“I think my parents thought they had found a community that shared their ideals.
Cults are rarely advertised as cults.
Usually someone says, 'We are like-minded people.
This is a community, 'but I think the moment my parents realized there was something else, they came out, ”actor Joaquin Phoenix revealed to
in 2014 in one of the countless times the media reminded him his peculiar childhood in a sect.
That "something else" to which the actor refers was a letter in which the leader of the sect, Children of God (The children of God) asked the women to practice
or "flirty fishing", that is, to sleep with as many men as possible in order to attract more followers and more money to the cult.
The Phoenix, who were still called Botton at that time - they would change their surname to Phoenix later, in honor of the mythological bird - had been singing and preaching for years on behalf of The Children of God in different cities of South America in absolute poverty and far from the core of the cult.
That letter corroborated their suspicions that the idyllic community in which they had taken refuge fleeing Nixon's troubled America was no longer their place.
They took their children and their guitars and left the community.
The community, which was in the crosshairs of Interpol, had unleashed the first anti-culture movement in history and would end up being responsible for hundreds of cases of child abuse and even murder.
Everything had been built around a man who hardly anyone knew anything about but whom his followers considered the new Moses: David Berg (Oakland, 1919 - Costa de Caparica, 1994).
Berg came from a family of preachers with two centuries of tradition that had grown up between churches and psalms.
His mother, one of the first radio preachers, had raised him to be the new messiah, but at fifty he was a desolate man with no project who had been expelled from his own church for a sexual scandal that he disguised as a doctrinal difference.
She was far from fulfilling the expectations of a mother whom she idolized and who returned to seek refuge.
In 1968, Berg traveled to California with his wife and three children with whom he had founded a gospel group thanks to which they raised some money.
That trip changed his life forever.
In the late 1960s Huntington Beach, the place where his mother had preached for decades, was a hippie paradise, the promised land of surfing, drugs, and free sex.
The boards, the marijuana and the shouts against the Vietnam war were mixed with the posters of Jesus loves you or Jesus is your colleague, the germ of a new spirituality whose followers would begin to be known as
Berg saw the energy he needed in these despondent young men.
They sought out Jesus, but rejected the traditional church, which he had come to despise deeply.
In order to integrate, he broke with the image of a shepherd: he let his hair and beard grow, he went barefoot and changed his suits for jeans and tunics.
The whole family became one more group of hippies.
From the Light Club cafe, he began to launch a message that was getting more followers every day: the world was in crisis, the church was in crisis, only love could save them and their great enemies were the system, parents and authority in general.
"There you pressed a button and there was a disciple willing to follow you home," declared his youngest daughter Faith in the documentary
The Love Prophet and the Children of God
He made ninety disciples in just a few months.
A ranch for thousands of souls and a Fleetwood Mac
The children of God preached on the beach, in the streets and also in public buildings, which caused a group of their members to be arrested.
Berg organized a vigil and dozens of his followers stood in front of the police station dressed in sack suits and their foreheads smudged with ash in sign of the apocalypse that was to come.
They wore yokes around their necks and biblical prophecies were on their chests.
Despite questions from the police, they remained completely silent as they beat the ground with shepherd's crooks.
became common in all riots.
When the Chicago Seven trial caught the nation's attention, they were there too.
The end was near and they were going to rule the new world.
The growing group lived in caravans until Fred Jordan, one of the first television telepreachers, offered them food and lodging at one of his ranches in exchange for regular appearances on his television show.
They rehabilitated the grounds and called it The Ranch for the Soul.
The media coverage caused hundreds of new followers to join the cause, some to rehabilitate from their addictions - the association's main hook - and others to flee from their parents and live in an apparently healthy and youthful environment, a place in that sins were expiated after the delivery of all material goods at reception.
“Most of us were middle- and upper-middle-class kids who found that pursuing materialism didn't work and we felt there had to be something bigger and more satisfying,”
one of those teenagers who had joined the cult
in 1969. “Since we had everything, we wanted the void to be filled by God.
We wanted to change the world ”.
The community grew and the cult began to spread to other cities in America.
Its main means of dissemination and collection was music and the different groups that were formed traveled the world giving concerts.
These tours included, among others, Jeremy Spencer, one of the members of Fleetwood Mac, who one day had disappeared before a concert in Los Angeles.
After searching for him for five days, they found him at Jordan's ranch.
He'd given them all his money, shaved his head, and changed his name to Jonathan.
Four decades later, he still belongs to the cult.
The name change was standard practice.
Upon joining the group, everyone changed their names to other biblical references, sometimes on more than one occasion, which made it impossible to trace them back and was very useful in the face of future problems with justice.
Berg, who was then called Moses David by his acolytes for having led them from the desert to the Promised Land, was especially concerned about anonymity.
He preferred to stay in the background and avoided appearing in photos, which gave the cult members the false feeling that no one controlled them, that they were small free communities.
But nothing could be further from the truth: Berg maintained total control of everything that happened in the sect and dictated its rules in letters known as The Letters of Mo that were sent regularly to each community and in which he indoctrinated about the divine and the human
The parents of the recruited adolescents were aware of this control and of the difficulty they had in accessing their children.
