Monday, May 30, 2011

The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: PR to the Rescue

With negative publicity and investigations against the Family International growing in leaps and bounds during the 1990s, the cult felt it necessary to take an extremely aggressive approach to their public relations. In the past, they deftly used media as a method of expanding the organization and controlling a flock spread around the globe. But now, they had to use their media and PR savvy for defending their faith.

As they say, a good offense is sometimes the best defense.

Their PR efforts began with the Pub Purges, the Family’s attempted destruction of the very literature that would give well-founded credence to all of the accusations made against it.  When authorities raided a colony, what could be more damning than reading stories about Davidito, Techi, sex with grandma, little flirty fishes, and so on?

While the raids and consequent legal actions were occurring in Australia, South America and Europe, the Family went out of its way to establish a two-pronged message as fact: (1) if there were abuses in the past, they were done by individual members, and do not accurately reflect the teachings and policies of David Berg and the Family; and (2) the ongoing raids, the negative press and the statements of former members amounted to little more than religious persecution.

The first part of their message became easier after Berg’s death in 1994. In testimony before Lord Justice Alan Ward, Steven Kelly (aka Peter Amsterdam) apologized for the past abuse, saying:
The judgment refers in particular to ‘The Law of Love’ and ‘The Devil Hates Sex’, and we accept that as the author of ideas upon which some members acted to the harm of minors in 'The Family,' he [Berg] must bear responsibility for that harm. Maria, and all of us in World Services leadership, also feel the burden of responsibility [. . .] Further, in 1980 Father David’s statements in his discourse entitled ‘The Devil Hates Sex’ opened the door for sexual behaviour between adults and minors, such sanctioning being the direct cause of later abusive behaviour by some ‘Family’members at that time.
Since Berg was dead and free of consequence, the cult could now blame him for a lot of the past abuse. After all, he’s hardly a character who would garner sympathy.

As for the second prong in that PR fork, the cult understood that if they alone claimed religious persecution, the public would simply see it as a self-serving excuse. It would be nice if a group of experts not connected to the cult would make this claim on their behalf. Said experts could show that New Religious Movements (NRMs) were not dangerous, but rather misunderstood, and consequently targets of injustice. But where are you going to find such experts at the drop of a hat?

Fortunately for The Family, Rev. Dr. J. Gordon Melton, attached to the Religious Studies Department of University of California Santa Barbara, and Dr. James R. Lewis co-edited a 1994 volume titled Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Family/Children of God, laying out the very nature of the public, political and legal persecution of The Family.

Dr. Stephen Kent, whose work I previously cited in this series, criticized the questionable research found in Sex, Slander, and Salvation by pointing to their sole reliance upon members and officers still in the cult, excluding testimony or evidence from previous members or even from disinterested observers. He characterized Drs. Melton and Lewis, as well as the other scholars participating in this project, as ‘media homes’:  “Hand-picked individuals living in these well-funded facilities went through rehearsals about how to portray themselves and the group to media, scholars, and others who might scrutinize them.”

Both Drs. Melton and Lewis faced severe criticism in 1995 when they flew to Japan to declare the innocence of Aum Shinrikyo members and their leader Shoko Asahara, despite copious evidence that they were behind a sarin gas attack aboard a Tokyo subway that killed thirteen people. While one can forgive an expert for mistaking a guilty party for an innocent one--after all, presumption of innocence is part and parcel of American jurisprudence--what irked critics was that the researchers had a conflict of interest: they had received benefits and possibly money from the Aum Shinrikyo. As T.R. Reid wrote for the Washington Post:
The Americans held a pair of news conferences to suggest that the sect was innocent of criminal charges and was a victim of excessive police pressure....

One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum….

The Americans [Lewis and Melton] said the sect had invited them to visit after they expressed concern to Aum's New York branch about religious freedom in Japan. They said their airfare, hotel bills and ‘basic expenses’ were paid by the cult.
Dr. Melton testified as an expert witness on behalf of the Family of Love in the previously mentioned British case brought by Mrs. T. and heard by Lord Justice Alan Ward. He also made videotapes on behalf of the Family. His bias seemed quite evident in an interview in which he declared that all ex-cult members lie:
To put it bluntly, hostile ex-members invariably shade the truth. They invariably blow out of proportion minor incidents and turn them into major incidents, and over a period of time their testimony almost always changes because each time they tell it they get the feedback of acceptance or rejection from those to whom they tell it, and hence it will be developed and merged into a different world view that they are adopting.
More damning than bias has been the accusation that Dr. Melton again had another conflict of interest when it came to the Family of Love.  A 2000 IRS disclosure document posted on the now-defunct site showed that the Family (under one of its myriad aliases, The Family Care Foundation) made a $10,000 donation to the International Religious Directory, a project Dr. Melton headed.

