New Religious Movements (NRMs) are groups commonly--and incorrectly--referred to as "cults." (The label of "cult" typically says more about the person's negative view of the group than it does about the group itself.) Often these groups are very misunderstood, and portrayed in media (television, newspapers and magazines) in ways that are quite far from reality. One such case is that of The Family, a world-wide NRM that has been accused of promoting systematic sexual abuse of its children. Clinical child psychologist Lawrence Lilliston and sociologist Gary Shepherd, both of Oakland University (Rochester, Michigan, USA), investigated these claims of child abuse and wrote the following report. This report is provided here with the permission of the authors.
Please note that the placement of this report on my webpage is not an endorsement of The Family's beliefs or practices. I believe that the report has educational value, and I include it here for that reason. By reading it, you may learn (a) a little about how a psychological evaluation is written, and (b) to be a more critical "consumer" of media claims regarding NRMs and other religious groups. To the best of my knowledge, all religious perspectives have been slandered and persecuted at one time or another; I hope that this report encourages some degree of tolerance among people with differing religious views.
You should be aware that The Family funded the evaluation, and that there is some ongoing discussion of this type of practice in academic circles. A general consensus exists that such arrangements should be acknowledged, whether the object of study is a religious group, or a product. In my case, my only connection to The Family is that I have met several members of the group, and I found them to be very helpful once when I travelled to Ukraine and needed some advice and assistance with the visa office in Kyiv.
© 1994 Lawrence Lilliston and Gary Shepherd
In his recent highly acclaimed book, The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen Carter writes about the trivialization of religion in America. Carter suggests that as we have moved through the last half of the twentieth century, it has become less acceptable for people to base important life and value decisions on religious principles. He goes on to suggest that for many Americans, political stands based on religious values are viewed with suspicion. Carter is well aware that there are enclaves of religious people who do make important life decisions and that there are many people who are influenced as voters by candidates who argue political positions from a religious perspective. He is also aware that we are the highest church going country in the world and that an overwhelming majority of Americans express a belief in a god of some sort. However, his analysis suggests that most Americans prefer a rather bland, unchallenging type of religion that is embodied in comfortable platitudes and that does not call upon people to make sacrifices or to change lifestyles in dramatic ways. From his perspectives as a constitutional lawyer, Carter suggests that the real attitudes of Americans toward religious issues, including that most important issue of religious freedom, are seen in the legal struggles that are waged around religious rights. Carter concluded that an examination of legal arguments, court decisions, and the reporting of this process in the media betrays the real consensual American attitude toward religion, that of trivialization as a basis for important life decisions.
Many social critics preceding Carter have written of a change in the basic standards for conduct and values in this country. This change has seen us go from religious based standards of conduct, values, and world hypotheses to standards based on modern psychology. Thus, instead of evaluating our own and others' conduct and perceptions in terms of religion-based morality, we now measure these attributes against a standard of mental health. What is right for me and my adjustment? How is my self esteem affected? Will my children grow up able to cope with emotional stresses? Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has written convincingly of the modern preoccupation with "self" and the way this preoccupation, and the corollary dynamic of escape from this preoccupation, is played out in a variety of self-avoidant and self-destructive behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, masochism, and suicide.
In an interesting interaction of these two trends - away from religious standards and toward mental health standards - those who are proponents of either set of standards attack proponents of the other set. Thus, those who continue to cling most fervently to strong religious standards of conduct attack those who adopt mental health standards as sinful, ungodly, or satanic, and those who are devotees of mental health standards attack those who adopt religious standards as being fanatical, narrow minded, and emotionally sick. Polls showing a high level of belief in god and church membership notwithstanding, most social critics feel that there are many more people who adopt psychological criteria for human conduct and values. Indeed, some of the strongest proponents of these psychological criteria may be seen in the pulpits of mainstream religious institutions. And although it is probably possible at some level to work out a compromise between the two sets of standards, such a compromise would be a weak one at best because the two sets of standards reflect a basic conflict between absolutism (strong religious) and relativism (strong psychological). Carter and several others have pointed out that support for the psychological value system is currently dominant and that this dominance can be readily seen in reporting in the mainstream media as well as polls measuring attitudes toward, for example, the Branch Davidians in Waco.
