The accidental activist: Born into 'the Family,' transfer student ...
Daniel Roselle started UC Berkeley this fall as a junior transfer from
Santa Monica Junior College, after being raised in a religious group
called the Family. (Bonnie Azab Powell photos)
The accidental activist: Born into 'the Family,' transfer student Daniel Roselle hopes to find a new community at UC Berkeley
By Bonnie Azab Powell , NewsCenter | 16 September 2005
BERKELEY – Last spring, Daniel Roselle bought a UC Berkeley baseball cap. Despite teasing from his friends, he superstitiously refused to wear it until he knew he'd been accepted as a transfer student from Santa Monica Junior College. When at last his UC Berkeley welcome packet arrived, "I put on my hat and popped the cork on some champagne I'd saved in the fridge for this moment. I was just so happy," he recalls. "You have no idea how happy."
Roselle's journey to Berkeley illustrates the diverse and singular paths that many students take to campus. In 1995, at age 20, he left his parents and six of his younger siblings in the Los Angeles area with only a bus ticket, $50, and the address of a grandmother in the Midwest who he barely knew. His formal education had stopped with first grade, and his only work experience consisted of taking care of other children and selling religious pamphlets on the street.
But his biggest challenge was leaving not just his immediate family, but The Family International. According to its website , the Family is an "international Christian fellowship dedicated to sharing God's Word and love with others." Its detractors call it a cult, one that has irreparably damaged the lives of many children who never chose to join it.
the Children of God
The Family was founded in 1968 in Huntington Beach, Ca., by David Berg, an itinerant Pentecostal pastor who began ministering to disaffected counterculture youth. Roselle's parents joined in 1969 and 1970. Originally calling his hippie adherents Teens for Christ and later, Children of God, Berg preached communal living and active evangelizing while remaining firmly isolated from non-Family society, which he dubbed the "System." He encouraged the "sharing" of God's love through sex, among both adults and children.
Berg died in 1994, around the time that courts in several countries began investigating the group for child abuse and pedophilia. His wife Karen Zerby became the group's leader, communicating with followers as Berg had — from a secret location through copious inspirational letters.
In response to the negative public attention, the Family amended its teachings regarding sex with children, and its members (it claims 12,000 in more than 100 countries) receded into the background — until this year, that is. In early January, 29-year-old Ricky Rodriguez, known as "the Chosen One" for being Zerby's son and the apple of Berg's eye, tracked down and stabbed to death a female former caretaker, then shot himself. Lest his motives be misinterpreted, he first made a videotape announcing his intent to exact revenge for the abuse he had suffered at The Family's hands, which included participation in sex as a toddler and later, with his own mother.
Much has been written about the fallout surrounding the Rodriguez murder-suicide. Among other things, it served as a wake-up call for second-generation ex-members like Roselle, who say that Rodriguez's death brings the number of known suicides among his peers to 30. (The Family disputes this number.)
"[The Family] said that if I left, at best I'd end up working at McDonald's, at worst I'd be a heroin addict and end up on the streets," says Roselle. "But you know, that's what they set us up for. We received no education and were allowed few contacts on 'the outside.'"
'When I left, there were 9,000 people
in [the Family] and 300 people writing
for them, all in the same way. I couldn’t
live with that — I thought my mind was
going to cannibalize itself. I needed
In the wake of Rodriguez's death, Roselle has spoken out in People magazine and to CNN about physical and sexual abuse he and other children suffered at the hands of Family members in the 1970s and '80s. Other second-generation members run several active websites like XFamily.org and MovingOn.org dedicated to the "children of the Children of God."
In response, the Family has issued statements saying, "Some of those who have left us are propagating stories that child abuse is common in the Family. This is false. The Family has a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive treatment of minors, punishable by excommunication, a policy which has been in place since 1988." And at Myconclusion.com , pro-Family second-generation members post testaments about the many benefits of growing up in the group and attack the others' accounts.
"The Family will never appear with me on TV," Roselle says. "They just snipe at me from behind press releases, saying 'Dan has a vendetta, he's anti-religion, if he thought things were so wrong why didn't he say anything?' But you know, I was a kid, and we were taught never to question them.
"They didn't start out bad. At some point they surrendered their critical thinking skills to Berg, who was a pedophile and a dirty old man. Unfortunately for me my parents signed on to his religion. So they believe heaven is in the moon — whatever, have it your way. But you shouldn't abuse kids, work them like slaves and have sex with them."
A ticket out
In addition to publicizing their experiences with the Family, Roselle and other ex-members this year started Safe Passage Foundation , a nonprofit advocacy group and resource center for people who want to leave high-demand organizations, or HDOs. "We prefer that term because 'cult' is pejorative, and we don't want to alienate the people we're trying to help," he explains, adding that not all HDOs are religion-based — take militia groups — but they share common elements, such as marked isolation from society and the stress they place on the children brought up within them.
The still-nascent Safe Passage intends
to advocate for the rights of such children, as well as support those who choose
to exit HDOs for the outside world. "Suppose you're 15 and you're part
of the Family in India but you want out," explains Roselle. "You say
you have relatives in the United States but no way to get to them — well,
we'll get you a plane ticket."