28 Feb 2011

Killer's capture reveals child abuse and wife beating in Jesus Group cult led by Australian millionaire

The Australian - February 19, 2011

Capture of wanted killer sheds light on life in polygamist cult

by Jarred Owens | The Australian

THE revelation that one of Australia's most wanted killers took sanctuary in an obscure polygamist cult in the Cairns hinterland has finally lifted the veil on the secretive sect, which former followers say has thrived for more than 30 years.

Headed by millionaire property owner Daniel Landy-Ariel, the Jesus People preach an orthodox Christian lifestyle in which adherents speak ancient Aramaic and some forms of violence against women and children are allegedly encouraged.

Guided by their spiritual father, the cult's 150 followers are crammed into urban properties in Sydney and Cairns, as well as three massive kibbutzes in remote areas of Queensland and NSW.

Police are now investigating the extent to which cult members may have sheltered convicted murderer Luke Andrew Hunter, 42, and whether or not they helped him obtain work with Queensland Health.

Hunter changed his name to Ashban Cadmiel, and there is no suggestion the cult was aware of his true identity.

Hunter is alleged to have escaped from Borallon Correctional Centre, near Ipswich, in 1996. He was serving a 21-year jail term after being found guilty in 1990 of the "cold-blooded assassination" of his lover's husband.

Like other cult members, Hunter took a biblical name and he worked as a groundskeeper at the Herberton hospital in far north Queensland from 1997 to this year. His arrest shed light on the reclusive group, with several former members coming forward to describe the culture of fear they say exists, especially for women, who say they are "sub-citizens".

Mr Landy-Ariel, 59, who admits taking two wives, has long shunned media attention. But in an affidavit, obtained exclusively by The Weekend Australian, the man known as "Reshan" (or "the head") last year gave an official history of his sect, its practices, and defended himself against allegations levelled against him.

"Any number of people ejected from or rejecting the community could use us as their pincushion," Mr Landy-Ariel said.

"Many who are asked to leave are bitter because they can't return or because they realise that they know they may be committing some sin . . . (the) ratio of people who have left and those asked to leave is probably 50-50."

But a former follower, who asked to be known as Jeremiah, said he had witnessed "some of the worst violence" during his nine-year stint. "I saw a chair smacked over a girl's back. I saw another girl who had a brick put to her head," he told The Weekend Australian.

"Women have to obey their husbands. If a wife were seen causing trouble -- as will inevitably happen at some time -- if he (the husband) was seen only to have mildly harsh words to her, he'd be seen as not carrying his weight in the community."

In his affidavit, Mr Landy-Ariel said domestic violence did occur in the sect, but "in comparison to Australia and world statistics . . . our statistics are very good".

Jeremiah, who said he never participated in violence, claimed the violence went unreported because of the closed communities. Several former adherents said followers were required to hand over their possessions, ATM cards and future income to Mr Landy-Ariel who, with his group leaders, decided how money was spent.

"They had some money from young apprentices but the bulk of the money came from Centrelink," said Madeline Hardess, who spent two years with the group last decade.

Asked why the followers gave their possessions to him, Mr Landy-Ariel wrote he was afforded that responsibility out of respect, which he earned through such exploits as a 41-day water-only fast he endured in 1996.

"The doctor told me I wouldn't live through it . . . I often joke with the brethren (concerning) how many brain cells I would have lost," he wrote. "Whether it is seen to have been silly or not, they know it was my life or theirs."

Mr Landy-Ariel wrote how he established the group on the streets of Cairns in the 1970s by running a Christian coffee shop before forming a kibbutz in Atherton. The sect, also known as the Jesus Group of north Queensland, believed in the total separation of church and state. The group is therefore not registered as a church and does not register its "marriages" with authorities.

Contraception is also banned in the community because Mr Landy-Ariel believes it encourages promiscuity. "(It is) an easy way for a girl to get married to whoever she wants. 'Oh, dear, I'm pregnant, the pill didn't work!' " Mr Landy-Ariel wrote. "We are a community not a sewer." He wrote that children in the community are home-schooled through a Christian college, since at mainstream schools "their moral standards were being badly affected".

The three kibbutzes are near Herberton in far north Queensland; Gympie, 160km north of Brisbane; and near Parkes, 360km west of Sydney. Mr Landy-Ariel and the Jesus People could not be reached for comment.

This article was found at:


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  1. Fears for future of Jewellery Quarter businesses if Jesus Army move in

    by Brett Gibbons, Birmingham Mail Sep 22 2011

    BUSINESS leaders fear traders will quit Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter if a controversial church group which has been branded a cult sets up a base in the area.
    The Mail revealed last month that the Jesus Army wanted to redevelop a former office block in Lionel Street with plans for a worship centre, cafe and a walk-in facility for prostitutes, drug addicts, the homeless and asylum seekers.

    The move has infuriated companies based in the Quarter, which houses some of the city’s top bars and restaurants and is in the running to be named a UNESCO world heritage site.

    And officials working to boost the area said they had been told several firms would quit the area if the scheme, which is currently on hold, went ahead.

    Chris Booth, chairman of the Jewellery Quarter Association Heritage and Regeneration group, said: “I have already discussed with at least a dozen business owners who have commented that they will vacate the immediate area if planning consent is granted. This area will be blighted.”

    It was thought the Jesus Army Charitable Trust, which is part of a group with assets of more than £14 million and an annual turnover in excess of £20 million, paid just under £1 million for the office building. Army members stage high-profile recruitment campaigns in public places.

    Birmingham’s busy Broad Street entertainment district is regularly targeted by members keen to increase the group’s presence in the city.

    But there have been allegations the Jesus Army operates as a cult. It has been criticised by former members and other church groups for its “authoritarian-style” amid claims members were put under pressure to commit to life-long celibacy and hand over their material possessions.

    Ian Howarth, director of the Cult Information Centre, a charity providing advice about cults, said he was concerned about the activities of the Jesus Army.

    “They have done nothing recently to change my mind,” he said. “I have great sympathy with the businessmen whose premises will be near to the centre.”

    JESUS Army spokesman John Campbell denied the organisation was a cult and said Birmingham should welcome its plans.

    He said: “Being labelled as a cult is a serious allegation. We are a Christian Church and are recognised by other church leaders. People are free to come and go of their own free will and we seek to do good in the community.”

    He did not deny some of the group’s members chose a celibate lifestyle or handed over all their cash and possessions.

    “That is an option that exists in many religious groups,” he said.

    Mr Campbell forecast that fellow residents and businesses in the area would welcome the Jesus Army.

    He said: “There is a lot of ignorance about the Jesus Army and, when we are up and running, people will be very happy.”

    He said a similar project in Coventry had been praised by police.


    1. This is the same Jesus Army that is being investigated for historic abuse on its own children. The man mentioned Mr Campbell along with the main leader Mick Haines used to thrash the kids with wooden sticks until their bottoms bled. They talk about being open and honest and wanting to show transparency but yet remain defiant that they have done nothing wrong. They are a cult and nothing but a cult that tries to manipulate the British public into thinking they have now changed but the fact remains the current leadership have blood on their hands.

  2. Film sheds light on Jesus People's dark stories

    by Judith Valente, Special for USA TODAY April 7, 2014

    CHICAGO — When filmmaker Jaime Prater decided to make a documentary exploring the lives of the children he grew up with at the Jesus People USA religious community, he says he never imagined his research would "open the floodgates."

    Stories poured out of sexual and physical abuse. More than a dozen adults who lived as children at Jesus People relate their stories in Prater's film, No Place to Call Home, which has been released on Vimeo on Demand.

    Jesus People is one of the last remnants of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, which attracted earnest young urban missionaries seeking an alternative to the drug culture and free love communes of the time. Today, Jesus People says it offers adults and families a chance to turn around their lives in an evangelical, Bible-based communal setting.

    Two lawsuits have been filed against Jesus People in Cook County Circuit Court. The suits also name the Evangelical Covenant Church, headquartered outside of Chicago. Jesus People has been a member congregation of that church since 1989.

    In one of the suits, Heather Kool, 38, of Athens, Ga., alleges she was repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a resident of the community while living there with her mother.

    In a separate suit, filed on March 24, Prater, 38, alleges he too was sexually molested as a boy "over a period of years" by a different community resident.

    Both suits say Jesus People and the Evangelical Covenant Church failed to protect minors, adequately supervise adults and minors, and implement policies to protect minors. The suit also cites the two organizations for failing to report allegations to police. Prater and Kool are each seeking $100,000 in damages.

    Ron Brown, one of the current pastors at Jesus People, declined to comment on the suits or film.

    Phil Zisook, the attorney for Jesus People, said he is analyzing the allegations and plans to file responses in court.

    Evangelical Covenant Church spokesman Edward Gilbreath said the church is "continuing to gather information" about the specific allegations against Jesus People. "We take these allegations seriously," he said, "and our hearts ache over news of harm to children and the lingering pain felt by adult survivors of abuse."

    Gilbreath said member organizations operate as separate entities and are responsible for their own governance. However, they are expected to report allegations of abuse to authorities and to permanently "disqualify from ECC ministry" any clergy member found guilty of child molestation or abuse.

