Youth Alderman Simone Kukenheim is very concerned about the revelations made by the VARA program Rambam about the Amsterdam Church of Scientology. “If the media reports are correct, I find it very disturbing”, the alderman said to AT5.
Journalist Rinke Verkerk infiltrated the Amsterdam Church of Scientology to get information for a documentary, which aired on Wednesday. During the infiltration Verkerk had to do a number of “audits” at the church, during which she was asked to live traumas of the past, AT5 reports. One of these sessions were led by an 11 year old boy. “Go back to the earliest moment of pain or discomfort”, the boy asked her.
According to the program, Scientology does not see children as inferior to adults. The church believes that an adult is hidden in a child’s body. “We did not believe it at first. A boy of eleven!” said Linda Hakeboom, the presenter of the program, according to Het Parool. “They find it very normal. Once a child can read he is seen as a full adult. That can’t be? Such a child must then ask you about childhood traumas and other terrible experiences”
“The issue of the 11 year old boy leading therapeutic convesations concerns us as well.” Kukenheim said to AT5. “We have picked this up and passed it on to “Safe Home”, the advice- and reporting point for domestic violence and child abuse.”
The journalist also discovered that Amsterdam primary school Onze Toekomst and Karin Bijles Centrum make use of Applied Scholastics – an educational method developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Every school that uses this teaching method has to pay 4 percent of its turnover to the church annually.
Alderman Kukenheim finds this very disturbing. “Primary school Onze Toekomst is a private school with eight students I’m not talking about the quality, that is the responsibility of the education inspectorate. I am discussing this with the education superintendent.”
In a response, the Church of Scientology called the broadcast “sensational and inaccurate”. “If they simply made a record of what they encountered, then you would have seen kind people, who immerse themselves together in the Scientology philosophy and so gain new insights”, a spokesperson said to the Volkskrant.
Convicted pedophile youth minister Brandon Milburn
As he waits to face his victims, the former youth minister can do nothing but stare at his manacled hands. His piercing blue eyes barely move as St. Louis County Circuit Judge Robert Cohen adjudicates some half-dozen criminal cases — heroin possession, burglary, probation violations. An hour passes before Brandon Milburn’s name is called.
Milburn’s case is left for last. From the back of the courtroom, nineteen pairs of eyes turn to prosecutor Michael Hayes as he begins his argument for the stiffest possible sentence.
The date is March 30, 2015: two months since Milburn pleaded guilty to molesting two eleven-year-old boys; fourteen months since Milburn’s arrest; ten years since Milburn first set foot in St. Louis.
“Your Honor,” Hayes begins, “Mr. Milburn has plead guilty to the seven counts of statutory sodomy, first degree. These seven counts represent a pattern of abuse that took place over a period of years, from the summer of 2007 till the spring of 2009. The defendant had ingratiated himself with the victims’ families and with the church that they all participated in.”
And Milburn’s pattern of abuse began even before that.
According to Hayes, the state had received information about three other victims in Milburn’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Those molestations date back to 2000, when Milburn was in his early teens and the three boys in preschool. Hayes tells the judge that these earlier abuses spanned at least six years.
As Hayes speaks, Milburn’s bald head droops toward his lap. His expression is blank.
“This is a pattern that has been going on for ten years,” Hayes says. “We know there are other victims here in St. Louis, at least one who has been named.”
There is more. Hayes cites a former staff member at First Christian Church of Florissant, or FCCF, the 2,500-member north-county megachurch where Milburn worked as an intern and volunteer on and off between 2005 to 2012. The staffer claimed Milburn showed pornography to some students and exposed himself to others.
“Your Honor, again, he used his position as a youth minster to gain access to all these different victims,” continues Hayes. “In the sentencing advisory report, the defendant minimizes his activities, his offenses against the boys in this case, and actually denies there are other victims.”
Hayes calls Milburn a predator, a pedophile who would reoffend if given the opportunity.
“For that reason, Your Honor, we believe a life sentence is appropriate in this case.”
Hayes sits down. The two victims, now college freshmen, walk to the dais to address the judge. (Riverfront Times has changed their names, and those of their families, to protect their identities.)
“I stand before you a confused and hurt individual,” says Adam Krauss, who first met Milburn through FCCF’s children’s ministry when he was in middle school. “Brandon Milburn was a guy I thought I could look up to and trust. He played as significant role in my spiritual life. He baptized me… He is a pathetic excuse for a man. He is a liar and a manipulator.”
Next up is Harris Anderson: His family allowed Milburn to live in its house for several months in 2007. Anderson, too, met Milburn through his family’s connection to FCCF.
“I kept the secret of what happened to me for seven years, seven very long years,” he says, his voice shaking. “Your Honor, Brandon Milburn’s effects on my life reach far past the sexual abuses of years ago. It seeps into my daily life even now. His actions broke my confidence, pride and trust.”
The two boys’ parents take turns begging for consecutive sentences on each of the seven counts, what would amount to a true life sentence.
Then several people speak on Milburn’s behalf. One is a Los Angeles firefighter who met Milburn through Real Life Church in Southern California, and who flew to St. Louis for the sentencing. He describes how Milburn spent many nights in his own home, around his children. He insists Milburn is a changed man.
“I do not believe he is a predator,” he says. “I love Brandon; my children love Brandon. If Brandon was released today, he would be welcome to come and live in my home.”
Finally, it’s Milburn’s turn to speak.
“For over a year now, I’ve sat in my cell wondering what I would possibly say in this opportunity when it presented itself,” he says. “I continue to be a believer and follower of the one true God, so I know the importance of confession and taking responsibility for my actions, as well as seeking forgiveness. For that I truly am thankful for this platform I’ve been given to finally express my heart. With your permission, I would like to turn and direct my statement to the families…”
Milburn spins 180 degrees to face the rear of the courtroom.
“No, no, no, no,” whispers Anderson’s younger sister. She shakes her head violently.
A middle-aged woman, a victims’ advocate with the prosecuting attorney’s office, leaps to her feet. “They don’t want that, judge.”
“Well,” Judge Cohen says, “he can say what he wants, but if they don’t want to hear it…”
Harris Anderson, a thinly built eighteen-year-old with glasses and a preppy haircut, slams his hands onto this thighs, jolts from his seat and strides to the courtroom door. He batters it open with both arms, barely slowing, and is followed by his parents and the Krauss family.
In seconds, Milburn is left staring at two empty benches. His shoulders slump, and he slowly turns back to Cohen. In a voice barely higher than a trembling whisper, he continues his speech.
“To the families I betrayed…. With everything I am, I’m so sorry. I would do anything to take my childish behavior back…. I know that I sinned against God and that I sinned against them. I was given a position of trust, and I abused it on them…. My actions have haunted me for years…. I truly hate what I’ve done. I’m sorry, God, I’m so sorry.”
Between sobs, Milburn thanks the handful of supporters who spoke on his behalf. Then he delivers his final plea to Cohen.
“I’m ready to be put this all behind me and to continue reaching for my dreams of filmmaking and in music. … Your Honor, I ask for your mercy in your decision today, for a chance to further prove who I am.”
As Milburn returns to his seat, Dawn Varvil’s face contorts itself in a mask of bitterness and grief. A heavyset woman with a cigarette-hardened voice, Varvil had once counted Milburn as a friend, a trusted partner in ministry and youth outreach. Like others who knew and worked with him, she was once enamored with Millburn: his powerful preaching, his boundless creativity, his single-minded devotion to children in need. Now, she can only see the lies. As Cohen announces Milburn’s sentence — 25 years, to be served concurrently on each of the seven counts — tears stream down her cheeks.
But there will be no closure for Milburn’s victims, and none for Varvil. And none, for that matter, for the members and leadership of First Christian Church of Florissant.
Today, more than a month after Milburn’s sentencing, Varvil is at the center of a controversy that threatens to tear the 58-year-old church apart at the seams. At play are dueling narratives from Varvil and senior pastor Steve Wingfield: Wingfield maintains he knew nothing of Milburn’s monstrous secret life until his 2014 arrest. Varvil insists that’s not true, and that she personally told the pastor about Milburn exposing himself to five boys and sleeping in bed with a fourteen-year-old boy.
Wingfield says Varvil is a liar — and he’s seeking a court order to force her to recant the claims about the 2012 meeting. Filed April 16, the lawsuit also seeks at least $25,000 in damages.
Now one of the largest churches in north St. Louis County is in crisis. And for atonement for Milburn’s sins, Varvil and a growing coalition of former members, dissenters and abuse survivors want accountability from Wingfield, a man they’ve come to see as a calculated and self-serving manipulator. Some want nothing less than Wingfield’s resignation.
Brandon Milburn, they say, wasn’t just a lone wolf in minister’s clothing. He was enabled and supported by church leadership even after others made their concerns clear.
“Distancing yourself may be the safe thing to do, but it is morally wrong and a failure of Steve’s and the rest of the elders’ leadership. It was also against the law,” a former FCCF minister named Titus Benton wrote in a letter to the board of elders in February. “There is so much that has happened that remains a secret, and that is not acceptable.
“There are people who are suffering and…look at the church as a co-conspirator instead of an agency of healing.”
Of the 604 people buried in Idaho’s Peaceful Valley Cemetery, 208 appear to be children, more than 35 percent. 149 of those children—a full 70 percent—were buried there after Idaho adopted its religious defense to manslaughter laws in 1972. COURTESY OF LINDA MARTIN
Faith-healing parents believe prayer is the only acceptable treatment in matters of health, even if it means letting their children die. In Idaho, they’re immune from prosecution, and the body count is rising
Originally published in Vocativ on 11/17/14
On Feb. 5, 2013, just weeks before her 13th birthday, Syble Rossiter was at home in Albany, Oregon, gasping for breath and in critical condition. For most of the afternoon, her family had watched as she vomited violently and lost control of her bowels, eventually becoming so weak she could no longer stand. In the hours leading up to her final, fevered breaths, as Syble slowly drifted into unconsciousness and ultimately death, her parents never called a doctor or rushed her to an emergency room. As members of the General Assembly Church of the First Born, a faith-healing Christian sect, they believed that seeking medical help for their daughter would be a sign of spiritual weakness and an affront against God’s will. Instead, Travis and Wenona Rossiter tried to cure her with prayer.
