How a Cult Stole My Life

By Julia Llewellyn Smith

Author Taylor Stevens was raised in a sect where beatings, starvation and sexual abuse were everyday events.

Forty years later, can she leave the ‘Children of God’ behind her?

Most children would be praised for writing stories. Not Taylor Stevens. Aged 41, Stevens was born and raised in a cult then known as the Children of God, whose members (a term Stevens dislikes since it implies she had a choice) lived communally, usually in squalid poverty, surviving by begging. Children were often beaten, starved, separated from their parents, denied education and sexually abused.

Stevens’s sporadic schooling ended for good when she was 12, but she always had a compulsion to tell stories. “All entertainment – music, television, books – was banned. We were so bored, I used to make up stories to tell the other teenagers when we were sitting for hours in the back of a van being driven to go beg somewhere,” she recalls. “Imagination was my survival mechanism.”

When she was 15, she got her hands on a few notebooks and began writing stories. “I knew my supply was limited, so I wrote really small, squeezing as many words into each line as possible.” Before long, however, they were discovered and the books were confiscated and burned.

“The leaders told me I was a witch and full of devils and performed an exorcism on me. They put me in a room for three days without food. They wanted me to confess my sins. I didn’t know what to say, so I just came out with every doubt about the group I’d ever had. I made strange noises because I thought that’s what they wanted, but I was worrying: ‘What happens if they’re the wrong noises?’ ”

Afterwards, Stevens was isolated from her peers for months. “They thought I’d contaminate them with my evil spirit. They made me read propaganda for hours at a time and then write essays about how it was making me a better person. I just made stuff up to make them happy.” She laughs. “There’s an irony they didn’t want me to write fiction but almost everything I was telling them was fiction – and that gave me the grounding for what I do today.”

Twenty-five years on, Stevens is a bestselling author. Her first novel, The Informationist went into The New York Times top 10, translated into 20 languages and was optioned by James (Titanic) Cameron. Two more, extremely readable, thrillers have been published, another two are in the pipeline.

It’s an extraordinary turnabout for a woman who only escaped the cult aged 29. Today, talking to me from her home in Dallas, Texas, she appears a regular suburban mum, our call’s interrupted by one of her two teenage daughters returning unexpectedly to the accompaniment of frenzied dog barking, then school calls demanding an unexpected pick up for the other. Yet Stevens is far from that stereotype: “I don’t relate to being a PTA mum, where your whole life is, ‘Oh, Susy did this, and then we made cupcakes!’ ” She adds: “No matter how much they love me, no matter how wonderful they are, people can never understand where I came from.”

Founded by David Berg (also known as “King”, “David” or “Moses”) in California in 1968, the cult, today known as The Family or Family International, preached the imminent apocalypse and the shunning of all personal property.

Free love was encouraged within communes (though contraception was banned) and Berg encouraged “flirty fishing”, sending out female members to recruit new members and earn money through prostitution. By the time Berg died, he was wanted by Interpol for inciting sexual abuse against children. In 2005, Berg’s stepson and heir apparent murdered his former nanny and then killed himself, leaving a video claiming she had abused him as a toddler, adding the person he really wanted to kill was his mother – Karen Zerby, still the cult’s leader.

Thanks to its anti-American rhetoric, the cult attracted many hippies and anti-war protesters, as well, Stevens says, as many on the run from the law. Over its 46-year history, it’s boasted 35,000 members, including 13,000 children – today it’s believed to number around 10,000 people. Actress Rose McGowan was born into the cult, her family deciding to leave when leaders began advocating sex with children, while the Phoenix family, including the actor brothers River and Joaquin, were members for a period in the Seventies.

Stevens’s father joined the cult in 1969 aged 23, her mother in 1970 at 18. Leaders “married” them to each other, because, she suspects, both were Jewish. “You’d have to ask them why they joined. My parents were very young, maybe directionless and they were probably approached by a smiley person saying: ‘Why don’t you come and spend the night?’ she says. In her second novel, The Innocent, set in a cult, a character explains the lure: “To release oneself from independence, to follow the Prophet was to be free of responsibility.”