    Commune living blamed

    Both lawsuits say the alleged abuse stemmed in part from Jesus People's practice of letting families with minor children share living quarters with non-related adults. Prater, says Jesus People would accept people into the commune with few questions asked. "The leadership engineered this environment of let's accept everyone into our doors. That's what set up this cocktail, this environment of cyclical sexual abuse," he says.

    Jesus People's leadership discouraged them from reporting the abuse to authorities, assuring them instead that they would handle the problems internally, according to the filmmaker.

    "Can you imagine having to report even half of those (cases)? Can you imagine what people would think? What is this place, what is happening to all these children?" Prater says.

    Prater says he could find evidence in only six cases that the leadership reported the abuse to authorities, "and then only under pressure from parents."

    In only one case were charges ever filed. An individual from the community was prosecuted and ultimately jailed. It is unclear whether police found insufficient evidence to press charges in the five other cases, or if the families involved decided not to proceed.

    Residents pool salaries

    continued below

  3. Prater moved into Jesus People USA with his parents when he was 2, and lived there until 1998.

    About 450 people still live at Jesus People on Chicago's north side. Families pool their salaries in exchange for food and housing. Jesus People runs several ministries that provide a variety of social services to senior citizens, the poor and homeless.

    Jesus People also operates a roofing supply company in Chicago, where many of its residents work. For decades, it has sponsored the Cornerstone Music Festival, an international Christian rock concert held annually in the Chicago suburbs.

    Andy Young, a licensed clinical professional counselor, says he went to the Chicago police late last year after hearing about the allegations from several former Jesus People residents. Police found that the criminal statute of limitations had expired on the cases brought to their attention.

    Police also found no evidence of current abuse at the commune or that anyone at the commune is currently a threat to minors.

    In Prater's film, three women recount being sexually abused by a current resident. The alleged abuse occurred when the women were teenagers living there in the 1980s. Two of the women are only identified by their first names. A third talks off camera.

    The women declined to be interviewed. Chicago police say they haven't been contacted by them and therefore can't investigate their claims.

    Micki Johnson, of Aitkin, Minn., says parents at the commune were discouraged from speaking about personal problems with anyone but the leadership. This, she says, led to a "veil of silence and secrecy."

    Johnson's son, now 38, says in Prater's film that he was sexually assaulted as a pre-teen by a fellow resident. Johnson says she later learned that her son's alleged attacker was living at Jesus People while on parole for a sex offense. He is currently listed in the Illinois archive of sex offenders.

    Johnson says when she and her husband asked the leadership council to remove the alleged abuser from the community, a council member "began screaming at me that my son was a well-known liar."

    Johnson and her husband eventually agreed to have their son removed from the community and placed in a group home. She says she had "no idea" at the time that other parents were reporting separate instances of abuse. The family left in 1998.

    "I'm speaking out now," Johnson says. "And I know there may be people full of condemnation and judgment for us as parents. But it is nothing compared to the condemnation we have for ourselves," for failing to speak out sooner, Johnson says.

    Spankings were common

    Angel Harold says "getting the rod" was part of commune life. "These weren't sweet little spankings, these were hard rods. And every time you got one, you had to sit on someone's lap and pray to Jesus to forgive you," she says.

    Harold, 43, who appears in Prater's film, asks, "Where do you think God was when ... we were being sexually abused and physically abused, when we were lonely? Where was he?"

    In a 1993 letter obtained by Prater, a Jesus People leader says rod "spankings" were once a practice, but are no longer sanctioned by the community.

    Some former residents say they aren't interested in a long legal battle. They want an apology and a change in leadership.

    "I just want somebody to acknowledge what happened, stop calling us liars and take responsibility," says Maurica Bytnar. She alleges she was sexually assaulted by an adult male resident when she was 7, and later by a teenager.

    Prater's film "is a way for us to stand together and hold hands and say we are not going to let this stay in the dark any longer," says Harold. "We are going to bring this into the light."


  4. Sects Cults and UFOs Fringe groups The Family, Raelian Movement and ‘real’ Jesus Christ among those attracting Aussie followers

    by PAUL ANDERSON, HERALD SUN Australia JULY 25, 2014

    FROM small fringe groups with wacky religious beliefs to large structured money-making organisations run by self-professed prophets, cults and sects have existed in Australia for several decades.

    We take a look at the cults and sects that have popped up across the landscape or branched on to our shores over the decades.


    Australia’s most notorious cult, The Family was led by self-professed messiah Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

    Based in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria, it traded on Christianity and a mix of Eastern and Western religious themes.

    Senior cult members worked at the Newhaven psychiatric hospital in Kew, from where patients were recruited.

    They were allegedly administered the hallucinogenic drug LSD.

    Several children were taken into care when Australian Federal Police agents and Community Services Victoria staff raided a Lake Eildon property in 1987.

    Police later found 14 children had been brought up in almost complete isolation believing they were the offspring of Hamilton-Byrne and her late husband Bill.

    The children’s hair was dyed peroxide-blonde and they were dressed in identical outfits.

    It is also alleged they were half starved, beaten and forced to take large amounts of tranquillisers and fed LSD when they became adults.

    In an interview with the Sunday Herald Sun in 2009, Hamilton-Byrne gave the following responses.

    Question: Did she mistreat “her children”?

    Response: “They were normal children and they could be disobedient to a point, but not all the time.”

    Question: Was LSD used?

    Response: “Everything on earth has its uses.”

    Her estranged “daughter”, Dr Sarah Moore, told the Sunday Herald Sun: “She is unrepentant. She is a powerful and charismatic person, and I believe she initially meant well with both creating the cult and collecting us children.”


    This sect gained notoriety in the 1970s over claims of child sex abuse and a practice known as “flirty fishing” — where female devotees were encouraged to lure new members with sex.

    Children of God was formed in 1968 by US pastor David Berg, who called himself Moses David.

    Secrecy and negative publicity involving overseas Children of God branches sparked controversy about the religious group in Australia.

    Raids were carried out in Victoria and NSW, amid concerns about the welfare of children.

    The children involved said they were never abused.

    A Children’s Court magistrate in Victoria temporarily placed children in the care of Community Services Victoria.

    The families, who homeschooled their children, insisted they were simply a fundamentalist Christian community spreading the word across the globe.

    A child welfare worker claimed some of the children told them they were required to always smile, and crying was punished with a beating using a wooden paddle or stick.

    In the end in 1994, the children were returned to their families.

    In NSW, a similar legal custody battle had waged.

    A damages claim was confidentially settled.

    continued below


    A South Australian Group, its members wore pink and white underwear, ate offal, rejected medical advice and determined strict diets by listening to the vibrations of food and bodies.

    In 1999, one former member of the group provided The Advertiser with a copy of one of her food programs.

    It included instructions to drink 756 glasses of water a day and eat brains and tongue 30 times a day.

    The program detailed not only what a person could eat, but how it was cooked.

    SA Liberal Senator Grant Chapman criticised the group in State Parliament in 1999.

    According to The Advertiser article, group leaders Joan Phillips and Marie Steinke replied by saying the program did not specify what a person had to eat, but what was necessary to balance an individual’s “vibrations”.

    According to a statement from the women, VIP was a “registered self-help group based on Christian principles”.

    “It is not a cult targeted at pregnant women,” the statement said.

    “Diet is not the core focus of the group. The agreed diets cover a full range of food and are relative to the need of weakened vibrations at the time.’’


    The leader of this Queensland-based group, a woman named Debra Geileskey, said she survived for 14 months largely on a eucharist diet of wafers and sightings of the Virgin Mary.

    Her movement attracted up to 400 followers after she moved from Melbourne to Toowoomba in 1992.

    Ms Geileskey, nee Burslem, claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary and amassed a property empire worth more than $3.5 million, according to a 2003 Courier-Mail story.

    “The former schoolteacher whose Magnificat Meal Movement headquarters are based at Helidon, 80km west of Brisbane, also owns four Mercedes-Benz with matching numberplates,” the article said.

    “Land title searches show she owns or part owns at least 20 properties, including homes, farms, offices, shops and units.”

    It was also reported Ms Geileskey claimed to have Vatican advisers, and to be a multi-millionaire who had no need to ask for money.

    According to a group website: “We are aware of the demented controllers who slander & sell their souls to cry out the fear based words of ‘cult’ against us & pump out propaganda against MMMI volunteers & founders ... bullyboys’ way to frighten saints away from the natural right to freedom of study & divine knowledge.”

    THE RAELIAN MOVEMENT (with chapters in Australia)

    This cult is led by a French former motoring journalist and test driver named Claude Vorilhon who, following what he says was an alien encounter in 1973, changed his name to Rael and formed the Raelian movement.

    Rael believes he is a prophet from an alien race called the Elohim.

    Rael’s UFO-based cult believes extraterrestrial beings will determine the fate of mankind.

    It says this on their website: “The Raelian philosophy explains that all forms of life were created by human beings called Elohim coming from another planet who made us in their image.

    “The original Bible clearly talks about ‘Elohim’ creating life on earth. This Hebrew word is plural and could be translated as ‘those who came from the sky’.

    “It has however been mistranslated into ‘god’ leading to the monotheist religions like the Catholic Church.

    One of the group’s press releases states: “Rael to Pope Francis: ‘No need to baptise aliens, they’re the gods of the Bible.’”

    The Raelians, who have achieved tax-exemption status in the US, have an earthbound cause — through “Clitoraid” the cult raises funds to staff an African facility called the “Pleasure Hospital” where women who have been subjected to genital mutilation can have reconstructive surgery.

