Abi Freeman is the smiling, public face of a once infamous cult she proclaims has cleaned up its act. But new evidence uncovered by the Standard tells a very different story
The moment of truth, when Abi Freeman’s facade cracks, when she blurts out her secret and runs from the room, arrives at the end of our interview. For four hours, Freeman, 47, spokeswoman in Britain for the notorious free-love cult, the Children of God – now called the Family – had given me the official line. She assured me – with an infectious smile, even – that in her 30 years as a member, she had never personally encountered any sexual abuse of children.
Her mask begins to slip only when I get ready to leave her office in Luton and ask about her daughter. Until now, Freeman, a slim, articulate woman with wild, hippy hair, has refused to answer questions about her daughter, who was once in the cult herself.
Why did she leave? I ask. “She has her issues,” Freeman says tersely.
Are you still in touch with her?
“We’re going through a bad patch.”
She hesitates. “Okay, so something happened,” she snaps. And then it comes. “My daughter was sexually abused in the Family when she was 12 by two 15-year-old boys. Okay? And maybe she walked in a couple of times when I was having sex.” She jumps up, angry and confused. “Don’t tell me that my daughter has mental health problems because I’m in the Family!”
That is why I set out to find Abi Freeman’s daughter, to hear the truth from her own lips. Susan, now 24, left the cult eight years ago. She and her mother haven’t spoken for 14 months.
But when I finally catch up with her, in a Midlands cafe where she sits and talks for two hours, I am struck by the fact that her first concern is for Abi.
Was her mother being truthful, I ask? She says: “I don’t remember the incident my mother described when I was 12.” But suddenly she is shaking violently, and lights a rollup cigarette to steady her nerves. “No, the incident I remember happened when I was nine. I was sexually abused by a 15-year-old boy. It happened again, on two occasions, when I was 16. But this time it was by 40-year-old men. Those men are still in the Family in the UK, even though they openly admitted what they did.”
She pauses. “There is more,” she says presently, speaking softly. “So much more. This sexual abuse is not just in the past, as my mother tells journalists – as my mother made me tell journalists.”
Little in recent years has been heard of the Children of God. But in January, on a lonely desert highway in Arizona, 29-year-old Ricky Rodriguez – the son of the cult’s leader, Karen Zerby, and stepson of its late founder, David Berg – brutally stabbed to death his former nanny, Angela Smith, 51. He said she had sexually abused him as a child.
He then shot himself in the head.
Five years ago, Rodriguez had lived in the Family’s commune near Luton.
Susan knew him personally, from when they lived in a commune in Hungary.
In a video Rodriguez made before he died, he said it was really his mother he wanted to kill – “and then all I need is one bullet for myself”. His revenge has reverberated through the dozen Family communes hidden away in secret locations around the UK, including the one in Hertfordshire which Abi Freeman shares with eight others.
She says that there are now 8,000 cult members worldwide, including 400 in this country, of which only the hard core – about 100 – live in communes.
Rodriguez’s death has caused former members to come forward with their stories of abuse.
Susan is telling her story for the first time.
Known in the cult as Davidito, Rodriguez was no ordinary member.
He was once heir apparent to the Family. His childhood, involving sexual abuse in the name of “free love”, was not only chronicled and photographed in a Children of God book but was held up as the prototype of how to raise their own children.
He was also the product of the cult’s controversial practice of “flirty fishing”, which started in the Seventies in London. The cult sent women members out into society in order to seduce and recruit men.
“Hookers for Jesus” they were called. His own mother was one, and she conceived Rodriguez with a stranger whom she “flirty fished”.
Susan was devastated to hear of his suicide, but says: “I am not surprised.
I have tried to commit suicide myself. I understand why children who grew up in the Family would want to kill themselves and why they would want to kill their mothers.”
She says that she still has nightmares and flashbacks about her time with the Family: “Do you know what it is like to live with that? I understand what Ricky did, although I would never harm my mother, even though she has destroyed my life, even though she is a horrible, horrible person.”
