Children Of God: The Sex Cult That Preached Pedophilia, Prostitution & The Apocalypse
How self-proclaimed prophet David Berg allegedly built an empire of abuse that ultimately led to a murder-suicide — committed by his own son.
To the public, the Children of God cult seems to be best known for the claims of child abuse leveled against it by Hollywood actors Rose McGowan and the late River Phoenix.
In 2018, McGowan spoke of spending the first 10 years of her life in Italy, where her father headed a Children of God chapter. To cope with the cult’s alleged sexual abuse, McGowan told a reporter, “I kind of separated myself from my body and flew away somewhere.”
Talking to Details magazine in 1991, River Phoenix discussed growing up in the Children of God and reportedly said he lost his virginity at age four, and added, "But I've blocked it out. I was completely celibate from ten to fourteen."
River Phoenix [George Rose/Getty Images/Lucky 8]
Two years later, Phoenix tragically succumbed to a lethal combination of drugs on the sidewalk outside an L.A. nightclub. Friends have long speculated if perhaps lingering torment from his cult upbringing had pushed him toward self-destructive behavior.
Rose and River are just the two most famous victims who allegedly suffered under the rule of David Berg, founder and self-proclaimed prophet of the Children of God.
According to many other survivors, Berg’s doctrine, called “The Law of Love,” commanded followers to win converts and bring one another to “salvation” through prolific sexual contact — regardless of the age of the participants.
In 1968, David Berg, the son of popular Christian evangelists, struck out on his own by preaching the gospel while running a hippie coffee shop in Encinco, California. There, he establishing his first organization, Teens for Christ.
Initially, the group fit in with the “Jesus People” faction of the era’s youthful counterculture, particularly on the West Coast. That changed in 1969, after Berg predicted a massive earthquake would eradicate California.
Changing their moniker to Children of God (COG), Berg and his disciples fanned out through the United States. While on the road, Berg decreed that the freest interpretations of “free love” stood out as the purest expression of divine benevolence — even if you were by yourself.
In fact, Berg reportedly encouraged his followers to masturbate frequently, and to imagine Jesus Christ making love to them as they did it. To discourage male homosexuality, however, Berg allegedly instructed each man to picture himself as a woman during such sessions (lesbianism, apparently, was always okay in Berg’s view).
Person-to-person contact was even more important, according to Berg’s teachings, which he published under the byline “Moses David.” Eventually, these directives were adapted as True Comix, a series of explicitly illustrated, unnervingly kid-friendly comic books that were distributed to church members and used to attract newcomers.
In one such missive, Berg reportedly announced: “We have a sexy God and a sexy religion with a very sexy leader with an extremely sexy young following! So if you don’t like sex, you better get out while you can.”
Partner-swapping among practitioners allegedly became the norm and birth control was strictly discouraged. Berg reportedly told disciples to reproduce as much as they could and to raise their offspring as new Children of God. Such replenishment was vital because, as Berg constantly reminded them, the endtimes were at hand and only his followers would be saved. Sex, he added, was the one true path to salvation — and oftentimes that allegedly meant sex with him.
On the ID special People Magazines Investigates Cults: Children of God, survivor Christina Babin states, “Death, he told us, was the ultimate orgasm… Sex was considered how you showed God’s love. It’s the ultimate giving to sacrifice your body. It was, ‘Give up your wife. Become swingers. Do this for God.’”
Throughout the early 1970s, Berg published numerous writings in which he concocted a dynamic strategy for his female acolytes. “Flirty Fishing” (FF), witnesses said, was taken from the Bible verse Matthew 4:19, in which Jesus tells two local fishermen that, if they follow him, he’ll make them “fishers of men.”
“Father David,” as COG members called him, wrote, “FF’ing is going out witnessing the love of Jesus with the serious intent to use sex or sex appeal as the bait, regardless of the situation of place. This can be anywhere! On the street, in a park, while going to a local store, in discotheques, or in clubs!”
Soon enough, Flirty Fishing became a revenue source for the Children of God, combining proselytizing and prostitution. When women protested against Berg calling them “God’s whores” or “hookers for Jesus,” he reportedly reminded them that Christ actually “owned” their bodies, which he purchased by dying for their sins.