    They have also joined other worthy causes, such as the right for women to appear to topless at

    North Bondi beach.

    continued below


    This group, according to the website for its Australian chapter in Brisbane, “co-operates with the gods from space”.

    The website states: “The Aetherius Society is an international spiritual organisation dedicated to spreading, and acting upon, the teachings of advanced extraterrestrial intelligences.

    “In great compassion, these beings recognise the extent of suffering on Earth and have made countless sacrifices in their mission to help us to create a better world.

    The Aetherius Society was founded in the mid-1950s by Englishman George King shortly after he was apparently contacted — in London — by an extraterrestrial intelligence known as ‘Aetherius’.

    “The main body of the Society’s teachings consists of the wisdom given through the mediumship (sic) of Dr King by the Master Aetherius and other advanced intelligences from this world and beyond.” the website states.

    “The single greatest aspect of the Society’s teachings is the importance of selfless service to others.”

    Of its founder, the website says: “Dr. George King is not the only person in history to have had contacts with beings from other worlds, but he is definitely one of the most remarkable.

    “He was in contact with the Cosmic Masters from 1954, aged 35, until his death in 1997. During this 43-year period he received a vast amount of spiritual teaching.

    “Dr. King also saw and met certain Cosmic Masters, and visited an extraterrestrial spacecraft known as ‘Satellite Number 3’ in a projected state.”


    This was a secretive community that revolved around the philosophy of “what’s yours is mine”, according to a report published in the Daily Telegraph in January 2011.

    Led by a self-proclaimed prophet, the group came to light after one of its members went public.

    It fell under more scrutiny when it was revealed one of Australia’s most wanted killers took refuge with the group after escaping prison in 1996.

    There was nothing to suggest the organisation knew that Luke Andrew Hunter - who changed his name to Ashban Cadmiel - was a fugitive or convicted killer.

    “Members give up access to their own money,” the Daily Telegraph story said of the sect.

    “They are stripped of the ability to make decisions and are told if they leave they will go to hell.

    “Members must take a biblical name within weeks of joining, learn the ancient Aramaic language and study spiritual guidelines written by (the leader, Dawid Daniel Yosep Abishai Yokannan Landy-Ariel).

    “Women learn their role is to serve their husbands ... and mothers are expected to give birth at the commune.”

    According to the article, Mr Landy-Ariel denied he dictated how members lived their lives but said individuals abided by the rules out of “respect” for him as the “founding father”.

    He said he did not condone or authorise violence.

    continued below


    This cult’s presence in Australia declined dramatically from its peak in the 1970s when it was centred in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood.

    The traditional theology of the Moonies, or Church of Unification, was based on the belief that founder Sun Myung Moon was a second Jesus Christ.

    This cult was best known for marrying together followers in their hordes who, in return for promises of spiritual enlightenment, offered total loyalty.

    At the age of 92, Myung Moon — who turned his movement into a multi-billion dollar business empire — died of organ failure after complications from pneumonia.

    So far he has not managed a second coming.


    In the late 2000s, a couple claiming to be the real Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene bedded down in Wilkesdale, near Kingaroy — an area known as Queensland’s “Bible Belt” — and began to attract disciples from across Australia.

    In a video at the time, Jesus — real name Alan John Miller — said with a straight face: “My name is Jesus and I’m serious.”

    His partner’s name is Mary Suzanne Luck.

    On the Divine Truth website, Miller explains: “Just a little over 2000 years ago, we arrived on the earth for the first time. My name then was Yeshua ben Yosef, or the Jesus of the Bible, the son of Joseph and Mary.

    “Mary’s name then was Mary of Magdala, the woman identified in the Bible as Mary Magdalene.

    “Mary was my wife then, and the first person I appeared to after I was crucified.”

    On their website, the pair thank people for their donations and offer their latest financial records for examination.

    “Mary and I are completely transparent about our financial records,” Miller states on the website.



    By Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Janine Cohen, ABC News Four Corners, Australia July 28, 2014

    He is a self-styled evangelist who told his followers he was The Anointed One, chosen by God to convert the world to his beliefs.

    Anyone who didn't follow his word was told they would burn in hell, that he held the key to their salvation on judgement day.

    In reality, Scott Williams was a cult leader who used his own brand of religion to warp biblical scripture in the pursuit of sex, money and power.

    Scott Williams left Australia 38 years ago, converting hundreds of young people throughout Europe. On the outside, life appeared happy. But now, former cult members reveal to Four Corners a lifetime of secretive abuse, misplaced worship and horrifying punishments carried out under the guise of obedience to 'The Overseer', Scott Williams. Their stories are so shocking, their brainwashing so profound, it is almost unbelievable. As one former member explained:

    "It's not simple to walk out. No. I wish I could. I tried. I tried a few times. It's a curious web and it was like he's the spider and he's got you there and you can't get out of the bloody spider web."

    This week, reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna investigates the rise of Scott Williams and his incredible path around the world and back to Australia, exposing how he created a hell on earth for many followers. Controlling almost everything they did, members say they were threatened, beaten, subjected to horrifying and bizarre sexual rituals - and even their children were taken away and given to others to raise for a time.

    All the while, Scott Williams amassed a fortune from his members.

    Finally, the police caught up with him - but would Scott Williams be brought to justice? And how can his Assembly still be operating in Australia?

    Following a four year investigation by Meldrum-Hanna, the story of Scott Williams can be told thanks to a group of courageous, key former members. Brutalised and abused, they eventually broke free from the cult. And now they break their silence publically for the first time and tell of their tormented years following the book according to Scott.

    CULT OF HORRORS, reported by Caro Meldrum-Hanna and presented by Kerry O'Brien, goes to air on Monday 28th July on ABC at 8.30 pm. It is repeated on Tuesday 29th July at 11.00 am and 11.35 pm. It can also be seen on ABC News 24 on Saturday at 8.00 pm, at ABC iview and at abc.net.au/4corners.


  9. ABC investigation reveals claims of abuse in NSW cult

    by Alexandra Back, The Sydney Morning Herald July 28, 2014

    Self-appointed religious guru Pastor Scott Williams used his NSW-based pseudo-Christian cult to run a homosexual sex ring and steal money from his followers, a four-year ABC investigation has revealed.

    Four Corners spoke to more than a dozen men who say Williams compelled them to perform sex acts.

    Former member Gunther Frantz says he was 12 year-old when he first started to be indoctrinated in Williams' organisation, the Christian Assemblies International.

    He told the ABC how Williams would be in the centre of a group being touched by a male member of the cult.

    "I think the biggest one I ever remember was 80 males in rooms covered only in naked bodies, and everybody giving massages," he said. "And Scott always had his personal private room with one or two at the end of any of those sessions. And then at two o'clock he sends everybody out of the room and out of everywhere else and he usually picks somebody to stay with him, to get more training."

    Mr Frantz said Williams had brainwashed him, telling them that "anyone who is not within the church is a heathen who is going to burn in hell, and they either convert or die, and you have nothing to do with them".

    He and other former members say the group is not a religion, but a shocking cult that abuses its followers and that does not deserve its charitable status in Australia.

    Members were also told to donate 10 per cent of their income to the Assemblies as part of their membership in the group.

    The group is a registered charity in Australia.

    It started in the German town of Feldafin in the 1970s, its headquarters are now in Coffs Harbour.

    Williams and other senior members of the group declined the ABC's requests for interviews.

    The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, the national charity regulator, has pledged to investigate the allegations.

    see photo at:


  10. Mum tells of life in brainwashing polygamous cult

    by Kathy Sundstrom, Sunshine Coast Daily Australia July 28, 2014

    THE mother of four intellectually disabled sons she gave birth to while living in a secret, polygamous North Queensland cult is hoping to give them an opportunity no one else will.

    Tamar Joha has bought an old-style food van to do up so her sons, who have a genetic condition called Fragile X Syndrome, can indulge their love of serving people.

    The Sippy Downs mother tried to find them a job volunteering in coffee shops or bakeries, but no one was willing to give them a go.

    "They like making coffees and giving them to people and I tried a few places for them to volunteer, but because of all the legal sides they didn't want to,"Ms Joha said.

    "So I have decided to do it myself and bought a little food van which I hope to do up so they can get experience and social skills in serving people.

    "They get a real joy out of handing people something."

    Ms Joha escaped the cult, known as the Jesus Group of North Queensland, with nothing more than the clothes on her back and her youngest son six years ago.

    At that time, she had to leave her eight other children behind with their father.

    Five of her children have the Fragile X Syndrome, though she has only been able to gain custodianship of four of them.

    Through a complicated Supreme Court battle, she is able to stay in touch with her 17-year-old daughter.

    Her other children want no contact with her, which Ms Joha understands as she believes they have been indoctrinated.

    "It's hard to describe, when you are in it. It is hugely brainwashing, they are so convincing," she said.

    "You get institutionalised. I am just starting to get out of it."

    She was 46 when she left and spent the first six months in women's shelters.

    She hopes her daughter will be able to leave before she turns 18 and has to get married to one of its members, as she did when she was 17.

    "I had only just turned 17 and I was looking for a bit of adventure so I went up to Cairns. I was vulnerable and I met these people on the streets, handing out literature," Ms Joha said.

