Tax-exempt foundation that raised money for projects around world denies links to sect
Dulzura, San Diego County — Internal Revenue Service documents filed by the Family Care Foundation, a not-for-profit charity in Southern California, show deep, ongoing ties between the organization and the Family, the evangelical sex cult rocked by a recent murder-suicide.
But officials with the Family Care Foundation deny any connection to the controversial cult.
The religious sect, formerly known as the Children of God, was started in the late 1960s by Oakland native David “Moses” Berg, who attracted tens of thousands of devotees in the 1970s with his strange brew of evangelical Christianity and sexual license.
But J. Gordon Melton, an authority on new religions who has studied the Family for years, said the sect established the charitable foundation to help raise money for church projects.
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“The Family Care Foundation is the Family,” said Melton, who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara.
According to federal tax documents and annual reports, from 1997 to 2003, the foundation raised more than $9.9 million in donations including cash and other types of gifts for projects around the world — ranging from assisting orphans and street children to medical and education programs to disaster relief.
James Penn, who spent more than a decade in the inner circle of the globe-trotting cult, said the Family Care Foundation is a “public front” that enables the Family to attract tax-deductible donations and fund missionaries around the world who endorse the cult’s “bizarre beliefs and practices.”
“People wouldn’t give to a charitable foundation if they knew that its leaders endorsed the sexual abuse of minors and religious prostitution,” said Penn, who helped start the foundation before leaving the Family in 1998.
Larry Corley, executive director of the foundation, said his organization funds many “independent projects around the world.”
“There is no relationship, period,” he said. “It is not a front for the Family. It is not tied to the Family.”
Former members say the vast majority of projects funded by the foundation are run by the Family. Two children’s programs, including one which was based in San Francisco, were run by one-time cult members who had faced separate allegations of child sexual abuse.
All six officers listed on Internal Revenue Service documents filed by the foundation last year have ties to the cult, according to those who have left the sect.
One of them, Angela Smith, who is listed as a member of the foundation’s board of directors, was killed on Jan. 8 in Tucson, apparently by Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez. Rodriguez was the son of Karen “Maria” Zerby, who was married to Berg until he died in 1994 and is now the Family’s chief prophetess and spiritual leader.
Rodriguez, who defected from the cult in 2000, was born into the sect in 1975 and raised to join his mother as one of the “two witnesses” to usher in the apocalyptic “end time” battles foretold in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
In a chilling videotape shot the night before Smith’s murder, Rodriguez said he planned to torture Smith, his former nanny, to get information about the whereabouts of his mother and her current husband, Peter “King Peter” Amsterdam.
The whereabouts of Zerby, Amsterdam and other top cult leaders have been unknown for years. Rodriguez blamed them and other sect leaders for years of sexual and spiritual abuse he and other children suffered while they were growing up in the sect.
But after driving all night through the Arizona desert toward Southern California, Rodriguez stopped in the Riverside County town of Blythe, just across the California border, and shot himself in the head.
Just before leaving the cult, Rodriguez lived at the Family Care Foundation headquarters at Brookside Farm, a four-acre spread along Marron Valley Road in Dulzura, a small town east of San Diego.
“Ricky was never part of Family Care Foundation,” Corley said. “He passed through briefly.”
In addition to Smith and Corley, who is identified by Penn and other defectors as a longtime member of the Family, the four other officers listed on the foundation’s IRS forms are:
Grant Montgomery, the program director and highest paid official with the Family Care Foundation. He is the former “prime minister” and third-ranking leader of the Family International, according to Penn and other former members.
Dr. Chris Mlot, the foundation treasurer and board member. She is a longtime member of the sect, and shown on property records as the owner of one of the Family’s properties in Escondido.
Cheryl Brown, a member of the foundation board. Penn said Brown, whose birth name is Kathleen Fowler, is another longtime member of the cult and is a registered domain owner of the sect’s Web site, www.thefamily.org.
Kenneth L. Kelly, the brother of Amsterdam, whose birth name is Steven Douglas Kelly. Kelly co-owns Family property with Mlot, and according to Penn, is closely tied to the sect and has several children with Mlot.
Despite those deep connections, Family spokesman Claire Borowik said the sect “has no say or vote on the activities of the Family Care Foundation board.”
“There is no legal relationship between the Family and the Family Care Foundation,” Borowik said.
Borowik conceded, however, that the foundation “has under its umbrella many projects run by Family members.”
Jonathan Thompson, a former Family member who said he worked as an accountant for Family Care Foundation, said the San Diego-based charity “refuses to say they have any link to the Family.”
At the same time, Thompson said the foundation does get legitimate donations from outside sources for rank-and-file members doing good work.
“They are people who are just part of a messed-up system,” Thompson said. “They’ve helped a lot of people.”
Leaders of the Family International acknowledge that sexual activity between adults and children was condoned in the group during the 1970s and 1980s, and that it was encouraged by the writings and prophecies of the sect’s founder, including one famous tract titled “The Devil Hates Sex.”
Berg said the “law of love” encouraged sexual “sharing” among group members and sanctioned “flirty fishing” by female devotees who would attract male recruits with sexual favors.
Family International spokeswoman Borowik said the Family “enacted stringent policies to ensure the safety and protection of our children” in 1986. Other members insist the cult has long abandoned past practices and has since enacted new policies.
Yet at least two members of the Family accused of sexual molestation in child custody cases in England and California in the 1990s went on to start charities funded by the Family Care Foundation.
One of those cases is described in sealed court documents filed in San Diego in connection with a 1998 custody case and obtained last week by The Chronicle.
They tell the story of a girl born into the Family International in 1981 and sexually abused from ages 5 to 16.
Her alleged abusers included a stepfather, Phillip Slown, who she says repeatedly molested her in Thailand, where her mother was serving as a missionary for the Family International.
According to an investigative report by the San Diego County Department of Social Services, the girl “experienced multiple incidents of sexual abuse with numerous men.”
“This group has advocated sexual activity with minors as a pathway to God,” the report found. “Her mother continues to interact with this religious group and she encouraged sexual behavior between her daughter and three men as recently as March 1997.”
After investigating the case, county welfare workers removed the teenager from her parents’ custody and made her a ward of the court.
Slown went on to start a charity called From the Heart to help “at-risk youth.” It was based in San Francisco’s Mission District between 1997 and 1999 — during which time the organization received more than $70,000 in donations collected by the Family Care Foundation.
“They did a really good job with drug addicts and street kids, but I haven’t heard from them in a long time,” Corley said.
Slown could not be reached for comment, and his San Francisco phone number had been recently disconnected.
The two others cases are mentioned in a lengthy child custody decision rendered in England in 1995 by Lord Justice Alan Ward.
The decision names “Paul P. — Josiah” as a member of the sect’s Music with Meaning team in Europe.
“He corrupted and abused the young girls who were part of the singing and dancing troupe,” Ward writes.
Penn and other former members say that is a reference to Family member Paul Pelequin, known in the cult as “Josiah.”
Pelequin was later funded by the Family Care Foundation for a project in Africa called “Focus on Kidz.” He could not be reached for comment.
Corley said he was not aware of the abuse allegations against Slown and Pelequin.
As for the Family ties of the other Family Care Foundation leaders, Corley said, “I know nothing about their personal lives.”
Penn and other former members say Corley himself has been a leading member of the Family International for about two decades.
Asked about that, he replied, “It’s irrelevant.”