In light of these factors, then, it is no surprise to see attacks on those minority religions that stand at odds with the larger cultural view of conduct and values. Because some minority religions, such as several New Religious Movements, call upon their members to alter their lifestyles in important ways and to place religion clearly and uncompromisingly at the center of their lives, they stand in marked contrast to the type of relatively undemanding religion endorsed by most of the general population. Such a posture by these minority religions casts them as deviant in relation to larger societal values, and this deviance makes them vulnerable to attack. Although individual members of the larger society do not attack these groups in any great numbers, there is a receptive attitude toward charges against these groups of wrongdoing and of practices damaging to the psychological well-being of the members. As in the infamous and tragic case of the Branch Davidians, these charges are frequently featured in an uncritical fashion on television and in the newspapers and news magazines, and they are received just as uncritically by the majority of consumers. These charges are particularly likely to arouse negative feelings toward these minority religions if they include allegations of child abuse and neglect. Virtually all researchers on the topic of child abuse, including child sexual abuse, agree that abuse occurs at a regrettably high level in the general population. Moreover, most researchers believe that the data reliably shows an increase in abuse, including sexual abuse. Because of the unfortunate level of abuse in our country, the charge of abuse has a high degree of plausibility with the public, and as such, this charge is frequently made when someone wishes to attack another's character, such as in divorce proceedings or among disgruntled students and parents. It is not surprising, therefore, that such charges are commonly made against minority religious groups, and charges of child abuse and neglect have been made against New Religious Movements for the past twenty-five years. Even groups, such as the Hare Krishnas, who have a theologically based restrictive approach toward overt sexuality have been charged by the critics over the years with a sexual abuse despite the evidence that abuse occurs among devotees at no higher rate, and probably at a much lower rate, than the general population.
The Family has been particularly susceptible to such charges and has historically been targeted by critics because of their liberal attitudes toward sexuality, although these attitudes and practices have not remained static over the years. This liberal attitude toward sexuality, along with the commitment to communal living, has been sufficient to cause The Family a great deal of trouble over the years. Moreover, some critics have suggested that the liberal attitude toward sex has not been restricted to adults but has involved sexual relationships between adults and children. In 1993, the American media has highlighted these charges in several news stories involving children being removed from homes around the world and adults being charged with sexual abuse. The basis for these charges lies in the testimony of ex- members who report that they were sexually abused as children in The Family. As supporting evidence, these ex-members frequently cite The Story of Davidito, typically referred to as the Davidito Book, which is a work describing the early life of David, the adopted son of a founder and leader, David Berg, and the natural son of Berg's wife, Maria. Critics suggest that this book is a manual for sexual abuse of young children. It is worth noting that in all cases in which children have been removed from homes of The Family around the world, no evidence for sexual abuse has been found. The Davidito book does relate David's early witnessing of sexual behavior and encouragement to explore his own sexuality, and while these experiences would be characterized as sexually abusive or neglectful by most child abuse experts, there is no report of his having been actively molested or abused by adults. Moreover, there is no evidence of long-term negative effects on David. The first author, a clinical child psychologist with thirty years of experience, recently administered a psychological evaluation to David, who is now nineteen, and found him to be a bright, well-adjusted, and emotionally strong young man.
