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'We feel forgotten' — Children of God cult survivors demand justice for decades of abuse

SURVIVORS of the notorious Children of God cult in Britain and other countries have come together to demand justice for the “widespread” sexual, psychological and physical abuse they suffered in communes worldwide.

Despite facing allegations its members engaged in organised paedophilia and incest sanctioned by the group’s leadership over decades, survivors say senior figures of the cult have never been held accountable for their crimes.

Children of God, which later renamed itself the Family, began in California in 1968. It rapidly spread across the world, particularly in poor countries and claimed to have 15,000 full-time members in 130 states by the 1970s.

Its founder, David Berg, promoted sex among members regardless of age or relation to one another through his “Law of Love” doctrine.

He combined this ideology with an apocalyptic interpretation of Christianity, which facilitated the exploitation of children in secretive communes across the world. Female members were encouraged to “share” their bodies and lure new recruits with sex, a policy Berg called “flirty fishing.”

The group, now called The Family International (TFI), continues to exist to this day and is still led by its co-founder Karen Zerby, Berg’s wife, who is widely believed to be an architect of the Children of God’s abusive ideology.

Now a group of survivors have come together for the first time to demand authorities to finally bring their abusers to justice.

They say that after the Me Too movement and the conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell for sex trafficking — recent cases which show justice can be achieved for victims of historic abuse —  it’s now time for the public’s eyes to turn to the Children of God.

‘The abuse was constant’

Verity Carter is one of the members of the newly formed survivors group. Born and raised under the strict teachings of the Children of God in communes around Scotland in the 1980s and ’90s, Carter tells me she was subjected to “constant” punishments and abuse.

“Anything you were told to do you had to do it silently and even asking them how or why, they would be beaten down,” she says. “My main issue was I was never able to stop asking questions so I was always in trouble.”

Carter says she was often put on silence restriction, a cruel punishment in which children as young as six were isolated from the other members and forbidden from speaking or being spoken to, sometimes for months at a time.

Often this would also involve being denied food and water.

“It was mental torture,” Carter tells me. “It has left me with long-term mental scars. When I get flashbacks it’s not always the physical abuse — it’s being trapped alone on the stairwell for weeks at a time, thinking all sorts of horrific things.”

Children in the cult lived in closed off communes and had almost no interaction with the outside world, except to raise money through begging, selling the cult’s literature or busking in cities and towns.

She says in this way, cult children were effectively used as “slave labour.”

“There were massive competitions between homes of who could make the most money and send the most tithes higher up the chain. Meanwhile, I was living in poverty. We used to be given mouldy food and told to just eat it.”

Carter suffered sexual abuse from the age of four at the hands of several members of the cult, including her father.

“When I told adults and my mum about the sexual abuse that was happening from a very early age and throughout my time in the cult, on each and every occasion I was told it was something right and natural for the men to do.

“I figured there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t [happy with the abuse], because I always cried.”

After several suicide attempts, Carter eventually fled in the mid-1990s, at the age of 15. “I couldn’t live this life any longer,” she tells me. “All I knew about the outside world was that I would die but if I stayed I would die anyway.”

Totally unprepared for the real world and traumatised by her childhood abuse, she turned to alcohol and drugs.

“It’s sheer luck I’m around today but I did come out the other side eventually — but it was no thanks to the preparation they gave me.”

Mass abuse

Carter’s story is not isolated.

Natacha Tormey, another cult survivor who predominantly grew up in communes in Thailand in the 1980s and ’90s, tells me that abuse took place across dozens of countries, destroying “countless lives.”

“You’re talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of children,” she says.

“You’re talking about kids raised in this completely crazy world, separated from the whole of society. You have all these kids out there now, trying desperately and not always succeeding to have a normal life.”

Tormey has counted at least 100 suicides of former members, including the son of current leader Karen Zerby, noting that many have been left with PTSD and other severe mental health problems.

Meanwhile, senior figures in the cult, including Zerby, have faced no consequences for allegedly encouraging and perpetrating “mass child abuse” on a global scale, Tormey and Carter say.

“It makes me sick that [the perpetrators] get to walk around free and easy, living good lifestyles on assets that they’ve got off what is essentially the slave labour and trafficking of others including myself,” Carter tells me.

“Whereas survivors and people like me are having to make ends meet and struggle with the consequences of what they did to us.”

TFI spokeswoman Carol Cunningham denies allegations the group was involved in trafficking, child slavery, or the exploitation of members for financial gain.

Launch of survivors justice group

Out of frustration at what they say is a failure by authorities to hold senior figures in the cult to account, Carter and Tormey have joined other ex-members to launch a new campaign for justice.

The Children of God and The Family International Survivors group, which officially launched on February 18, has started a social media campaign and petition addressed to US President Joe Biden, Interpol and the FBI, calling for the cult and its leaders to be “brought to justice.”

A statement by the group, shared with the Morning Star, reads: “[TFI] has been involved in the mass abuse of children around the world since the 1960s. Children who are now adults and who need to be heard.

“We have decided to act now in light of the recent increase in global awareness [MeToo and the Epstein case, among others] of the damages caused by abuse and the need for exposure, validation and justice, no matter how much time has passed.”

Authorities have failed us

In recent years, cult survivors in Scotland have successfully brought some of their abusers to justice.