    One of the leaders told the fragile young women he had a "vision from God" she should marry a man five years her senior she had only met twice.

    "We had our first child when I was 18 and we kept on having children after that."

    continued below

  11. The cults founder Daniel Landy Ariel has admitted to having two wives.

    Despite the fact it was clear the couple were carriers of a genetic condition which caused Fragile X, Ms Joha was banned from taking contraceptives.

    And because the children were home schooled, they slipped through the system

    "They never went through the public system where they could get all the help they could have," she said.

    For 28 years Ms Joha was part of the cult before she finally built up the courage to escape.

    "Things were getting so bad for me and my family one day I ran up the river and right out in the bush and asked if people could give me a lift to town.

    "They only had room for me and my youngest son. I told the other children to meet at a certain place the following day. When I got there, the father was there."

    Ms Joha believes she only gained custody of her four sons, aged between 32 and 14, because of their disability.

    Her sons, Matt, 14, Sum, 21, Shemy, 28, and Aaron, 32, were all given religious names, as is the custom of the cult.

    And despite the fact they need constant care, she still sees the as an absolute "blessing".

    "Things are good now. We are very thankful to live here," she said.

    She volunteers at a Maroochydore Fusion Op shop and hopes the food van will give her sons a new outlet.

    Op shop manager Mike Smith hopes people will be willing to help Ms Joha with donations so she can paint the van and get it on the road as she has spent the last six years building a new life from scratch.

    Anyone willing to help can visit the op shop at 95 Aerodrome Rd.

    She also still has her faith in God, although she admits it is "confused and mixed up".

    The Jesus Group cult has about 300 members, with communes in Cairns, near Gympie and the NSW town of Parkes.


    ● It is a secretive society where members give up all their rights and income to be part of the group.
    ● It is led by Dawid Daniel Yosep Abishai Yokannan Landy-Ariel, known as Daniel Landy-Ariel, and has communes in north
    ● The group has communes in Cairns, near Gympie and the NSW town of Parkes, but its existence has remained largely a secret. It is estimated to have about 300 members today
    ● The cult made headlines in 2011 when it was discovered it had been housing one of Australia's most wanted killers, Luke Andrew Hunter.
    ● Members take on biblical names. Hunter's name was changed to Ashban Cadmiel


    ● It s a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental problems including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment.
    ● Males are usually more severely affected by this disorder than females.
    ● Most males and about half of females with fragile X syndrome have characteristic physical features that become more apparent with age.
    ● It is also known as Martin-Bell syndrome


  12. Four Corners cult case highlights need for charity watchdog: Senator Nick Xenophon

    BY DANUTA KOZAKI Yahoo!7 News Australia July 29, 2014

    The case of a registered charity under investigation for alleged misuse of funds and sexual abuse shows the need for an independent regulator, independent Senator Nick Xenophon has said.

    The comments followed the ABC's Four Corners program on the Christian Assemblies International organisation in Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales mid-north coast.

    Mr Xenophon said the case showed the "foolishness" of the Federal Government's plans to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

    "It would mean that organisations that are behaving unethically, that are dodgy, would still be getting taxpayer funding in effect due to [their] tax-free status," he said.

    The Federal Government's options paper for the future of Australia's Charities and Not-for-Profits said the Government was "committed to introducing effective replacement arrangements to reduce the burden of regulation on the civil society sector".

    That could include "self reporting requirements and returning determination of charitable status to the Australian Tax Office", the paper said.

    ACNC commissioner Susan Pascoe said she could not comment on specific cases, but the commission had dealt with about 900 complaints in its 18 months of operation.

    "About 60 of those have translated into very serious cases that we've followed through," she said.

    Reverend Tim Costello, from the Community Council for Australia, said some charities could slip through the cracks if the national watchdog was abolished.

    The council represents about 80 major charities, including the RSPCA and World Vision Australia, of which Rev Costello is chief executive.

    He said most of the sector was dismayed by the proposal, which he said would generate more red tape.

    "For the first time, the charitable sector, which is worth $100 billion and is second only in employment to retail in Australia, actually has a one-stop shop where they can investigate," he said.

    "They can compare apples with apples, rather than being [managed by] the Australian Tax Office, which is where we'll go back to if [the commission] is abolished."

    No-one was available for comment from Christian Assemblies International.


  13. Queensland mum speaks out against 'mind-controlling' religious cult

    9news.com.au January 08, 2015

    A Queensland mother who spent 14-years in a religious cult is now speaking out and warning others about the sect and the woman who runs it.

    Four years after escaping the Magnificat Meal Movement (MMM) which still operates out of Helidon in southeast Queensland, Alison Forden claims she has been left without a support network and with self-esteem issues.

    "I feel as if I was sucked in, chewed up and spat out basically," Ms Forden told A Current Affair.

    "I can't believe I went along with everything that was told to me and I actually didn't question it earlier."

    The MMM was founded in 1986 by Debra Geileskey, a woman who claims to see and hear Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

    Ms Forden joined the cult after a marriage break-up and admits she was "brainwashed". She lived in the group's commune and visited the church daily, while her mother paid rent to live on the actual site where she was closely monitored.

    The former cult member says members were also required to give up 10 percent of their income.

    "I had no connection with the outside world," Ms Forden said.

    "I was encouraged not to watch TV, not to read news, not to buy magazines. The media were all one-eyed, so you were discouraged from having anything to do with the media."

    According to Raphael Aron from Cult Counselling Australia, the psychological damage people suffer as a result of being involved in a cult is far greater than the financial loss.

    "If people feel a sense of submissiveness, a sense of obligation, a sense of belonging and also the fact that if they are going to leave they may end up in not a very good place, that's when I talk about not having the freedom to go," he told A Current Affair.

    Ms Forden says while the cult has cost her a lot it has also affected her children, who have no friends or outside support.

    She says cult members were ordered to shun the family after they quit the MMM.

    "You just get treated like you didn't want to be here so God must not want you."

    Founder Ms Geileskey is believed to still run MMM but is currently living overseas.

    "She is lying to a group of people, misleading them," Ms Forden said.

    "How many homes will be lost? How many marriages will be wrecked? How many people will have their lives destroyed?"


  14. Queensland MMM cult leader tracked down and confronted in Vanuatu

    9news.com.au February 16, 2015

    Queensland's notorious cult leader accused of being a fraud. Our international investigation into a woman who calls herself Princess, and tells followers she has a hotline to heaven. After battles with Australian authorities,

    A Queensland cult leader accused of fraud by former senior members has reportedly fled Australia.

    Debra Burslem, founder of the Magnificat Meal Movement (MMM), has been confronted by A Current Affair in Vanuatu after being accused of making money from her followers and using it to fund her lavish lifestyle.

    The MMM was founded in 1986 by Ms Burslem out of Helidon in southeast Queensland.

    The cult leader claims to see and hear Jesus and the virgin Mary.

    Reporter Chris Allen tracked down Ms Burslem and her son at a store in Vanuatu and asked her a number questions that mostly went unanswered.

    Former member Clare Birchley, who was Ms Burslem's right hand for 20 years, says during that time she never doubted the cult leader could hear God.

    "I believed her absolutely," Ms Birchley told A Current Affair.

    "Towards the end I was dubious because there always seemed to be a convenient message from our lady or Jesus towards the end, depending on what she was trying to engineer."

    Ms Birchley estimates over the 20 year period, Ms Burslem would have pocketed at least $20 million in other people's money.

    She claims there were a number of schemes put in place to make money, including the involvement of multi-level marketing companies to make her followers buy products where she reportedly took the cash.

    Cult members were also expected to pay 10 percent of their income to the cult, as well as invest in Global Bullion Services without knowing that the cult leader was pocketing a commission on every dollar.

    A bank account in the Bahamas received the commission through the scheme which went on for three years before it collapsed.

    Ms Birchley claims all the followers lost the money they invested.

    "She has burnt through life savings belonging to other people. She's burnt through their homes. She has chewed up decades of their lives," Ms Birchley said.

    The former member claims Ms Burslem built her Vanuatu property to avoid paying tax. She says at one point, the prophet owed $5 million in unpaid taxes and fines.

    Former member Eilish Gaffney moved from Ireland to Australia to become another follower of the cult.

    "I genuinely believed for 15 years, until the day I left, believed … that all the fund-raising and all the events we carried out, that this money was being saved for the building of a basilica because that was the reason we joined in the beginning," Ms Gaffney said.

    She says there are still people in Australia sending money to Ms Burslem, who is currently living in a home in Vanuatu protected by a blue gate, high walls and security cameras.

    Former members say servants and true believers are allowed inside, and charged $200 a night to stay when she holds retreats.

    "Going over on retreats, paying exorbitant prices to go and spend a weekend with her and the money being pocketed by her. It is such an abuse. It is shocking. These people take out loans to go on these retreats," Ms Gaffney said.


  15. Sect leader Debra Burslem convinced followers to give her millions

    by David Murray, The Courier-Mail FEBRUARY 22, 2015

    QUEENSLAND sect leader Debra Burslem told followers that God wanted her to have a new Mercedes and a luxury Spanish villa.

    The jetsetting Burslem also insisted she fly first class to have more room to pray and claimed to be the rightful heir to the British throne.

    Her extravagant lifestyle and outlandish claims have been revealed after several of her closest confidantes walked out of Burslem’s Magnificat Meal Movement in disgust.