With these considerations in mind, the authors studied thirty-two children in two Family homes in California. It is worth noting that although these two homes were located in California, the residents had an international background. Thus, virtually all children and adolescents had lived in other Family homes around the world, including Mexico, South America, Europe, and Asia. Since the attributes we discuss below are not primarily influenced by short-term situational factors, the finds regarding these young people are quite probably reflective of child rearing and educational practices found generally in Family homes. Subsequent to the study reported here, the authors also visited three more Family homes, and the observations reported here are supported by our impressions of the children in these three additional homes. During the time of the study, we lived in each of the homes and observed behaviors in every aspect of home life. Both authors observed and interacted with children at play, during academics, during outreach and witnessing, devotional services, and leisure time. We were given completely free and open access to all children and adults and were allowed to talk about anything we chose with every member of the homes. Additionally, the first author administered psychological assessments, including cognitive tests and personality tests, to the children, and the second author conducted in-depth interviews with teenagers and adults to assess their attitudes toward child rearing and socialization, education, and values, including sexuality. The second author also made extensive videotapes of all members of the homes during all activities. These videotapes are available on request and provide probably the richest source of data currently available on the normal daily lives of children in The Family.
On the basis of this study, we found no evidence for child abuse among these children. Assessment by the first author of preschool and elementary aged children indicated no psychological signs of abuse. Children interacted well with adults, including Family members as well as the authors. They displayed no anxiety or unusual fears or phobias around close interactions. This comfort in interaction was consistent with intensive clinical interviews which revealed no anxiety related to adults. On a measure involving identification and functions of body parts, presented pictorially, no children indicated abnormal responses to bodily sexual areas as displayed in the pictures. No unusual themes were elicited and children's attitudes toward and understanding of the functions of the vagina, penis, and anus were age appropriate and revealed no unusual patterns. It should be noted that this assessment was undertaken only after we had been in the home for several days, and the children and the authors had developed a comfortable relationship. Moreover, there was no indication that the children had been coached to provide appropriate answers. Such an approach in all likelihood would not have worked because the adult Family members had not been informed of the exact nature of the assessment in advance.
In interviews with adolescents in the group, the authors found no evidence for past sexual abuse despite intensive questioning. Again, the children at this age were quite comfortable with adults, showed no particular patterns indicative of unusual sexual experience, and in fact seemed somewhat more conservative regarding sexuality than age cohorts in the general population.
Apart from the issue of sexual abuse, psychological assessment indicated a general pattern of absence of pathology. None of the children displayed symptomatology of clinical significance. Emotional development was generally age appropriate, and there were no indications of either significant anxiety or depression in any of the children. Ego functions were well developed: impulse control was appropriate indicating neither undercontrol nor suppression of spontaneity. Ego regulation, according to the important work of psychologists Jack and Jeanne Block, is the ability to adapt behavior to different situational demands and changes and to changes in ongoing situations. Both observational data as well as clinical assessment, using problem solving fantasy measures, suggest that these children are generally high in ego regulation. Importantly, the Blocks' research suggests that levels of ego control and ego regulation in childhood are predictive of those same traits in adulthood. Thus, these children seem to be developing adaptive traits that will serve them well throughout their lives. Consistent with these developing personality traits, aggressive acting out was at a very low level and cooperative, prosocial behaviors were at a level considerably higher than found among age cohorts in the general population. Curiosity and creativity were high, and cognitive flexibility, the ability to approach situations and stimuli from different perspectives, was good. Functional skills for coping with stress were well developed and even superior, and social interactions with both peers and adults were excellent.
In the areas of cognitive and educational functioning, these children were well in advance of the norms. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and the Wide Range Achievement Test were given, and most children were above average in intelligence and all children were working at or close to potential. Children were typically two or four grades above age norms in reading and arithmetic. Problem solving skills were very well developed, whether on abstract, concrete, or interpersonal tasks. In general, these children and adolescents generally function at a considerably higher level than age- cohorts in the larger society. Virtually all children display what child psychologist Carol Dweck calls a mastery orientation toward cognitive tasks and viewed failures as successes on the cognitive tasks in positive terms. The typical response to failure was a determination to work harder and the typical response to success was satisfaction in achieving competence as well as a determination to become even more competent. Goals were realistic, and behavior was generally task-oriented. In brief, the children were good workers who did not feel defeated by failure and who saw success as a sign of growth.
