'Flirty fishing', incest and child abuse: Inside a chilling sex cult

·Contributor
·6-min read

It probably goes without saying that cult leaders are, generally speaking, massive creeps, but David Berg - leader of US-based cult Children of God – took creepy to a whole new level.

Sex underpinned most of Children of God’s best-known policies, with Berg as its dirty-old-man in chief.

Berg's shocking story is the subject of the second episode of Yahoo News Australia's Cults Unpacked series.

A cult of many names, the Children of God started as the cheesy-sounding Teens For Christ, and now exists as The Family International, albeit with some extremely welcome policy tweaks.

Early followers included actress Rose McGowan’s parents and the parents of River, Joaquin, and Rain Phoenix, all three of whom sang on the streets for donations to help fund the cult’s communal lifestyle.

Members of cult allege they were sexually and physically abused as children. Source: Children of God/ Netflix
Members of cult allege they were sexually and physically abused as children. Source: Children of God/ Netflix

In the late 60s in Southern California, Berg found it pretty easy to attract young, hot Christians into his cult with two main magnets.

The first was his insistence that "the System", which comprised of any organisation outside Children of God, was misguided and corrupt, which appealed to the strong stick-it-to-the-man culture in the area at the time.

The second was Berg’s strong belief that Jesus wants his believers to have as much sex as possible, with whoever they want, at any time, which appealed to the strong horniness of the sexual revolution at the time. 

The cult grew, and its communal compounds popped up all over first America and then the world.

Cult members spent their time "witnessing" and "litnessing" in the streets: talking to people about Jesus, handing out pamphlets, selling flowers and trinkets and asking for donations.

The Children of God soon established small colonies in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, France, South America, India, and Asia, living together and spreading the word.

Even Australia had its first Children of God home as early as 1972.

Berg preached via newsletters

One of the things that still gave David Berg power even though his members were scattered across the globe was his peculiar method of preaching: via newsletter.

Berg started to spread his own wisdom and instruction via illustrated letters known as "The Mo Letters".

The Children of God founder David Berg. Source: Children of God/ YouTube
The cult's founder David Berg supported sex between any members including children. Source: Children of God/ YouTube

The "Mo" comes from Berg’s cult nickname "Moses David", because cult leaders love giving themselves fancy names.

Preaching remotely also let Berg hide, secretly living in relative luxury and avoiding approaches by suspicious outside families, friends, and authorities.

Partly due to his wish to stay anonymous, anywhere in the Mo Letters where illustrations or photographs of Berg appeared, a lion’s head was usually sketched in over his own. Seems normal.

Mo Letters became more and more prescriptive, outlining how many pieces of toilet paper followers should use for a number two, and what weight their letters should ideally be to save on postage.

Rose McGowan. Source: Getty Images
Rose McGowan's father was a leader in the cult. Source: Getty Images
Joaquin Phoenix. Source: Getty Images
Joaquin Phoenix's parents were members of the Children of God. Source: Getty Images

Via the Mo Letters, Berg was able to give his followers instructions regarding where they should live, which commune would best suit them, which members of their family they could and couldn’t live with, what they should and shouldn’t eat, and who they should sleep with.

Women were expected to sleep with whoever asked or be branded selfish, a policy known as "sharing".

According to Children of God, sex was one part of God’s love, so sharing love was good and pure, and withholding love selfish, proud and often punishable.

Sex acts seen as holy

The Children of God "law of love"’ dictates that free expression of love – and therefore sex – is holy.

Followers were even encouraged to imagine that Jesus was always present when they were having sex, including when they were masturbating, and one Mo Letter included suggestions of phrases Jesus might like to hear during the act of self-love, such as “I receive your love, Lord, with open arms and open legs!”.

Woman sings and plays guitar on street, surrounded by other cult members. Source: Children of God/ YouTube
The Children of God cult used the employ the technique of "Flirty Fishing" to recruit new members. Source: Children of God/ YouTube

While the practice of dirty-talking the Messiah is just odd, two Children of God practices nudged the cult into potentially criminal activity.

The first was the involvement of children in sexual activity. Children in the group were taught about sex – often via demonstration – from a broadly unacceptable age and often from as young as three or four.

For many of the children in Children of God, watching adults "demonstrate" sex was as far as it went, but there are stories of child sexual abuse within the cult.

Certainly a group that openly preaches a relaxed attitude towards the age of consent can attract paedophiles and abusers, and Children of God definitely did.

Berg called laws again incest 'crazy'

Upsettingly, David Berg was also absolutely fine with the idea of incest.

He called "system" laws against incest crazy, and believed that neither age nor familial ties mattered if you acted in pure love. David Berg was a bad person.

Furthermore, David Berg sent women out to lure men into the cult with their vaginas.

Children of God’s most notorious and well-known practice was "Flirty Fishing", referred to casually as "FFing" in the Mo Letters.

Women were sent out as bait to "fish" for men in bars and on the streets, and where possible get paid for it to help raise funds for the communes.

Mo Letters on the subject of Flirty Fishing referred to FFers as “Hookers for Jesus” and “God’s Whores”.

Investigations by Interpol and the FBI became frequent, particularly once parents left the group and started looking into getting their children back – in many instances, children didn’t live with their parents in communes.

Members of Children of God raise their arms. Source: Getty Images
Many members were drawn to the cult due to its relaxed attitude towards sex. Source: Getty Images

From the late 1980s, raids targeting reported child abduction or abuse in Family homes occurred in numerous countries, the most significant in Argentina in 1989 and Australia in 1982.

Via Mo letters, followers were advised to destroy any potentially incriminating documents or photographs as the "system" just wouldn’t understand. Ugh.

When David Berg died in 1994, his common-law wife Karen Zerby announced a "reboot", in which major changes to significant doctrinal teachings and organisational structure occurred, including an abandonment of communal living, and permission for members to pursue "system" jobs and education.

It’s hard to tell the difference now between The Family International and other benign Christian groups. Probably a good thing. 

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