Judge Says "The Family" Is Reforming . . .
Lord Justice Ward in November ruled in a 314-page decision that a 27-year-old mother could raise her three-year-old son in The Family, a religious cult, formerly called The Children of God, with a history of child abuse. A condition is that the child, who will remain a ward of the court, must have regular contact with his grandmother in case he wants to leave when he grows up. The judge decided that The Family was no longer responsible for the sexual and physical abuse of children. But he insisted that the mother, and The Family's leaders must renounce the preachings of their late leader, David Berg, who promoted incest, prostitution, and sex with children. The judge, whose decision reviewed the history of The Family and evaluated the expert testimony about its practices, said that The Family must face up to the shameful period in the 1970s and 80s when child sex abuse was commonplace. The ruling came at the end of the longest wardship hearing ever heard in the High Court in London.
The grandmother, who successfully applied to have the child made a ward of the court when he was eight days old, said: "I am glad that the court has recognized my concerns for my grandchild and that the wardship will continue. I never wanted and do not want to separate my grandchild from his mother." "This grandmother," said the judge, "has done a public service by exposing their pernicious practices at that time."
The judge rejected the suggestion that "the plaintiff is a mere tool and dupe of the anti-cult movement. I reject that submission. She is a remarkably strong and determined lady who, having embarked on this campaign, has carried it through when many lesser individuals would have folded under the strain.
Ian Haworth, of the Cult Information Service, condemned the decision. "I am extremely worried that the judge seems to believe there has been a major change in the group's behavior. I am not aware of any change, except the change in their name."
Lord Justice Ward said the most difficult condition would be the denunciation of Berg. (A spokesperson for The Family in Britain said that the group had renounced Berg's sexual teachings.) "They must acknowledge that through his writings he was personally responsible for children in The Family having been subjected to sexually inappropriate behavior. The Family must be encouraged honestly to face up to this shameful period in their history so that those harmed by it, victims and perpetrators alike, can seek to come to terms with it. For an honest memorial to be given to David Berg, this dark side to his character must be revealed. By all means, let thanks be given also for the good he did as I accept he did for many and for the inspiration he has been to those who through him have devoted their lives to the service of the Lord."
He said that five or ten years ago he would not have allowed a child to remain in The Family, which has about 15,000 members, including 100 adults and 194 children in Britain. But now, he said, The Family "have come in from the cold. They can carry some mud form the past on their coat, but if they choose, they can wash it off. Then they can sit at society's supper table, eccentric guests perhaps, but welcome for all that."
In considering the case, the judge heard evidence from seven expert witnesses and sought assistance from social services staff, who made surprise visits to the boy and his mother at the commune. Social workers found that the group's 20 children were happy and well adjusted. From "Boy, 3, to stay with mother in free-love cult," "Judge condemns cult's founder as perverted and malign influence," both by Emma Wilkins, and "Communities live on love and donations," by Kathryn Knight,The Times, 11/25/95)
Some nine months before a British judge stated in a decision that he thought The Family had reformed itself, the Edmonton, Alberta social services community was thrown into an uproar by the high profile taken by members of the group who have been coming home to North America in the 1990s, following many years overseas.
The concern was so great that Michael Farris, the head Edmonton's youth emergency shelter had to limit enrolment in a workshop it ran on The Family (formerly called The Children of God), following a statement by Michael Farris, the shelter director, that The Family "presented a clear and present danger to vulnerable youth. The workshop was aimed to educate those who work with the homeless, lonely, or troubled on the group's history and recruiting practices."
For its part, The Family responded to media attention by hiring Toronto criminal lawyer Melvyn Green, who complained to a senior Alberta Social Services official about the warning issued by the Edmonton shelter, which gets over a third of its funding from the agency.
University of Alberta sociologist Steve Kent, an expert in alternative religions, who was scheduled to conduct the workshop, said that The Family may have returned to Alberta because "It was receiving so much criticism around the world that it was becoming difficult to live in other countries."
Although The Family has never been convicted of a crime, former members continue to level allegations of sex abuse and mind control, charges which the group has vigorously denied.
Farris sounded the alarm about The Family after learning it had donated food to the shelter six times over a five-week period. The group had also requested, but was denied permission to distribute its literature and perform Christian music at the shelter. The Family has also contacted two women's shelters in the city and has performed in the atrium of the University of Alberta Hospitals. Although police are gathering information on the sect's activities, they stressed that there was no suggestion the group had done anything illegal. (From "Seminar on The Family is swamped," by Charles Rusnell, The Edmonton Journal, 4.25.95, B3
Accused of Bias
During the seminar, three members of the Family stood outside accusing sociologist Kent of academic bias. They said he had interviewed only detractors and not Family members, and that they would file a complaint of "unethical" research with the U of A president. Kent refuted these claims, saying he had interviewed more than two dozen current and former members of the group and spent more than 40 hours in two Family homes. He said his work had also been reviewed by other professionals and met all ethical and methodological standards. The quality of his work was attested by the head of the university's sociology department. (From "Sect members confront meeting," by Charles Rusnell and Bill Rankin, The Edmonton Journal, 4/27/95, B3)
Family members who live communally in a middle class neighborhood in Edmonton say that the group's notorious sexual practices are long in the past. They say there is no more "flirty fishing" when female members were sent out to gain money and converts through sexual favors, or sexual relations among children, and between children and adults in the group as advected in vivid publications by group founder Moses David Berg and recounted by many former followers. The latter believe that The family's assertion that it is reformed cannot be trusted." What they want is to be absolved, to have us say they've changed," says a former senior member. "But until they reject Moses David and his doctrines and confess to their past, I'm not going to believe they've changed." (From "Fearing The Family," by Charles Rusnell, The Edmonton Journal, 4/29/95, C1, C2)