say things haven't really changed.

The Family has a lot to live down.

The Children of God began in 1968 as a small, Christian commune led by traveling preacher David Berg, then 49. Berg, whose parents were evangelists, initially operated out of a coffeehouse near the Huntington Beach Pier where he preached an apocalyptic, anti-Establishment gospel.

In 1969, he and about 50 disciples split into teams that crisscrossed the country holding eerie doomsday vigils. "Jesus freaks on the road" is how former member Daniel Welsh recalls the early days: "We traveled around like gypsies, living in trucks and campers, stopping at anti-war rallies and the Chicago Seven trial."

Dressed in red sackcloth and covered with ashes, the Children stood silent vigil at the events, holding long staffs that they periodically struck against the ground while shouting "Woe!"

After the trip, they set up colonies at a Texas ranch and a Los Angeles Skid Row mission owned by radio-TV minister Fred Jordan. Dozens of communes followed in North America and overseas.

As the movement grew, Berg's teachings-outlined in rambling, profanity-laced letters to his followers-turned increasingly bizarre. He predicted Kohoutek would doom America, said a pyramid-shaped city was inside the moon, and claimed to be guided by the spirits of Rasputin, Martin Luther, MacArthur and the Pied Piper.

Sex was another frequent topic. "There's nothing in the world at all wrong with sex as long as it's practiced in love . . . no matter who (it's with) or what age or what relative or what manner!" Berg declared in a 1980 letter that still haunts the group.

He also suggested that parents masturbate their young boys at bedtime and instructed female followers how to lure men into the group: "Tease him, flirt with him, then screw him until he drops over," Berg was quoted as saying.

The practice, known within the group as "flirty-fishing," worked so well, Berg said, that when he compared the number of hours it took to save a soul through sex versus the number of man hours per convert at a Billy Graham crusade, he boasted: "We spent one-sixth the time per soul!"

Somewhere along the way, Berg also began talking about sex with ghosts.

And sex with children.

Critics, armed with sheaves of the sect's literature, suggestive photographs and videos of preteen girls performing stripteases, claim that incest and sex between adults and children has run rampant among Berg's followers.

Family officials-backed by some academics who have studied the group, and a string of legal victories-vehemently deny the accusations, saying they were fabricated by disgruntled or mentally unstable ex-members.

The truth appears to lie somewhere in the middle.

Sex between children, for example, is officially "discouraged." But a 1985 letter to followers from Berg and his wife says: "I think as children, before the girls start menstruating and the boys start seminating, that's their opportunity to have all the sex they want. . . . For the sake of potential problems with the System, we've set a rule for our girls that they can't (have sexual intercourse) after their period till they're 15 . . . (to avoid) having babies so young that they are shocking the doctors and authorities!"

A 19-year-old woman who left the Family two years ago recalls how the policy played out: "When I was 13 or 14...I was told to go downstairs and they (the leaders of the home) sent boys in one by one and I was supposed to teach them how to kiss and (masturbate them) and let them feel my breasts."

Family spokesman John Francis says the rules have since been tightened: Minors are not to have intercourse before age 18. And heavy petting "has pretty much been limited. That's not to say it doesn't happen with a 12-year-old, but they would be warned it's dangerous."

The new rules were adopted, he insists, because sex was "distracting" teens from their studies and missionary work. A 1991 letter from the Bergs to followers reveals another reason: "(It's) because the System is so very freaked-out about any kind of sex involving minors."

Then there's the question of sex between children and adults, including parents.

Some of the most damning accusations come from Berg's own family. Joyanne Treadwell, 28, who left the group in 1978, claims now that Berg, her grandfather, "started having sex with me-not penetration, but everything else-when I was 5." The Family denies her charges.

Also damaging is a 1982 book published by the sect that seemingly details oral sex and intercourse between Berg's preschool stepson and the boy's nanny. Sprinkled with risque photos and quotes from Berg about how God expects children to enjoy sex, the text also describes sexual relations between the boy and his younger sister.

If true, the boy's upbringing parallels Berg's childhood. He has said his nanny fondled and engaged in oral sex with him-and claims that he and his cousin committed incest when he was 7.

The book-along with other "questionable publications" and homemade soft-porn videos-is now banned, Francis says.

Sect officials say the materials were produced during the group's more sexually liberal "Family of Love" era. In 1978, Berg officially disbanded the Children of God, partly because 300 of his lieutenants refused to go along with flirty-fishing. He then reorganized the group as a loose confederation of communes called the Family of Love.

"Our membership (then) was mostly young, single adults still quite influenced by the . . . radical, anti-Establishment, freewheeling hippie lifestyle," Family officials say. "Many of the things that we did then, we don't do anymore."