As part of its rejection of property, the cult led itinerant lives, so by the time she was seven, Stevens and her four younger siblings had lived in caravan parks, alongside other members, in five different US states and three European countries. For one brief period, when Berg relaxed the rules, Stevens attended various mainstream schools acquiring a basic education and avidly reading Nancy Drew library books, though she never made friends with “outsiders”. “We led a double life, we just didn’t talk about what went on. We knew we were the chosen ones, superior to them, that they were wrapped up in their worldy ways.”

When she was 12, the family moved to Japan and her education “and my innocence” ceased. In keeping with the cult’s anti-nuclear-family stance – she was removed from her family and sent to various communes where she and the other teenagers cooked, cleaned and did the childcare for hundreds. At one point she was sharing a cupboard-sized room with six people and a bathroom with 20. “They took away our best years, it was full-time child labour.”

She was also sent out regularly to beg, once finding herself on the snowy streets of Osaka in her only footwear – open-toed sandals. “The begging just shredded me, I hated the dishonesty, asking people for money they thought was humanitarian projects, when we had no time for anything except just trying to survive.”

She dreamed of escaping, but – with spies everywhere – never confided her unhappiness. In any case, she had no skills to navigate the outside world. “I was terrified God would strike me dead.” The cult regularly read out “Traumatic Testimonies” where members would recount horror stories of life outside. “They’d say: ‘It may look good out there, but believe me I’d be dead if I hadn’t found The Family.’ ” Outsiders – however much they tried to debunk Berg’s teachings – were treated with suspicion. “You couldn’t even begin to hear what they were trying to tell you, you’d been inoculated against it.”

Stevens moved on to Mexico, where the cult was establishing its hardest-core stronghold to date. “The leadership really was sadistic. They were there to teach wayward north-Americans how to be good cult members and they were so abusive. Children suffered horrible physical discipline for the smallest infractions, it wasn’t about punishment, it was about hammering square pegs into round holes. My whole life has been levels of awfulness, so all I could do was keep my head down as usual and just get through it.”

After Berg’s death in 1994, Stevens used the upheaval to seize her chance to move to a commune in Kenya, “as far away as I could get from leaders checking all the time if we were spiritual enough”. She married another cult member and, hoping to actually help others, rather than beg, the pair set up a mission in Equatorial Guinea, which has one of the worst human rights records and levels of poverty in the world.

“It was the land that time forgot, like walking through the doors of hell,” Stevens exclaims. “It was the most inhospitable place you could live: the climate, the culture of paranoia. We had to bribe the government to let us help the people.” Despite this, they built 3,000 school desks and brought in $30,000 of medical and educational supplies.

Empowered by having succeeded against such odds, the couple, now with a toddler and a baby on the way, moved to Germany. Her husband found a job and they were able finally to leave the cult. “I will never forget how elated I felt the first morning I woke up in our own small apartment, finally free of the eyes that had been watching and judging me my entire life,” she says. “Going to the shops, booking a doctor’s appointment – all the ordinary things most adults take for granted – were so novel for me. Walking down the street alone felt extraordinary, we had always gone out in pairs, it was like being naked. I was frightened God would strike me down, I developed all sorts of phobias. It took a long time to adapt.”

The couple (now amicably divorced – “In the cult environment, you think you know someone because you live with them full time, but you only know who the cult expects them to be”) moved on to the United States, where they continued to live in abject poverty. To make extra cash, Stevens began buying books at car boot sales to resell on eBay. Having previously read “maybe 15 novels” in Africa, she became an avid fan of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels.

Realising she had lived in equally exotic locations as those Ludlum depicted, she decided, aged 35, to write her own thriller set in bizarre and terrifying Equatorial Guinea. “My spelling and punctuation weren’t much but I could string words together,” she says. As evidence of this, soon after The Informationist was published, to huge acclaim, a stranger accosted her saying there was no way she had only a primary-school education and accusing her of having invented her backstory to boost sales.

In fact, though her background is a publicist’s dream, Stevens was reluctant to dwell on it too much and initially wanted to omit it from her author’s biography. “I could have invented a past for myself,” she says. “But growing up, we lied to the outside world about us all the time and I vowed I was never going to do that again.”