In 1971 a group of them founded the FREECOG (Parents Committee to Free our Sons and Daughters from the Children of God) the first antisect association in history.
No sex (except for me)
From the outside, the sect was very strict regarding the consumption of alcohol and drugs and sexual practices.
Homosexuality was strictly forbidden, as was sexual contact in general: men and women lived in separate barracks.
But it became difficult to conceal that Berg was not as strict with himself.
Drawing on biblical language, he had used the Old Church and New Church metaphor to relegate the woman he had been married to for a quarter of a century by his new assistant, Karen, 19.
He was not her only lover.
By the bed of Berg all the women of the sect passed and the message that the messiah transmitted through his letters became more and more sexual.
The verse he used as a safe-conduct to promote any sexual proposal was in the Epistle to Titus: "For the pure, everything is pure as long as it is done with love."
And he added of his harvest: "God loves sex, the devil hates it."
An unbeatable slogan.
There is another verse that was just as decisive in his worship: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men."
Drawing inspiration from the book of Luke, he wrote in one of his letters: “My little fish, would you do anything for Jesus to help your fisherman to obtain souls?
Even suffer the crucifixion of the hook or the dangers of the stocks?
Think about it, how far would you go?
Until the end?".
The drawings that accompanied the text made it clear what the hook was (the women of the cult) and what the stocks were (men who could be future members).
At the end of the seventies, “flirty fishing” was so common that it is estimated that in 1981 hundreds of babies conceived during its practice were born.
Berg had banned contraception.
He wanted as many children as possible to be born.
Children who were separated from their parents at birth and cared for by nurses.
Berg wanted to blow up the idea of the traditional family.
That was the letter that scared away Joaquin's parents, River, Rain, Liberty, and Summer Phoenix.
By then, the sexual laxity of the cult was already rampant and rumors about indiscriminate sexual contact between adults and between adults and children were on everyone's lips.
In 1993, the late River Phoenix declared in
that he had been initiated into sex at the age of four.
He was not the only famous man raised in the sect: the actress Rose McGowan lived in one of her communities in Italy until at age 9 her father, fearing that she would be sexually abused, took her children and fled in the middle of the night.
“The group encouraged you to have many children as quickly as possible and if you made plans to leave maybe your children would disappear,” he told People magazine in 2011. “I remember seeing what the men of the sect were like with the women, and from a very young age I decided that I didn't want to be like those women. "
His father was in charge of making the illustrations that accompanied Mo's Letters. When he discovered that the group was beginning to promote sex between children and adults, he decided to abandon it.
“They asked him to do a cartoon for a text the founder had written in one of his books: 'God made children enjoy sex, so he must have expected them to!'
They didn't abuse me because my dad was strong enough to realize that this hippie love was over. "
From hell to Spain
At the time, Berg was missing.
In 1972 the trials against them had begun.
The New York prosecution had declared them a dangerous sect and they had fled the country.
They were charged with polygamy, rape, incest, and child abduction.
Also tax evasion.
Sex is in the foreground, but money also had a prominent place in Berg's ultimate interests.
Police pressure led the members to disperse around the world: some to South America, others to Southeast Asia and many to Europe, especially the United Kingdom and Spain where the figure of hippie couples distributing smiling leaflets was common during the seventies ( This is how EL PAÍS collected it in a 1977 platform).
As with the Krishna and their orange robes, it seemed to be one of the signs that the country was opening up to the world, and that also carried its eccentricities.
“One night Dad had a revelation and saw red letters that read Tenerife pass before his eyes.
He looked in an atlas and saw that he was in the Canary Islands and knew that the Lord wanted him to go there.
While they were in the hotel there were many waitresses and other people approached them and Dad felt that he wanted to evangelize them ”, says in the documentary
The Love Prophet and the Children of God
one of the members of Los Niños de Dios.
Berg always appeared surrounded by two dozen young and beautiful girls and the expectation they generated was so great that people flew from all over Europe to meet "those girls who made love to you talking about Jesus."
As Carmelo Martín collects in EL PAÍS in the article Misioneros de discoteca, Berg spent three years almost unnoticed in Tenerife until the press put the police back on track.
, as he called the slender, stunning women who invited the clients of the nightclub to have drinks, were part of a so-called Family of Love, whose main mission was to exercise the apostolate of Jesus Christ: 'Go and preach throughout the world and don't go against the law of love. "Every night, from Monday to Friday, Los Caprichos became a sanctuary for easy dating. Night excursions were organized from all over the island to meet those easy-going women who offered free sex And he adds: "A former member of the Family, Emmanuelle Canevaro, Italian Duke, confessed to a friend from the island, after leaving the organization, that David bathed naked, surrounded by his wives.
'He had sex with all of them and on one occasion I saw him masturbate one of his daughters ”.
The commotion organized by his appearance in international media such as
and the summons to appear in the La Orotava court contributed to one day that they vanished without a trace, although those closest to him believed that he was in Libya protected by Gaddafi.
