June 30, 2016

"At first, it was just flirting, but if necessary, you'd have sex with men to get them to join," said Williams. "Most of us weren't that shocked by it. It wasn't that much different than the whole hippie, free love thing. We were already having sex with people in the group."

Berg told his female devotees that idea for "flirty fishing" was communicated to him through divine prophecy, and even composed a prayer to inspire his band of "sacred prostitutes." Birth control was forbidden, and the children born into the sect from these casual encounters produced the "Jesus babies."

Today, six years after Berg's death, the Children of God, or The Family, present a very different image.

They say they have grown up to be an international fellowship of Christian communities with 13,000 members operating in more than 100 countries. They emphasize their humanitarian work: starting farming projects in South Africa, or helping street children in Mexico.

Leaders of The Family say that they no longer practice "flirty fishing," although their official policy statement on "law of love" still sings the praises of "sexual sharing" among consenting married and single members.

"This ensures that everyone's sexual needs are being provided for in a clean, healthy, safe and loving environment," it states. "Members can partake in such sexual sharing to bring greater unity or additional pleasure and variety into their lives."

Sara Lieberman, who lives in a communal home in Orange County with 10 members of The Family, wishes the news media and more orthodox Christian groups would look beyond the sect's sleeping arrangements. "We have doctrines that aren't mainstream, but we don't focus on them," she said. "Most of us find one spouse is a big enough challenge."

Lieberman married when she was 21 and has two small children. "I can only think of two people who have multiple partners," she said. "We've gone through stages like the rest of society. There was a time when things were a bit looser."

Things were looser in the 1970s, when Lieberman's parents hooked up in their 20s. Her parents had five boys and five girls, but are no longer full-time members of the sect.

J. Gordon Melton, director for the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, has done extensive studies of The Family.

Since the mid-1990s, Melton said, the sect has found a way to foster "friendly adherence for nominal members," rather than condemning them as backsliders or apostates.Today, in addition to their 13,000 full-time members, The Family says it has 29,000 "associates," including both first- and second-generation members.

Since its early days, the Children of God has been a secretive organization. Few members knew where Berg and his inner circle lived. Today, members look to Berg's widow, Maria, and her husband, Peter Amsterdam, as the movement's prophets.

Melton thinks the sect's leaders are now living in Switzerland, although their whereabouts have always been kept under wraps, in part to avoid lawsuits.

Two former members who would love to sue The Family are Marina Tafuri and her daughter, Daphne Sarran.

In 1977, Tafuri was living in her native Italy when she met some of Berg's devotees on a train from Rome to Naples.

"They can really spot people having a hard time in life," she said. "I wasn't attracted by the born-again Christian beliefs, but I liked the commitment to social causes. They were trying to change the world."

Tafuri joined the organization, and a year later, Daphne was born, the first of four children fathered by her common-law husband.

Many of Daphne Sarran's earliest memories in the Children of God revolve around sex. "A lot of the escape for children was sexual play. Everything was very sexualized," she said. "By the time I was 4, I knew a lot about sex. We were bombarded with it. By the time I was 6, I was getting molested. I'd seen it happen to so many other children, it didn't really seem that strange."

Sarran and her mother left the Children of God in 1990, the year Tafuri says she finally realized that her child was being sexually molested by men in the group.

"It's a lot of work reintegrating into society, to have a social face, and to find out that everything you lived and believed up to that point was a lie, " Sarran said. "I still feel like I don't know who I am."