In sum, on the basis of psychological testing, clinical interviews, and behavioral observation, these children appeared to be emotionally well adjusted, cognitively advanced, and quite adaptive in interpersonal functioning. Moreover, because of the authors' opportunities to live in the homes with the children and to establish rapport to an uncommon degree, it is unlikely that deception could have occurred at a sufficiently important level as to not be detected by experienced researchers. Indeed, no such instances of deception were apparent.
The reasons for these levels of functioning are several. First, the homes provide a very supportive and caring environment for these children. Contrary to critics' claims, these children are treated quite well. They clearly have the impression that the adults are committed to them, and a loving and nurturant atmosphere is pervasive. And even though these homes operate with minimal material resources and little room for waste, there is a strong feeling of togetherness in the homes. This sense of mutual helping and support provides a strong and healthy context for growing children. Much criticism of The Family has involved the fact that children are moved around too much. However, there are other factors that suggest that this criticism is unfounded, not the least of which is the fact that Family children are moved no more often than are many children or parents who work in corporate America. For instance, the authors live and teach in a geographical area heavily dominated by the automobile industry and automobile related businesses, and we commonly have many neighbors who have moved their children around fully as often as Family children. Many people who would be skeptical of The Family's moving children raise no such reservations regarding the children of corporate America. But just as the children of corporate America understand that their moving is related to parental values and goals, so do the children in The Family clearly understand how their moving fits into the life of missionary work. In the final analysis the question is whether or not the children feel comfortable and relaxed in their home and whether they feel cared for and valued. It is clear that the children studied display such positive feelings. The children have clearly developed a sense of basic trust, they are strongly attached to their parents, and they have a strong sense of bonding with both natural siblings and peers in the homes.
Socialization practices in the homes are clearly based on the teachings of the religion. Through a combination of scripture and the writings of their leader, Father David, a strong authoritative support for the lifestyle is communicated clearly to the children. Moreover, the children see these teachings played out in the lives of their parents and other adults, and they are thus exposed to models for behavior and guides toward internalization of values. They also see how these religious values and beliefs are embodied in adults' relationships with them, the children. Emotional support and affection are clearly communicated, and discipline and correction are gentle and instructive. Children receive clear guidance from teachers and other adults, and adherence to the basic rules of the home and the religion are expected; however, autonomy is very much encouraged. Two points are noteworthy here. The first is that like all children, these overextend themselves, fail, have conflicts, and generally get into unpleasant situations. However, these situations are extremely well handled by adults, and through discussion and encouragement, problems are resolved. Thus, the children have relatively few arguments or conflicts of long lasting significance. A second important point is that independence and leadership are strongly reinforced in the children and adolescents. Their opinions are sought and they play an important role in the functioning of the home. As a consequence, these young people are optimistic and feel quite empowered to take control of their lives. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine a healthier, more growth-enhancing milieu than exists in these homes. Although the teaching of positive values for living is stressed, this socialization is in no way authoritarian. Indeed, based on universally accepted research findings on the effects of patterns of parental socialization on personality development, the personality traits of children, as described above, could not result from authoritarian socialization practices. The children are friendly, relaxed, spontaneous, and appropriately attached to parents, and these attributes are simply not found in hostile, authoritarian homes. Indeed, in many respects the Family homes provide a living laboratory in support of Urie Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Theory of Development. Bronfenbrenner theorizes that development is sociocultural in nature and a function of the interaction between the individual and environmental systems, ranging from the fine grained influences of direct interactions of the child with specific defined socializing agents (e.g. parents, school, church, etc.), through a layer of influence reflecting the interactions of these socializing agents with each other and their interactive effect upon the child (e.g. the coordination of values between school and parents and the communication of this coordination to the child), on through a layer of larger influences (e.g. social services, neighbors, friends of the family, media) as these are filtered through the layers that are most immediate to the child. Bronfenbrenner then theorizes that the greater the coordination and consistency of influences and messages through these layers to the individual child, the greater will be adaption and healthy development. In The Family, we seem to see these predictions of Bronfenbrenner being played out in a naturalistic environment.