Inside the Linn County Courthouse this month, the Rossiters and their defense attorneys watched silently as prosecutor Keith Stein presented images of Syble that authorities had taken at the crime scene. Gaunt and pale, the girl’s body was seated upright on her family’s living room couch in a red shirt and a pair of urine-soaked jeans. Her eyes were sunken, and her body looked dehydrated. From the witness stand, Dr. Gary Goby, the county’s medical examiner, told the jury that Syble had died from complications of a chronic and undiagnosed case of Type 1 diabetes, adding that a simple treatment of insulin and fluids could have saved her life.
Because of their inaction, the prosecutor argued, Travis and Wenona Rossiter were directly responsible for their daughter’s death. “This case is not about their religion,” he told the jurors. “It’s about the minimum standard of medical care that our laws will tolerate when it comes to our children.” The Rossiters’ defense lawyers claimed that the family had thought she only had the flu, but the jury was ultimately unmoved. Last week, the Rossiters were convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter, which in Oregon carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.
The verdict is the latest in a string of convictions of faith healers who endanger their children in Oregon, where officials have been empowered by some of the strictest laws in the country since 2011, when the state eliminated the last of its religious-defense statutes. Oregon has successfully prosecuted three similar cases in the last three years, putting mothers and fathers in jail on charges of criminal mistreatment, negligent homicide and manslaughter, and sending a message to other faith-healing families that they must seek medical care for their children.
Just across the state line in Idaho, however, there are no such deterrents. During the same period of time, at least 12 children have died at the hands of faith-healing parents in the state, yet not a single charge has been filed. In Idaho, authorities do not investigate or prosecute faith-healing deaths, which occur largely without scrutiny from the public or media. Of the dozen documented cases in the last three years—and there are likely many more that have gone unreported—all were members of the Followers of Christ, a faith-healing group with a doctrine nearly identical to the Church of the First Born. The Followers are also active in Oregon, where they gained notoriety in the 1990s after a series of high-profile child deaths.
The stark contrast over a span of a few highway miles is not lost on Linda Martin, an Idaho native and former member of the Followers of Christ who attended the Rossiters’ trial in Oregon.
“When they described the way Syble was found, I immediately knew what had transpired the night she died,” says Martin, who moved to Oregon in 1999 but maintained contact with members of her church. “It was like watching a Followers death scene all over again. I hate that sick feeling of knowing what’s going to come next.”
To Martin, what’s going on in Idaho “makes Oregon look like a bunch of boy scouts.” Last year, after watching too many children needlessly suffer and die, Martin broke her silence about the unpunished deaths in Idaho, and she has since become one of the few activists devoted to the issue there. Though it would lead to her being shunned by family and friends, she reached out to a reporter who had covered the Followers in Oregon, Dan Tilkin of Portland’s KATU News, and urged him to dig further in Idaho. The investigation led to the Peaceful Valley Cemetery outside of Boise, where Tilkin made the startling discovery that among the 553 marked graves at the cemetery, 144 appeared to be those of children, more than 25 percent.
Martin says a more extensive review of burial records at Peaceful Valley using the Idaho State Archives, obituaries and interviews with family and next of kin shows that among the 604 people buried at the cemetery, including unmarked graves, 208 are children, which means the figure is closer to 35 percent. Those findings are documented on the Find a Grave website, an online database of cemetery records. While the graves of deceased children in the cemetery date back to 1905, 149 children, more than 70 percent, were buried there in or after 1972, the year that Idaho enacted a law providing a religious defense to manslaughter.
Autopsy records show that all 11 Followers children buried in Peaceful Valley since 2011 succumbed to medically preventable conditions. There were infants who slowly perished from sepsis, respiratory failure and diabetes, and teens who battled pneumonia for weeks. One 16-year-old, Pamela Eells, drowned in her own fluids after suffering from a bone infection commonly associated with leukemia, according to her coroner’s report. The medical examiner in that case, Dr. Charles Garrison, said he found it inexplicable “to comprehend how anyone can watch a child die and do nothing.”
Perhaps worst of all was the fate of 15-year-old Arrian Granden, whose family stood by for three days in 2012 as their daughter suffered fits of vomiting and diarrhea. Arrian’s esophagus eventually ruptured from her retching, which was brought on by an easily treatable case of food poisoning. She gradually fell unconscious before going into cardiac arrest. A 205-word case summary from the Canyon County Coroner’s Office is the only official record of her death.
Nearly every state includes some form of religious exemption from charges against faith-healing parents in its criminal or civil codes. Most of these laws are remnants of a decision by the federal government in the 1970s—granted at the urging of the Christian Science Church, the nation’s largest faith-healing denomination—to withhold funding for child abuse programs in states that did not enact some form of religious immunity for parents who favored spiritual healing over medical care. While the federal government later rescinded its regulation, most states left the laws in place.
Currently, 32 states, including Idaho, provide a religious defense to felony or misdemeanor crimes specifically against children, including neglect, endangerment and abuse, according to state statutes compiled by Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), a national advocacy group. There are 38 states that provide religious exemptions in their civil codes on child abuse and neglect, which can prevent Child Protective Services from investigating and monitoring cases of religion-based medical neglect and discourage reporting.
Of the states that still provide a religious defense to felonies against children, Idaho remains in a league of its own. It is one of only six states that provide a religious exemption to manslaughter, negligent homicide or capital murder (the others being Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio and West Virginia). But of those six, it is the only state where children are known to have died at the hands of faith-healing parents in the last 20 years. Rita Swan, CHILD’s co-founder, describes Idaho as “the worst in the country,” and she attributes the state’s high number of deaths to its overreaching religious exemption laws, which were enacted in 1972.
Swan and other child advocates argue that Idaho’s laws, and those like them, are in direct contradiction with the Supreme Court’s 1944 decision in Prince v. Massachusetts, which ruled that parental authority cannot jeopardize a child’s welfare, even in cases of religious expression. “The right to practice religion freely,” the court concluded, “does not include liberty to expose…[a] child…to ill health or death.”
“Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves,” the decision continued. “But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children.”
Idaho’s religious exemption law describes prayer as a spiritual “treatment” that can act as a legal substitute for medical care. In other words, it can’t be neglect if the child is receiving treatment, even if that treatment consists exclusively of asking God for a miracle. What’s more absurd, according to Swan, is that the state’s laws inadvertently promote the most extreme behavior among faith-healing parents because of how they’re written: Parents can lose their religious protections the minute they use any other means of care beyond spiritual treatment to help cure a child.
“If the parent combines prayer with orange juice or a cool bath to bring down a fever,” Swan says, “the parent loses the exemption.”
Yet, because of the profound chilling effect Idaho’s religious exemption laws have had on the authorities who might enforce them, those claims have never been put to the test. Not a single criminal charge has been filed in cases of religion-based medical neglect in the state since legislators enacted the law four decades ago. Boise police declined to even report two faith-healing parents in 2010 after they refused medical care for their critically injured son, citing the religious exemption statute. The following year, Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris told reporters that she had stopped doing autopsies on children who belonged to the Followers of Christ altogether.
Few with power or political will in Idaho have been compelled to stop the growing body count. With the exception of one local television station in Boise, the revelations, which have been coming to light since last year, attracted scant media attention in the state. Idaho’s largest papers didn’t touch the story, nor did the state’s public radio or alternative weeklies.
Earlier this year, a proposal was introduced in Idaho’s state legislature to amend its religious shield laws, but it never got to the floor. Scott Bedke, the state’s House speaker, prevented the bill from having a hearing. Even the Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk, a nonpartisan advisory group, declined to support the bill, which became red meat for conservative state legislators who saw it as government intrusion and an assault on religious freedom.
“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die,” said Republican Rep. Christy Perry. “This is about where they go for eternity.”
There is currently no sponsor for a new bill, and the chance of one gaining traction in next year’s legislature is slim. Reached by phone, the original sponsor, Boise Democrat John Gannon, indicates that it’s not exactly on the top of his to-do list. “It’s honestly not something that I’ve thought a lot about lately,” he says.
Bryan Taylor, the lead prosecutor in Canyon County, where Arrian Granden died, would not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has previously stated that his hands are tied by current law. “If they don’t want to have their children go to a doctor, as long as they haven’t caused the injuries, then we don’t really have a leg to stand on in exploring criminal charges,” he told KBOI 2 News.
Outside of Oregon and Idaho, there have been 20 documented faith-healing fatalities of minors since 2008 in 10 different states, including Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, according to CHILD. But the death count among Followers of Christ puts Idaho well out in front as the deadliest state in the country. That distinction actually once belonged to Oregon, until a highly publicized child death in 1998 ultimately prompted prosecutors and lawmakers to act.
Oregon, like Idaho, had a religious defense to manslaughter on the books when 11-year-old Bo Phillips died from untreated diabetes that year. His family, who were members of the Followers of Christ, prayed over him and anointed his body with oil instead of taking him to a doctor. It was the first time authorities felt they had a clear case of abuse in a faith-healing child death. But the district attorney for the county, Terry Gustafson, declined to prosecute the boy’s parents because of ambiguities in the state law.
Gustafson’s decision triggered public outcry across the state. The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, the state’s largest paper, launched an investigative series on faith-healing deaths, which found that of the 78 children buried in one Followers cemetery in Oregon City since 1955, 21 had died from treatable illnesses. Shortly after, ABC’s 20/20 and Diane Sawyer brought national attention to the state’s faith-healing controversy with a prime-time segment on the Followers. By 1999, legislators had eliminated religious protections in cases of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.
Alayna Wyland nearly went blind when a massive growth consumed the left side of her face. Her parents, Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, who are members of the Followers of Christ, were convicted of criminal mistreatment in 2011 for not providing her with medical care. CLACKAMAS COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
In 2011, the state eliminated all remaining religious exemptions for denying medical care. Within a few months, Followers of Christ members Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment for allowing a growth the size of a baseball on their infant daughter’s face to go untreated. They were sentenced to 90 days in jail and eventually lost custody of their daughter. While six states have now struck all religious protections for crimes against children, Oregon’s reforms have shown to be the most sweeping in their transformation. With the Rossiters’ conviction, the state has now won every faith-healing child death case it has prosecuted.