Francis acknowledges that "theories were postulated" about adult-child sex, but insists that only a few disciples-"I could count the number on one or two hands"-took the writings literally.

Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta sociologist who has studied the sect and is highly critical of it, concedes that of the more than two dozen ex-members he has interviewed, only one told of participating in such acts.

And two other researchers, sociologist James T. Richardson of the University of Nevada and anthropologist Charlotte Hardman of London, say their studies found that Berg disciples don't practice what their leader preaches.

Four ex-members interviewed by The Times say they engaged in incest or adult-child sex, but on a once-only or limited basis because they were abhorred by it. They also say that most others who took part felt the same and never repeated it.

Officially, such practices were banned-under penalty of excommunication -in 1985. But Ed Priebe, who edited numerous Children of God and Family publications during his 19 years as a member, says sect leaders didn't seriously crack down on adult-child sex until 1988. Priebe, who left in 1990, says he believes that such activity stopped then.

Sex among adults has also been curtailed. Fear of AIDS halted flirty-fishing in 1985. And extramarital sex, although still allowed, "plays a very minor part in our day-to-day lives," Francis says.

"As individuals and as a movement, we have significantly changed, progressed, matured and stabilized," according to a recent Family statement.

Some observers agree. Gordon Melton, director of the Santa Barbara-based Institute for the Study of American Religion, says the sect was "less than upright" in the past, but "the things that got them off-base have worked themselves out (and) they seem to be rather benign in recent years."

For some ex-members, though, the after effects linger.

Says Treadwell: "I was raised believing that sex was sharing a friendship. Everyone did it. That's still deep down the way I think... I'm still (messed) up.

"The other side of the coin is, I had fun. I miss it sometimes. We traveled all over the world; we had chauffeurs. And I enjoyed (the sex). At the time, I didn't know I was abused. I was raised that way.

"The problems I had were trying to fit into society."

In Chino Hills, a dozen Family disciples pile out of a van and step into a building full of juvenile delinquents. Strumming guitars and executing rudimentary dance steps, they perform songs and skits for the crowd, then break up for small discussions with the knots of youths who stick around to talk.

It is their second trip to Boys Republic, a high-profile juvenile halfway house whose supporters have included former First Lady Nancy Reagan and late actor Steve McQueen. The reception ranges from boredom to enthusiasm, but caseworker Beth Strom says the juveniles behave better and attend church more in the days following the visits: "It reaffirms their faith."

The Family also benefits. Photos of the event-along with a thank-you letter from Boys Republic - go into a scrapbook used by sect members to solicit donations from area business people.

The scrapbook showcases the group's new image-wholesome, upbeat, conservative. And many people like what they see: clean-cut teen-agers witnessing to gang members in Anaheim, an adorable quartet of little girls crooning to the elderly, caring adults counseling victims of the L. A. riots.

In each instance, the Family comes across as a mainstream Christian missionary group. They talk about their opposition to abortion, drugs, and sex on television.

It pays off. While canvassing some L. A. County businesses, for instance, Family members met restaurateur Gabriel Zamora. He bought a few of their Kiddie Viddies (music videos for children) and eventually donated $250 and countless free meals. That was just the beginning.

Zamora also belonged to the Maywood Lions Club, which opened doors for the Family to a local YMCA, a school for handicapped children, the Huntington Park Kiwanis and numerous donations, including a rent-free house in Lynwood.

Everyone fell in love with the group. "Special and neat," says Mike Castillo of the Southeast Rio Vista YMCA, which contributed $100 and helped line up other donations after the Family performed for hundreds of kids.

"Absolutely wonderful," gushes Kiwanis President Maggie Hall, whose club wrote a $50 check when Family teens pitched in at a Christmas party attended by 300 youngsters from a school for the handicapped.

Ex-members say the reaction would be different if the sect didn't conceal its identity and soft-pedal its beliefs.

The group does employ a dizzying array of pseudonyms. In addition to two official name changes (from Children of God to Family of Love to plain-old "the Family" in the mid 1980s), the sect has gone by such monikers as Project Outreach (no affiliation with the Oakland charity Project Outreach Inc.), Hearts Aflame, Heaven's Magic and World Services, to list only a few.

Adding to the confusion: Individual members don't use their legal names.

Family spokesman Francis says "there's nothing sinister or secretive" about the chameleon-style identities. The various organizational titles are the same as a corporation with different products or subsidiaries, he says. And the members' new names symbolize their new lives as Christians.

As for the charge that the Family downplays its controversial beliefs to avoid scaring off donors, Francis acknowledges that members don't immediately tell people about "the 40 most difficult doctrines that would blow them away... That's wisdom, not deception."