    The movement, based at Helidon near Toowoomba, attracted worldwide attention when Burslem claimed to receive messages from Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

    Its inner workings have been a closely guarded secret but former followers have begun warning of Burslem’s dangerous hold on members.

    Clare Birchley spent almost 20 years in the movement and was once a true believer in Burslem’s claims but now says she is a charlatan. She estimates Burslem has raised $20 million through her followers since she first shot to prominence in the 1990s. Money-raising schemes in the movement are many and varied. Burslem:

    - Insisted followers give 10 per cent of wages and donate extra for God’s blessing;

    - Recruited followers to sell products for multi-level marketing companies such as Herbalife, Neways and Forever Living which would earn her commissions;

    - Convinced followers to invest $1.8 million in a failed gold bullion scheme.

    Burslem and her husband were broke when they moved to Toowoomba from Melbourne in the early 1990s and joined conservative Catholic prayer groups.

    Local Catholics set them up with somewhere to live, but Burslem put the church off-side with her claims about communicating with Jesus and Mary.

    Soon, the former primary school teacher was claiming she needed $45 million to build a basilica to honour the Virgin Mary. Ms Birchley says it never happened and believes it “never will”.

    Instead, Burslem spent $800,000 converting a dilapidated stable in the Spanish village of San Sebastian de Garabandal into a villa.

    continued below

  16. Burslem also bought expensive furniture for one of her properties in Helidon. She shipped a Mercedes ML320 SUV from the UK to Vanuatu, where she is now based.

    “In 2008 she started saying the key to the basilica was the Spanish stable. She said ‘God has said we are to rebuild the stable’.

    “She has purchased at least nine Mercedes’ since 2000. She says it’s a sign of mercy, that’s why she should be driving in them, because of the word mercy in Mercedes.

    “She insisted on flying first class, and if it wasn’t first it was business. She used to say she prayed better.

    “None of us accompanying her on those flights ever got to sit in first class. You would get to the end of the flight and she would send the air hostess to say ‘come on pack up my things’.”

    Followers called themselves the “slaves of the eucharist” and wore blue robes — until Burslem realised the outfits were affecting their Herbalife sales and told them to wear civilian clothes.

    Burslem fled to Vanuatu in 2007 after the tax office came calling with a $5.5 million bill. It is believed she negotiated a settlement to pay about $500,000.

    She is staying on a property surrounded by a giant wall with broken glass scattered over the top for security. Her former followers estimate she has spent $1 million renovating the property.

    Burslem declined to comment when Channel Nine’s A Current Affair confronted her in Vanuatu last week.

    Burslem has also been preaching that Ireland will sink beneath the waves and that the world will face a calamity in around 2017, former followers say.

    And Burslem’s dramatic claims do not stop at talking to Jesus and Mary.

    “She purports to be the real heir to the British throne,” Ms Birchley said.

    The movement has dwindled from thousands in the 1990s to about 400 including children today.

    “Money can be replaced. Life cannot. The people of the MMM are good people, sorely mistaken, bled dry of their independence and psychologically tricked.

    “They will need support one day as they begin to realise they have been used by a charlatan,” Ms Birchley said.


  17. Bringing Down Americas Happiest Christian Cult

    NOTE: see a related article in the comment above at 13 April 2014 at 11:53 "Film sheds light on Jesus People's dark stories"

    For decades, the freewheeling hippies of Jesus People USA —“God’s forever family” — forged one of the most influential movements in Christianity. They were also Jaime Prater’s family, until he made a documentary exposing the commune’s darkest secrets.

    by Jesse Hyde, BuzzFeed Contributor August 28, 2015

    Usually, Jaime Prater felt excited on the first day of school. He’d get up early, put on the outfit he’d laid out the night before — he liked bow ties and sweater-vests — and hurry down the hall with the other kids in his building. But this morning in September 1989 felt different. This morning he was starting the eighth grade, and he felt something closer to dread.

    For as long as he could remember, Prater had lived here among the Jesus People, about two blocks from the “L” train in Uptown Chicago. At first he had loved it, but things had changed since he turned 10. Lately he would lie awake at night, his window open to the muggy summer air, listening to the rattle of the train,
    and dream of escape.

    Or he’d try to imagine the commune’s early years, back when they caravanned across the Midwest in an old school bus, the word “Jesus” painted in big, loopy letters on the side, winning souls for Christ. He loved hearing the stories from that time: the mass baptisms in the woods, the early members tracting at O’Hare among the Hare Krishnas, everyone strumming their guitars and singing early Christian rock back on the bus, enraptured with the glow of the Holy Spirit.

    By the time Prater was born, the Jesus People had stopped touring and had transformed a dilapidated apartment building on Chicago’s North Side into the Friendly Towers, where all 400 of them lived in communal bliss, sharing meals, clothes, and pretty much everything else. They were God’s forever family, just like the Bible taught.

    Prater’s dad had an Afro back then, and his mom spoke of Jesus, peace, and love to whoever would listen; they had been legit hippies, Prater liked to think. But now they were different, stooped and beaten down by middle age, resigned to their middling status in the commune’s rigid hierarchy: His mom taught in the Jesus People school, and his dad worked as a mechanic. Prater hoped for some other kind of job when he grew up — maybe helping with the Cornerstone Festival — but that wasn’t up to him. The nine-person leadership council, half of them blood-related, decided everything — even whom he’d marry.

    He wanted to believe the council spoke for God, but already he had his doubts. He’d heard dark and ugly rumors about their founder, a bearded Messiah-like figure, and he’d heard stories that horrified him about the Farm, a remote and secluded resort in the Missouri woods. But he knew better than to ask about any of that.

    And yet, for as much as he tried to keep his troubles to himself, something was amiss. For weeks, he’d caught his parents whispering about him. He figured it had something to do with the day one of the men in the commune touched him. Prater had tried to forget that moment, the feeling of terror that washed over him, the searing shame when it was over, but he couldn’t move past it. Since then, he had been acting out in strange ways, desires he couldn’t control aroused inside him. Eventually he told the council, and now he wished he’d never said anything at all.

    He watched his dad in the kitchen, sipping his coffee and listening to the morning news on the radio. Outside, the Chicago morning loomed dark and gray. When it was time to go, his dad motioned for him to follow and they headed past the other Jesus People kids crowding the hallways and stepped into the cool morning air.

    continued below

  18. They crossed the street, damp with rain, and walked a few blocks until they came to a towering castle-like building known as Magnolia. This was where new families were sent. His dad nudged him softly toward the door. He wouldn’t look down at his son, who begged him to not make him go inside.

    On that morning, Prater’s isolation began. Over the next two years it would increase until he was forbidden from contact with anyone in the commune outside of his parents and his brother and sister. He took his meals in his parents’ room, but he spent his days alone at Magnolia, tutored in a broom closet and shunned from the other children, who were instructed to never speak with him again.

    “I didn’t understand it at the time, but they were trying to keep me quiet,” Prater says today. “They still are.”

    It’s a warm spring morning in Chicago, and Prater is seated at a Starbucks not far from Friendly Towers. For the first time in years, he’s visiting the neighborhood where he grew up. He’s gone a few days without shaving and his beard is coming in gray in spots, but he appears youthful, his face unlined, his eyes dark and expressive. He adjusts the stocking cap on his head and fiddles with his watch, scanning the window to see who might be passing by. He’s visibly nervous to be here. “I know logically that doesn’t make sense,” he says. “It’s not like someone is going to come attack me. But it almost gives me a panic attack being here.”

    In 2014, Prater self-released No Place To Call Home, a film documenting his years inside Jesus People, one of the strangest and longest-running religious experiments in American history. The church in which Prater grew up, officially called Jesus People USA, is one of the final vestiges of what may be the last great religious revival in America. Known as the Jesus Movement, it swept up as many as 3 million people in the late 1960s, many of them burned-out hippies who felt disillusioned by the free-love and drugs ethos and ached for some kind of spirituality outside the confines of traditional Christianity.

    The movement spawned hundreds of religious communes across the country, including Calvary Chapel, one of the largest and most influential megachurches in America today, as well as the Children of God, the notorious sex cult that once claimed as followers Joaquin Phoenix, Rose McGowan, and Jeremy Spencer, one of the original members of Fleetwood Mac. Most of these communes collapsed within a few years. Jesus People USA, which today has about 300 members, is one of the largest that has survived.

    The influence of the Jesus People movement on evangelical Christianity is profound. “It gave birth to Christian rock,” says David Di Sabatino, who made a documentary about Lonnie Frisbee and the Jesus People movement called Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. “The contemporary Christian music industry wouldn’t exist without the Jesus People.”

    For much of its history, Jesus People USA hosted one of the largest Christian rock festivals in America, called Cornerstone, launching Christian bands that would go mainstream in the ’90s, like MxPx and P.O.D. “Nearly every megachurch in America has a youth outreach arm that’s been influenced by the Jesus People movement,” says Larry Eskridge, author ofGod’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America. “You see it in the way they dress, in the kind of music they use. All of that, you can trace back to the influence of the Jesus Movement.”

    When Prater set out to make his film, he didn’t have any professional experience; he simply wanted to explore what it was like growing up in a religious commune. He raised some money on Kickstarter and set out across the country, reconnecting with kids he’d known growing up, capturing their stories on film.

    continued below

  19. What he found shocked him. While the broader Christian community has long been aware of allegations of strange behavior from within the walls of JPUSA, such as adult spankings and group confessionals of masturbation, few outside the commune knew of its darker secrets.

