Moses David

The Children of God and The Family in Italy

The Children of God and The Family have had their share of controversy in Italy, but less so than in other countries. They have also been involved in fewer controversies in Italy than have other minority religious movements, old or new. Both the secular anti-cult movement and the religious counter-cult movement in Italy have regarded the Church of Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses as their primary targets, recently placing the New Age movement at the top of their list of priorities. The Children of God were the subject of a strongly-worded press campaign in Winter 1978. An offshoot of this controversy, a Court case begun in Rome in 1979, was not decided until 1991. This is minimal compared to the hostile press Court cases involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology, particularly when one considers the controversy surrounding the Children of God and later The Family in other countries, including nearby France.

David Berg visited Italy in 1971 and seemed to have placed high hopes on a future missionary activity there. On March 19, 1972 a small missionary team headed by Faith, Berg's daughter, arrived in Rome in a van from Germany. They started witnessing to tourists and hippies on the steps of Piazza di Spagna and other favourite tourist locations. One of the first Italian converts was Emanuele Canevaro, scion of a noble family from Florence, who later was referred to as "our Italian king" in one of David Berg's visions and who put his Bassetto farm in Poggio Secco near Florence at the group's disposal. Canevaro's farm was later the home of the first Montessori school of the Children of God in Italy (Canevaro is no longer a member of The Family). [1]
On Easter Sunday April 22, 1972 Faith and her group gathered with the crowd in St.Peter's Square to hear Pope Paul VI. They tried to attract the attention of the crowd with signs in English and Italian reading "The Love of Jesus is not Religion! -- But Reality!" Although at the time the Children of God had only six members in Italy, they attracted the attention of a group of Little Sisters of Jesus, a female Roman Catholic order of nuns devoted to radical poverty and already active with the hippies. One of them, Sister Magedlena, proved a long-lasting friend of the group and rendered to the Children of God a number of important services in the following years.
Prospects seemed reasonably bright, and Faith went back to England to report to her father. He was enthusiastic enough about Italy to write one of the MO Letters, Arrivederci Roma, where he reported the vision of a river -- God's will -- coming down from Northern Europe to Italy, avoiding hostile France. "The current of the river is like God's will: you just flow with it". He went on to comment that the Children of God were "now beginning to invade the Catholic countries" where they would have to show themselves to be "pro-Catholic", to the point of honouring the Pope ("kiss the Pope's foot, if necessary") and attend the Catholic mass. Rome thus became a critically important city: "All roads lead to Rome, they say, but we are going to find, God Willing, that all roads lead from Rome and through Rome!". Berg mentioned Emanuele and Sister Maddalena in the letter, and gave it the title Arrivederci Roma from a famous Italian song he fondly remembered, sung by one of his favorite performers, Mario Lanza ("it was," Berg noted, "the last song he sang in the last movie he made before he died", and in his vision he even "saw a big piazza and Mario Lanza with his arms outstretched over Rome") [2]
MO's Letter Arrivederci Roma was printed in September 1972 and brought by Faith to Rome in October, where understandably it was received with considerable excitement. Although some of the suggestions to behave like good Catholics in Italy may simply sound like public relations strategies, Berg was at that time engaged in a re-evaluation of Roman Catholicism, and in another letter of September 1972-published under the title Are the Children of God Catholics or Protestants? -he concluded that "surely we Children of God have more in common with the Catholics than with the Protestants." [3]
On October 4, 1972, Sister Magedlena accompanied Faith and six other Children of God (small children included) to Pope Paul VI's general audience. At the end of his speech the Pope passed through the crowded hall and gave to the assembled faithful, including Sister Maddalena and Faith, his hands to kiss. An excited Faith reported in a MO Letter dated October 1972 that the Pope put his hand on her head twice and said to her (in Italian) "God bless you," and the Letter carried photographs of the Pope placing his hand on the head of a little baby from the group (today a grown-up member of The Family) and blessing a group including Faith, and of Faith playing guitar with a smiling Sister Magedlena. It is probable that most Children of God outside Italy did not realize that attending a general audience with the Pope was not an exceptional occurrence (in fact, thousands of people every year attend such audiences), but Faith's enthusiasm sounds genuine. [4]
A small coffee house was opened in the center of Rome where the Children of God tried to attract young people from the hippie subculture. In 1974 they added a disco in Via della Farnesina in an old warehouse (the place has now been converted to an Italian public television's storehouse), later called by different names, including the O.K. Club. With the disco came real success for the Italian Children of God (who in 1974 had also started distributing MO Letters in the streets). The disco became popular and was attended by hundreds of young people; the success enabled the Children of God to expand their missionary activities all over Italy and to open a second coffee house in Via Melzo in Milan. When the press campaign against the movement began in 1978 there were around 300 Italian Children of God (including foreigners living in Italy), and some Italian members had started missionary activities in other countries.

