Cult denies child sex abuse: The Family abandons secrecy to repair its public image. Will Bennett reports

THE Family, the religious cult which once called itself The Children of God, emerged from years of secrecy yesterday to deny allegations that it encourages sexual abuse of children.

Claims that it has divided families and made it difficult for members to leave were also rejected by the organisation at its first press conference in Britain.

'We are trying to show that we are normal people who believe sincerely in our religion and love our children,' Gideon Scott, the 'house shepherd' of the movement's community in Leicester, said.

The Family, founded as The Children of God by David Berg in the United States 25 years ago, has always been controversial. In its early literature he appeared to condone sexual relations between adults and children.

Later, female members were encouraged to recruit supporters by having sex with them, a practice called 'Flirty Fishing'. Since then both the authorities and the press have been hostile.

Last month police in France raided two of the group's communities after allegations of sexual abuse of children and took 140 away from their parents. Most were released and no charges have been brought.

Yesterday, at the Kensington Hilton Hotel, London, The Family was trying to change its public image, greeting the media with smiles, cups of coffee and religious songs.

The message was that The Family of the 1990s is very different from The Children of God of the Sixties and Seventies with its hippy notions of free love. Mr Scott said: 'Nothing could be further from the truth than the wild allegations that our members abused and neglected their children.

'We do not promote or encourage sexual activity between adults and minors.

'We do not practise prostitution or encourage our children to. Sexual relationships are not allowed in our communities between adults and those under 21. We educate our children at home to a high standard.'

He said that Flirty Fishing had stopped in 1987 and called raids on The Family's homes in several countries in the past three years 'the ugly face of religious persecution'.

Yet The Family was noticeably reluctant to condemn some of Mr Berg's controversial statements. His advocacy of children becoming parents soon after puberty was described as 'theological speculation' by Mr Scott.

The Family has 3,000 adults and 6,000 children in 500 homes worldwide, but it declined to say how many of those were in Britain. However, the press was invited to visit some of their communities in UK.

Mr Berg was not at the press conference. Apart from Mr Scott, the other main speaker was Celeste Jones, 18, who criticised her mother Valerie, who left The Family and became one of its most vocal opponents.

Valerie Jones said yesterday: 'I believe she has been taught to hate me. I love my daughter very dearly but they teach their members to hate anyone who leaves. I just feel very, very sad.'

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