The Children Of God Sex Cult: A Childhood Nightmare

David berg with a female
Wikimedia | Hamlancer

News & Politics
Jessica Powers

Being Hollywood stars isn't the only thing that Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan have in common.

They're both former followers of the Children of God, a cult created by rogue preacher called David Berg that would later become notorious for rumors about child sexual abuse.

David Berg Starts Children Of God

Children of God member
youtube | Youtube

David Brandt Berg created the group initially called Teens for Christ in 1968 by targeting young runaways and hippies who longed for a sense of purpose. He preached that the apocalypse was coming and encouraged his followers to live day to day rather than making long-term plans.

The members often didn't work and lived in commune settings. All members shared material possessions, resources, and responsibilities.

Berg claimed the cult had 10,000 full-time members in 130 communities around the world by the 1970s.

Sexual Policies Draw Attention

Children of God Founder
youtube | Youtube

The cult became famous for the sexual practices of its members, including the fact that he ordered female followers to have sex with men in order to bring them into the cult.

Joaquin Phoenix reportedly said this policy is what eventually drove his parents to leave the group. Rose McGowan’s family also escaped the cult during her childhood.

Allegations Of Abuse Of Children

The abuse included children
Shutterstock | 2780032

Some people have reported that the sexual policies even extended to children, and they were encouraged to engage in child sex abuse. Berg himself was accused of sexually abusing young girls, including his daughters and granddaughters.

A former member of the group named Ricky Dupuy appeared on Larry King Live in 1993 and said he had been ordered to rape a 10-year-old. Dupuy later committed suicide, as did other former members of the cult.

A report by the New York attorney general’s office documented Berg engaging in incest and belief that child rape could “increase the tribe”, leading to many pregnancies in various communes.

“A 14-year-old runaway who spent nine days at a Children of God commune testified that she was raped and because of her refusal to cooperate with the elders, was held in solitary confinement on no less than three separate occasions,” the report states.

The late River Phoenix told Details magazine in November 1991 that he had lost his virginity at age four while in the Children of God, but he had "blocked it out."

Berg Dies While Under Investigation

David Berg
Wikimedia | Hamlancer

David Berg died in 1994 while in Portugal where he had reportedly fled because he was under investigation from both Interpol and the FBI. His wife, Karen Zerby, inherited the leadership of the cult.

Zerby joined the Children of God in 1969 while living in Huntington Beach, California. She became a secretary to Berg, and eventually his wife and companion.

The Cult Rebrands, Continues Today

The group changed its name in 2004 to Family International. Followers are now allowed to live in private homes and work outside of the cult as a way to try to attract new members who may otherwise be turned off by the strict policies.

Today, the group claims to be an "online Christian network of individuals in 75 countries, committed to sharing the message of God’s love with others."

On her website, Zerby claims the group has been transformed "both theologically and structurally," and that "The movement continues to emphasize mission and humanitarian work around the world." She runs the group with her new husband.

The group's website does not directly address the many allegations of abuse of children but does include a policy that states, "Every child has the right to be protected from abuse and neglect of any kind, whether physical, emotional, sexual, or educational. We consider that the abusive treatment of a child is not only a crime, but a sin in the eyes of God. The Family International has a zero-tolerance policy regarding the abusive treatment of children, and will permanently expel any member who violates this policy."