Advocates like Martin believe that without publicity and stiff legal repercussions, children will continue to suffer and die at the hands of faith-healing parents in Idaho. And they are praying that they will find a way to make the issue resonate with lawmakers and the public in the state.
“If we can change the laws there, we might be able to give some of these kids a chance at growing up,” says Martin. “The torture of these children has got to stop.”
A woman, who according to her relatives was “possessed by the devil,” passed away following continuous sessions of exorcism performed by a “fqih” (exorcist) in Agadir, Morocco.
The tragedy started when the newly married girl went into a fit of hysteria, and her family decided to seek the help of a Fqih.
Instead of taking her to the hospital, the family, who believed that their daughter was possessed by the devil, called on the Fqih, someone believed to have magical and spiritual power to cast out devils, to see their daughter and treat her.
To cast out the evil spirit from her body, the Fqih loudly recited passages from the Koran, the holy book of Muslims.
According to Al Ahdat Al Maghribya, “the Fqih sat on the chest of the ‘possessed’ bride and made his assistant sit on her lap,” in order to calm her movement and “force the evil spirit” to leave her body.
The same source added that the Fqih hit her all over her body, shouting at the “evil spirit”, “Get out Satan’s son;
will not you get out?”
The daily added that the woman passed away on Sunday evening after several sessions of torture.
The Fqih, his assistant, and members of the victim’s family were brought before the court of Agadir on Thursday on charges of intentional abuse leading to death, and the practice of sorcery.
Moroccan Woman Killed During Session of Exorcism
Rabat- A woman, who, according to her relatives, is “possessed by the devil,” was killed on Friday, following continuous sessions of exorcism performed by a “fqih” (exorcist) in Douar Beni Salah in the Tetouan region of Morocco.
The mentally ill woman in her forties, who is a mother of eight, decided to seek the aid of a fqih in her town.
Sadly, the poor woman could not withstand the continuous sessions of torture by the exorcist – believed to expel jinns (demons) from the allegedly possessed woman.
To cast out the evil spirit from her body, the Fqih loudly recited incantations and passages from the Koran, the holy book of Islam. With the help of four of his assistants, the Fqih hit her with a stick all over her body in order to “force the evil spirit” to leave her.
The fqih and his assistants were reportedly arrested and an investigation is underway to determine the circumstances of the death.
By Uriel Heilman (JTA) – JEWISH TELEGRAPHIC AGENCY
May 13, 2015
In addition to secretly recording women undressing for the mikvah ritual bath, Rabbi Barry Freundel engaged in sexual encounters with several women, according to prosecutors.
That’s one of several new details about the mikvah-peeping rabbi to emerge from two documents filed in D.C. Superior Court on May 8 — one each by the prosecution and defense — ahead of Freundel’s sentencing on Friday. The documents, which attempt to sway the judge’s sentencing, shed new light on Freundel’s behavior and offer some particulars about the rabbi’s life since his arrest on October 14, 2014 — including that he has resumed some rabbinic teaching.
Freundel pleaded guilty in February to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism for installing secret cameras in the shower room of the mikvah adjacent to Kesher Israel, the prominent Washington Orthodox synagogue he led for some 25 years.
He used one to three cameras, hiding the devices in a digital clock radio, a tissue box holder and a small tabletop fan, and aiming them at the toilet and shower in the mikvah dressing room, according to the prosecution’s memo. In addition to the 52 women he filmed while they were completely naked between March 4, 2012 and Sept. 19, 2014, Freundel recorded an additional 100 women since April 2009 who were not part of the criminal complaint due to the statute of limitations.
In addition to his crimes, Freundel videotaped himself engaged in “sexual situations” with “several women” who were not his wife, according to the memo. Many of the women may not have consented to being taped or were not aware that they were being recorded. A spokesman for the court contacted by JTA declined to elaborate on what the “sexual situations” constituted.
In its memo, the defense argues that Freundel’s public humiliation has been punishment enough for a first-time nonviolent offender.
The prosecution memo notes that in addition to the hidden cameras at the mikvah, Freundel surreptitiously videotaped a domestic violence abuse victim in the bathroom and bedroom of a safe house that he had established for her so she could escape her husband’s violence.
“I thought I saw a holy man of God, a man whom I could trust to protect me from outside evils, but I have come to see the blackness which hid beneath the garments,” the victim said in a court document. “The dreadful symptoms I once banished have returned. I cry when I am awake, and I scream out against the darkness in the nightmares of my sleep. I have constant flashbacks of the worst times of my life, as I am forced to repeatedly relive the horrors I once knew. I dare not look at myself unclothed in a mirror, for it is a glaring reminder of what was taken and stolen.”
Freundel edited the videos to delete footage when the woman was not in the room, and meticulously labeled and stored each video segment. It is believed that he removed the recording devices from the mikvah dressing room at the end of each day he used them, the prosecutor’s memo said.
When Freundel was arrested, investigators seized materials from his home including five desktop computers, seven laptops, six external hard drives, 20 memory cards, 11 flash drives, and an instruction manual for a recording device disguised as a fan. Additional equipment was seized from Freundel’s office at Towson University in Maryland, where he taught ethics and religion.
Each count of voyeurism carries a potential penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $1,000 to $2,500, or both. In their memo, prosecutors argue for a 17-year prison sentence for Freundel, noting the harm he caused his victims and the destructive consequences to their faith in rabbinic leadership, the importance of mikvah and religious observance.
In addition to occupying a prominent pulpit at a synagogue frequented by such figures as former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and writer and cultural critic Leon Wieseltier, Freundel had been a prolific author and scholar of Jewish law and led Washington’s Orthodox conversion court. As a conversion supervisor and mentor, Freundel instructed many women to engage in “practice dunks” at the mikvah – an unheard-of practice in Orthodox Judaism but one that provided him with ample opportunities to record them undressing.
“As many victims note, it was difficult if not impossible to say no to the rabbi in charge of their conversions,” the prosecution’s memo says. “Many of the victims now feel isolated from their faith entirely, including other religious leaders, as a result of the defendants’ actions.”
In arguing for a more lenient sentence, the defense memo points out that six of Freundel’s victims have written unsolicited letters of support, and that Freundel has resumed some rabbinic teaching – leading classes by phone on Sundays and Tuesdays, and convening a small Torah study group on Shabbat.
Freundel also has sought medical counseling to ensure that he never again engages in such conduct, according to the memo.
The defense notes that Freundel never disseminated or sought to distribute the videos, and that women were not filmed immersing in the mikvah itself.
Its memo also devotes considerable attention to Freundel’s accomplishments as a scholar, including a citation of a positive review by author Herman Wouk of one of Freundel’s books on Jewish prayer.
“There is no need for the Court to incarcerate Rabbi Freundel in order to punish him,” the defense memo says. “He has been publicly humiliated, forced to leave his office as a rabbi, and is now a convicted man.”
For sins as small as spilling milk, the children said, they were struck with a wooden paddle known as “the helper.” To train for the final battle, they were instructed to fight each other, and if they did not fight hard enough, they were paddled for that, too.
David Koresh told them to call their parents “dogs”; only he was to be referred to as their father. Girls as young as 11 were given a plastic Star of David, signifying that they had “the light” and were ready to have sex with the cult leader. A team of therapists said these were some of the things that 19 of the 21 surviving children of the Branch Davidian cult had told them about their lives inside the compound.
The team, headed by Dr. Bruce D. Perry, the chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital and vice chairman for research of the department of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine here, spent two months working with the children, ages 4 to 11, who left the cult’s compound near Waco in the first five days after the Feb. 28 shootout that killed four Federal agents and at least six cult members. Two children, ages 7 months and 3 years, were too young to be interviewed. Earlier Charges Bolstered
While President Clinton and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have maintained for weeks that children inside the compound were physically and sexually abused, the only known evidence for those assertions were allegations by former cult members two years ago. Many current cult members and their lawyers have insisted such charges are baseless.
Now, a report by Dr. Perry, an expert on traumatized children, and interviews with several counselors who worked with the children provide the first details from the young Branch Davidians themselves about their lives in the compound until they left in early March.
The report, which Dr. Perry wrote for the families of the children and any therapists who work with them in the future, characterizes the world described by the children as “a misguided paramilitary community” in which sex, violence, fear, love and religion were all intertwined.
The report depicts an insular religious community of many contradictions. Although men and women were strictly segregated, Dr. Perry writes that the children told him Mr. Koresh had “wives” as young as 11 and routinely discussed sex openly with even the youngest girls in Bible lessons.
Dr. Perry said that though the children seemed highly protective of the cult’s secrets, “Over the course of two months, the kids became increasingly open about 11- and 12-year-old girls being David’s wives.” He said it was also clear in these conversations that the status of “wife” included having sex with Mr. Koresh. Under Texas law, sex by an adult with girls under the age of 17 is statutory rape, a felony.
Gerry Williams, a lawyer with the agency that oversees Child Protective Services, said that even Mr. Koresh’s attempts to prepare young girls for sex appears to have been illegal in Texas.
While Mr. Koresh was reported to have an assortment of electronic equipment and high-power weapons, the compound lacked running water and plumbing. “The children described using a pot for urinating and defecating, which they would empty every day,” Dr. Perry wrote.
In addition to being paddled with “the helper,” the children were disciplined by being deprived of food, sometimes for as long as a day, the report said. Dr. Perry added that the children “had a difficult time making the adjustment to a nonphysical form of discipline” after leaving the compound.
While the report notes that the children seemed to be reading at appropriate grade levels, there was no discussion of formal schooling outside of Bible classes. Girls were allowed to sleep as late as they wanted, while boys were forced to wake up as early as 5:30 A.M. for what the children called “gym,” which the report describes as “marching, drilling (possibly with firearms). A ‘Normal’ World
Yet to the children, Dr. Perry said, the world inside the compound was normal. Even after their release, and as they described their treatment by Mr. Koresh, nearly all the children have talked about their love for him. During therapy sessions, several drew pictures with hearts, under which they wrote, “I Love David.”
