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He was born David Moses Zerby, and was also known as Pete and as Ricky Rodriguez; but to those familiar with the Children of God cult (now called The Family) he was Davidito, the Prince. On January 25, he would have been thirty years old, but on January 9 his life ended in a murder-suicide. Perhaps he would not have had such a tragic death if his life had not also been so tragic.
The Children of God cult (COG) was founded in California by David Berg (“Moses David”) as part of the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Almost immediately Berg began making wild prophecies that would ultimately strengthen his control of his followers. In 1969 he prophesied that an earthquake would destroy California. This caused members to flee the state and allowed Berg to begin organizing them into communal groups. Later he prophesied a comet would destroy the United States, resulting in the communal group’s exodus from the country to settle in Europe and South America.
Initially, most of their evangelism was done through “litnessing”: distributing literature, particularly the Mo Letters written by Berg, in exchange for a donation. However, by the mid-1970s Berg had a revelation from God that showed him a whole new way to reach people for Jesus: “flirty fishing” or “FFing.” Berg taught his female followers that they were to be “fishers of men,” enticing men into the group through affection and sexual favors. They became known as “hookers for Jesus.” One ex-COG website explains the rationale behind the new practice:
Flirting and sex were considered ways of showing the love of God to the lost and lonely. Women were told to sacrifice themselves as 'bait' for the fish. Men were told that they should lay down their lives AND their wives for the sake of the gospel. Not surprisingly, Flirty Fishing quickly became outright prostitution, and was used as a way to raise money for the cult.1
An early experimentation with FFing in Tenerife, Canary Islands, resulted in Berg’s longtime mistress, Karen “Maria” Zerby, becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son, David Moses Zerby. Berg raised the boy as his heir apparent and he was known as “Davidito.” He became the guinea pig for the “revolutionary” lifestyle Berg and Zerby sought to promote among their followers. A website created for the grown children of COG members describes the importance Davidito had to the COG movement:
From his birth, David Berg and Karen Zerby determined to make Ricky a “poster boy” for their followers. He was, according to them, a divine prince, destined to lead the Children of God through the biblical endtime. As such, they felt that Ricky must be moulded into an ideal follower, an incarnation of their beliefs and practices. His upbringing was exhaustively documented and highly publicized as a model for all parents in The Family to follow. As a result, Ricky's childhood and youth was spent in a highly controlled environment characterized by intense indoctrination, stringent discipline, and sexual initiation by adults.2
The COG published a book, The Story of Davidito, which tracked the childhood of Davidito for the purpose of serving as a manual on raising children. Large sections of it documented in words and explicit photos the sexual indoctrination of Davidito by the young women who helped care for him. One of these, Angela Smith, would later die at his hands.
Having become disillusioned with the group, he left it in 2001: no more was he the Prince, but instead only Ricky Rodriguez. He hoped to establish a new life with his wife and put his past behind him. It turned out that the abuse suffered as a child had been so great and the pain so intense that this would not be possible. Last August, Ricky wrote the following painful admission:
I also was under the mistaken impression that … I could leave it all behind, start a new life that had nothing to do with the cult, quit talking to anyone who had anything to do with the cult, and really "move on" with my life. I know now that will never happen. I can't run away from my past, and no matter how much longer I live, the first 25 years of my life will always haunt me. I accept that, and am dealing with it as best I can.3
In hindsight, his letter also provided chilling clues as to what was to come:
Something has to be done to stop these child molesters, and it would be nice to find some people who think the same way. Every day these people are alive and free is a slap in the face to the thousands of us who have been methodically molested, tortured, raped, and the many who they have as good as murdered by driving them to suicide. It would probably involve a great deal of sacrifice, and would best be accomplished, I think, by people who have nothing to lose, such as myself.4