She refuses to discuss details of physical abuse, or the cult’s sexual elements, firstly to protect her daughters but also, as one character explains in The Innocent, because it overshadows the dozens of other indignities that thousands of children endured. “There was sexual abuse… But that’s just one of so many dishes served on the smorgasbord of my childhood… Nobody reports about the extreme discipline, or being separated from our families, or education deprivation, or the lack of medical care… That’s not entertaining enough.”

Was it her desire to focus on these other horrors that led her to write The Innocent? “Other people were using the fact I’d been raised in a cult for their own agendas – to sell books, to show cults are bad – I just wanted to let people see what it was really like,” Stevens says. “I wanted to describe dispassionately, without anger, the sadism I had to live through, how no justice was ever served.”

Today, her parents divorced, she has no relationship with her father, partly because he continues to identify with the cult, but, after some rebuilding, has a “solid, loving” relationship with her mother.

Having her own daughters fully brought home to her the horrors of her own youth. “Through comparing my children’s growth and development… to what I had experienced comparatively at those ages, I grasped the true horrors of what I had lived through,” she says. “I can’t comprehend how so many of the parents in the cult could have set aside such a powerful instinct.”

The Informationist, The Innocent, The Doll are published by Arrow, £7.99 each

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11184489/taylor-stevens-joaquin-phoenix-david-berg-children-of-god.html

Former Legionary of Christ, Father Morris leaves helm of Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel

NEW YORK (CNS) — Father Jonathan Morris, program director and talk-show host for the Catholic Channel on the Sirius XM satellite radio platform, has left the station.

Continue reading Former Legionary of Christ, Father Morris leaves helm of Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel

Victims of the Legion Awarded $20,000 For Sexual Abuse

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The Legionaries of Christ will pay more than $20,000 apiece to at least four victims sexually abused by the order’s Mexican founder, Father Marcial Maciel, three years after his death, a spokesman said on Thursday.

Maciel was an influential figure in the Roman Catholic Church who had the ear of the late Pope John Paul II.

But he died in 2008 at the age of 87, disgraced by allegations he sexually abused men and young boys, including a man who said he was Maciel’s son.

The Maciel scandal is just one in a series of revelations about priest sex abuse to rock the Catholic Church.

Founded by Maciel when he was in his early 20s, the Legion is a priestly order that runs private Catholic schools and charitable organizations in 22 countries via its network of 800 priests and 2,600 seminarians.

Accusations that Maciel lived a disturbing double-life, fathered children and was addicted to morphine-like drugs, have weakened the powerful order that boasted members of some of Mexico’s wealthiest families.

Despite years of allegations, Maciel was spared official condemnation until 2006 when Pope Benedict obliged him to retire to a life of “prayer and penitence.”

The payments of between $21,000 and $28,000 will be given to four or five victims and more compensation could follow, said Andreas Schoggl, a spokesman for the Legionaries of Christ in Vatican City.

“It’s a way to repair damage and hopefully it’s a way of healing,” Schoggl said.

The compensation payments are a result of a commission set up in 2010 by the Vatican to probe abuses by Maciel. The sums are modest compared to million-dollar payouts awarded to victims of priest abuse in the United States.

In the largest settlement of its kind, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007 agreed to pay $660 million to 500 victims of sexual abuse dating as far back as the 1940s. The U.S. church has paid $2 billion to victims since 1992.

Schoggl declined to provide details on how many people the commission has interviewed but said at least one of Maciel’s victims is from Mexico.

Pope Benedict’s Legacy Marred by Sex Abuse Scandal

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned, he leaves behind a Church grappling with a global fallout from sex abuse and a personal legacy marred by allegations that he was instrumental in covering up that abuse.

As the sex abuse scandal spread from North America to Europe, Benedict became the first pope to meet personally with victims, and offered repeated public apologies for the Vatican’s decades of inaction against priests who abused their congregants.

“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse,” the pope said in a 2008 homily in Washington, D.C., before meeting with victims of abuse for the first time. “It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention.” During the same trip to the U.S., he met with victims for the first time.

For some of the victims, however, Benedict’s actions were “lip service and a public relations campaign,” said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who represents victims of sex abuse. For 25 years, Benedict, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the Vatican office responsible for investigating claims of sex abuse, but he did not act until he received an explicit order from Pope John Paul II.

