There's something about the constant sunshine and salty ocean air of Southern California, as the area seems to be the breeding ground for more cults than anywhere else in the United States. One Huntington Beach cult, known as The Children of God Cult and later as The Family, stood out among the rest due to allegations of pedophilic practices and prostitution.
David Berg Starts a New California Cult
In 1968, David Berg founded a California cult that preached free love mixed with radical Christian philosophy. His group started out small, but grew quickly thanks to his unique recruitment methods. Berg encouraged his female followers to engage in a practice called Flirty Fishing, which basically meant having sex with prospective followers. The practice was extremely successful; Berg's followers would proselytize in the streets and distribute special pamphlets that were made especially for the general public.
Sexual Escapades Behind Closed Doors
The cult's philosophy was highly radical and followed one single law called The Law of Love. For members of the cult, the law was the only one that they followed. According to Berg's Law of Love, a person could do whatever they wanted as long as it was carried out as an act of love. This quickly led to forced partner swapping, prostitution, and even the sexual abuse of children. Followers were initially centered in California, but before long they spanned the globe and communicated with Berg via written letters and sexual videotapes.
Berg Tells Followers How To Be 'God's Whores'
Initially, the group appeared to be a missionary organization that spread the word of God around the world. However, that practice was essentially one huge sexual experiment. Many women from the cult, regardless of their age or marital status, were sent out to places like bars and nightclubs to recruit new members into the cult by any means possible—even sex. After having sex with potential recruits, the women would pressure the men into claiming Jesus as their savior. The women in the cult were given two options: they could become one of "God's whores" or get kicked out of the community. For that reason, many women chose the former over the latter.
Flirty Fish Members Sleep With Over 200,000 Men
Women in the cult who were forced into flirty fishing are thought to have had sex with over 200,000 men in a span of about seven years. The casual sex resulted in the birth of hundreds children that were absorbed by the cult and called Jesus babies. The Jesus babies were thought to be happier and purer than the other children because they were conceived in the name of God. All in all, flirty fishing produced around 300 children that were raised by nannies. The nannies usually slept with the children naked and engaged in sexual practices with the children.
Berg Preaches Apocalypse And American Doom
By the early 1970s, Berg had amassed a huge worldwide following and had distributed 42 million Christian tracts that preached about the coming of the apocalypse. Additionally, Berg was adamant that America was doomed. The anti-American philosophy attracted many hippies that were rebelling against the status quo. The cult had nearly 35,000 followers during its heyday.
Free Love To The Extreme
In addition to having sex for recruitment purposes and swapping partners regularly, members of the cult were also encouraged to participate in pedophilic behavior. In fact, the sexual abuse of minors was even written into the Family's 20 foundational ideas. Some of the most shocking doctrine of the cult encourages incest, stating "there is no better place for a young man to learn about doing it than with his mother," and "fucking your grandpa is awesome."
Crazy Cult Doctrine
In addition to the horrific abuse of children, the cult practiced anti-American ideals and believed Hitler was "on the right track, but didn't actually do enough, because Jews are subhuman demons." The cult preached that the Holocaust didn't happen, that rape is "a good way to convert people to the family," and that "God allowed 9/11 o happen to 'America the Whore' because the towers represent the ignorance of the fat, lazy, and rich."
Allegations Of Child Abuse
The cult amassed a gigantic worldwide following between 1968 and the early 90s, but the media started cutting into the group as allegations of sexual assault became public. All children in the cult were homeschooled and taught up to an eighth grade level with books written and printed by the cult leader. The kids were also given comic books and videos that were designed to brainwash them into thinking the sexual practices going on around them were normal and pleasing to God.
Legal Issues For The Cult
As the cult grew larger, Berg took on the title of King and made his wife, Karen Zerby, Queen. Zerby's son Ricky Rodriguez was raised as a Prince and hopeful successor to Berg, but escaped the cult as a young adult and eventually committed suicide because he couldn't escape the pain and abuse of his childhood. In the early 1990s, a child custody case in England resulted in accusations that flirty fishing was the same as prostitution. Soon after the cult stopped advocating flirty fishing as a recruitment practice because they were afraid their members might contract HIV.
Rumors About Sexual Abuse Confirmed
Eventually rumors about child abuse in the cult were confirmed when members stepped forward and disclosed what exactly was going on behind closed doors. Berg had spent years testing out bizarre doctrine on his inner circle, and even peddled pamphlets to the cult children that taught them incest and adult-child sexual relationships were okay. The pamphlets looked like comic books and were called "The Book of Davidito." One ex-member, Davida Kelley claimed from her birth to the time she was 13 she was forced to have a sexual relationship with Berg.
Zerby Takes Over The Cult
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s several lawsuits popped up in connection to the cult and their child abuse, and they were pressured into dropping their belief that sexual contact between adults and children was acceptable. In 1990, 10 members of the cult were arrested in Spain for child abuse, and in 1992, 120 Australian children were taken from a cult compound and placed in protective custody. After Berg died in 1994, his wife Zerby took over before passing the torch to her new boyfriend Steven Douglas Kelly, who later changed his name to Christian Smith.
A Deeply Disturbing Murder Suicide
Sometime in the early 2000s, Zerby went into hiding. In 2005, her son Rodriguez sought her out with the intention of murdering her for revenge. Rodriguez arranged a meeting with her trusted assistant Angela Smith, and ended up killing her in an apartment in Tucson, Arizona. Rodriguez then went on to shoot himself in a parking lot. Just a few days before he committed the double suicide, Rodriguez filmed a harrowing video where he disclosed the sexually abusive events from his past and promised that if he didn't kill his mother in this life, he would "keep hunting her in the next life."
Cult Members Still Live In A Delusional World
Following the controversy, the cult was rebranded as the Family International and is still a practicing evangelical religious group. The spokespeople for the Family International claim they do not know where Zerby is, which suggests the fate of the group is ultimately still up in the air. As of 2005, the cult still had 10,000 members worldwide. Most Christian organizations regard The Family as heretical.