Susan was born into the sect in 1980 after her mother had run away from her middleclass Manchester home to join the cult’s Hampstead commune in 1974. Her mother, then a rebellious 17-year- old, had thwarted her parents’ ambition for her to go to Oxford University, and ditched her birth name, Rosalind, in favour of “Morning Star” and, later, Abi.
Life as a child inside the Children of God, Susan recalls, was always dictated by the writings of David Berg, known as “Father David”, who had founded the cult or church in 1968 in California.
He had drawn from the hippy counterculture of the Sixties and was offering a heady mix of communal living, Christian evangelism and free love. But by the Seventies, Berg openly advocated sex with outsiders and, most perversely, with children, believing that sex was an important way to pass on “Jesus’s love “. Orgies were common.
Only in the Eighties, with the advent of Aids, did Berg repudiate his flirty fishing and child-sex teachings as “mistakes”.
Susan’s first years in the cult, her mother accepts, coincided with its “problem years”. Abi Freeman allows that she flirty fished and admits: “It was a wild, over-sexualised atmosphere.” But since 1986, she insists, “our communes are totally safe places to bring up children”.
Her daughter, however, tells a different story. Her abuse continued long after 1986. “The reason I left the cult was because I don’t want to have children there,” Susan explains. “I would have no way of protecting my children from physical and sexual abuse.”
The last time Susan saw her mother, she says, was when she visited her commune in December 2003. “My mother told me that a young child had been sexually abused by a member of the Family. This was just 14 months ago.
“When I was 15 or 16,” she continues, “we had a reporter come and stay with us. My mother asked me to take her for a meal and a drink. I was taught never to tell outsiders what happens, that they ‘don’t understand God’s way’. My mother was pleased with me because this reporter went off and wrote a glowing article. But just after that, I was abused, twice, by two different 40-year-old men. At first, my mother refused to believe me. But then the men admitted it. One was excommunicated for three months, then allowed back in.
He’s still a member. The other got off scot-free.”
She adds: “Other things happened I can’t go into. My mum later taught me we’re not supposed to say no to men. I used to dress in baggy clothes and not shower. It was my only defence [against men]. It didn’t always work.”
Today, she lives independently of the cult in a flat with her boyfriend. She has taken some GCSEs and A-levels, but struggles against bouts of depression that her doctors say, according to her, is “the legacy of her childhood”.
The internet is full of similarly tragic stories of abuse told by survivors.
Some, like Kristina Jones, 28, from the east Midlands, are willing to speak using their real names. She tells the Standard: “By the time I was 12, I’d had sexual relations, against my will, with about 20 men and older boys. I was told it was ‘sharing God’s love’.
That’s how life was for me – adults having sex with children. It was the cult’s Law of Love policy, the only life I’d ever known, and I didn’t question it.”
Kristina, whose mother fled the cult and removed her when she was 12, agreed to accompany me when I met Susan, having counselled her in the past.
Susan’s testimony goes beyond what has been seen and heard in the UK before, and raises deeply troubling questions about the activities of the Family today: Are young people now growing up in the cult told about its sordid past? Does sexual abuse still go on?
Abi Freeman loudly denies it.
Keen to prove that the Family has put its dark past behind it, she arranges for me to return to Luton and meet eight young members of the Family. Aged 18 to 27, they are waiting in a circle for me, all bright and shiny. After belting out Jesus songs, one tells me: “We’re here because we don’t like lies. The lies are that abuse in the Family was widespread and is still happening today.”
They are, they tell me, Christian missionaries who live in normal suburban homes where finances – from charitable donations – are pooled. Home-schooled, their days begin and end with prayer and song and much of their time is spent handing out Family literature.
“Nothing bad sexually has ever happened to any of us,” one assures me.
When her young charges have finished talking, I ask Freeman: How can you represent an organisation that has brought such damage to your own daughter?
Freeman is abruptly stony-faced.
“Come on!” she says, and turns accusingly to the assembled youths.
“Before he came, I told you that this journalist has upset me greatly. I want you to know that what happened to my daughter is of no relevance to the Family. Abuse happens.
Children who grow up in our communes are safer than children who grow up in society.”
“Yes!” shouts one of the young women, rising to her feet in passionate indignation. “We don’t need to know about some little thing.”