One such doctrine is that "a small group of international Jews (is behind) a worldwide conspiracy" to discredit Christianity. In a 1982 letter to followers, Berg refers to Jews and "their stooges, the Negroes" as "the curses of the world" and blames both for "nearly everything that's evil."

And in a 1978 letter attacking Israeli treatment of Palestinians, Berg (who claims Jewish ancestry) tells followers that "every Jew is a terrorist, every Jew is a robber" and "I think (that) if I could get over there and had a gun, I think I'd shoot 'em myself!"

Francis insists that the meaning and intent of those passages has been misconstrued or taken out of context. The Family has never advocated or engaged in violence, he says: Berg is merely venting "righteous indignation." As for accusations of anti-Semitism, Francis explains that Berg's venom isn't aimed at all Jews-only at those behind the mistreatment of Palestinians-and those involved in what he calls the anti-Christian conspiracy.

A written statement issued by the Family adds: Branding Berg as an anti-Semite for "rebuking certain Jewish leaders . . . would mean that God himself is anti-Semitic . . . (because the Old Testament) likewise reproved and rebuked Israel for her transgressions."

In fact, Berg once wrote: "Yes, I'm an anti-Semite because God is! Yes, I'm a racist because God is!" He added: "If a people are hated, there must be some reason. . . . Why anti-Semitism? . . . Well, if you lived on Miami Beach like I did, you'd know why!"

Sect officials say the ultimate refutation of bias accusations is the Family's multiethnic membership, but they keep no statistics on the numbers of Jews or blacks.

Officials are vague about other membership figures as well. Francis estimates 10,000 full-time followers in 50 countries (down from about 100), but other observers place the figure as high as 25,000-plus tens of thousands of financial supporters and "friends." Membership is divided equally among adults, teens and children-some of them "Jesus babies" born to unknown fathers during the group's sex-for-converts-and-cash era.

Most disciples-about a third, according to 1988 internal figures-live in Latin America, followed by India, Europe and the Orient. The group's lone African presence is a colony in South Africa.

But those numbers might be shifting. Christianity Today reports growing Family strength in the former Communist bloc, including 2,000 converts in Bulgaria.

And U. S. membership-covert or virtually nonexistent for two decades-is on the rise. Estimates range as high as 4,000, scattered along the Eastern Seaboard, Texas and California.

Disciples have been filtering back since 1989. Berg, now 74 and reportedly living in Japan, is said to have urged the return as preparation for the Second Coming of Christ.

Twenty years ago, Berg and other members fled the U. S.-partly because of Kohoutek, partly because of the New York attorney general's charity fraud division. Its 1974 investigation accused the Children of-among other things-tax evasion, rape, polygamy, draft dodging, incest and kidnaping.

When it came to prosecuting the group, however, then-Atty. Gen. Louis Lefkowitz sidestepped the issue with the claim that COG's activities were protected by the First Amendment-a baffling explanation that later aroused suspicion that the report was issued mainly to placate influential parents who had lost children to the sect. Lefkowitz, now retired, says he doesn't recall the matter.

Trouble also surfaced overseas.

China and Egypt expelled the self-proclaimed "Happy Hookers for Jesus." And on Tenerife, Berg and company reportedly were driven out after local prostitutes of the Canary Islands' biggest island complained that COG was taking their business.

Three years ago in [[Argentina], police raided a Family mansion and allegedly found cocaine, pornographic videos and children's reading primers with condoms between the pages. Nothing came of it.

"We really can't do much," a prosecutor told the Houston Chronicle. "The cocaine is too small an amount and the children won't tell us anything. The books and pictures indicate the adults are molesting them, but we can't prove it."

Similar busts in Brazil and Spain also unraveled. Attention now focuses on Australia, where authorities swooped down on six Family communes near Sydney and Melbourne last May and picked up 142 youngsters who were allegedly sexually abused.

The Sydney case was suspended in November after a key prosecution witness admitted that there was no direct evidence of such abuse. The Melbourne case is pending.

Family officials, noting that "not once have we ever been found guilty of any kind of child abuse," say ex-members are trying to destroy the group with trumped-up charges.

But the bad publicity has crimped sect operations, critics say, and has spurred the sect's return to the U. S.

For those who have been with Berg since the beginning, it's a strange homecoming. The original coffeehouse in Huntington Beach is now a sushi bar, and gang members have replaced the peaceful hippies.

The old Skid Row compound is still around, but Fred Jordan severed ties with the group long ago. The new communes are in homes and apartments in secret locations around Orange and Los Angeles counties, as well as in the cities of Riverside, San Diego and San Francisco.

So far, the number of disciples in Southern California is small-an estimated 200 to 300.

And Francis isn't sure the Family's membership will grow.

Berg's vision of the future might be undone by his past.

Says Francis: "We'll have to wait to see the reception."