How a child sex cult preached from a countryside manor house
The Kent village once home to a global child sex cult: How the Children of God – which once counted Rose McGowan and River Phoenix as members – preached their message from manor house in British countryside in 1970s
- ‘Children of God’ cult set up at Hollingbourne Manor, Kent in the early 1970s
- The US cult was founded in 1967, but set up 130 communes around the world
- Rose McGowan’s parents helped set up the US cult in the English countryside
- They later escaped after discovering a ‘strong advocacy for child-adult sex’
Child sex cult the Children of God was at the height of its influence in the early 1970s – with actors Rose McGowan and River Phoenix both born into the group – and for a brief 18 months, followers were able to preach their message from a manor house in the British countryside.
With a population of less than 1,000 people, Hollingbourne, just a few miles from Maidstone, boasts more than 70 listed buildings, and can trace its roots back as far as the Domesday Book.
Among the historic sites is Grade 1 listed Hollingbourne Manor, a 16th century mansion boasting six bedrooms, three bathrooms and three reception rooms on the corner of a country lane.
The Elizabethan manor’s own history has seen it owned by notable local families including the Culpeppers and later the Fairfaxes, who also owned nearby Leeds Castle.
But in 1972, The Children of God moved in, spreading the word of their founder David Berg, who is said to have shown a ‘strong advocacy for child-adult sex,’ from the heart of the Garden of England.
Local church treasurer Philip Smith, who bought the manor for £1.2million in 2010, said: ‘You will find some of the older people remember the Children of God. They were just viewed as rather odd people.
‘I don’t think they were here for very long, about 18 months to a couple of years. But some of the people in the village have been here since here since the war, so they will remember them.’
Actor and #MeToo activist Rose McGowan’s parents were among the founding members of the Hollingbourne commune.
The site was sold on to developers in 1973 and the commune disbanded – but not before a CBS news crew arrived to interview members.
Grade I listed Hollingbourne Manor has stood in a quiet Kent village since the 16th century, but for nearly two years, it was home to Children of God, a religious cult heavily linked to child sex abuse
Survivors from other communes say it was ‘hell on earth,’ but footage from the broadcast shows only the public face of the cult, as men, women and children sing, dance and read bible verses at the manor.
One villager told the US broadcaster at the time: ‘I’ve been living here six years in Hollingbourne and I haven’t anything against these fellows.’
But as Rose McGowan, who was raised in another commune in Italy, told journalist and documentary maker Louis Theroux earlier this year, there was a darker side to the cult.
By the early 1970s, the Children of God had around 130 communities around the world, including in South America, where actors River and Joaquin Phoenix were briefly raised in the cult.
Berg would communicate with them by letter, often referring to himself as ‘Moses’ or ‘The Last Endtime Prophet’, spreading a message that ‘God is love and love is sex’.
Survivors say Berg was a ‘highly disturbed alcoholic paedophile’.
High walls and bushes cover one side of the manor’s perimeter. It was purchased for £1.2million in 2010, nearly 40 years after the cult arrived. Women who grew up in the cult, including actor and #MeToo activist Rose McGowan, have spoken of the ‘strong advocacy for child-adult’ sex
Hollingbourne Manor boasts six bedrooms, three bathrooms and three reception rooms
Locals knew little about the cult, who but the manor’s current owner says they were viewed as ‘rather odd people’
The group was known for something referred to as ‘flirty fishing,’ which would see young women and men go out into the street and try to recruit new members by singing and dancing in the street.
McGowan referred to the practice as ‘hookers for Jesus,’ and said she even took part before leaving the cult at the age of 10.
She told Louis Theroux her father ‘drew the line,’ after discovering children were being abused in the cult.
She said: ‘Obviously flirty fishing wasn’t the line for him, it was okay to send women out to do this, but I just never understood the power dynamics between the men and the women and the women subjugating themselves so much.’
McGowan and her parents left the Italian commune while she was still a child and returned to a normal life in the US.
Rose McGowan’s parents helped set up the commune at Hollingbourne Manor, which stands in the heart of the Kent countryside. The actor was raised in the cult after her parents moved to Italy. She said: ‘I remember the children dancing and I remember girls not wearing much’
A CBS report from 1972 showed members of the Children of God dancing outside Hollingbourne Manor, in Kent, where the religious cult set up for around 18 months
By the 1970s, the Children of God had cults all over the world – and some of its youngest members would grow up to become famous.
Rose McGowan was born into the cult, growing up in Italian communes before eventually fleeing with her parents when she was 10.
Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix and his late brother River were also raised in the cult, but in communes in South America.
In a 2014 interview, the Joker and Gladiator actor said: ‘I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, “We’re like-minded people. This is a community,” but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out.’
Musicians Christopher Owens and Susan Justice, authors Lauren Hough and Flor Edwards, as well as Julian Buhring, the first woman to bicycle around the world, were all raised in the cult, but left in later life.
Fleetwood Mac founding member Jeremy Spencer quit the band in 1971 to become a member of the cult.
Speaking about her experiences in the cult earlier this year, she said there was a ‘strong advocacy for child-adult sex,’ adding they were given ‘creepy, ridiculous cartoon books of boys in bed with adult women and little girls in bed with three adult men.’
The actor said: ‘I remember the children dancing and I remember girls not wearing much dancing for the adults.
‘People who are perverted like David Berg, they have to up the ante for themselves to get kicks.’
In recent years more and more members have come out against The Children of God, now known as The Family International.
In 2017, one woman described it as ‘hell on earth’.
Verity Carter told the BBC she was abused by four men, including her own father, while growing up in the cult.
She said: ‘We had no contact with the outside world.
‘We did not have music or television or culture. We had no idea how the world worked.
‘There were heavy consequences if you failed to keep that smile and say the things you were meant to say.’
In August Derek Lincoln, a former ‘house shepherd,’ at the cult’s commune in Scotland, was jailed for 11 years for raping two girls, aged between nine and 11, between 1989 and 1991.
His position in the cult meant he had direct access to any of the children who were part of commune.
Det Sgt Neil Wilson said Lincoln, now 74, ‘used his position,’ in the cult ‘to perpetrate violent sexual abuse against two young children’.
One of his victims, Sharon Hendry, told The Times how the cult spread the message: ‘God is love and love is sex’.
Sharon Hendry, who lived at one of the other cult’s other British communes, said: ‘The doctrines of free love were also appealing and might have seemed harmless to outsiders — but those of us on the inside were living a darker reality
David Berg died in Portugal in 1994, survivors of the Children of God, now known as The Family International, say he was a ‘highly disturbed alcoholic paedophile’
She said: ‘Berg was a highly disturbed alcoholic paedophile churning out endless psychotic ramblings, but I was too young to know that at the time.
‘The doctrines of free love were also appealing and might have seemed harmless to outsiders — but those of us on the inside were living a darker reality.
‘We were growing up in a highly sexualised environment where adults openly had intercourse in front of us and sexual play was encouraged among prepubescent youngsters and practised between adults and children.’
The organisation says it made ‘any contact between an adult and minor,’ an ‘ex communicable offence,’ in 1986.
David Berg died in Portugal in 1994.
The Family International is now run by his widow, Karen Zerby.
Who are the Children of God?
The Children of God sect was founded in 1968 by minister David Brandt Berg.
Berg spent much of the 1960s traveling to different churches near his home in with his own kids, singing hymns and ‘spreading the word of God’, before the family to Huntington, California, in 1967 where he set up a coffee shop, and began preaching to customers.
Originally known as Teens of Christ, Berg soon changed the name to Children of God in the hopes of appealing to a wider crowd that included vulnerable youths looking for a support and comfort.
By targeting these groups, Berg was able to quickly expand his ‘religion’ and by 1969, he had more than 50 members in his ‘family’.
Soon after, the Children of God left Huntington and began traveling once again, expanding their ranks to include more than 200 people over the following eight months.
Communes were soon set up around the world, with members moving in together to form their own ‘families’ of Children of God converts – and by 1972, there were 130 ‘communities’ of full-time members around the globe.
The Children of God were asked to give up their jobs and devote themselves full time to preaching Berg’s teachings and proselytizing for additional members – while Berg himself lived in seclusion, sharing his prophecies through written letters known as ‘MO’s Letters’.
But while on the outside, the group claimed to be spreading the world of God – and of Berg – internally, members were encouraged to partake in incestuous sexual relationships with minors.
In 1976, female members began being urged to take part in a practice known as ‘flirty fishing’, which saw them forced to ‘show God’s love’ by having sexual relations with potential members in order to lure them into the group as full-time converts.
Following Berg’s death in October 1994, the group – which had, by then, rebranded itself as The Family of Love, then The Family – was taken over by long-time member Karen Zerby.
In 2004, the group’s name was changed to The Family International.
Hollywood actors Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix have both shared details of their own early childhood experiences in the sect.
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