But Dr. Perry sees their feelings about Mr. Koresh as something else. “Fear is what it was,” he said in an interview here last week. “They learned to substitute the word ‘love’ for fear.”
The cult leader controlled everything — sex, school, play and even diet. “There were a number of unusual ideas about combining fruit and vegetables in the same meal,” Dr. Perry wrote. He added that when the children were first placed in the custody of state Child Protective Services, they “frequently talked about how odd it was to have warm food.”
What emerged in the children’s portrayal of their world, Dr. Perry wrote on March 11, was “the sense that there is going to be an absolute explosive end to these children’s families.” Asked to draw the compound, they drew pictures of fires and explosions and castles in heaven, he said.
“We’d ask them, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ ” Dr. Perry said in an interview. “They’d say, ‘Everyone is going to die,’ or, ‘We’re going to blow you all up.’ ” Looking Toward Heaven
Dr. Perry said all the children had told him that as they left the compound, their parents promised they would see them in heaven.
During the siege, Dr. Perry said, he met periodically with negotiators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sharing with them what he was learning from the children about Mr. Koresh.
In a memorandum he dictated to the F.B.I. on March 11, Dr. Perry described the children’s “many, many, many allusions to explosions” and raised questions about whether the compound had booby traps or was wired to explode. He added, “All of the children that I have interviewed speak about the fact that both of their parents are dead.”
“This sense that all the parents are dead leads me to believe there has been some group consensus about a final end to this confrontation,” the doctor said. ‘An Abstract Suicide’?
Dr. Perry said that when Federal agents had asked him if he thought the cult leader would commit suicide, “I told them I thought it was unlikely that he would put a gun to his own head.” On Sunday, medical investigators in Fort Worth said that they had identified the body of Mr. Koresh and that he had died of a bullet wound in the head. The authorities did not say whether they believed the wound was self-inflicted.
But Dr. Perry said he also told agents that “I thought it was highly probable that he would carry out an abstract suicide — some way for everyone to die, like setting up a large-scale explosion.” Federal officials say that is what Mr. Koresh ultimately did: instead of an explosion, he had cult members set fire to the compound on April 19. The bodies of 72 cult members have been recovered.
Jeffrey Jamar, the F.B.I. agent in charge of the operation at Waco, said last week that he had taken into account Dr. Perry’s advice, along with other psychological information that experts gathered about the cult leader during the siege. He said Federal agents had taken Dr. Perry’s warning about possible booby traps seriously. But he also repeated what he had said in earlier interviews, that Federal agents had believed that Mr. Koresh would stop short of suicide. No Newcomer to Pain
Dr. Perry, who went to Waco as a volunteer, has worked with children who experienced many kinds of trauma, including sexual and physical abuse at home, violence of inner-city neighborhoods, and even witnessing the murder of their parents.
To the children of the cult, Dr. Perry wrote in his report, “the outside was full of ‘bad guys,’ unbelievers without the ‘light,’ evil and hurtful people.” To gain their trust, he and his team of psychologists, counselors and child-welfare workers played games with the children, went on walks with them and talked with them for hours.
Some things were impossible to hide. In his report, Dr. Perry noted that several of the girls who were released from the compound “had circular lesions on their buttocks that probably came from being paddled with ‘the helper.’ ”
The report concludes that the childen who were released “likely experienced physical punishment as very young children, the girls were likely exposed to inappropriate concepts of sexuality, parental ties were undermined by David, a whole variety of destructive emotional techniques were used including shame, coercion, fear, intimidation, humiliation, guilt, overt aggression and power.” Evidence Was Scarce
Texas child-welfare workers made two visits to the compound a year ago to investigate the allegations of abuse by former cult members. But because of the highly secretive nature of the cult, workers were unable to gather enough evidence to justify further legal intervention, said Robert Boyd, program director for the state’s Child Protective Services in Waco.
In interviews with Mr. Boyd’s workers a year ago, the cult leader denied abusing the children, though he made a point of telling them that he had been abused as a child.
The cult leader, Dr. Perry said, undermined all relationships — between husbands and wives, between the children and their parents and among the children themselves. This may explain why another of the assumptions held by Federal agents — that the cult members’ parental instincts would ultimately override their devotion to Mr. Koresh — proved false. Twenty-four children are believed to have been among those who died. The Fear Lives On
In an hourlong interview with one of the mothers released from the compound in the early days of the siege, Dr. Perry said, she brought up David Koresh 24 times, but never once mentioned her husband or their three children. All later died in the fire.
Even outside the cult and the compound, many of the children’s lives are still dominated by Mr. Koresh, Dr. Perry said.
“A permeating and pervasive fear of displeasing David or betraying his ‘secrets’ is present in all of the children — even those as young as 4 years old,” Dr. Perry wrote. “The children have a sense that he will be able to punish them if they violate his prohibitions. They even allude to the fact that he will be able to return from death and punish them or others who betray them.”
Outwardly, at least, the children seemed fine to some adults, Dr. Perry said, but their heart rates were elevated to 140, compared with a normal rate of 70 to 90. “It took three weeks to get their heart rates under 100,” Dr. Perry said. “These children were in a persistent state of fear.”
Five of the children are still at the group home in Waco, waiting to be placed with relatives. The others are already with family members, who have all been extensively screened by child-welfare workers.
Dr. Perry has remained in close touch with all the families and plans to monitor the children’s progress. It is too early, he said, to tell how they will adjust to the world outside the compound. He said some children will probably experience serious problems later on, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, a tendency toward aggression and difficulty in forming intimate attachments.
But he also said that he felt hopeful. “These kids have many strengths,” he said. “Most exhibited tenderness and caring toward siblings. The majority were very socially engaging. You liked them. They were nice kids.” ——————– Questions on Koresh’s Corpse
WACO, Tex., May 3 (AP) — The discovery that Mr. Koresh was shot in the head before a fire destroyed the compound raises many questions, Federal officials say.
Mr. Jamar, the F.B.I. special agent in charge during the standoff with the cult, said today: “The gunfire told us somebody was getting shot. Just who and why is the question.”
On Sunday, the authorities said X-rays and dental records proved that a charred body and fragmented skull found three days after the fire were the remains of Mr. Koresh, who was 33.
Jacqueline Tyler with her attorney. (Photo: Robert Hopwood/The Desert Sun )
Lawsuit claims teen girl was repeatedly abused by Mormon missionary in 1985 in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert.
PALM SPRINGS – A lawsuit filed Friday against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church bishop and a missionary, claims a woman was repeatedly sexually abused when she was a teenager in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert, and it was covered up.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Riverside County Superior Court in Palm Springs, contends that from July to November 1985, Jacqueline Tyler, then 13, was repeatedly abused by a missionary and that after a church bishop learned of the alleged abuse, her family was told to stay quiet and the bishop “made advance payment or partial payment of damages as an accommodation to plaintiff.”
It adds that as a result of the alleged abuse, Tyler gave birth to a son on June 30, 1986.
Tyler contends she was sexually abused at least once a week. And that after she became pregnant, the lawsuit claims that the missionary paid for her to go to New York, where he attempted to cause her to miscarry “by physically abusing her body.”
Tyler told the local bishop of the alleged abuse, her attorney Michael J. Kinslow said Friday, adding that rather than report the incident to authorities the bishop sought to send Tyler “out of the area and take the child from her and give it to another Mormon couple to raise.”
Tyler “refused that plan,” Kinslow said. “She has raised the young man and he is now 27 years old. He and mom are still in contact, and he understands that this is his mother, and that this is the person who has loved him throughout his life. It could have been a very different story if she had followed the plans of the church.”
The missionary, described only as being in his 20s at the time, began working for a Mormon church in Palm Desert near where Tyler and her family lived, according to Kinslow.
According to state civil codes, the defendants are not named in the suit because a judge has to determine, as part of the legal process, whether the suit’s allegations are valid. Once a judge has determined the suit has merit then the names of the defendants can be made public.
Also according to state civil codes, sexual abuse claims such as this one can be made years after the alleged abuse took place. The plaintiff must lodge the suit within three years of determining that she suffers from psychological damage caused by the alleged abuse.
Tyler, according to her suit, “continues to suffer great pain of mind and body, shock, emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, discharge, humiliation, and loss of enjoyment of life; (she has been) prevented and will continue to be prevented from performing … daily activities and obtaining the full enjoyment of life.”
“These things are very difficult, and there is a lot of humiliation, a lot of shame and a lot of fear that is put in to you,” Tyler, 42, said Friday. “Because of the nature of crime, people are afraid to come forward, and when I did come forward, there was failure to act on multiple levels.”
A representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could not be reached for comment Friday.
This type of lawsuit is one of many that have been brought against secular and religious organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Mormon church and the Catholic church during the past decade.
In January, two Salt Lake City men, ages 41 and 42, sued the Mormon church claiming they were sexually molested in Hawaii after the church recruited them to work at a pineapple farm there. The alleged abuse, they said, took place in the late 1980s and was committed by a Mormon missionary who was a leader at one of the church’s camps.
In response to the Hawaii suit, Cody Craynor, a spokesman for the church, told The Salt Lake Tribune: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind and works actively to prevent abuse. … The church will examine the allegations and respond appropriately.”
The Vatican has lashed out at criticism over its handling of its pedophilia crisis by saying the Catholic church was “busy cleaning its own house” and that the problems with clerical sex abuse in other churches were as big, if not bigger.
In a defiant and provocative statement, issued following a meeting of the UN human rights council in Geneva, the Holy See said the majority of Catholic clergy who committed such acts were not pedophiles but homosexuals attracted to sex with adolescent males.
The statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the UN, defended its record by claiming that “available research” showed that only 1.5%-5% of Catholic clergy were involved in child sex abuse.
He also quoted statistics from the Christian Scientist Monitor newspaper to show that most US churches being hit by child sex abuse allegations were Protestant and that sexual abuse within Jewish communities was common.
