The Children of God/The Family in Court: A Documentary Legal History
by Massimo Introvigne
The Family (formerly the Children of God) is one of the new religious movements with a richest legal history. Founded by David Berg ("Moses David",1919-1994) in 1968 among California hippies, the movement adopted in the 1970s an idiosyncratic attitude about sexuality. While a Christian movement with a conservative Evangelical theology advocating great sexual freedom was in itself paradoxical enough to create scandal and controversy, the Children of God went between 1974 and 1983 into a chaotic phase of sexual experimentation. Some serious incidents of child abuse occurred during this period. Gradually, while maintaining a liberal attitude about love and sexuality quite far away from Evangelical Christianity, The Family "banned the bomb" (in its own jargon), took effective measures aimed at preventing child abuse and other illegal activities, and renounced some of the most controversial practices (including the much talked about "flirty fishing"). At this stage, The Family thought that it should be able to live a more public life. In fact, troubles had just started. Not realizing that The Family of the late 1980s and 1990s was quite different from the Children of God of the 1970s, anti-cultists and law enforcement authorities immediately noticed the resurfacing of what the most sensationalist media loved to describe as a "cult of sex". Family homes were raided in several countries, alleging that children were being abused and other wrongdoings committed. Only gradually courts of law, through painful and time-consuming investigations, ascertained to their satisfaction that the changes in The Family were not a cosmetic window-dressing, nor a tale easily told to gullible scholars, but a reality, and that - while abuses did happen at earlier stages of The Familys history - in the 1990s The Family was a law-abiding religious movement. Although its sexual mores would certainly not meet the approval of the average Evangelical, nothing illegal under the law of most countries of the world was going on in The Familys homes with respect to sexuality. Even in countries with strong official anti-cult attitudes such as France, The Family has been able to prevail in court.
This leaves scholars with a legal history unique among contemporary new religious movements. Whilst this enormous material still awaits a complete study, what follows is a preliminary summary of cases in nine different countries, with excerpts from legal documents and from local media:
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CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors.
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