    Of the 120 people Prater reached over two years, 70 said they had suffered some form of sexual abuse growing up in the commune. One woman told him of a trip to the Farm, the 300-acre JPUSA retreat in Doniphan, Missouri, where she said she was sexually assaulted by one of the commune’s leaders. Another said he had been forced to perform oral sex on two men in the Leland Building, the Jesus People dorm for single men. Prater found that the Jesus People leadership had not only been aware of dozens of complaints of abuse, but had conspired to hide those crimes and silence the victims.

    When Prater finished the film and posted it on Vimeo, it went nowhere: Only a few hundred people saw it, and Prater didn’t submit it to any festivals or distributors. “I didn’t want people to think this was about me, or that I was doing this to get famous,” Prater says. But within the walls of JPUSA, and the broader Christian world, it was a bombshell. Prior to the film, no one, other than perhaps JPUSA leadership, had known about allegations of widespread sexual abuse or possible cover-ups. Suddenly, Prater had cast himself into the uncomfortable role of whistleblower.

    The fallout was swift: One of the members of the leadership council, who also functioned as their in-house attorney, left with his family shortly before the film was released. Two more council members, including the son of the founder, would follow. JPUSA seemed to be crumbling from within.

    Today, the remaining members of JPUSA (pronounced juh-POO-za by the faithful) live in the same apartment buildings where Prater grew up. They are officially part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a prestigious and well-respected Christian denomination based in Chicago that serves as an umbrella organization for 800 churches across the country. Shortly after the film’s release, 18 members, including Prater, filed a lawsuit against JPUSA and the ECC, seeking damages for the abuse they suffered. The lawsuit is in mediation, and several attorneys related to the suit called me and advised me not to speak to their clients. JPUSA leadership declined to speak to me for this article, despite repeated requests, as did their attorney. Only Edward Gilbreath, the executive director of communications for the ECC, would say anything. He stressed that while JPUSA was a member congregation of the ECC, it was an “autonomous self-governing organization” that made its own rules. “We take these matters very seriously,” he told me. “And we’re concerned for all parties involved, but beyond that I can’t comment.”

    Prater says he’s paid a heavy price for what he’s brought to light. It’s cost him a relationship, a job, and lifelong friendships, and severed any remaining ties to where he grew up.

    “It’s almost like I’m attacking my family, the only home I ever knew,” Prater says back at Starbucks. We’ve been talking for more than an hour, but he’s still skittish, looking over my shoulder every few minutes to see if anyone from JPUSA is passing by. “I really struggled with speaking up, with documenting what I found, because it was so disturbing to me, and so painful to relive. But someone had to tell the truth. Someone had to tell the story of what happened there.”

    Everyone who grew up in Friendly Towers knew the whitewashed version of their history, but few knew their real story.

    The Jesus People movement started in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, in the late 1960s with a man named Lonnie Frisbee, who liked to read the Bible while tripping on LSD, and David Berg, the sex-crazed madman who led the Huntington Beach, California–based Children of God.

    continued below

  20. Frisbee would become one of the most influential members of the movement. Blessed with long golden hair and a face that looked vaguely messianic, he had dabbled in the underground gay scene in Laguna Beach, California, before emerging as a hippie preacher who could speak in tongues. His ministry at Orange County’s Calvary Chapel was an earthy, back-to-basics rebuke of what Christianity had become, an open-arms embrace of the longhairs, the stoned, and the barefoot not welcome at mainline denominations.

    Calvary Chapel, the All Saved Freak Band, and groups like Children of God turned the Jesus Movement into a mass phenomenon, culminating at a Christian rock festival at the Dallas Cotton Bowl in 1972 that drew as many as 200,000 people (including Mike Huckabee) to hear Johnny Cash sing gospel and Billy Graham, the most famous preacher in America, deliver a sermon proclaiming them a special generation.

    “We felt like we were part of this big movement,” says Micki Johnson, who joined JPUSA at the age of 18. “The free love, the drugs, it had left us disillusioned, and we weren’t going to find what we were looking for in the traditional church. Here was this thing that talked about the love of Jesus, but you didn’t have to cut your hair or shave your beard. You could come as you are.”

    In 1969, an early member of the movement named Jim Palosaari left the Haight scene for Seattle, where he fell in with a group that called itself the Jesus People Army. He stayed for a year until he became concerned over the growing influence of the Children of God, which advocated using sex to gain converts. (Its leader, known to his followers as King David, would later encourage incest and pedophilia among members of his cult and would bed dozens of his followers, often in group orgies.)

    Alarmed at the direction the Jesus People Army and the Children of God had taken, Palosaari decamped for Milwaukee. When Palosaari left to evangelize in Europe, a small group of disciples left Milwaukee under the leadership of a man named John Herrin. In time, Herrin would prove a bad fit for the ministry.
    Already kicked out of several churches for sleeping with female members, he had barely passed seminary. Short and skinny, with black chunky glasses and a long beard, he required $10 from the communal pot every day, Micki Johnson recalls, for what members would only later learn was used for a bottle of cheap wine and a trip to the porno theater.

    “He had three sermons he’d rotate,” Johnson says. “If we said we were bored by them, his wife would say we needed to pay closer attention to understand what God was telling us.”

    Yet Johnson and others were only vaguely aware of Herrin’s vices, and the basic appeal of JPUSA remained: Like Jesus and his disciples, they were sacrificing material things to serve the poor and disenfranchised.

    “I felt like this is where the Lord had led me,” Johnson recalls. “Jesus had gone to the cross for me; how could I not forsake all my former life and do what he told me? And I believed these were the last days, so you better be doing what he wants you to do when he returns.”

    In 1971, Herrin’s group, which would eventually call itself Jesus People USA, began traveling throughout the Midwest and South in their converted school bus, stopping at churches and parks to play impromptu Christian rock concerts, which led to Herrin’s sermons, and hopefully baptisms. “I was so stoked by the teaching, the music, the bold street witnessing,” Johnson recalls. “We saw a lot of miracles, lives changed, people healed and delivered from addiction.” When their bus broke down in Chicago in 1973, a preacher took them in and let them stay the night in the basement of a church. Eventually they bought a nearby apartment building and christened it “Friendly Towers.” The Jesus People had finally found a home.

    continued below

  21. Mary Prater says she and her husband were attracted to Jesus People for many of the same things that had appealed to Johnson and others. As an interracial couple in the ’70s, they often felt like they didn’t belong anywhere. John Prater had always liked the idea of communal living, and Mary Prater, disillusioned with the formal worship style of the Catholic Church, wanted something that felt more authentic.

    “At the time the Jesus People attracted a lot of kids who were struggling with drugs, kids who came from broken homes, and they were looking for an alternative,” Mary Prater says. “The gospel the Jesus People was preaching was all about God forgiving you and making you whole, and that resonated with me.”

    By the time Prater’s parents joined the commune in 1978, John Herrin had been kicked out of the group for making an advance on a female member, and his wife, Dawn Herrin, had taken charge. A willowy, matronly woman uncomfortable in public, she spoke in a soft and gentle tone, masking a towering force of will and thirst for power that could border on obsessive. Known as Mama Dawn, she dressed like a “forever hippie,” as one former member put it, wearing her hair long and layering her outfits with scarves like Stevie Nicks.

    Early members say that after the ouster of her husband, Mama Dawn feared losing control of the group. She implemented a strict authoritarian structure known as the Shepherding Movement, a form of discipline that became popular among hard-line Christian groups in the 1970s and early ’80s. Inspired by a book called The Master Plan of Evangelism, which reads like something out of Mao’s China, everyone was assigned a shepherd, or a “buddy,” who in turn answered to a “family” head, who took serious matters to the pastors and the leadership council.

    When Prater’s family moved into the Friendly Towers, he was put in a nursery while his parents spent the day out on the streets ministering, handing out pamphlets about grace and forgiveness, or putting on skits about popular Bible stories, like the return of the Prodigal Son.

    Prater’s mom felt guilty about leaving her 6-year-old alone all day in the nursery. One night after dinner, she told one of the leaders she was going to skip evening Bible study. She wanted some time with her three kids, whom she’d only seen at communal meals. The leader relented, but Prater realized she wasn’t free to parent the way she wanted. Over time, she would learn her family wasn’t entirely hers.

    While Prater still called his parents “Mom” and “Dad,” he unofficially belonged to a larger family headed by a man named Ron Brown, the token black man on the leadership council. The title was more than ceremonial: If the council decided a certain couple wasn’t fit to parent, they would “give” their children to another family, and from then on the kids would take that last name, answer to their new mom and dad, and, in some cases, have minimal to no contact with their actual parents.

    “You see this sort of behavior in a lot of authoritarian groups,” says Janja Lalich, who has studied cults for 20 years. “Whether intentional or not, the idea is to break down the family as an autonomous structure to build loyalty. It’s all about loyalty to the leaders. This is textbook cult behavior.”