He added that sexual abuse was far more likely to be committed by family members, babysitters, friends, relatives or neighbors, and male children were quite often guilty of sexual molestation of other children.
The statement said that rather than pedophilia, it would “be more correct” to speak of ephebophilia, a homosexual attraction to adolescent males.
“Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17.”
The statement concluded: “As the Catholic church has been busy cleaning its own house, it would be good if other institutions and authorities, where the major part of abuses are reported, could do the same and inform the media about it.”
The Holy See launched its counter–attack after an international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Keith Porteous Wood, accused it of covering up child abuse and being in breach of several articles under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Porteous Wood said the Holy See had not contradicted any of his accusations. “The many thousands of victims of abuse deserve the international community to hold the Vatican to account, something it has been unwilling to do, so far. Both states and children’s organisations must unite to pressurize the Vatican to open its files, change its procedures worldwide, and report suspected abusers to civil authorities.”
Representatives from other religions were dismayed by the Holy See’s attempts to distance itself from controversy by pointing the finger at other faiths.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, head of the New York Board of Rabbis, said: “Comparative tragedy is a dangerous path on which to travel. All of us need to look within our own communities. Child abuse is sinful and shameful and we must expel them immediately from our midst.”
A spokesman for the US Episcopal Church said measures for the prevention of sexual misconduct and the safeguarding of children had been in place for years.
Of all the world religions, Roman Catholicism has been hardest hit by sex abuse scandals. In the US, churches have paid more than $2bn (£1.25bn) in compensation to victims. In Ireland, reports into clerical sexual abuse have rocked both the Catholic hierarchy and the state.
The Ryan Report, published last May, revealed that beatings and humiliation by nuns and priests were common at institutions that held up to 30,000 children. A nine-year investigation found that Catholic priests and nuns for decades terrorized thousands of boys and girls, while government inspectors failed to stop the abuse.
When he was 18 years old, Manny Waks turned his back on life within the Orthodox sect of Judaism known as Chabad. But the effects on his life remain profound.
Now 38, Waks is still unable to read a novel, so dictated was his childhood by religious texts. Until the age of 27, he believed rubbing his eyes with his fingers after waking up in the morning would cause him to go blind unless he carried out a religious washing ceremony first.
But the most damage has been caused by the repeated sexual abuse he suffered within the umbrella organisation for the movement in Australia, known as Yeshivah.
Waks grew up across the street from Melbourne’s Yeshivah Centre, where all of his schooling and extracurricular activities took place. He and his family were completely immersed within the Yeshivah community, and anything beyond its radius was foreign to them.
For the past fortnight, that secretive world has been comprehensively picked apart at the royal commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse.
The hearings represent the first time the Sydney and Melbourne Yeshivah centres, headquarters to the Orthodox Chabad sect of Judaism, have been scrutinised in public, and Waks’ evidence has played a central part in that process.
Since Waks first spoke publicly in 2011 about the abuse he suffered, he has helped to expose the centres, and the schools, synagogues and activities attached to them, as communities within which child sex abuse was covered-up, denied or ignored.
The rabbinic law of mesirah – the prohibition of a Jew informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities – was used by leaders to keep victims silent, the commission heard. When victims did go to police, they were labelled mosers, or “informers”, a charge so serious they were threatened with exclusion so severe it was akin to being excommunication, which would mean being ripped away from a culture, identity, religion and community. It meant everything from marriage prospects to opportunities for religious honours would be forever taken away.
Exact membership numbers are unknown, but the Yeshivah Chabad communities in Victoria and New South Wales are small and tight-knit. The commission heard that while membership numbers were not recorded, the synagogues held a few hundred people, and were often full during services.
It does not matter that peak Jewish bodies have publicly said the concept of mesirah does not, and should never, apply to cases of child sexual abuse. Even today, Waks says, victims remain fearful of being shunned.
“The fact that to this day I am the only victim who has been willing to be named should say plenty,” Waks says.
“It is easier for me than for other victims, because I am no longer in that world. Most child sex abuse victims prefer anonymity because of a range of taboos and stigmas attached to them. It’s very sensitive.
“But within the Yeshivah community, those issues and barriers are multiplied tenfold, and by speaking out against them, your life will potentially be over. You will feel the consequences, you will be damaged goods.”
In 1988, when he was 11 years old, Waks was abused by a member of the Yeshivah centre known only to the commission as AVP because he left the country before he could be charged.
The man abused Waks multiple times. Once, it happened inside a synagogue during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, where it is customary for men to stay awake all night studying religion. Once it happened inside a bathroom adjoining the synagogue. The abuse continued, usually on the Sabbath at Chabad House.
Waks confided in a classmate at the Yeshivah college, who told other children. Soon, Waks felt like everyone knew about what was happening to him, and he faced daily taunts and bullying – including being called “gay” because he had been abused by a man.
The children mocked him in the presence of teachers and other adults, who never asked what was going on. Waks responded by becoming rebellious and disobeying the rules of his religion. He wore jeans. He turned lights on and off during Sabbath. He took off his kippah (skullcap).
It attracted the ire of his parents and teachers, who tried to control him by reducing his secular education and increasing his religious studies. To this day, Waks feels he has “huge gaps” in his secular education.
Traumatised by his previous experience of disclosing his abuse, Waks said nothing when he was 12 years old and another Yeshivah staff member, security guard David Cyprys, began sexually abusing him. In a religious environment where even speaking about sex except in the most specific of circumstances was taboo, telling an adult he was being abused felt impossible.
For Waks, there was no escape. He and his 17 brothers and sisters lived directly across the road from the Yeshivah centre in St Kilda, just 6km south-east of Melbourne’s CBD. Two of his brothers were also abused.
“For me, Yeshivah was the centre of my universe,” Waks says. “It was everything. None of the kids in my family knew anything beyond the radius of a few blocks, and at the centre of that radius was Yeshivah, the heart of our world.
“My interactions were with people who were Chabad, and my contact with the outside world was minimal.
“We didn’t venture out. We didn’t need to. Our school, our recreational activities, our synagogue, they were all at the Yeshivah centre. And if an event we went to wasn’t held at the centre, it was still a Yeshivah event.”
Waks says Chabad has “all the hallmarks” of a cult – “every waking moment was dictated for us”, he said. He still has difficulty reading books or watching movies for pleasure, so heavily was his studying of religious texts and documentaries. He did not know what his secular birthday was until he was 11. His relationship with his father, who used a disciplinary approach to ensure his children adhered to Yeshivah values, is fractured.
But Waks says to label Chabad and Yeshivah as a cult would force him to reject his entire childhood. And there were moments of beauty he wants to hold on to.
There were the van rides into the countryside with his brothers and sisters, where they were allowed to break free from their endless religious study.
There was walking for hours in the heat or the rain to visit elderly community members in nursing homes, just to bring them some happiness. There was the charity work and sense of community.
Despite having shunned the religion, Waks carries with him everywhere a laminated US$1 note given to him in 1990 by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the then leader of the global Chabad movement.
“I got the dollar from him around the same time I was being abused, and I like to think if he was alive today and knew, he would have stopped it and made Yeshivah leaders start behaving in a loving way,” Waks said. “When I think of the Rebbe, I still view him with the utmost respect and reverence.”
When Waks was 12 years old and questioned a teacher about whether the Rebbe was really infallible, he received a swift slap in the face.
“So I find it hard to criticise Chabad. It’s my childhood. And I find it difficult to call Chabad a cult, even though there are clearly cult-like elements.”
His father, Zephaniah Waks, has no such difficulty. While he still practises Judaism, he broke away from the Orthodox community last year after being severely ostracised. By supporting his sons in going to the police and speaking out against their abuse, he faced endless and unrelenting attacks within Chabad.
He put his house on the market two years ago – he remains unable to sell it – and moved overseas.
“It is a cult, there is no doubt,” he says. “When you are in a cult, you can’t just decide to leave, it is extremely difficult. You can’t just leave Chabad and go to a different Chabad church. When I go overseas, word gets around within Chabad there that I am destroying Chabad in Australia.
“I do not mix with the Chabad community anymore. The day before the royal commission, I shaved off my beard. That was the final step of leaving. It destroys people.”
“One paedophile can do what he can do,” Waks said. But by ignoring claims of abuse, some members of the community had enabled the perpetrators to “do this again and again, and then helping them to cover it up, never forcing them to be stopped or held to account, and also stopping any victims from coming forward”.
“After hearing the evidence from the commission, how can anyone say this abuse was [isolated]? And they did nothing.
“This commission will have ramifications no matter what happens. If they come out with strong findings and recommendations, it will have ripple effects throughout the world, and it will be clear people can’t away with these things.”
The commission heard that as Zephaniah Waks was giving evidence about the abuse of three of his sons, the president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, sent a text message to the editor of the Australian Jewish News accusing him of “destroying Chabad” and calling him a “lunatic”. On Monday morning Kluwgant resigned after child sexual abuse victims said his position was untenable.
Manny Waks believes the past two weeks of evidence means resignations now need to happen. Some of the rabbis were involved in malicious attacks against him and his family, it was revealed. They were so brutal that Waks relocated his wife and three children to Europe.
“Where was anyone at the time we were being abused, when we were going to the police?” he asks. Waks is now establishing a global organisation to investigate child sex abuse within the Jewish community.
“These leaders, these people, are the ones who are the biggest miscarriages of justice. They will do anything to protect themselves, their reputation and their institution, and that’s what’s so astounding and so offensive to the core.
“They didn’t get up and say anything. I was left alone as the victim, as the advocate, as the troublemaker, as the person that is bringing the community into disrepute. As the one attacking orthodoxy and attacking Yeshivah. I hope finally, everyone can see there were reasons for it.”
With the Yeshivah hearings now over, Waks says he feels elated. “I have a family to support and I have a life to live, and I hope at some stage soon I can reclaim my life and continue my work helping victims in a way that is sustainable,” he says.
“I haven’t been able to relax in years. How often do I get phone calls, emails and text messages in the middle of the night from all over the world that says, ‘Can we speak’?
