In the late 1960s, minister David Berg evangelized hippies and surfers in Huntington Beach, California. The middle-aged preacher, born in 1919, found young people receptive to his unusual message blending fundamentalist Christianity with liberal sexual ethics. As Berg’s followers grew, Berg dubbed them the “Children of God” in 1968. The name was changed to “Family of Love” in 1978 and later to its present “Family International,” often called “The Family” or TF. It has adherents in many countries, often living in communes that were originally called “colonies” but are now called “homes.”
Berg taught that Christians must follow the Bible but asserted he was the Christian prophet for this era. His writings, called “Mo Letters,” informed his followers of new divine revelations. When he died in 1994, his widow, Karen Zerby, succeeded him as leader.
Converts were encouraged to take new, Biblical names. Berg was often called “Moses David” or “Dad” and later “Grandpa.” Zerby is often called “Mama” or “Mama Maria.”
In classic counter-culture language, Berg declared himself against “the System” which he believed hypocritically distorted God’s Word into a sexually repressive message. In Mo Letters, he denounced “System” teachings against masturbation, writing, “Enjoy yourself and sex and what God has given you to enjoy, without fear or condemnation! For ‘perfect love casts out all fear,’ for ‘fear hath torment,’ particularly sexual fears [which] can be physical torture!” He did not want his followers to suffer as he did “the horrors of such sexual frustrations and condemnations.”
Berg encouraged female followers to abandon bras and even publicly expose their breasts. His 1970 poem “Mountin’ Maid!” declared, “I am for the mini-blouse/Or the see-through at my house . . . Let those mountains be more visible/And their clothing more divisible.”
However, he taught that male homosexuality was sinful, a teaching that continues today among the organization which excommunicates men for same-sex acts. Women were taught to avoid exclusive lesbianism but permitted bisexuality.
The Family came under renewed scrutiny in 2005 when Berg’s stepson Ricky Rodriguez murdered a member and then killed himself.
Flirty Fishing Flashes and Fizzles
In 1974, Berg introduced a controversial conversion method called “Flirty Fishing” or “FFing.” Writer Stephen A. Kent observed that Berg advocated, “COG members practice recruitment and resource acquisition through sexual activities.” Berg urged females to become “hookers for Jesus.”
James T. Richardson reports, “‘Flirty fishing’ involved witnessing to outsiders in such a way that it might even involve sex between female members” and potential converts. Richardson notes, “The women had to be willing (as did their husbands [if married]) for them to ‘go all the way’ if it was deemed necessary in order to ‘reach someone for Christ.’”
The practice outraged traditional Christians who believed the Bible forbids non-marital sex. Some people left the organization because of FFing. Babies born as a result of sexual proselytizing were called “Jesus Babies” in the organization.
Missions in Europe sometimes opened discotheques as a creative way to proselytize. A disco in Italy was raided in1979 and some members were charged with prostitution.
Flirty Fishing was officially ended in 1988 with anyone continuing to practice it subject to excommunication.
In 1991, three years after FFing was dropped the Italian prostitution case finally went to trial. Judges ruled the activities were not legally prostitution as the money gathered was considered “a personal contribution to the humanitarian aims that the sect always claimed to pursue.” Charges were dismissed.
Pedophilia and the Little Prince Called Davidito
Some of Berg’s most alarming teachings appeared to condone pedophilia and incest. Mo Letters from the 1970s discuss a babysitter who masturbated and fellated Berg when he was only three years old. Berg asserted her actions did not do him “any harm.”
In 1973, he wrote, “Incest, or certain forms of sex with certain specified close relatives was not made illegal until the Mosaic Law 2600 years after Creation.” He also wrote, “Marriages of brothers and sisters, mothers and sons and even fathers and daughters were very common in ancient times and were not even considered incestuous, much less illegal.”
Karen Zerby gave birth to a “Jesus Baby” in 1975. The product of FFing and stepson of David Berg was named David Moses Zerby. Later, his name was legally changed to Richard Peter Smith and still later to Richard Rodriguez. As a child, he was nicknamed “Davidito.”
Berg and Zerby believed Rick was a “divine prince,” destined to take over the ministry. Raised without hypocritical “System” sexual inhibitions, he would grow into a mighty religious leader.