At that time, most of his followers knew nothing more about him than what was transmitted by those letters whose sale on the street served to finance the organization.
For many it was a great surprise that this man who preached a humble life like the one they led was living surrounded by luxury in one of the best hotels in Tenerife.
In 1978, and faced with the refusal of hundreds of its members to practice “flirty fishing”, Berg officially dissolved the Children of God and the new organization was renamed The Family of Love.
The birth of the messiah and the book of terror
That stay in Tenerife ended up being decisive in the history of the sect because during one of the fishing days Karen, Berg's wife, fathered Davidito (real name Ricky Rodríguez), whom Berg took as his heir.
He would be the prince who would save the world, the messiah ... from the messiah.
Despite his obsession with sex, alcohol abuse had rendered Berg powerless, preventing him from having the heir he so longed for.
As documented in her letters, Karen had sex 137 times with eighteen workers at the Bel Air hotel in Tenerife, where the group was staying.
Its importance was such that every moment of the boy's life was documented in
, a grisly child pornography manual that became one of the organization's most widely circulated books.
“In 1982, a store in Spain printed several thousand copies of a book that was later distributed to members of the group around the world.
Bound in faux leather, illustrated with hundreds of photographs, the 762-page tome meticulously chronicled Ricky's life and was intended to be a parenting manual for families.
The Story of Davidito,
was stamped in gold.
With its combination of serious prose and blatant child pornography, it is perhaps the most disturbing book ever published in the name of religion, "says Peter Wilkinson in
In the early eighties, Mo's letters began to include videos that were distributed in more than seventy countries and that included nudity of minors and explicit sexual scenes in which Berg explained the best seduction tactics to women.
In 1982 there were more than 130 communities around the world and it is estimated that half a million souls had been
, many of them had joined the cult and had donated their goods.
Among the new acolytes were many wealthy men.
Berg always encouraged his women to approach the centers of power.
"My sexy little fish are doing the job: they joke with them, flirt with them, fuck them until they can't take it anymore, that's their way of bringing them closer to God, forget about old-fashioned ways of preaching the gospel," wrote an exultant Berg in one of his letters.
The persecution by Interpol became relentless and Berg traveled the world in disguise, skipping the checkpoints as raids on the association's communities became more frequent.
Massive police operations were organized in Barcelona, Melbourne or Argentina, but cult members knew how to take cover.
In those houses there were nothing but unschooled children living a questionable lifestyle, but it was not enough to separate them from their parents.
Berg passed away in Portugal on an unknown day in 1994. After his death, revelations about his continued abuse of minors began to come to light, something that was not a surprise to anyone.
Deborah, her first daughter, revealed everything that happened in the sect in
The Children of God: The Inside Story
where she confessed how both she and her sisters had been abused by their father.
They were not the only ones.
In the HBO documentary
Niños de Dios: Lost and Found,
directed by one of those children who grew up in the sect (Noah Thomson), Davidito's half-sister Davida also recounts the reprisals he suffered for refusing to have sex with Berg : "At the age of ten or eleven we were punished for not wanting to have relations with a drunken guru."
But nothing shocked public opinion more than Davidito's return to the front line.
One last (and saddest) twist in history
In 2000, at the age of 25, Davidito left the cult in which he had been treated as a god.
Without knowledge of the real world, he took refuge in the homes of former members of the Family who, like him, were unable to adapt to society.
They lacked education, had been abused and had no tools to cope with life.
Ricky - his real name, let's remember - was smiling, very polite and charming.
After all, he had been treated like royalty.
She got married, held various jobs, and tried to reconcile with a past of documented and continued abuse, but to no avail.
On January 8, 2005, he sent a video to his friends: with Sum41 music in the background we see how an adult, attractive, muscular man, who looks more like a
than a j
carries a Glock pistol and cleans a knife, a drill and a soldering iron as he repeats his plan on camera: kill his own mother.
The next day he contacted Sue Kauten, a close associate of his mother and one of the first
Kauten had been one of the babysitters who abused him and was featured in that infamous book.
They agreed to meet to talk.
The next day she was found with her throat slit in Ricky's apartment.
Kauten, then married and with a new name and a new life, had also tried to disengage from the cult, but ended up being the victim of its uncontrollable shock wave.
After murdering her, Ricky drove into the desert, called his ex-wife to confess to the murder, and committed suicide.
Karen Zerby, Davidito's mother, disassociated herself from the drama and denied the abuse her son had suffered.
She is currently the leader of the International Family movement, a cult that has been whitewashed to the point of performing in the White House for Barbara Bush in 1992. According to its new representatives, resentful former members are trying to discredit the organization.
But despite the association's efforts to erase his past, every so often one of his victims brings it to light to exorcise his memory.
In 2021 he will bring it back to the present
, the memoir of Bexy Cameron - who left the sect at the age of fifteen, leaving her parents and eleven siblings behind.
They are already scheduled to be transformed into a television series starring Dakota Johnson and Riley Keough.
Despite Karen Zerby - also known as Maria, Mama Maria, Maria David, Maria Fontaine, or Queen Maria - there are still many children of God who need to tell their story.
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