“I can’t turn victims away. I can hear the struggle in their voices, I can see it in their writing, and I know in reaching out to me they have done the bravest thing they’ve ever done in their lives. And if I don’t respond to that call or message in the middle of the night, I know they won’t be able to sleep as they wonder if I’ve read it or if I’ll respond. This takes up my time, and it does come at a cost to me and my family.”
But Waks says he will not be able to truly relax until the resignations come. “From the people who knew about the abuse, from the people who should have known about the abuse, from the people who covered it up and the people who knew or should have known about the cover-up. From the people who knew about the intimidation of victims and from those who were involved in the intimidation of victims. The list is long, and their positions are untenable.”
How anyone could view the Rebbe with the “utmost respect” after, say, this, is beyond me.
What about the abused kids who got small payouts from their abusers at the Rebbe’s direction? The abusers walked free at the Rebbe’s direction. The kids got a little therapy and the money was gone. Many still suffer greatly.
Cult experts I’ve dealt with over the years all say Chabad has many elements of a cult. They generally draw a distinction, though, between what they would call non-destructive and destructive cults, and generally put Chabad in the first category (although one noted expert told confidentially several years ago that the openly messianist part of Chabad probably qualified as a destructive cult).
But the truth is, for victims of child sex abuse and their advocates, the distinction drawn by these experts is blurred. When you cross Chabad, you pay a steep price. Manny and Zephania Waks learned this as have other victims and advocates. So did the Rebbe’s sister-in-law. So did Rabbi Sholom Rivkin. So did I.
A clandestine cult with twenty children to a room, no outside music, movies or books, and no contact beyond the compound. For the first fifteen years of my life, this was my normal.
“Miss Edwards, do you have another shirt in your locker?” my second period Spanish teacher, Mrs. Buck, asked me on my first day of high school, making sure the whole class could clearly hear my dilemma.
I looked down at my breasts, their little white mounds pushing up and slightly out of a shirt that was low-cut and tight-fitting, but not too provocative, at least I thought.
Mrs. Buck’s orders to return to class the next day only if I had appropriate clothing came as a shock for two reasons: Firstly, I didn’t own a lot of clothes. Secondly, I grew up in a community where boys and girls spent a lot of time naked together. I did not understand the proper rules of dress code. Showing a little cleavage was no big deal to my teenage mind.
All my life I had been taught that constantly moving was part of our family’s duty to God. I had lost count of how many places we had lived. I wanted to be normal, so I convinced my parents to let me enroll in Rowland High School, in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. Earlier that morning I had been thrilled to start classes. At fifteen years old, it was my first day at any school, anywhere, ever.
On my way home I cried profusely for being ostracized for reasons I didn’t understand. I stopped at the local library, where I often went to read glossy women’s magazines. An issue of Seventeen caught my eye. I flipped through it. In a side bar, black bold letters read, “Did you grow up in a cult? Take this quiz and find out now.”
I had heard the word “cult” when I was younger and had been trained to answer that, “No, I had not grown up in a cult” or “What’s a cult?” if anyone ever asked me.
Intrigued, I flipped to the story. In a sidebar black bold letters read, “Did You Grow Up in a Cult? Take this quiz and find out now.”
I stopped crying. Maybe there was a reason for my being ostracized. I turned to the quiz. I had to know the truth.
First question: “Did you grow up in a secluded environment?”
I thought about my early childhood in Thailand, before we moved back to the States. Every home I lived in there was required to have walls at least eight feet high, topped with loops of barbed wire or jagged glass sealed into the cement. The gates were boarded with plywood. I lived with my family and thirty to forty other people. I was told they were my “family in the Lord.”
We called ourselves “The Children of God.” I wasn’t allowed to leave without permission. If I did, I would be banned from ever returning and doomed to eternal hell and condemnation in the afterlife. My parents and the other adults I lived with told me that I was allowed to leave, but if I did I’d be giving up my birthright as one of God’s 144,000 chosen and would forfeit my spot in heaven come the apocalypse in 1993.
“Were you under the influence of a charismatic leader?”
I thought about David Brandt Berg. He lived in hiding. My parents followed him but were never allowed to see him. I never knew what he looked like. In photos he would white out his face and draw a picture of a lion head. He called himself “Father David,” but we kids were required to call him “Grandpa.”
“Were you coerced to recruit members to your group?”
I thought about the trips I’d go on, during which I was taught to tell people about Jesus and his love. We called it “witnessing.” These recruiting trips were the only times I could go beyond our compound.
“Were you taught that the outside world was a forbidden place, and did you feel guilty for wanting to leave?”
The world outside was referred to as “the system.” It was a scary place filled with evil, corruption and devilish temptations and desires. Father David referred to anyone who was not part of the Children of God as “systemites.” He sent out comic books with illustrations of what these systemites looked like—ultra-cool boys with slicked-back hair and baggy pants, girls with dyed hair, dangling jewelry, painted fingernails and lots of make-up. They were lost and it was our job to save them. We were taught to be natural and wear our hair long with minimal fuss. Make-up and jewelry was forbidden. Boys kept their hair short and men were not allowed to grow facial hair. Father David shunned any attention to fashion or outer appearance. “Worldliness,” he called it, was a device of the Devil. I was told I was special because I was born into the Children of God. Over time, I learned to believe it.
Until I picked up that issue of Seventeen, I thought we were just part of a religious missionary group with strict rules. I followed my family and trusted them.
All of our lives, we had never been allowed to choose where to live, what clothes to wear or what food to eat. Everything had been decided for us.
For the next few weeks after taking the Seventeen quiz, the words ran like a manta through my mind: Oh my God…I grew up in a cult…Where do I go from here?
* * *
The Children of God was founded on the shores of Huntington Beach, California, in 1968. David Berg was the youngest child of evangelist Virginia Lee Brandt and Hjalmer Berg. After several attempts at following his famous mother’s nationwide evangelical mission, Berg was kicked out of the Christian Missionary Alliance, a group his parents belonged to, for alleged sexual misconduct, although Berg claims he was expelled for trying to preach to Native Americans who came into the parish, as he put it, “dirty and barefoot,” eager to hear the gospel.
Berg partnered up with Fred Jordan, a television evangelist and founder of the American Soul Clinic in Los Angeles, an organization dedicated to training missionaries for the foreign field. Together they promoted a television program called “Church in the Home,” which broadcast sermons to people’s homes via a weekly television program. Their partnership lasted for fifteen years. During that time, Berg developed a philosophy that any action was justified as long as it was done in the name of God’s work. This philosophy would be a founding principle of the Children of God.
Berg, along with his wife and four children, began offering assistance to a small group called Teen Challenge at the Light Club, a Christian coffeehouse near the Huntington Beach pier. Soon they were running the mission full time, keeping it open and alive seven days a week with songs about Jesus and a message of theend times.
The word “church” was never mentioned. Father David detested the church. His group of followers began to grow, as did his prophecies and revelations, which included apocalyptic visions, claims against the established church and a plethora of “laws” condoning sexual freedom.
In the 1970s he began vigilant protests against the established church. His protests were called “Woe the Church Ministry” and members dressed in sackcloth, held thick wooden staves, smeared ashes on their foreheads and stormed into Sunday morning church sermons to warn the congregation of the end of the world.
In a practice called “flirty-fishing,” Father David instructed the women to use sex to entice new members to the group and gather donations. He appointed a woman named Karen Zerby as his chosen prophetess. He called her his “first wife,” but he was known to sleep with any woman who had the privilege of meeting him. We learned to call Karen Zerby “Mama Maria.” She headed the flirty-fishing movement, which, along with the Woe the Church Ministry, attracted attention from the media, often landing the Children of God on the front page of newspapers. As the group grew to hundreds and then thousands, it was time to organize, and according to Father David’s orders, flee from the western world that would be the first to burn in hell come God’s judgment and the apocalypse.
* * *
My mom was born and raised in Malmo, Sweden, to an alcoholic father and a harsh, distant mother. As a child her parents dropped her and her younger sister, Eva, off at a Lutheran church every week. Mom loved the sermons and excelled in church activities, eventually becoming a scout leader. In high school she became a full-time babysitter for one of her teachers, then quit her babysitting job to travel to Tunisia. As a young woman she was a traveler full of adventure. She told stories of traversing the Swedish slopes, getting caught in a blizzard while skiing and bravely crossing a narrow bridge swinging high above a Norwegian fjord.
On her way to buy a ticket to Tunisia, Mom met Thomas, a member of the Children of God who she described as “having eyes that were full of light.” She said he was glowing with an aura she had never seen. He sat on a street corner strumming a guitar. She sat down next to him and he told her about Jesus. He invited her to come to their house that night for dinner. Fish soup was on the menu. Mom was a strict vegetarian.
When she told them about her dietary restrictions, one of the members told her, “It’s O.K. Just put the fish on the side.”
She was ready to either hear or deliver a lecture about conflicting dietary beliefs. To her surprise, they didn’t judge her for being vegetarian, nor did they try to convince her that she should change her habits. It was then, she said, that she felt an acceptance she had never felt before. She was part of a community. She had found her family. She dropped everything she had, including a fiancé back home in Sweden, to join the Children of God. She was just one of thousands to “forsake all” and follow Father David Berg.
Shortly afterward, Mom and Dad met in Spain in 1978. Dad, a promising geology student, had dropped out of UC Davis two weeks before he would have graduated at the top of his class to follow his five older siblings into the Children of God. The McNally family lived across the street from him in South Pasadena and most of their kids also joined.
When people ask me what compelled them to join, I think back to the times in which they were living: the 1960s. It was a time of protest, political turbulence and school rebellion. Baby boomers were coming of age, exploring sex and lowering their inhibitions. Hippies on the streets of California were looking for answers and Father David believed he had them. He incorporated the movements of the ’60s into his evangelical mission, even writing a letter called, “C’mon Ma! Burn Your Bra” and a series of letters on “revolutionary sex.” Father David believed that we could return humanity back to the Garden of Eden, the way God intended, a world of peace with humans living close to nature and serving God. He understood that the youth of the generation were ready to believe anything.