As mentioned above, in addition to being well socialized and emotionally healthy, children's performance on cognitive and educational tasks is remarkable. Again, observation in all five Family homes makes clear the reason for this good performance. Education has a high priority among this group, and this is reflected in performance on tests. The basic core of the educational system is the Standardized Home Based School Program. Children are tutored in these materials by several people in the homes, ranging from teenagers to adults. The tutoring is supportive and facilitative. Expectations of good effort are communicated, and natural reinforcers, such as praise, run throughout the process. There is strong emphasis on a close tutor/child relationship, and the process seems to enhance positive feelings in both child and tutor. The classrooms are well maintained, and the children have a broad array of educational materials upon which to draw. Much of the material for preschoolers on up reflects the influence of Montessori, and in addition to the physical materials, the Montessori philosophy is clearly reflected in the style of teaching and tutoring. Children work at their own level and pace, and there is great emphasis of the intrinsic motivation of insight and discovery. At the same time, social interaction is not ignored, and the presence of what Vygotsky calls the "zone of proximal development" is clearly salient. This process deals with tasks that are too difficult for the child to master alone, but which can be mastered with the guidance and assistance of adults or more skilled children. The flavor of Vygotsky's approach runs throughout the whole educational process.
One final variable plays a significant role in the social, emotional, and cognitive development of these children. That variable is the restricted use of television. The Family produces excellent videotapes featuring values training for children, and these tapes are sold worldwide in addition to being used for their own children. The Family also makes selective use of commercial films for entertainment, and in the homes we studied, they typically watched the evening news. However, virtually all other television is forbidden to children on the grounds that most television productions are harmful to the development of children as well as being unchristian. By now, it is acknowledged by most child development and educational experts that much television material is harmful to children in a variety of ways. At its worst, most television programming teaches aggression and antisocial behavior, a distorted view of the world, and simplistic solutions to complex problems. In addition, in terms of simple time demands, time spent before the television takes away from learning cognitive skills, such as reading, as well as the learning of interpersonal skills. Although, the relative absence of the influence of television is surely not the only variable leading to the healthy development of children in The Family, we believe strongly that these children provide strong naturalistic support for the validity of more controlled research studies pointing to the possible harmful effects of television on children.
In summary, our study suggests that the critics of The Family and their approach to child rearing and education are misguided. We found no evidence for child abuse or neglect. Rather, the evidence for a healthy environment for children was overwhelming. This evidence may be found in terms of our observational data, our interviews with members, and the direct assessment of the children themselves. Because the Family lies outside of the mainstream of American religion, they have been targeted by critics for persecution, and because the general public, including representatives of the legal system, have little familiarity with these relatively small minority religions, they too easily believe the critics, who are usually disgruntled ex- members. The authors are well aware that individual cases of abuse may have occurred among members in the past and may well occur again in the future. Given the base rate of child abuse in the world, it would indeed be surprising if it never occurred among any given group with a few thousand members. However, the charges of widespread, institutionalized child abuse are clearly unfounded. The children that we studied are simply too healthy to be products of a system in which abuse occurs at a high level. Perhaps in the future, critics, including especially those in the media, will draw upon resources such as this volume of writings by people who are not members of The Family but who have a scholarly interest in religion and religious freedom as background material for their analyses.
If you find this article interesting, you may also want to obtain a copy of the Lewis & Melton's (1994) book, Sex, slander, and salvation: Investigating the Family/Children of God, published by the Center for Academic Publication (Stanford, California). In this book funded by The Family, you will find several additional studies investigating aspects of The Family.
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