In 1982, the Family International published a book entitled The Story of Davidito. It purports to be the story of his early childhood as told by one of his nannies. That nanny, Sara, writes that she hopes the rearing of Davidito will begin a “Childcare Revolution” and exclaims, “Thank You Jesus! A new example was set before us.” She writes that she and other nannies fellated Davidito to “clean” his penis. He was also allowed to watch adults having sex. Sara writes that readers learning about “Davidito’s sexy experiences” should “prayerfully” learn from them and “follow the Lord’s leadings.” The book is heavily illustrated with photographs, some of which show the boy and an adult woman cuddling, both naked.
In a Mo Letter, Berg proclaimed, “You can throw a lot of that old stuff out! We’re writing a whole new childcare series called The Davidito Series. . . . Davidito was to become an example to the world and inspire lots of childcare material! Thank God!”
The book was cited in a child custody case in the United Kingdom. Justice Ward stated, “I am totally satisfied that there was widespread sexual abuse of young children and teenagers by adult members of The Family, and that this abuse occurred to a significantly greater extent within The Family than occurred in society outside it.” Referring to the Mo Letter quoted above, Justice Ward commented, “Berg was, in my judgment, quite clear [in] giving his approval to whatever was being written and he was assuming responsibility for it. It is naïve of The Family to seek to distance the leadership from this book and cast the sole blame upon Sara.”
However, the court allowed the mother to keep physical custody of the child but after receiving assurances she would not allow what the judge called “sexual shenanigans.” The court retained legal custody.
The Family Shores Up Its Image
Berg issued a statement in 1988 declaring, “We do not approve of sex with minors and hereby renounce any writings of anyone in the Family which may seem to do so! We absolutely forbid it!”
Referring to the Davidito book without specifically naming it, Berg called it only “the writer’s account of her own personal experience and opinions.”
In 1993, French police raided two TF communities because of sex abuse allegations. However, the children were soon returned to their parents and no charges brought.
The Family called a press conference in Britain to assert that it has changed. “House Shepherd” Gideon Scott said, “We are trying to show that we are normal people who believe sincerely in our religion and love our children. We do not promote or encourage sexual activity between adults and minors. Sexual relationships are not allowed in our communities between adults and those under 21.”
Questioned about Berg’s writings regarding children and sex, Scott called them “theological speculation.”
The organization’s 2003 Charter Amendments states, “Anyone 18 years or older who does anything sexual whatsoever with anyone under the age of 14 will be excommunicated.”
Rick Commits Murder, Then Suicide
Rick was in his late teens when he started deriding the Family’s beliefs and practices. He broke with the group in 2001. He and his fiancée Elixcia Garcia issued a statement saying “we cannot continue to condone or be party to what we feel is an abusive manipulative organization that teaches false doctrine.”
The couple married but Rick could not forget the abuses he had suffered. He was often depressed.
He was 30 when he invited Family member Angela Smith to his Tucson, Arizona apartment on January 8, 2005. She was reported to have acted as his nanny – and engaged in sexual acts with him – when he was a child. He stabbed her to death.
Rick then drove to Blythe, California. There he made videotape in which he ranted about his childhood miseries. He bitterly denounced the “perverts” in the “cult.” At one point he said, “My own mother! . . . How can you do that to kids? How can you do that to kids and sleep at night?” He asserted that “thousands of Family kids” had “been abused.” He bitterly asked, “Where’s our apology?” and then answered, “They’re not even fuckin’ sorry.” At the end of the videotape he predicts that the people who abused him are “going down. So with that happy thought, I shall leave you.”
After making the tape, he went to his car and drove around. Finally, he parked his car and ended his life with a shot in the head. Police found his body in the vehicle early on the morning of January 9, 2005.
On January 18, 2005, The Family issued a statement about the tragedy. It commented, “Our prayers are that Ricky’s actions and the pursuant attention from the media won’t whip up a new reaction at the behest of our detractors, which will once again cause harm, trauma and abuse to the innocent.” That statement reiterated that the organization has a “zero tolerance policy regarding sexual interaction between adults and underage minors.”
Sources on following page.