Members were required to forsake all, cut off all ties with their families and devote their lives in service to the Lord. Father David was God’s mouthpiece and claimed to be his prophet. He offered young people the promise of freedom within the confines of his leadership. If there is such a thing as a modern-day prophet, Father David fit all the requirements. He had the charisma that would lead one of the most infamous cults of all time.
The Children of God outlasted most cults formed at that time. We kids had the burden to bear. It was our job to save the world and return the pagans, all other beings outside of the group, back to God’s natural state.
My family’s move to Thailand in 1985 was based on a prophecy that Father David received. My family was living in Los Angeles at the time. One day Aunty Mary, who was also part of the Children of God, came running into the living room to tell us of the latest news Father David had received from God. Her hair was tied back in a little bun and she held a freshly printed magazine. She flipped through the pages and landed on a picture of a woman wearing the same spiky crown that rests atop the head of the Statue of Liberty. The woman’s legs were spread open wide and she was holding a globe of the world in one hand. In her other hand rested the fate of the world, symbolized by a handful of poverty-stricken, third-world folk at the mercy of her wrath. In between her legs were the Pentagon, the White House and other buildings representing lust, sloth and greed. Father David was ordering all of his followers to move out of western civilization. The west was evil, he’d say, and would be the first to burn in hell. He’d had a revelation from God that the world was going to end in 1993 and it was our job to warn everybody. We were part of the 144,000 with spots in heaven and we could take whoever was willing with us.
* * *
I missed the eighties entirely. I had a minimal education that included learning fractions and geography, reading portions of the King James Bible, and memorizing chapters upon chapters of scripture and reciting them on command. I was forbidden from reading outside books, watching movies, listening to music or talking to anyone outside of the group.
Our days were spent taking care of the compound, raking leaves and caring for children who weren’t much younger than me. We were cut off completely from family and friends who were not part of the Children of God. I never knew my grandparents. We learned to call the adults in our community “Uncle” and “Aunty.”
We woke up every morning at seven a.m. By 7:30 our rooms were immaculate and spotless, the bed sheets unwrinkled and firm. We slept in rooms sometimes filled with fifteen to twenty children on bunk beds, trundle beds and rollaway beds. One adult was assigned to watch us kids during the night. With little water supply and limited space, we kids showered communally and slept in tight quarters. Having to take our clothes off in the humid tropical afternoons or during nap time was not uncommon.
After morning prayer, we gathered ourselves into neat rows and stood at attention, each line containing eight to twelve children determined by age. Mom had been giving birth to a new baby every year and was now pregnant with her eighth child. We stood shortest to tallest. I was usually somewhere in the back with my twin sister, Tamar, close behind. Our sister Mary Ann, who was older than us but a bit shorter, stood in front of me. I liked being sandwiched between my two sisters. We marched in single file, quoting a verse or shouting a quote in sync with our steps.
We marched like soldiers. We slept like soldiers. We stood like soldiers.
On queue we’d file down the stairs and through the hall. We arrived at our designated tables for breakfast. We sat at our assigned seats and ate thick rice porridge or curdled powdered eggs and steamed rice sopped with soy sauce. The food was bland and tasteless. During lunch we slapped the slabs of boiled tofu under the table, where they stuck like gum or splattered to the floor. We balled up the rice in snowballs and had food fights when the adults weren’t looking, until someone got hauled off to the bathroom for a spanking and we all laughed like hyenas.
The Children of God had grown to include 12,000 members spread mostly across third-world countries, and an official campus was established in Japan called The Heavenly City School. It housed up to 300 members, consisted of multiple compounds spanning a whole block and was fully equipped with a studio where they produced religious tapes, posters and videos for distribution. In Thailand, we began distributing the media they produced for a suggested donation. Father David said that since we were on a mission to save the world, people would offer us gifts and we should accept them readily. Once some of the Thai aunties talked the colonel of Southern Thailand into letting us stay in his island property on Phuket for reduced rent. We enthusiastically agreed.
* * *
It was at this home in Phuket that I began to think about the reality of my situation. I was five years old and 1993 was just seven years away. I would be twelve when the world ended. Father David said we would be God’s martyrs. It was the price we had to pay for being God’s chosen ones. Most of my childhood was spent fantasizing about the details of my death.
It only recently occurred to me how often I was forced to think about death as a child. When children are forced to think about death they don’t think about what will happen in the afterlife. No. When a child thinks about death they think about the exact moment of death. What must happen in order for a person to die? Will it hurt? Will I be able to handle the pain? How will it happen? How will I die?
I knew for sure that I was going to heaven since I was one of God’s children, but the threshold to get there seemed insurmountable. I began to think about all the possible ways that I could die—primitive ways that I’d heard about, mostly from the Bible stories we’d read at night or from movies that we were allowed to watch on weekends like “The Ten Commandments” or “Jesus of Nazareth.” I formulated elaborate images of my mind of being burned at the stake like Joan of Arc; being crucified upside down, where the head fills with blood and slowly bursts; being beheaded like John the Baptist; or stoned to death like the prostitutes in the Bible stories or movies we’d watch.
We had imitation attacks where some of the men dressed up in black uniforms and carried broomsticks for guns. They’d burst through the front doors close to bedtime. We’d all hide under the stairs and prepare to stay as still and quiet as possible until they’d tell us to come out and we’d sing songs in a state of euphoria, raising our arms in the air and pretending that we were flying up to heaven to meet Jesus at the pearly gates. How did nobody understand that I was terrified about what would have to happen in order for us to go to heaven? Did they not understand that death comes before resurrection?
I was prepared for a real invasion, an army of men dressed in heavy black jumpsuits with helmets and batons and guns. The guns were my salvation. I figured that death by a gunshot wound was probably the least painful way to die.
I felt sorry for these men I imagined, because I knew that they were human too. I thought that maybe I could convert them to our side. I convinced myself that if I could look into their eyes, I could persuade them that I wasn’t guilty of anything and I didn’t think that they were bad either. They were just doing their job. They were soldiers like me; they didn’t have a choice.
At night I prayed that I would get shot. It seemed a quick and painless way to die. I wanted to be shot with a machine gun, so that I would die as quickly as possible. And I wanted to be shot in the heart. I was terrified of pistols and the idea of a wound that might leave me bleeding to death for hours.
I slept on a mattress on the floor and positioned myself close to a wooden bed structure so I could slide under at a moment’s notice.
I was special, I told myself as I cried myself to sleep.
* * *
One night when I was five, my thoughts were interrupted by the flash of fluorescent lights and Mom’s urgent command: “Hurry and get your things together. We don’t have much time.” She told us to be as quiet as possible. Outside the sky was still dark. Mattresses bound with baby blue sheets were stretched across the floor. We had ten minutes to pack up our things and vacate. We called it evacuation. Father David taught us to have “fleebags” packed at all times with toiletries, socks, underwear and a few pairs of light clothing in the case of a raid, natural disaster or the end time. We were trained to disappear at the snap of a finger.
“Hurry kids! Before the officials get here.” Her voice was pressing but calm.
This time I wasn’t dreaming.
I had heard stories of raids before in homes thousands of miles away in Argentina and other parts of the world. These homes were called “jumbos” and housed up to three hundred members at a time. We knew that they were raided during the wee hours just before dawn, similar to the raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco; the only difference is we didn’t have guns or firearms.
After being interrupted from their sleep and snatched out of bed, the children were ordered by officials to board a bus and then taken to social services, where they remained until their parents were proven innocent of child abuse and molestation charges. After being interrogated into exhaustion, the girls were then taken to the doctor to be examined. Social services wanted to determine whether or not they were still virgins. Although I was never sexually abused, I’ve heard many stories throughout the years of girls in Children of God who were physically and sexually abused.
Although I was horrified by the graphic procedure involving a cold speculum and metal braces, I secretly wondered what it would be like to be taken away and placed in a new home, even if only temporarily. Guiltily, I wondered what it would be like to live in a fancy house with high glass cupboards filled with delicate china sets.
Nothing much was said during the raid. Whenever we were ordered to do something, we simply listened and obeyed. There were no questions. We lived every day on the verge of martyrdom, thankful for another privilege, another chance to save the world.
We packed our things and loaded into a Song-Taow, a Thai open-air taxi, which was waiting for us outside the gates. We positioned ourselves to fit on the benches, our fleebags under the seats and all of our possessions bound in large black trash bags. The sky was shifting from black to gray and if Dad was worried he never showed it.
Mom was holding Becky, still a newborn, in her arms. She looked at Dad, who was loading the last of our belongings.
“Are they all here?” She began to count us kids the way she did when she didn’t have a free hand, using her head to nod off the numbers one-by-one.
“One. Two…Where’s William?”
William was sitting behind Heidi with her fire-red hair, sucking on her pacifier.
“Three… four…” Tamar and I always stuck together.
“Five… six… seven…” She counted the rest of us. Becky was cradled in her arms. We were present and quiet, never uttering a word.
I didn’t ask where we were going but I knew we had no destination. We were fleeing and I was thrilled by the idea of it.
We drove off into the early morning hours, leaving behind a trail of dust. For the next seven years, every six months we would move to a new home in another part of Thailand.
* * *
When you grow up in an apocalyptic cult and the due date for the end of the world rolls around and nothing happens, it’s rather anticlimactic. There are no pre-apocalyptic ceremonial rituals. No gathering in huddles to pray in tongues and speak to the spirit world. No public apologies about why the world didn’t end the way it had been revealed. Life goes on as usual. Breakfast is still served at 7:30 a.m. Recess is still late in the afternoon. Dinner is served at six. Lights out is at eight.
When the world didn’t end as he had predicted, Father David had a revelation that it was time to move back west. He said God was pleased with our work so he decided to give us an extension. Every year after 1993 a letter came out entitled, “It Could Happen This Year.” I was beginning to have my suspicions. Was there any truth to anything Father David said?
One day, Mom and Dad pulled us kids aside and told us that we would be moving back to America. A home in Chicago had room for us. I didn’t know whether Chicago was a city or a state. Mom cleared up the confusion and soon I was able to locate the Windy City on any map, even a large circular globe.
John and Dad spent a year selling Children of God media at the harbor to save enough money for our flight to the U.S., where we moved into a five-bedroom house in suburban Berwyn with about thirty other members. It was there that I began to see the world I had been warned against.