Emphasis was additionally placed on keeping accurate records of all such “witnessing,” including the number of times sex occurred with each partner. The group’s own accounting estimates that, between 1974 and 1987, the Flirty Fishers allegedly spread their version of the good word to more than 239,000 seekers.
In the midst of all this, at age 60, the still-married Berg undertook a sexual relationship with his 23-year-old secretary, Karen Zerby. After divorcing his first wife, Berg married Zerby, named her “Mama Maria,” anointed her queen, and adopted Ricky Rodriguez, an infant son she conceived while Flirty Fishing in the Canary Islands.
Little Ricky Rodriguez was held up as a holy figure, the Prince of the Children of God. Berg reportedly assigned a team of female nursemaids to care for him and documented the boy’s early years in a massive tome titled, The Story of Davidito.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the nannies’ duties allegedly involved sexually molesting Rodriguez from his infancy onward, as evidenced by photographs widely distributed among Berg’s followers.
People Magazine Investigates Cults: Children of God takes a deep look into that most upsetting aspect of the group — Berg’s alleged encouragement of sex involving actual children.
On the show, Christina Babin bravely recounts her indoctrination. She says that, when she was 11, “An adult couple came and got me in the night and showed me how to have sex.”
In a previous interview documented by People, Babin elaborated, “I had already been taught that women were sexual objects, that we were supposed to be God’s whores. So it was not that shocking to me that they took me aside and said, ‘Here, we are going to teach you how to have sex because this is part of your training.’ What surprised me was that I didn’t like it and I thought there was something wrong with me, that something was wrong with my heart, my soul, because I didn’t enjoy the thing that David Berg said that I should.”
Jemima Farris, another survivor who appears on the special, says, “Everything was controlled by Father David, down to how many pieces of toilet paper you could use per day…. You were supposed to be willing to give your body to anyone that wanted it or desired it. As a 12-year-old, we were placed on sharing schedules, which was just rotations of different men.”
Babin also describes being trafficked for sex all over the world and, when she protested, she says she got sent to a prison camp in Japan, where she met Farris.
According to Babin, “They made camps for any teenager that either rebelled or doubted. The lengths that they went to in the prison camps was so far removed from anything that was human. That’s when I started feeling that scream inside of me, saying, ‘This is wrong.’”
In 1978, the Children of God changed its name to the Family of Love and, then, four years later, to simply The Family (TF). In 1989, the group announced publicly that any sexual activity involving minors was strictly forbidden and that violators would be immediately excommunicated.
On October 1, 1994, David Berg died at age 75, and Karen Zerby reportedly took over. Allegedly, followers found out about Berg’s elaborate lifestyle, and membership in The Family declined drastically. Still, the group endured and, in 2004, changed its name yet again to The Family International (TFI).
Ricky Rodriguez, Zerby’s biological child and Berg’s adopted heir, was presumed to be next in line to run The Family International. After marrying another church member, though, he left the organization in 2001. Three years later, Rodriguez split from his wife, moved to Arizona, and reportedly began plotting to kill his mother, who was not easy to track down.
In searching for his mom, police say Rodriguez contacted Angela Smith, who was allegedly one of his childhood nannies. On January 9, 2005, Rodriguez reportedly met Smith at her apartment and stabbed her to death. Authorities say Rodriguez then drove to Blythe, California, where he ended his life with a single gunshot to the head.
Reporting on the murder-suicide, The New York Times wrote, “He said he saw himself as a vigilante, avenging children like him and his sisters who had been subject to rapes and beatings.”
The Times also stated the Rodriguez recorded a video the night before the killing, on which he said, “There's this need that I have. It's not a want. It's a need for revenge. It's a need for justice, because I can't go on like this."
Despite the allegations and evidence of transgressions that reportedly took place under David Berg and within the Children of God community, The Family International continues to exist. Karen Zerby is reported to still be at the helm, and church documents officially insist that followers obey all their local laws.
Still, for some survivors, the bitterness that reportedly motivated Ricky Rodriguez remains. Jessica Babin, speaking on the ID special, says, “I think Ricky was desperate. He lost hope that there would be justice, and I kind of understood why he did it. All of us were victims of Father David.”
Watch the Children of God episode of Investigation Discovery's People Magazine Investigates: Cults on ID GO now!