The Children Of God: 5 Disturbing Facts About The Pro-Pedophilia Sex Cult

The sect still exists online and reportedly has 1,500 members in 80 countries.

August 24, 2021
Members of the Children of God cult

Members of the 'Children of Gold' cult [via Discovery, Inc.]

Members of the 'Children of Gold' cult [via Discovery, Inc.]

By: Aaron Rasmussen

David Brandt Berg, a charismatic preacher, formed The Children of God in 1968. He believed the apocalypse was near and urged believers to survive on basic necessities by giving up their money and personal possessions to the group’s leaders. He also infamously taught that God is love and love is sex.

In 1974, a New York attorney general’s office report labeled The Children of God a cult, and its members were accused of sexual abuse, assault, incest and other crimes, The Guardian reported.

In one instance, the report stated, “a 14-year-old runaway who spent nine days at a COG commune testified that she was raped and because of her refusal to cooperate with the elders, was held in solitary confinement on no less than three separate occasions.”

Despite the accusations, The Children of God continued to flourish for decades. Berg changed the cult’s name to The Family of Love following the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide, and, in 2004, the group became known as The Family International.

Ahead are five other facts about the cult that imploded just over 40 years after it began.

Berg Based The Children of God on a Doctrine He Preached Called “The Law of Love”

As a way to recruit converts to his cult, Berg encouraged what he called “flirty fishing” — female followers propositioning men to engage in sexual activity. The preacher’s daughter, Deborah Davis, later referred to the practice in her 1984 autobiography The Children of God: The Inside Story as a “worldwide prostitution network.”

Former cult member Michael Young explained to The Guardian that the doctrine was “meant to justify and conceal sexual exploitation.”

“It’s made to make other people feel obligated to give up their bodies to others’ so-called sexual needs. That your body is not your own — you’re supposed to give it up to God,” he said.

Kids Were Expected to Participate in Growing The Children of God

As a child, Young loved working with the sect as a missionary in Monterrey, Mexico, and he would often preach three or four days a week for 10 hours each time — both on the streets and door-to-door. “I was spiritual in a way that was kind of very obsessive and very determined,” he told The Guardian. After the cult began to implode when he was older, Young became disillusioned with the doctrine he was taught when younger. “It definitely wasn’t a safe place to grow up, especially if you were a girl,” he said. “Close friends of mine growing up were abused and raped.”

Several Celebrities Were Raised in the Sect

Rose McGowan was born in Florence, Italy, where her parents were members of the cult. However, she told The Irish Times in 2019, The Children of God’s leaders “started advocating child-adult sex and that was too far for my father, so we escaped.”

“I was not molested because my dad was strong enough to realize that this hippie love had gone south," she once told People, revealing, “We had to leave on the sly.”

“You had no contact with the outside world,” McGowan said of her childhood experience. “Things that are completely unacceptable became normal. I remember watching how the [cult's] men were with the women, and at a very early age I decided I did not want to be like those women. They were basically there to serve the men sexually — you were allowed to have more than one wife.”

“There's a trail of some very damaged children that were in this group,” she added. “As strong as I like to think I've always been, I'm sure I could have been broken. I know I got out by the skin of my teeth.”

Actor River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose on October 31, 1993, and his famous siblings were also raised for a time in The Children of God. He later revealed he was four years old when he first had sex. “But I've blocked it out,” he said in an interview with Details. After living in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, his family eventually left the cult and moved to Southern California.

The Law Eventually Caught Up with Berg, But the Cult Kept Growing

In 1993, Berg, who was accused of sexually abusing his own daughters and granddaughters, fled to Portugal after Interpol began an investigation into the cult leader in Argentina. He died in the European country the following year, but that didn’t stop the cult from expanding. Berg’s widow, Karen Zerby, remarried and she and her new husband, Steve Kelly, took over control.

In February 2009, the couple proclaimed in what is known as “the Reboot” that it was uncertain if Jesus Christ would be imminently returning for the group’s 15,000 members and it was time to start thinking about the future.

“It looks like they were just trying to stem the flow of members out of the movement,” Laura Vance, a religious movements expert and sociology professor told The Guardian of the cult leadership’s sudden about-face. “They went in the direction of stricter enforcement of the rules first, and then when that didn’t work, within a few years, they went in the opposite direction.”

The Children of God Still Exists Today in a New Online Form

In 1974, the New York attorney general’s office estimated followers of The Children of God lived in 120 communes. By 2006, there were reportedly at least 1,400 communes in over 100 countries.

After The Family International disbanded in 2010, the group reformed into a small online network that it claims now has roughly 1,500 members in 80 countries.

A spokeswoman told the BBC in 2019 that “although The Family International has apologized on a number of occasions to former members for any hurt, real or perceived, that they may have suffered during their time in our membership, we do not give credence to tales of institutionalized abuse.”

For more on this story, stream Children of the Cult now on discovery+. This five-part series charts the remarkable true story of three British women born into a global sex cult. Hope, Verity, and Celeste speak out about the years of abuse within the sect and their incredible fight for survival, escape, and quest for justice.

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