    Early on, Prater’s mother begged her husband to leave, but in some ways they were stuck: They’d donated all their possessions when they joined. Plus, they didn’t actually make any money. Everyone worked for free at JPUSA. The commune now had a growing business empire — a moving company, a recording studio, and the booming Lakefront Roofing and Siding Supply — all of it built on the backs of its members.

    continued below

  22. For Mama Dawn’s family and the rest of the council, life was different. Her daughter and son-in-law (a man named Glenn Kaiser) fronted Resurrection Band (“the most influential band in Christian music history,” according to Christianity Today), and her son Johnny Herrin Jr. played drums and ran all the commune’s businesses. Another daughter and her husband controlled the commune’s finances.

    Mary Prater says she couldn’t share her doubts with anyone other than her husband, who believed they were doing God’s will. If she complained, her “buddy” would eventually catch wind of it and report her to the council. Sometimes, even husbands ratted out wives for “subversive” thoughts. One former member told me that as a teen, she once reported on her mom after finding a romance novel hidden under a bed.

    But typically it didn’t even have to come to that: Members policed themselves. At the weekly worship services, where deacons passed out grape juice and Hawaiian bread for Communion, public confessions were expected.

    “Guys would stand up and confess to masturbation, or a visit to the porn shop,” says Chris Harold, a former member who joined the commune in 1986. “It was so humiliating. You would just sit there and think, I never want to have to do that.”

    How the Jesus People had drifted so far from their stoned West Coast moorings would take early members years to figure out. “A lot of these groups started out really loosey-goosey,” says Di Sabatino, the documentary filmmaker. “And then as the community grows you start to have problems. A member does something out of line and so you start having rules and soon the rules start to calcify and you become this thing you never wanted to be.”

    When Prater was little, the Jesus People had phased out many of its most bizarre practices, and he loved his life at Friendly Towers. He felt like he was part of a big family, with dozens of brothers and sisters. They’d play tag in the alleyways while their moms pinned laundry to the wires running between the buildings, splash through the cold water of the fire hydrant on hot summer afternoons, and stay up late in the common room watching old Alfred Hitchcock films projected onto a big white sheet. They played He-Man and Thundercats, had long discussions about Star Wars, and built elaborate Lego kingdoms in the hallways. It felt like a summer camp that would never end.

    By the mid-’80s, Jesus People USA had staked out a place on the margins of mainstream Christianity, directly at odds with conservative Southern ministries like Pat Robertson’s

    700 Club or the Southern Baptist Convention. Its pastors dressed like they belonged to a biker gang, had little in common with Republican politics, and played what amounted to Christian heavy metal.

    Because of the emphasis JPUSA placed on taking in what they called “the broken” (homeless people, drug addicts, victims of domestic violence), there were always new people around. When Prater was a kid in the late ’70s and ’80s, homeless people lined up outside Friendly Towers every day at lunch for a free meal; sometimes they would stay the night in the same room as children. While Mama Dawn and the leadership council kept tight control over the daily activities of the Jesus People, they paid little attention to visitors, placed few controls over their activities, and rarely performed background checks.

    “Without intending to, they created the perfect environment for someone to prey on children,” Chris Harold says. “The combination of children being an afterthought because parents were so busy, or in some cases being reassigned to parents who didn’t really know them or care about them, and then absolute strangers just coming in and out of the building — it was a situation ripe for abuse.”

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  23. When Prater was 8, two single men were assigned to live in the room he shared with his brother, who was several years older. The boys had decorated it with fish tanks and cages that held rabbits and squirrels. By this point, Prater was used to living with the two men who shared his room and felt as comfortable around them as he did his own brother. One morning when he was 10, he woke up with an erection. Unaware of the concept of masturbation, he pulled his pants down and began innocently exploring his body.

    Across the room, one of the single men who lived there noticed his actions. He stopped getting ready for work and walked over to Prater’s bed. Within the commune, he was one of the favorites. He had dark hair and deep blue eyes. Because of his good looks, he often appeared in the pages of Cornerstone Magazine. He and his brother had both been dropped off at Friendly Towers as children and raised by one of the pastors. Without warning, he began fondling Prater, which went on for several minutes.

    “I sat there, frozen,” Prater says. “I was feeling something I had never felt before, and it was confusing, because it felt good, but it was also terrifying because I had no control over what he’d do next.”

    Prater didn’t know if he had done anything wrong, but the encounter aroused something inside him. Not long after, he started exposing himself to other children in the commune, which caught the attention of the leadership council, and rumors spread that Prater was now molesting other kids. After talking with Prater, a member of the leadership council approached his mom and told her what Prater had said about being molested. “But they dismissed it,” Mary Prater recalls.
    “They told me he was lying.”

    Alarmed, Prater’s mom found him and asked him what happened. “I said, ‘Did this happen, Jaime? Tell me what happened,’” Mary Prater says. “I don’t remember what he said but he was crying. And I said, ‘They say you’re lying. Did you lie?’ And then he said, whispering, ‘Yeah, Mom, I lied.’ But I knew it wasn’t true. I knew he had been pressured into saying it.’”

    When she discussed the matter with her husband, they decided that if their son said he was lying, that was the end of the matter. But over the next few years, Prater continued to expose himself to other children, and to seek the company of older men. Prater’s parents didn’t know what to do. His mom was convinced he was acting out because he’d been molested, and pushed for therapy. But the council said no. They insisted he’d made up the story for attention. The only answer, they said, was to isolate him, which they did when he turned 13 by pulling him out of the commune’s school and making him take his classes in a closet at the Magnolia building several blocks away.

    “The truth is, the person who had molested Jaime was set to marry one of the pastor’s daughters, and if this ever came out, it would create a scandal,” Prater’s mom says. “The right thing would have been to deal with him, but instead they sent Jaime away. They had decided he was the problem.”

    Mary Prater says she deeply regrets the decision and wishes she would have stood up to the council. “It’s hard to describe the pressure and fear we felt,” she says. “They are your landlord, your employer. They have complete control over you, and I knew that no matter what I said, they had already made their decision.”

    Prater says the three and a half years he spent in isolation harmed him far more than any sexual abuse. Kids he had grown up with would no longer talk to him, or even look his way. He desperately craved his dad’s approval, and had always sensed he was a disappointment, but now he had no doubt. Within the hierarchy of the commune, he had cast a dark cloud over the family.

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  24. “I would sit in that little closet where I spent six hours a day, just me and my tutor, and I’d hear kids outside playing, music coming out of people’s rooms, parents talking behind closed doors, the clanking of pans down in the communal kitchen, and I just wanted to be with them. I felt like I was dead, like I’d been buried alive,” he says. “I thought it would be a weeklong thing, but then it turned into a month, and then it turned into years.”

    When Prater was 14, his grandmother (who wasn’t affiliated with the Jesus People) decided she would rescue him, at least for the day. She took him downtown to see The Phantom of the Opera, which had just come to Chicago.

    “I just connected to it right away, it was like someone was singing my song,” Prater says. “I saw myself in the main character, this man who was ugly and unfit for society, and because he believed what they said about him, he lived in the underworld of the opera house. I just felt like, This is me, this is who I am.”

    The musical took over Prater’s life. Back at Friendly Towers he listened to the soundtrack nonstop, painted the walls of his room black, and re-created the entire set of the play complete with a staircase made of papier-mâché, a falling chandelier, and even a metal cage around his bed to replicate the Phantom’s lair. “I felt like I had a friend and someone who understood me,” Prater says. “That music probably saved my life.”

    Prater’s parents, meanwhile, were becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of his isolation, and talked about sending him away to a Christian reform school. His mom broached the subject and Prater told her no. Instead, they compromised and sent him to the Farm, where for three months over two successive winters he helped with chores, like fixing the lodge. To Prater it felt like a labor camp.

    Finally, Prater’s mother had had enough. She worried they were driving her son to madness, or suicide. She went to the council and told them that her son’s isolation had to stop. To her surprise, they agreed, and he was welcomed back in the community.

    “My classmates were like, ‘Where have you been?’ They had no idea what had happened,” Prater says. “To them, I had just disappeared for the last three years.”

    Over time, Prater concluded that his isolation had as much to do with his emerging homosexuality as his allegations of sexual abuse, and so he decided to “butch it up.” He got rid of all his musical soundtracks and became vocally anti-gay. When he asked for a job atCornerstone, Mama Dawn asked to meet with him at the magazine’s offices, just across the street from where he had grown up.

    By this point in the mid-’90s, Jesus People had shed many of its eccentricities. It no longer allowed adult spankings, practiced exorcisms of children, or reassigned kids to other families. It talked about these practices as innocent mistakes, growing pains in the quest to build a fully functioning Christian commune.

    It had also built significant business holdings. Lakefront Roofing was grossing as much as $12 million a year. Cornerstone was one the biggest Christian music festivals in the U.S., drawing 20,000 people a year.

    Mama Dawn began by asking Prater, who was now 21, about his love of Phantom of the Opera. She was warm and patient, but there was something in her eyes, watching him carefully, that made it impossible for Prater to completely relax. He knew what she was getting at. She wanted to know if he was gay.

    He explained that the musical had spoken to him at a time in which he had felt alone and ugly. “I never knew that,” Dawn said, and she seemed moved. Prater made a point of mentioning that he no longer cared for Barbra Streisand and didn’t like musicals generally. It was just a phase. Convinced he wasn’t gay, Mama Dawn gave him a job at Cornerstoneas a graphic artist.

