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25 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. : A True Conversion?

March 21, 1993|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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