Rumors have surfaced that in the aftermath of the raids, the Church of Scientology offered assistance to the Family by giving them advice on legal and PR tactics. Whether that’s true or not, I cannot verify independently.  But one thing is certain: The Family began to employ some of the Scientologists strategies. Just as Scientology has often used a very aggressive legal team to sue, and subsequently suppress dissenting voices, The Family dealt with the Argentinian raids by using legal pressure to impeach presiding Judge Roberto Marquevich from the case for partiality.

With respect to PR, the Scientologists seemed to have taken a cue from the Family of Love. In 2009, Dr. Lewis wrote a paean of the cult simply titled Scientology.

While a book and a very public retooling during the British hearing might seem like small potatoes in terms of affecting public perception of the Family International, the fact remains that these PR methods proved particularly successful. Among the first places feeling their effect were courtrooms.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: A Right, Honourable Judgment?

Another legal action worthy of special attention began in 1992, when an unnamed British mother of a Family International Member, referred to in court documents only as ‘Mrs T.’, sued for custody of her grandchild. The case fell to the Right Hounourable Lord Justice Alan Ward. In an unusually thorough investigation into what on the surface seemed like a simple custody case, Lord Justice Ward solicited eyewitness testimony from people all over the world, including Berg’s granddaughter Merry. He also consulted with a number of psychiatrists and healthcare officials before hearing the case three years later. The hearing itself took over two months (seventy-five days). Ward’s finding, issued in a 295-page report, found that despite the vehement denials, the Children of God/Family of Love officers committed numerous transgressions. Among them, lying:

In ‘Deceivers yet True,’ June 1979, Berg seemed to countenance deceit and sometimes outright lies to accomplish God’s purpose….”

…I regret to find that in many instances [during these proceedings] there has been a lack of frankness and a failure to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth....

In particular, lying about their sexuality.
No doubt the pedant World Services would contend that the Family do not believe in ‘total promiscuity’ because it would no doubt be defined by The Family as sexual activity born of lust. But the Family do believe in sexual activity freely enjoyed by consenting parties who can convince themselves that they are each sacrificing the sanctity of their body in order ‘lovingly’ to satisfy a need of the other. In its way this is an example of dissembling the truth--deceiving yet true.

He especially chastised them for their mischaracterization of Flirty-Fishing:

I am quite satisfied that most of the women who engaged in this activity and the subsequent refinement of ESing, (which was finding men through escort agencies), did so in the belief that they were spreading God's word. But I am also totally satisfied that that was not Berg's only purpose. He and his organization had another and more sordid reason. They were procuring women to become common prostitutes. They were knowingly living in part on the earnings of prostitution. That was criminal activity. Their attempts to deny this must be dismissed as cant and hypocrisy. To deny that the girls were acting as prostitutes because 'we are not charging but we expect people to show their thanks and their appreciation and they ought to give more for love than if we charged them' is an unacceptable form of special pleading....

Lord Justice Ward also cited the doctrinal support of pedophilia and other illicit sex:

The meaning [of Mo Letters pertaining to sex] is perfectly clear. Berg advocates the enjoyment of this new freedom to engage in sexual activity with whomever one desires regardless of the age of that person or the closeness of the relationship to that person subject only to such restraint as is encapsulated in the admonition that the activity must be engaged in love and that is to say ‘without endangering anyone, or harming anyone, or infringing on anyone else’s freedoms and other rights,’ quoting from the original Law of Love....

He found the practice of FFing injurious to minors:

I also find it disturbing that The Family cannot see that the practice of FFing was harmful to minors. Such harms arose from these matters: -- (a) The children were exposed to explicit literature…; (c ) I am satisfied that the ‘Jesus Babies’ [kids conceived out of ff-ing] suffer from the knowledge that their father is unknown to them and that they had no contact with their father....

Furthermore, he found The Story of Davidito and other cult literature bordering on child pornography, and powerful evidence of sexual abuse of children:
If that picture [i.e., the depiction of Ricky Rodriguez’ daily life] is accurate, then it gives some idea of the sexual ethos of the place--the couple engaging in sexual activity in the pool and the nanny and her boyfriend having sexual intercourse in the bed in the boy’s presence. It gets worse....

I have no doubt from the context of the book as a whole that what Sarah was required to kiss was his [Rodriguez’s] penis....

