Grandmother loses battle for 'child of God'

Cult ruling: Judge refuses custody claim for three-year-old after assurances that sect's links with sex abuse have been broken
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The Independent Online

A grandmother has lost her battle for custody of her three-year-old grandson to his mother, a member of the controversial Children of God sect now known as the Family, after leaders of the movement assured a High Court judge that its abusive and sex-obsessed past had been buried.

In a ruling handed down yesterday, Lord Justice Ward accepted the 28-year-old mother's claims that the sect, which has 9,000 members worldwide, had genuinely denounced the pornographic teachings of its original leader, David Berg, in new guidelines. The Family was notorious for excessive sexual behaviour including sharing spouses, encouraging prostitution to win new members (known as "flirty fishing"), and exposing children to violent beatings and sex.

"They have come in from the cold," Lord Justice Ward said. "They carry some mud on their coat, but if they choose they can wash it off. They can sit at society's supper table, eccentric guests perhaps, but welcome ... We must all be ready to welcome the return of the prodigal son."

The child, known only as S, was born into the Family, which his mother joined when she was travelling. Her own mother, who lives in Kenya, was determined that he should not be brought up by the movement in one of its six British communes, and has waged a three-year campaign to raise him herself.

Lord Justice Ward has angered former members and cult experts by his decision to allow the boy to remain with his mother, on the understanding that she puts his welfare before her devotion to the Family. His ruling followed in-depth witness accounts of the corrupt excesses of life in the movement by former members, alongside advice from social workers and psychiatrists who visited the commune where the child lived.

The Family, which has been fighting to improve its image in the outside world for a decade, welcomed the decision last night. "We are delighted because we always knew this was never about one child," Rachel Scott, a spokeswoman for the Family, said. "If the judge had found this not a decent living environment for a child, on the basis of past literature and allegations, that puts all our children at risk."

The boy's mother was also instructed to ensure that he is properly educated; to forbid anyone to inflict corporal punishment on him or subject him to periods of isolation; and to allow him regular contact with relatives, including his grandmother.

Leaders of the movement had already rewritten guidelines for members to denounce past behaviour following the death of Mr Berg last year. They were circulated among the movement's 300 British members in February, and a copy of the charter was given to the judge to demonstrate how the Family had changed. A newsletter circulated to members from leaders, including Mr Berg's widow, Maria, also included a "prophecy" from him, denouncing their former excesses from the grave.

It said: "Dad is obviously sorry for any harm that was caused to anyone. Some young people got hurt by inappropriate sexual behaviour on the part of adults, and in 1986 he and I moved to ban all such acts."

But cult experts and former members of the Family expressed concern at the outcome. "I just can't see there is any way that you can watch over people 24 hours a day," Audrey Chaytor, chairman of FAIR, a cult-monitoring organisation, said. "I am pleased to hear the judge say that the wrongs of the past have been stamped out, but I will wait to see evidence that is the case.

"Everyone has to be given the chance to put their past aside, and it is wrong to blacken someone's name permanently, but I have never heard anyone from the Family condemning the past," she said.

The Cult Information Centre expressed anger. "You can't just change you're name and expect everyone to believe everything is suddenly okay, " Ian Haworth, general secretary, said. "I am as concerned about the welfare of that child as I ever was, and it will take some time for people like me to be convinced by this change."

Kristina Jones, 19, who left the movement seven years ago, was dismayed, having acted as a witness in the case. "I'm furious because I am convinced they haven't changed in their hearts," she said.

"Why should we believe they are suddenly telling the truth, when they have hidden what they are doing from the world for so long?"