2. The Campaign Against The Family of Love, 1978-1991

The consequences of the "reorganization" of February 1978, which disbanded the Children of God, dismissed a number of leaders, and initiated The Family of Love period, were felt in Italy as they were everywhere else. Flirty fishing and an emphasis on sexual freedom reached Italy through the movement's international literature, although according to later Court enquiries flirty fishing was more talked about than actually practiced in Italy. [5] Even an ex -member who appeared on Italian public TV to expose the evil of the Children of God declared that she was acquainted with flirty fishing and sexual "revolutionary" through reading internal and external literature rather than through direct experience. [6]
A campaign centered on flirty fishing (labeled as "prostitution") and free love was, however, started in the Winter of 1978 by Rina Goren, a reporter for the Rome daily newspaper II Messaggero (Goren, then a young reporter, was propelled by the campaign into a successful career of investigative journalism, later mostly in politics). Goren, under the assumed name of "Sara," started attending the movement's Rome disco. As the subsequent police investigation declared, she gathered very little evidence of unorthodox sexual practices [7], although she did collect rumors (mostly from youngsters who were not considered members of the movement because of their minor age-they were called "catacombs" in the group's jargon-and who were apparently inclined to gossip), and of course evidence of unorthodox theories on sex was not hard to gather from The Family of Love at that time. Goren, however, decided to go on with her story, relying mostly on information supplied ultimately by anticult movements in the United States and Europe, which had previously appeared in the German magazine Stern. The story had a number of follow-ups by Goren herself in Il Messaggero, and was picked up by most of the major Italian newspapers. 142 articles and 4 TV stories appeared within one month. Since, however, little few evidence from Italy surfaced, and because most of the stories concerned The Family of Love abroad, interest died out quite soon, and by early 1979 the campaign had, in fact, come to an end.
The press campaign had, however, set in motion the sluggish machinery of the police. In January 1979, the Rome disco was raided and fifteen persons were identified as members of a "cult," possibly operating a "prostitution ring." On March 17, 1979, the Public Prosecutor of Rome indicted thirteen people, including Emanuele Canevaro, his wife Barbara, the manager of the disco, Angelo Giardinelli-and David Berg himself. He also ordered the arrest of these four people, although in fact only the Canevaros were arrested, and released immediately after their deposition. Berg obviously could not been reached by the Italian police, and Giardinelli was in Greece. In fact, he was busy with the production of the international missionary music show Music with Meaning. He had worked in the international team which had produced the show, and from Greece he helped produce national versions for several European countries, including Italy.
By 1980 the Family of Love took advantage of the new freedom of establishing private radios in Italy (where only a public radio had been allowed for decades), and the Italian version, Musica con Messaggio, was aired by dozens of small radios. Although the name Family of Love was occasionally avoided for being too controversial, by 1980 the controversy had largely been forgotten. What was not easily forgotten, however, was the Court action. Giardinelli was arrested in Greece in 1981 on the basis of an international warrant, and spent three and a half months in jail there before a Greek Court decided (and the Greek Supreme Court later confirmed) that the evidence offered by Italy was too weak to justify an extradition. Italy, however, did not abandon its claim on Giardinelli and, when he returned to his native country in 1987 (and, unsuspectingly, made himself known to the authorities by applying for a new passport), the police again attempted to arrest him through an unsuccessful raid at his parents' home. At this stage, Giardinelli finally consulted with a friendly lawyer, who obtained the annulment of the warrant for arrest pending the group's commitment to trial.