Taking the gloves off, Lord Justice Ward commented on a videotape of pedophilic activity taken from the Philippines and placed into evidence:
Video number 5 is the ‘Love Video.’ It shows young children dancing, two girls together, scenes of masturbation and sexual intercourse or simulated sexual intercourse, a testimony from a girl called Joan admitting that she masturbated....

Let’s stop it there, shall we?

As I said, Lord Justice Ward conducted a thorough investigation, and thus gave many more examples than this. But by now, I think it should be abundantly clear that he found numerous instances of legal infractions, flight from prosecution and, most important, abuse of children.

So, in the case of Mrs. T. v. the Family, whom do you think Lord Justice Ward found for, and why?

I’ll give you a hint: it followed an increasingly predictable pattern happening all over the world.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: Raids

(Ahem!) As I was saying...

Around 15 May 1992, police took custody of 120 Family of Love children after a raid on six houses located on the outskirts of Sydney, New South Wales and Melbourne, Victoria.*

The Australian government had planned the raids since the spring of the previous year after consultation with child psychologists, and assistance from law enforcement officials in the United States and Spain. The cult had raised police suspicion in November when one colony completely vanished twenty-four hours after a visit from Community Services Victoria (CSV). Later investigation gave them reason to believe that children were living in slave-like conditions, frequently separated from their parents, and left to fend for themselves in the case of such (sometimes serious and chronic) ailments as cerebral palsy.

The Australian raid heralded, and in many ways typified a new era of legal prosecutions against the Family of Love, mostly due to its policies concerning children. Around the world, police and social service agencies saw something not quite right about a group of children who were always forced to smile, almost always transient, with little education and often separated from one or more parent. In these raids, police found incriminating cult literature, from Mo Letters on sexual policy to instructions to children not to tell strangers about the cult’s sexual beliefs lest they receive punishment.

Other raids followed in such places as Mexico, Spain and France, and elsewhere. But I would like to focus on two specific legal actions.

Figure 1. Children sleeping in a Buenos Aires compound

The first happened when, at 2:00am, police simultaneously raided ten family colonies in Buenos Aires (Argentina) on 1 September 1993.

The raid had been a long time in coming. In 1987, member Ruth Frouman fell ill to breast cancer. The Family of Love considered her affliction a “Biblical punishment,“ and consequently excommunicated her. Frouman wanted to leave with her children, then in Buenos Aires, but the cult refused to let them go. After her death in 1991, Frouman’s relatives pressed the case. Finally Judge Julio Campora ordered the children to appear before his court. But the Family of Love had been dissing court dates since the 1970s, as New York State Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz noted in his investigation of them. So, when they didn’t appear this time, Argentina authorities took 137 kids into protective custody, and arrested ninety-eight adults in the process.

It didn’t take more than superficial glance, even at that ungodly hour, to affirm the authorities’ suspicions that the children were mistreated. They found the children sleeping in cramped conditions (Fig. 1). But what shocked the cops more than anything else was the children’s demeanor. As chief investigator, Commissioner Juan Carlos Rebello, told the Sunday Times:

They seemed like Martians, autistic. They were living in compartmentalized 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.

Moreover, he found specimens of the Family’s DO and DFO literature, including those related to childhood sexuality. There was also a mountain of eyewitness testimony from former members, who could honestly say that they were separated from their kids. Even more interesting: the presiding jurist, Judge Roberto Marquevich, disclosed to the press that police had seized a videotape of a man having sex with his prepubescent daughter, along with a cache of weapons.

This particular case intrigued conspiracy researcher Alex Constantine, for it came almost two months before the death of River Phoenix. He felt that these two events were connected. Perhaps, Argentinian prosecutors would request his testimony. After all, he was famous, and had admitted, in the aforementioned Details article, his own indoctrination into sex at the age of four. It’s not as though he could go back and contradict public statements he had given earlier. For this reason, Constantine considered the notion that someone might have taken a hit out on Phoenix.

I’ll table my own feelings about Constantine's speculation for a second. But to give you a preview, assassination wouldn’t be my first guess (or my second, for that matter).

In short, it’s not Constantine’s most compelling argument as it relates to the Family. Nevertheless, the second part of Constantine’s hypothesis does merit serious attention. Namely the state of the investigation itself. You see, despite copious evidence of child abuse, and despite the painstaking six-year investigation that led to the raids, Commissioner Rebello had legitimate cause to worry that justice would not prevail.


*The exact number of children taken differ from source to source. I’m going with the low end. Other figures claim 121, 128, or other figures.

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