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  25. Over the next few years, Prater wondered if he could stay within the commune and be true to himself. He still believed in Jesus, but he doubted so much of what he had grown up believing, and he was becoming more comfortable with the fact he was gay — he’d known that since he was 4. Slowly, he began to realize something that maybe he should have known all along: He didn’t belong.

    By the time Prater decided to leave in 1999, many of the longtime members had left, including his parents and siblings. Where the council had once made leaving very difficult, it now put up little fight when someone wanted to go, partly because of criticisms from the broader Christian community. In his first few years after leaving the commune in August 1999, Prater cast about, searching for identity and purpose. His entire life, Mama Dawn and the council had made all his decisions for him. He never had to think about money, or paying bills, or what he’d eat. Now that was all up to him, which was both liberating and crippling.

    Eventually, he concluded he couldn’t move forward until he reckoned with his past. At the urging of a film professor at a local college Prater was attending, he decided to make a documentary about growing up in JPUSA. Unaware that anyone else had suffered sexual abuse there, he saw it as nothing more than an exploration of his childhood.

    In March 2013 he created a private Facebook page, inviting 250 former JPUSA members to share their stories with him; he posted a rough cut with initial interviews in the hopes of soliciting more. “It was like I literally opened the floodgates,” Prater says. “People started flooding my email, flooding the (Facebook) group with stories.”

    Almost all of the stories dealt with sexual abuse. In one of the most harrowing, Prater says a man in his early forties told him that as a boy, he was physically and sexually abused so many times by so many people over a 10-year period, he didn’t know where to start. He had been taken from his mother as a baby and raised by a council member. He told Prater he could remember sitting naked in a bathroom with a DCFS investigator, telling her that the bruising and scabs on his body had come from playing sports and bug bites, something he had been coached to say.

    “I hadn’t set out to make a movie about sex abuse,” Prater says, “but that was the catalyst.”

    Prater had never made a documentary, and had only a rudimentary understanding of filmmaking. With no financing, he raised nearly $7,000 on Kickstarter and started flying all over the country to hear the stories that had come in via Facebook. In Minnesota, a girl he’d grown up with told him about the terrifying dreams she’d had as a child of men having sex with her mother while she was made to watch.

    Erik Johnson, a boy who was adopted by Micki Johnson in the late 1970s, said he went to the building where the single brothers lived to get a mountain bike and a 27-year-old lured him into his room show him karate moves. Instead, Johnson said the man performed oral sex on him. In another interview Prater filmed,
    Angel Harold said a teenager began molesting her when she was 9 years old. She later told me that a pastor forced her to perform oral sex on him, and eventually raped her.

    “Here was this leader telling you that you’re beautiful, you’re pretty, you’re not doing anything wrong because you’re doing what you’re told. I actually remember feeling completely safe, like, Ahh, I’m being a good girl,” Angel Harold says. “I remember thinking, So this is what little girls do with their leaders. This is my new role. Mom was made a cook. Dad was made a painter. And this is what I do.”

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  26. Former commune members who had been adults when the alleged abuse occurred were shocked at what Prater had uncovered. “We never knew what was going on with other families,” says Micki Johnson. “You might have known your kid had a certain problem, but that’s it. We had no idea how widespread it was.”

    As Prater gathered more stories, the gravity of what he had unearthed began to descend upon him. For a year he sat on the footage, unsure of what to do, torn between the loyalty he still felt to the community that raised him and anger at what he believed had happened there.

    In December 2013, with the editing of the film nearly over, Prater sunk into a deep depression, even considering suicide. Most disturbing to him was how many times people had gone to the JPUSA council and the Evangelical Covenant Church to report abuse. Again and again, alleged victims were told that the council would handle the matter internally. And almost without exception, that meant finding a way to keep victims silent, while doing nothing to reprimand the accused.

    As soon as the film started making waves, triggering the defections of prominent families and attracting the attention of the national press, JPUSA tried to silence Prater, threatening him twice with a defamation lawsuit. Those threats came and went, but Prater says JPUSA’s attorneys told him they would begin negotiations on a settlement related to his suit against the church only if he changed key parts of his film, excising any abuse allegations against John Herrin Jr., and tracked down every copy of the film. He complied with their request to edit the film, but he refused to take it off the internet.

    “I’ve lost more than I’ve gained for speaking out,” Prater told me. The making of the film consumed his life for two years, eventually causing his partner to leave him. People he’s known since childhood stopped talking to him.

    Friends who still live in the commune were angry about the way the film depicted JPUSA. They didn’t deny that abuse happened, but they questioned the assertion that the leadership council had known about it and covered it up. They also wondered how many of the 70 incidents were committed by children or teenagers. “I’m not saying there weren’t cases of adults with children, I’m not saying that didn’t happen,” an adult child of a member of the leadership council who still lives at JPUSA told me. “But it’s hard for me to believe a grown man could walk into the room of a child of the opposite sex. Everyone would have noticed.”

    Last July, Prater’s lawyers called him with an offer from JPUSA. They would begin to negotiate a settlement if he promised to stop talking to the press.

    “They don’t realize that they’re not going to shut me up with money. That’s not why I’m doing this,” he said. “I want an acknowledgment of what happened, and some kind of accountability. That’s the only way so many people can heal, and it’s the only way I can be assured something like this won’t happen there again.”

    On a cool spring morning last year, Prater and I met not far from Friendly Towers. He showed me the first building he’d called home and the place where he’d been isolated for three years. As we walked, we could hear children outside the JPUSA day care, waiting for their parents to get off work.

    From the outside, it seemed like little had changed, but Prater told me that wasn’t the case. Dozens of families had left. The annual Cornerstone Festival, once the biggest Christian rock festival in America, folded in 2012 due to poor attendance. The commune had also relaxed many of its rules that had grown out of the Shepherding Movement (such as the buddy system), largely to contain a mass exodus that began in the mid-’90s.

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  27. Many who left are still trying to come to grips with their years at Friendly Towers. For the earliest members, the continued existence of JPUSA is a testament to good ideas gone bad.

    “It could have been a utopia,” John Prater says. “It should’ve been an upside-down community, but it’s not. It’s a top-down community like any other business.
    And that’s not the gospel Jesus preached.”

    It’s been more than a decade since Angel Harold and her husband, Chris, left, and Angel says she’s only beginning to understand the extent of the damage wrought by the sexual abuse she suffered, some of which has only recently begun to resurface.

    “It’s taken us both a really long time to rebuild our lives to figure out who we are,” Angel Harold says. “We had to learn to think for ourselves. And in a lot of ways, we’ve been lucky. There are so many people who are worse off who have left.”

    What the Prater and Harold families wonder is how so much abuse, both physical and sexual, went on for so long under the noses of authorities in one of the biggest cities in America. While the Department of Children and Family Services sporadically visited Friendly Towers, and one or two abuse allegations made their way to the police, no formal investigation uncovered what occurred there.

    Longtime members I talked to say they blame themselves for not speaking up. But the victims I talked to blame the structure of the commune itself, and their parents, their “buddies,” and ultimately the leadership council for not doing more to protect them.

    “You can’t complain in an environment like that,” says Lalich. “If you complain, you’re isolated, humiliated, physically punished … and once you’ve been through that a few times, you’re going to learn to keep your mouth shut. It becomes a self-sealing system. It’s an environment that’s absolutely closed in on itself.”

    In the end, one of the alleged victims told me, it came down to power and preservation. Even today, the leadership council sits at the top of a multimillion-dollar business empire, to say nothing of the real estate it owns with the ECC throughout Chicago. Several members told me JPUSA’s affiliation with the ECC has allowed it to buy property with what essentially amounts to ECC financing.

    “It was like, ‘Look at this thing we built. Do we want this to have a tarnished name? Do we want to lose it?’” says Tamzen Trott, whose father remains at JPUSA. “And so instead you cover it up, and the more it happens, the deeper it gets.”

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  28. The day after I met Prater, I visited Friendly Towers one last time. I had already been by several times, but on each visit I was told no one would be available for an interview (JPUSA leadership declined to respond to subsequent requests for comment made in writing and over the phone about the lawsuits and abuse allegations). Once again, the woman at the front desk told me they weren’t giving tours or interviews, but if I hurried I could catch the tail end of a worship service across the street. She pointed to Everybody’s Coffee, owned and operated by JPUSA, and said that if I pushed through the double doors in the back I would find the chapel.

    I followed her instructions and took a seat on a metal folding chair in the back. The room, which looked like an empty warehouse, had a dark, cavernous feel, except for the stage, which was bathed in an amber glow. There were about 200 people in the congregation, and for all that might have changed about JPUSA, one thing hadn’t: They looked nothing like the typical church crowd. There were aging hippies, a mom with elaborate tattoo sleeves running up both arms, and couples with dreads and gauges and nose rings. Most of them lived across the street at Friendly Towers. The pastor, who I would later learn had baptized Prater, wore his graying hair in a ponytail, his jeans loose and baggy. He spoke softly of forgiveness and redemption. It could have been any Sunday at any church in America.

    As the service ended, the congregation filtered into Everybody’s Coffee, and eventually, they started to make their way back to Friendly Towers.
    I watched the children follow their parents and wondered if they would ever learn about the things that happened in the place they called home. Perhaps the pending lawsuits would force some kind of reckoning. Or maybe the Jesus People would simply move forward, as they had always done, trying to forget the past.