VILLA BAVIERA, Chile (Reuters) – A religious cult of German immigrants has broken decades of isolation from a world shocked by sex-abuse scandals in the group, the flight of its secretive leader and reports it once helped Chile’s military government torture political prisoners.
In exclusive interviews, members of the 280-person sect ended decades of public silence to tell Reuters they had emerged from a long nightmare to the painful realization their God-like guru — a fugitive facing child-sex charges — had broken apart their families and fostered physical abuse.
The sect came here in the 1960s following Paul Schaefer, a charismatic World War II German army nurse, who cult members thought was God on earth and who preached an unnamed religion that said harsh discipline would draw them closer to the supreme being.
“Everyone saw him as a celestial being and no one dared doubt him. People were blind here. It was a huge shock to discover the truth,” said Michael Mueller, a 47-year-old member of the community’s newly elected reform committee.
Mueller spoke to a Reuters reporter who gained rare access to the 55-square mile farm, a four-hour drive south of Santiago.
The apocalyptic cult barred itself behind a perimeter fence guarded by cameras and motion detectors, and once even taunted police with Nazi salutes. A judge is probing reports it provided torture chambers for the secret police during Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship.
Schaefer came to Chile fleeing sex-abuse charges in Germany, and in 1961 founded Colonia Dignidad — later renamed Villa Baviera.
Schaefer, now believed to be 81 and whose whereabouts are unknown, banned television and telephones and blotted references to love and sex out of the Bible. The cult lived frozen in time, singing German folk songs and working the fields wearing 1930s Bavarian peasant garb.
Sect leaders cozied up to Augusto Pinochet’s military regime in the 1970s and 1980s, seeking protection from critics who wanted to break up what they saw as a state within a state.
Schaefer disappeared in 1997, again fleeing child sex-abuse charges, this time filed by Chilean authorities after some two dozen children who went to the cult’s free clinic and school reported abuse.
WALL OF DENIAL
Over the years, defectors reported the cult split babies from their parents at birth and banned normal contact between family members. Young men and women were not allowed to date.
But until recently, cult members publicly defended Schaefer and their way of life, especially charity work helping poor children. Even after Schaefer disappeared, his rules persisted under loyal elders.
“We didn’t even know what each other thought,” said Mueller’s wife Esther Laube, also 47.
The shy couple, who married in 2000 after Schaefer’s restrictions on relationships broke down, spoke over a meat, potatoes and pickles dinner in a community dining room.
Some sect elders have been charged with abetting Schaefer in a child sex-crime case, near completion after a nine-year judicial probe.
“The judge will have to decide. Probably some will get off free and others might get strong punishment. We just have to accept that,” said Hernan Escobar, 37, a Chilean adopted by the group 28 years ago.
Approached by a Reuters reporter outside a court hearing, sect members charged in the abuse case declined to comment, as did their lawyer.
Even though individuals are now free to leave, Mueller said Villa Baviera wants to stay together.
A SENSE OF DUTY
He said many feel a sense of duty to elders, some in their 80s, who speak no Spanish and have little notion how to survive in the modern world.
Years ago the German government cut off pension payments to colony members on hearing that the money all went to Schaefer. Now they are trying to win back their pensions by persuading Germany they have reformed.
Recently Villa Baviera allowed German embassy officials to enter for the first time in almost 20 years.
Under a communal system, members worked hard seven days a week, while profit from farming, forestry and construction businesses went to communal laundry, dining and housing. The cult’s money was also pooled to pay for legal defense.
Some younger members of the group now chafe at that burden, but they cannot sell off land or machinery to fund the defense, because many assets were frozen under ongoing tax probes, Mueller said.
The colony also faces a tough battle in gaining sympathy from Chileans who resent its autonomy, and its resistance to police raids in the late 1990s when officials sought the missing Schaefer.
While Mueller and Laube were reticent to discuss details, Escobar said beatings to enforce discipline were widespread. He also confirmed reports from defectors that some members were forced to take drugs to quell sex desires.
“Some are very scared they will spend their last days in jail,” said another source who has had extensive contact with Villa Baviera, who asked not to be identified.
Escobar said some are confronting the cold truth that under the rules against intimacy they sacrificed child-bearing years to Schaefer’s vision. His prohibitions on contact worked so well that almost no babies were born there for 25 years.