Church declines to aid sect accused of abusing children
The Family also has faced allegations of sexual misconduct
It had wanted mission help from Christ Reformed Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Inquirer/1993-10-19
By William R. Macklin
The wrought-iron chandeliers in the sanctuary of Christ Reformed Episcopal Church are speckled with tarnish. The oak ceiling beams support a roof crying for repair. After decades of decline, membership at the West Philadelphia church has started to rebound, but financially, the small congregation is still deep in the woods.
This hardly seems the kind of place to turn away new parishioners.
But that's exactly what happened after members of the Family, a controversial religious sect that has faced accusations of child abuse and sexual misconduct, showed up at Sunday services last month and asked lay and clergy leaders for help in setting up a local mission.
In a letter to Peter Asher, the Family's Philadelphia spokesman, the Rev. Geoffrey Hubler said he decided to bar members of the group from his church at 43d and Chestnut Streets because they allow sex outside of marriage. He also cited recent charges that children living at Family-run facilities in Argentina had been sexually abused.
"I wouldn't strong-arm them out of the church," said Mr. Hubler. "But if they return, I might tell the congregation there's someone here from the Family, and we do not endorse their beliefs."
Asher is one of 20 local Family members who live communally on the city's west side. He denied the abuse allegations, and said he was deeply disappointed by Mr. Hubler's action. "He made it quite clear he doesn't want to make contact with us," said Asher, 41.
Even though the Family regards sex between consenting adults as a personal matter, the sect frowns on promiscuity, Asher said. "Sex is no bigger part of our lives than any other normal person."
Still, the actual and alleged sexual conduct of the group has dogged the Family's path since its founder, one-time hippie evangelist Peter Berg, established the sect as the Children of God in 1969.
Early charges centered on the practice of "flirty fishing," in which members of the sect tried to attract converts by offering sexual favors. The practice resulted in the group's being widely labeled as a sex-for-salvation cult.
Philadelphia Family members say the group used the tactic at one time but gave it up in 1987 with the rise of AIDS and conservative sexual mores. They now say sex between Family members and outsiders is forbidden, and reject Mr. Hubler's suggestion that similar tactics might be used to recruit members of Christ Church.
"Times have changed," said Marie Edwards, 44, a Family member from Boston. "People have become more conservative and we've changed with the times."
That change has not shielded the Family from the most serious accusations.
On Sept. 1, court authorities in Argentina raided five Family-run houses in Buenos Aires on suspicion of child abuse. They arrested 39 adults and detained 137 children. A subsequent investigation found no physical evidence that the children had been abused, but the case has remained open while investigators consider other evidence, including the testimony of some former Family members.
Philadelphia Family members say the situation in Argentina is indicative of the worldwide persecution of their sect's 9,000 followers.
Mr. Hubler said it was a red flag that should warn any church leader to beware of the group. "I think pastors would understand the need to protect their flock," he said. "I think they would agree that we should err in favor of caution."
Mr. Hubler, whose denomination is small and doctrinally conservative - there are just 3,000 members and 40 congregations in its New York- Philadelphia synod - said that before taking the action, he consulted with lay members of his congregation.
Reginald P. Wiggins, a Christ Church member, said he recommended that the Family be barred because he suspected that they would try to recruit members
from the congregation.
"The church, our congregation, is not a field for recruitment," he said. I don't go into other people's churches and try to recruit them out."
Family members say they approached the congregation after selling copies of "Kiddie Viddies" - religious videotapes produced by the group - to the director of a child-care center housed in the church. About a half-dozen members of the group attended a Sunday service on Sept. 26, then met with church leaders afterward.
"We had felt a camaraderie," said Marie Edwards' husband, Philip, 40. "We didn't expect what happened. We were just trying to make contact with people."
Asher said the group, which had previously focused much of its missionary activity outside the United States, was still formulating its plans for Philadelphia.
One thing is certain: Those plans will not include Christ Church. The Family, Asher said, will abide by the church's wishes and will not attend future services. Nor will members refer people to the congregation as they had originally planned.
Instead they have asked that Father Hubler and Christ Church simply stand aside and not interfere with the Family's activities in the neighborhood.
But even that, Mr. Hubler said, may be too much to ask.
"We will tell people that we don't approve of them," said Mr. Hubler. "If the church cannot give some clarity to these doctrinal issues, who will?"