The rules weren’t as strict as they had been in Thailand, and the first thing I noticed was that we were allowed to eat even if we weren’t hungry. The eggs were fried in adequate amounts of oil and, unlike powdered eggs, I enjoyed these enough to ask for seconds—which, to my delight, I was allowed. The bagels, soft and fluffy with melted butter, filled me with my first experience of white flour delight. For the first time in my life I wasn’t just full. I was satisfied.
After breakfast we were allowed to watch TV. The Winter Olympics were on. The Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding scandal was making headline news. It was my first time watching TV, ever.
“See what happens when people get into sports,” Mom said. Father David had taught us that all sports were evil and of the Devil.
I watched the clip over and over of Nancy Kerrigan wailing in pain as she held her knee. I couldn’t help but also notice the beauty of the sport. When the skaters glided across the ice they looked happy and free. They moved effortlessly and wore costumes fit for ballerinas. They were beautiful. I watched as sixteen-year-old Oksana Baiul collapsed in tears when it was announced that she had won gold. I wanted to rejoice with her. I wanted to be her. I couldn’t help thinkingsports can’t be evil.
Father David died on October 1, 1994, one year after his predicted apocalypse. I was twelve and the world hadn’t ended. My thoughts of death were beginning to subside as my worries shifted to my developing body, specifically my breasts. They were beautiful, I thought, and I didn’t want them to sag like Mom’s did, should I live to see adulthood. I developed impeccable posture, slept with a training bra on at night and taught the other girls to sit up straight, often slapping them on the back when we sat for hours listening to Father David’s letters. Since I had control over nothing else, I figured at least I could control the two new protrusions on my chest.
After Father David’s death, we were still required by the leaders in the home to abide by his rules. Following his death we spent three days fasting and reading a burgundy book titled “The Charter.” In it was a complete set of rules on how members could now live their lives, including sexual limits and boundaries (at what age people could have sex and with whom), weekly allowances on alcohol (a quarter of a cup of wine per week), and rules on what constituted a “home” (members needed four consenting adults, also members, living in the same building in order to be part of the Children of God). This meant members had their freedom; we were no longer required to live in a compound. Four consenting adults and a commitment to tithing and proselytizing was what all members needed to still be considered part of the group.
I woke up one morning after the fast was over and looked out the window. Everyone was scattered on the lawn, with their belongings packed in large black plastic trash bags. I knew what this meant. Because of the new requirements on what constituted a home, everyone was dispersing. I thought about my family. There were now eleven of us kids, all under the age of fourteen.
“Who’s gonna want to live with us?” I whispered to Tamar on the lawn the morning after Father David’s death.
“We’re so big,” she agreed.
A few days later the leaders gave my family a van. We had nowhere to go and no relatives to take us in. We started going to Sunday services at a Thai Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago. One of the members, Mr. Tassallee, a Thai-Chinese man with eyes the shape of crescent moons, who always wore a crisp dark suit and skinny tie with his hair neatly combed, had heard we needed a place to stay. He had an empty building in the South Side and he offered to let us stay in it rent-free. It was a tall brick building with a small front yard surrounded by a chain link fence. We agreed. Mom was pregnant. Dad had no job. On our first night there we heard gunshots echoing from the alley. We would continue to hear these on a weekly basis. We were on our own.
* * *
I’ve heard many stories about kids who grew up like me and killed themselvesbecause they didn’t how to make it in the world. Some were my friends, others distant acquaintances. They’d blame their parents for not teaching them how to write checks, or fill out applications, or hold their own in a normal social setting. There are girls who became strippers because all they knew how to do was give a powerful “look of love,” as taught by Father David during the flirty-fishing movement. They had no skills for working or making money, so they used their sexuality, just like their mothers did in the early days.
One day John flew out to California to visit our Aunt Mary, who had recently left the Children of God. When he came back I noticed something was different. His hair was slicked back like the systemites in Father David’s comic books. He wore store-bought clothes and sometimes I noticed that he had headphones on. He was listening to system music. Was he becoming a systemite?
He brought good news. Aunt Mary had invited us to come live near her in California. She lived in a house surrounded by bougainvillea and English ivy crawling up brick walls. She had found a house for us near her in the San Gabriel Valley. The Chicago winters were too cold, and California, John said, boasted perfect weather and endless summers.
In April, we piled ourselves into the van as Dad loaded the last of our belongings. He hitched a wooden wagon to the back and we loaded it with foam mattresses. Dad and John took turns driving. Tamar made white-bread tuna salad sandwiches that we would stop to eat along the way. Bobby was a baby and we passed him from person to person. We didn’t have much food after moving to the house in the South Side. Mary Ann sat behind me looking gaunt. The rest of the kids shuffled in their seats. Mom lay sprawled across the front row, her stomach bulging with child number twelve. I could tell it wasn’t just because she was pregnant; something was definitely wrong.
Following the death of Father David, the cult was slowly beginning to disintegrate. We no longer lived in communes. We no longer had his “law.” We no longer functioned like an army. The Children of God was becoming a loose group of families scattered across the world, struggling to make it in a society that they knew little about.
In the summer of 1996, after we had moved to California, the leaders planned a road trip to Lake Tahoe for preteen members to convince us that the Children of God was fun and that there was no place we’d rather be. “Uncle Tim,” one of the leaders, drove a school bus that had been painted multiple shades of blue. On the way to Lake Tahoe, the bus broke down on the side of the freeway and we sat in our built-in beds sweating until Uncle Tim figured out how to get it working again.
I was fourteen years old. Before we left, mom and dad had given us an ultimatum: Decide if we wanted to stay in the group or leave. I never asked what compelled them to make this decision, but I think there came a point when they realized they had to put their family first. It was clear that John was becoming a systemite. Mom and Dad decided that if we wanted out too, then they would leave with us. For that decision, I later chose to forgive them for raising us in a cult.
John was now working two jobs: at a bagel shop during the day and a coffee shop in the evening. He made tips and was earning real hard cash, something we had never seen growing up. He drove a midnight blue Volkswagen Beetle and had systemite friends.
One day in the campground as we ate blueberry pie filling from tin cans, Mary Ann, a year older than me, started the conversation that would determine our future.
“Can’t you see what these guys are doing?” she asked, referring to Uncle Tim and all the other adults who had punished us when we were children. “This is not right.”
“Well, what should we do about it?” I asked. High school seemed our only option. Plus, the idea of learning appealed to me.
It was there, among the crackling pines and under a clear blue sky, that we decided to tell my parents. We called home from a pay phone and told them we wanted out. In the same conversation, Mom told us she had just got the results back from a doctor’s check-up. There was a reason why she had been in so much pain on our drive to California and had to lie down across the row of seats. She had been diagnosed with cancer and had a ten-percent prognosis. Although not quite sure what a ten-percent prognosis meant, I knew it couldn’t be good news.
Mom later told me that the doctors had told her something was abnormal back when she was pregnant with us twins. However, since the world would be ending soon, Father David did not encourage visits to the doctor.
I had little capacity to feel sorry for my mother at the time, as I was in my own state of survival, trying to figure out how I was going to make it as a teenager in a world I knew little about. After all that we’d been through she was going to have to fend for herself.
And that’s what we all had to do: learn how to make it on our own.
When we got home, dad enrolled us in a home-schooling program because he said that after the sheltered life we’d lived, throwing us into public high school would be like throwing lambs to the slaughter. He was right, but soon we wanted the real deal. We wanted a normal social experience. We enrolled in Rowland High School.
I wanted nothing more than to look cool. The night before I laid out my options. I had two shirts. One was fluorescent green with a short collar and buttons. The other had red, white and blue stripes. It fit me snugly and had a low v-cut, showing a little cleavage. I looked cool, I thought. I was ready to face the world.
Being ostracized by Mrs. Buck on my first day was not the only obstacle I’d face. High school turned into a disaster, with both Tamar and I getting kicked out twice each for having alcohol and weed. Numbing our minds became our way of dealing with the world. We found ourselves in community day schools, where we were the only white girls and often witnesses to bloody fights or unfamiliar gang-speak.
Tamar came home one day with the news of a college that boasted the promise of a stewardess degree.
“Four years, Flor,” she told me excitedly. “Four years is all it takes.”
Her mouth parched from excitement; she told me about a campus that sat high in the Malibu Hills called Pepperdine University. It was beautiful and looked like a palace, with Mediterranean Revival architecture. For the first time in my life I thought about going to college. We could apply to any school we wanted, she said. I was thrilled.
Since neither of us had a high school degree or GED, we enrolled in classes at Mt. San Antonio Community College to start. There were courses in English and history and electives in everything from Spanish to horticulture to dance. I was able to choose what I wanted to major in. This was a novel idea for me. I had never even heard about college growing up. Father David said education was evil. Institutions were places of sin and corruption.
I was beginning to see that for the first time in my life I had a future.
In an honors business class our professor announced that there would be an all-expense paid field trip to UC Berkeley. I raised my hand.
“What’s UC Berkeley?” I asked.
Looking back now, I can see how naïve my question was but I also quickly learned that curiosity was going to be my greatest and only ally. I would have to forfeit seeming dumb for my own survival.
Dad had returned to college to work on a degree, figuring that the best job he could get was a high school P.E. teacher. Instead he rekindled a love for academics, this time for mathematics. I remember waking up at two in the morning and watching him working under the amber light of a desk lamp, poring over a problem that seemed unsolvable. He was working on his master’s. I told myself that one day I would do the same.
Mom began taking weekly trips to the hospital for radiation treatments and was soon cleared of cancer. The doctors called her a “miracle case.”
A year later I received my acceptance letter to UC Berkeley.
My friends congratulated me and made it a point to let us know how jealous they were and how lucky we were — both of us getting a spot in of the best schools in America. They could never get in, they said, no matter how hard they tried or how good their grades were.
“It wasn’t just the grades,” I said. I bit my lower lip and thought hard about it for a minute. “I think my personal statement had something to do with it.”
* * *
Flor Edwards is an MFA student at the University of California, Riverside. She received her BA in journalism and is working on a memoir.