The Children Of God Cult (The Family International): Pedophile Apocalyptic Cult History

By Karen Harris

(Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty)

The Children of God, a religious cult led by the charismatic and persuasive David Berg, attracted the attention of investigators for questionable practices, panhandling, and its doomsday beliefs, but not before dragging big Hollywood names like Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan into its web. It's still operating today, albeit in fewer numbers and overhauled practices ... or so they claim, at least.

David Berg And Teens For Christ

David Berg was born in California in 1919 to Virginia and Hjalmer Berg, who worked as traveling preachers until they were kicked out of the Disciples of Christ Church for taking money from people hoping to be healed by Virginia Berg's so-called divine powers. The Bergs soon shunned organized religion and its restrictive ethics and such in favor of the freelance life, spreading their own version of the gospel to whoever would pay. As the youngest of the Bergs' three children, David was born into this lifestyle of half missionary work and half fraud. He later claimed to have been both physically and sexually abused by a succession of nannies hired by his parents.

In 1935, David Berg graduated from high school and followed in his parents' footsteps to work for the Christian and Missionary Alliance at a church in Valley Farms, Arizona. He was fired from this job after reports of sexual misconduct arose and decided, like his parents before him, to go his own way, founding Teens for Christ in the late '60s. Though he was in his late forties by then, he targeted young people, many of whom were runaways or otherwise vulnerable, who were receptive to his pitch of free love, communal living, and salvation ahead of the impending apocalypse. He discouraged his followers from holding jobs, saving money, or sending their children to school, which was pointless there at the end of the world, instead instructing them to survive by panhandling and accepting donations. This happened to have the convenient side effect of keeping his followers isolated and under his thumb.

When Berg founded Teens for Christ (later known as Children of God, The Family of Love, The Family, and The Family International), he had only a small group of followers, but the group quickly grew as Berg sent his minions out into the world to preach their gospel. At its peak, it had more than 15,000 members across the globe, and the larger the group became, the more perverse control Berg held over the cult's members. He began abusing members' children and encouraging others to do so as well, arguing that free love knew no age limit. One of his own children, Ricky Rodriguez, later claimed that he had witnessed orgies, been encouraged to fondle women, and been routinely touched inappropriately since he was a small child.

(Harald Krichel/Wikimedia Commons)

The (Celebrity) Family International

Shortly after their 1969 marriage, Arlyn and John Lee Bottom were recruited into the Children of God and spent the next seven years traveling throughout South and Central America, spreading the word of David Berg. During this time, the couple had five children: River, Rain, Joaquin, Liberty, and Summer. If you don't recognize those names, just add "Phoenix" to the ends of them and enjoy your The Usual Suspects moment as you realize they're all movie stars (or were, in one tragic case).

The Phoenix family, as they christened themselves upon their return to the U.S. in 1977, left the cult after becoming disenchanted with its practices, especially Berg's new recruitment strategy that he'd dubbed "flirty fishing." He ordered the young, attractive female members of his cult to entice men into the group through sexual seduction, a practice one of his daughters denounced as "religious prostitution" but Berg once claimed brought in nearly 20,000 new members.

Meanwhile, actress Rose McGowan spent her early childhood flitting from commune to commune with her father, an artist and head of the Italian chapter of Children of God. Fortunately, just five years after her birth, her parents also left the cult in protest of its abusive sexual practices and moved to Oregon in 1978.

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Death of David Berg

The deviant sexual practices of the Children of God eventually caught the attention of law enforcement, but the inquiry came too late to hold Berg accountable. He died in 1994 in Portugal, where he had been hiding from both the F.B.I. and Interpol, and his wife, Karen Zerby, took over the cult. Ten years later, their son, Ricky Rodriguez (remember him?), made headlines when he murdered another Children of God cult member, a nanny who he claimed had abused him as a child, and died of suicide shortly thereafter. Rodriguez had actually escaped the cult as an adult, but he couldn't escape the trauma he'd endured.

The Children of God changed their name in 2005 to the Family International, perhaps hoping to attract more families, and over the next decade and a half, the group eased many of its former rules. Members are no longer required to live in communes or forbidden from holding jobs, and the group no longer preaches the end of the world or encourages sexual abuse. Following a 2010 reorganization, the group stated that it had 1,700 members.

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.