Italian Courts are notoriously slow, but the fact that a case started in 1979 went to trial only after twelve years in 1991 also shows that the press and political pressure on the prosecutor was not very high. In the meantime, most of the original Italian members of the Children of God who had joined The Family of Love had spent some years in faraway missions (in the Far East or South America) and, because of visa restrictions in the mission countries and other strategical considerations, had participated in the return home of most European members in 1988. Flirty fishing had been stopped in 1987, together with many of the unorthodox sexual practices of the 1970s and early 1980s, and the literature on these subjects (including the very controversial letters suggesting that sexual initiation for children at an early age was permissible) was being eliminated. The former Children of God had come of age, and had opened their main new centers near Rome and Perugia. They were busy distributing their new attractive posters, music cassettes, and Kiddy Viddy videos for children, and above all organizing home schools for their children that were consistent with their doctrines.
Italian anti-cult literature was remarkable for, if anything, the minimal attention it paid to the Children of God/The Family of Love. Only professor Michele Del Re, a lawyer and law professor operating an anti-cult organization called Studio dei Culti Emergenti in Rome, devoted a significant portion of one of his books to flirty fishing, authoritian power structures, sex between and with minors, and brainwashing in the Children of God movement. His material for this 1988 book was, however, admittedly derived from American and German anti-cult sources, with very few references to Italy. [8] This volume was intended for a popular audience. In a 1991 scholarly study of the legal aspects of brainwashing, Del Re was careful to introduce more sensationalistic accusations derived from ex-members of the Children of God with the caveat, "their accusers relate . . ." [9]
Overall -- although anti-cultists at times mentioned flirty fishing and other practices as a graphic example of how bad some "cults" could be -- The Family of Love was largely a non-issue among critics of new religious movements in 1991. That the old case went to trial in 1991 was, in a sense, anachronistic. The Roman judges, however, made a reasonably careful assessment of the case. They concluded that Berg had indeed written the MO Letters found during the police investigation, but that none of them were outside the limits of what is legally permissible in Italy. The judges also regarded as "probable" that Berg was the final recipient of the ten percent of the group's revenues sent to Zurich and other foreign destinations, but there was no evidence that this was done by breaching any Italian law. They found "not the slightest evidence of fraud' in the group's dealings with actual and would-be members.
Their analysis of flirty fishing is particularly interesting. The judges concluded that it was only in "the last months of 1977 Berg started counseling the members that it was permissible for proselyting reasons to offer sexual contacts and services to perspective members, the more so when the latter were potentially good financial contributors to the cult." However, not only the young members, but also the older ones and even the leaders, were at the same time exponents and "victims" of this rather bizarre vision of sex and proselytism. In order to find someone guilty of the crime of causing or exploiting the prostitution of another person (prostitution per se is not illegal in Italy), the objective element of suggesting that someone offers his or her own body to an unknown partner for a fee or another reward is not enough. It is also necessary to show that the parties involved did in fact understand their activities as prostitution in the legal sense of the term. Among the Children of God, the judges argued, flirty fishing was not understood as prostitution but "as a personal contribution to the humanitarian aims that the sect always claimed to pursue."
This important conclusion shows the reluctance of Italian Courts to accept the distinction between deeds and creeds that has become a trademark of the anti-cult movement internationally. The same deeds-if carried out in the name of different creeds-are in fact subject to a different legal evaluation. If offering one's body for a reward is motivated by greed, only the action is prostitution, and causing this action to be performed by another is a crime under Italian law; if the same deed is motivated by "humanitarian aims" (perhaps The Family of Love would have preferred a more theological definition) there is no crime, although the material facts are the same. Besides, the judges added, there were only rumors that such activities occurred in Italy, the evidence showing only that sometime in 1977-1978 flirty fishing was regarded as theoretically permissible by the group's literature [10]. The Court could have easily added that, by 1991, flirty fishing had been abandoned and a movement very different from the one active in 1977-1978 was now entering a new stage of its history in Italy.