In 2018, Carter’s father Alexander Watt was convicted of four charges of sexually abusing her and another child. It’s thought to be the first conviction of a man for sexual abuse in relation to the Child of God cult in Britain. Two years later, Derek Lincoln, a senior cult leader in Scotland, was jailed for 11 years for raping two girls 30 years ago, following a five-year investigation by Scotland Police.

But these successful cases are rare. Survivors have struggled to get authorities to open investigations due to the length of time that’s passed since the abuse took place and the fact it often took place in poor nations.

Tormey says cult survivors have been repeatedly failed by authorities worldwide. This anger is compounded by the fact widespread abuse in Children of God communes has been acknowledged by authorities for decades.

She highlights a custody battle launched by a grandmother against the cult back in 1995. Following a comprehensive investigation into the cult’s practices, the judge concluded: “I am totally satisfied that there was widespread sexual abuse of young children and teenagers by adult members of The Family.”

While the grandmother ultimately lost her bid for custody of her grandchild (the judge ruled the cult had sufficiently cleared up its act by that time) Tormey and Carter both say that the acknowledgement alone that such crimes had taken place should have been enough to trigger further investigation.

Both argue that the severity of the alleged crimes should warrant a cross-agency investigation, similar to those launched against international trafficking rings.

“There were thousands of us that experienced this across so many countries so why can’t an international investigation take place?” Carter says. “It’s difficult to understand why we’re not enough.”

Targeting Karen Zerby

One of the survivors’ group’s main aims is to campaign for the cult’s current leader Karen Zerby to be held responsible.

Tormey says this would be a major step towards accountability and the recognition of cult children as victims. “These people are still out there. What they did was unforgivable.”

The elusive cult leader, now in her seventies, helped found the Children of God in the late 1960s with her husband Berg.  

The pair left the US in the early 1970s as the group’s practices began to draw investigations from the FBI and Interpol.

From that point they continued to move from one country to another, keeping their whereabouts hidden and living separately from their flock.  

Berg communicated with his growing number of followers through thousands of letters, known as the Mo letters, which for many years promoted paedophilia, incest and violent abuse.

After Berg’s death in 1994 at a secret compound in Portugal, all international investigations appeared to have been dropped, leaving Zerby free to take up his mantle. Since then she has sought to distance herself and the cult from allegations of abuse.

But Tormey argues that Zerby has very much been an architect of the cult’s abusive ideology, from the very beginning: “She ran the cult alongside her husband. She was the approver of every document that was ever released because she was his personal secretary, right hand man.”

Abuse was also reported to be rife within the inner circle of the cult — a group made up of Berg’s family and his most loyal followers. This is illustrated by one of the most disturbing pieces of cult-produced literature — the Book of Davidito — which chronicles the child abuse of Zerby and Berg’s son Ricky Rodriguez from the age of 13 months.

The book was primarily authored by one of Rodriguez’s nannies, Sara Kelley and intended as a child-rearing manual for cult followers. It includes photos of Kelley sexually abusing Rodriguez as a child and encouraging followers to perform sexual acts on young children.

Zerby herself has also been accused by ex-Family members and her son of abusing him when he was 12. After escaping the cult in his late teens, Rodriguez went on to murder one of his nannies and alleged abusers before taking his life in 2005.

Cunningham told the Morning Star there is “no foundation in truth for any of these allegations” against Zerby.

“To the contrary, Karen Zerby was responsible for the implementation of child protection policies from 1986 onwards, the adherence to these policies and the expurgation and renouncement of any previous literature that did not align with these policies in 1989-90, as has been affirmed by the courts,” she added.

However Carter and Tormey claim the abuse continued behind closed doors after this date and was secretly encouraged “from the top.”

Whitewashing its image

The Family International now describes itself as a “small online network” of around 1,400 people in 75 countries, having officially disbanded the majority of its communes in 2010.

Its website states the group is actively involved in “charitable projects” including with children, youth and vulnerable populations and makes no mention of the abuse allegations that have dogged the cult since its inception.

A separate memorial page dedicated to Berg, linked to the TFI website, glorifies the deceased cult leader: “At his passing in 1994, David Berg left a bold, unconventional concept of Christianity that brought new hope and life to millions and continues to inspire members of the Family International to reach the world with the Gospel.”

This rubs further salt into the wound. “It’s the fact they tried to transform themselves, their image and the cult’s image where they should never have been allowed to,” Tormey says.

Without a concerted effort to track down and hold perpetrators to account, Carter fears that alleged abusers are free to continue harming others.

“There are so many abusers still walking around and are a walking risk to other members of society and vulnerable kids and adults and they are going to carry on until we can get them in court and get them convicted,” she warns.

These fears are far from unfounded. In recent years, members of Berg’s inner circle have been found working in schools and NGOs in developing countries.

In 2018, Tormey received a tip off that Kelley, the nanny who allegedly abused Rodriguez, was working in Costa Rica at a Christian NGO supporting vulnerable women and children.

After Tormey contacted the Costa Rican authorities and organisation Seeds of Hope, Kelley fled the country. Her whereabouts are now unknown.

Through the new campaign, Tormey hopes the group can pressure “all authorities worldwide where the cult was active, where we know multiple crimes took place, to actually start investigating it.”

“The ultimate goal is validation for us as victims because we feel very much forgotten in all this.”

Bethany Rielly is the Morning Star’s home affairs reporter — @b_rielly.

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