In 1980, as Archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger approved plans for a priest to move to a different German parish and return to pastoral work only days after the priest began therapy for pedophilia. The priest was later convicted of sexually abusing boys.

In 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger became head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the office once known as the Inquisition — making him responsible for upholding church doctrine, and for investigating claims of sexual abuse against clergy. Thousands of letters detailing allegations of abuse were forwarded to Ratzinger’s office.

A lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a victims’ rights group, charges that as head of the church body Ratzinger participated in a cover-up of abuse. In an 84-page complaint, the suit alleges that investigators of sex abuse cases in several countries found “intentional cover-ups and affirmative steps taken that serve to perpetuate the violence and exacerbate the harm.”

“Ratzinger, then Pope Benedict XVI, either knew and/or some cases consciously disregarded information that showed subordinates were committing or about to commit such crimes,” the complaint says.

Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican’s lawyer in the U.S., told the AP the complaint was a “ludicrous publicity stunt and a misuse of international judicial processes.”

In the 1990s, former members of the Legion of Christ sent a letter to Ratzinger alleging that the founder and head of the Catholic order, Father Marcial Maciel, had molested them while they were teen seminarians. Maciel was allowed to continue as head of the order.

In 1996, Ratzinger didn’t respond to letters from Milwaukee’s archbishop about a priest accused of abusing students at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. An assistant to Ratzinger began a secret trial of the priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, but halted the process after Murphy wrote a personal appeal to Ratzinger complaining of ill health.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a letter urging the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to pursue allegations of child abuse in response to calls from bishops around the world.

Ratzinger wrote a letter asserting the church’s authority to investigate claims of abuse and emphasizing that church investigators had the right to keep evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the alleged victims reached adulthood.

Ratzinger became upset — and slapped Ross’s hand — when ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross asked him a question in 2002 about the delay in pursuing sex abuse charges against Maciel.

But by 2004, Ratzinger had ordered an investigation of Maciel, and after becoming pope, he ordered Maciel to do penance and removed him from the active priesthood. After becoming pope Benedict spoke openly about the crisis, but he was repeatedly accused of having participated in a coverup.

In April 2010, Benedict and other officials were accused by members of BishopAccountability.org of covering up alleged child abuse by 19 bishops.

At the time, the Pope told reporters he was “deeply ashamed” of the allegations of sex abuse by his subordinates and reportedly said, “We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry.”

Several other accusations followed from alleged victims around the world, prompting Benedict to make a public statement later that month from St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. In his speech, he said the Catholic Church would take action against alleged sexual abusers. The Pope described a tearful meeting in Malta with eight men who claimed to have been abused by clergy there.

“I shared with them their suffering, and with emotion, I prayed with them,” said Benedict, “assuring them of church action.”

In 2010, he personally apologized to Irish victims of abuse.

“You have suffered grievously, and I am truly sorry,” the pope wrote in an eight-page letter to Irish Catholics. “Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”

But for those who advocate on behalf of the victims, the pope’s words did not go far enough.

“Tragically, he gets credit for talking about the crisis,” said David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP. “He only ever addressed the crimes and never the cover-ups. And only in the past tense, which is self-serving. Sex crimes and cover-ups are still happening.”

Clohessy called the meetings the pope had with victims “symbolic gestures.”

“This controversy that has reached even the highest office of the Vatican won’t go away until the pope himself tells us what he knew, when he knew it, and what he’s going to do about it,” said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Catholic priest and professor of theology at Notre Dame University.

Lena, the Vatican’s U.S. lawyer, declined to comment on charges that Benedict had participated in a cover up, but said the fact that two major cases against the Church in U.S. courts, including the Murphy case, had “been dismissed by the plaintiffs themselves, speaks volumes for the strength and integrity of those cases.”

Chilean Legislators Vote to Strip Legionary of Honorary Nationality

Santiago, Chile, Jan 9, 2015 / 03:35 pm (CNA/EWTN News).

The House of Representatives in Chile has passed a resolution stripping Father John O’Reilly, of the Legion of Christ of his honorary Chilean nationality by a vote of 96-5 after he was sentenced to four years of house arrest for sexual abuse.

Continue reading Chilean Legislators Vote to Strip Legionary of Honorary Nationality

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