3. The Family Goes Public, 1992-1993

By 1991 a new name, The Family, had replaced The Family of Love. Italian members were excited to contribute to the new missionary expansion of the movement in Eastern Europe, and in fact the first missions in the former Yugoslavian countries, Russia, Bulgaria and Albania were organized by Italians or were from Italy, with Italians also contributing to the missions in Romania and Hungary. The distribution of videos and other materials was meeting with considerable success, and the group's children's choir was the frequent guest of schools and other public and private institutions. The Italian Family-now reduced to some 250 members, most of them having never been members of the original Children of God-was living a quiet and peaceable life.
The Family, however, was not feeling safe. Events in Australia, Spain, and later in France and Argentina troubled the lives of Italian members in the 1990s. Nothing similar, so far, has been threatened in Italy, and Italian anti-cult groups are still comparatively uninterested in The Family. Incidents involving former members are minor, particularly when compared with what has occurred in other countries (one of them, Gabriella Valpondi, appeared on the national public TV in 1991, and another was interviewed by a couple of newspapers in Tuscany in 1992). In fact, it seems that international anti-cult organizations did try to recruit Italian ex-members for their international crusade against The Family, but with little success.
As in other countries, Italian leaders of The Family have decided to go public, and to initiate a campaign of contacts with scholars, officers of the Roman Catholic Church, reporters, and even leaders of Italian anti-cult and counter-cult groups. They have admitted (although at times downplayed) their early involvement with flirty fishing, and they recognize that their position on sexual initiation of minors was "questionable" and some of their attitudes "immature." They have, however, insisted that in the second half of the 1980s these practices have been not only abandoned, but have been strictly forbidden under penalty of excommunication [11]. Perhaps an even stronger repudiation of past doctrines and practices would be in order. On the other hand, it is difficult to ask from any religious movement more than a certain amount of self-criticism. It is a paradox-and, in some countries, it has been a tragedy-that at the very moment when The Family seems ready to repudiate the most objectionable features of its past, the ghosts of this same past are evoked by anti-cultists before the press, the police and the Courts of justice. Serious scholarship has a responsibility to help prevent the potentially tragic confusion of The Family's past radicalism with its present lifestyle.


  1. [back] MO Letter No. 180 “Arrivederci Roma!”, September 1972, now in The Mo Letters 151-300, Hong Kong: Gold Lion Publishers, 1976, pp.1497-1505
  2. [back] Ibid.
  3. [back] MO Letter No. 184 “Are the Children of God Catholics or Protestants?”, September 1972, in The Mo Letters 151-300, op.cit.,pp.1521-1530
  4. [back] MO Letter No. 192 “You’ve Gotta be a Baby! Pope—Papal Audience—Pope blesses Children of God”, October 1972, in The Mo Letters 151-300, op.cit.,pp. 1580-1587
  5. [back] See Tribunale Penale di Roma (Criminal Court of Rome), November 15, 1991, In re Berg and others, unpublished decision in the collection of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions, Torino, Italy) and in the archives of the Criminal Court of Rome (RG 3841/84) – see full text (personal names omitted).
  6. [back] Gabriella Valpondi, former member of the Children of God, at the talk show Detto fra noi, Italian public TV, channel 2, hosted by Piero Vigorelli, April 24, 1970s. David E. Van Zandt, a sociologist who did first covert and then overt participant observation of the Children of God and the Family of Love in the 1970s, claims that flirty fishing was going on in a club in Florence when Jeremy Spencer, a convert to Berg’s movement from the rock band Fleetwood Mac, also occasionally played, but it is unclear whether any of the flirty fishers was Italian (see David E. Van Zandt, Living in the Children of God, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, p.190)
  7. [back] See Tribunale Penale di Roma, doc.cit., p.5.
  8. [back] Michele C. Del Re, Nuovi idoli, nuovi dei, Rome: Gremese, 1988.
  9. [back] Michele C. Del Re, “Plagio criminoso e lecita persuasione nei culti emergenti”, in Studi in memoria di Pietro Nuvolone, vol.II, Milan: Giuffre, 1991, p.79
  10. [back] Tribunale Penale de Roma, doc.cit., pp.3-5
  11. [back] Le dotrine fondamentali e le linee di condotta delle comunita missionarie indipendenti comunemente note come The Family, Italian ed., Rome: The Family, and Zurich: World Services, 1993, pp.78-79. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss when exactly and to what extent the unorthodox practices of the 1970s and early 1980s have been abandoned. That important changes took place around 1987 has however been recognized also by scholars not particularly sympathetic to The Family such as D.E. Van Zandt, Living in the Children of God, op.cit.

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