Global Cult

By Lattin, Don | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Global Cult


Lattin, Don, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Records, sources help show link between charity, religious sect

"Follow the money," one of the cardinal rules of journalism, applies as much to churches and not-for-profit charities as it does to profit-making organizations. It was worth remembering earlier this year when I was investigating the connections between a San Diego-based charity and one of the most infamous religious sects in the United States.

Officials with the Family International and the Family Care Foundation claimed they had nothing to do with one another, but the public record tells a different story.

My reporting on the Family International, formerly known as the Children of God, dates to a conference I attended in the late 1990s with academics and activists who study cults, sects and/or new religious movements. That is where I first met Donna Collins.

Collins was conceived in the spring of 1969, shortly after her parents were joined together in one of the first mass marriages presided over by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, then a little-known Korean sect leader. As the first "blessed child" born in the West, this cute, curly-haired blonde was supposed to embody Moon's vision that the world's religions would come together under his messianic leadership. Moon and his wife were to be the "True Parents" of a spiritual master race that would spread his message - a mix of Christianity, spiritualism and right-wing politics - to the four corners of the Earth.

Collins' childhood and subsequent defection from Moon's Unification Church was an incredible story, and it got me wondering about other kids who grew up in religious cults in the 1970s and 1980s. That interest led to a four-part series in the San Francisco Chronicle (Feb. 11 -14, 2001) titled "Children of a Lesser God," then a book on the larger legacy of 1960s' spirituality titled "Following Our Bliss" (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

Funding source

My work as the religion writer for the San Francisco Examiner (1983-88) and San Francisco Chronicle (1988-2005) was originally sparked by a fascination with the religious cults, including People's Temple, the revolutionary, messianic movement that was founded by the Rev. Jim Jones and imploded in a hellish mass murder and suicide in Guyana. South America, in November 1978.

One of the groups I reported on in the Chronicle series was the Family, a sect started in the late 1960s by Oakland native David "Moses" Berg, a twisted prophet who attracted tens of thousands of devotees in the 1970s with his strange brew of evangelical Christianity and sexual license.

Sources I developed during that series paid off with a tip in January 2005 about a sensational murder/suicide involving Ricky "Davidito" Rodriguez, the 29-year-old estranged son of Karen "Maria" Zerby, the chief prophet and current spiritual leader of the Family. Rodriguez, once anointed as a child prophet in his mother's church, shot himself in the head after murdering Angela Smith, a member of the Family Care Foundation board of directors and Zerby's one-time personal secretary.

In chilling videotape shot before the murder/suicide, Rodriguez revealed his plan to torture Smith to get information about the whereabouts of his mother and her husband, Peter Amsterdam, both of whom Rodriguez blamed for years of sexual abuse that he and other second-generation members suffered while growing up in the movement.

Defectors from the Children of God had told me the Family Care Foundation was a charitable front for the Family International. As a not-for-profit charity, the foundation is required to file IRS 990 forms that disclose, among other things, the source of its funding and grants it makes to other charities.

Charities are required to show IRS 990 forms to anyone who wants to see them. In fact, the Family Care Foundation posted some of them on its Web site, but Chronicle reporter Todd Wallack and I got a much better look at the organization's finances by using the research tools at www.

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