Separated from his wife and unable to overcome his past, Rodriguez acted upon these words and, in his mind, became the avenger of himself and all other victims of childhood abuse in the COG. Newspapers and television media throughout the country have reported the story: a man molested as a child kills a former nanny whom he believed responsible for the abuse. It seems a simple, cut and dried, case:
Richard P. Rodriguez, 29, the disaffected son of Karen Zerby, current leader of the communal Christian ministry known as the Family, allegedly killed longtime group member Angela M. Smith, 51, in his Tucson, Ariz., apartment. Then, after driving to Blythe, he apparently took his own life.5
Missing from this report is a recognition of the tragic life that Rodriguez had to endure, forced upon him by his parents in the name of religion, that caused him to reach that desperate point in his life. He provides a glimpse of it in an email exchange with one of the Family's leadership in May 2002:
As an adult you have the legal right to throw your life away if you want to. The problem is that you or any other cultist does not have the right to pass on that same (expletive) life to their children and screw up their lives as well which has happened to countless other Fam[ily] cult children… If the Fam[ily] cultists were following the truth of Jesus' love found in the Bible, they would never have put up with and participated in all the ritualistic sexual abuse of children in the past… I never want to have to see or hear of another child having to grow up with the same kind of Family [expletive] that I did. It's cruel and ungodly to put an innocent child through that kind of [expletive] evil weirdness! I will not stand for it anymore and consider anyone who supports or sympathises [sic] with the Family in any way an enemy or potential one.6
Naturally, the Family's public relations department is trying to deflect any responsibility for Ricky's actions. A group spokesperson, Clair Borowik, has repeatedly stated in media interviews that Rodriguez was "an obviously disturbed young man," and that The Family gave him "ample financial and emotional support." If such support was truly given, it was obviously too little, too late-too late not only to avoid the untimely deaths of two individuals and the pain of their families and friends, but even more tragically, too late to stop the parentally-sanctioned sexual abuse of a toddler that led to this murder-suicide.
In fairness to The Family, in 1986 they did enact strong policies against members engaging in sexual acts with those under age 21. However, the very need for such a policy indicates there was something deeply wrong within the COG, as Anderson Cooper pointed out in a CNN interview with Clair Borowik:
Cooper: I was alive in 1986 and even the '70s and late '60s. Why did you need a policy? I mean, most people don't need a policy saying don't have sex with 4-year- olds... I mean, why do you need a stringent policy? Isn't that just kind of common sense?7
Borowik's response was evasive:
Borowik: Well, there wasn't rampant sexual abuse, but some cases did come to light where there was contact going on or sexual improprieties that young people were uncomfortable with. When these cases surfaced, it became clear that there had to be very stringent policies. Now, mainstream churches are just addressing this issue over the last five years. We addressed it two decades ago.8
This answer shows that the Family just doesn’t get it. Sexual abuse occurred in their group at the instruction and by the example of those at the very top of the movement, David Berg and Maria Zerby. Berg died in 1994 without renouncing the sexual practices that he had established through his teachings and lifestyle. After Berg’s death, Zerby took control of the organization; she has never renounced Berg and his teachings, particularly as related to the molesting of children and FFing. In fact, in 1993 Zerby affirmed and justified the past positions on sexual activity, rather than renouncing them:
This [sexual contact between adults and minors] is about the only subject where we're really going along with the System, we're playing along with them, we're acting like we believe what we did was wrong, because we have changed, and stopped doing it ... We need to somehow explain to our [teenagers] that love and loving affection is not wrong. As it says in [Berg's writings], if it's not hurtful, if it's loving, then it's okay. Of course, having actual intercourse with a child wouldn't be okay as it wouldn't be loving, but a little fondling and sweet affection is not wrong in the eyes of God, and if they have experienced the same in the past they weren't "abused."9
It seems this mentality is still held by many members today. Occasionally, I will see Family members soliciting funds for "missionary work" outside stores, particularly Sam's Clubs and Wal-Marts. In discussing the past sexual practices of the group, they will immediately say all that has changed. When I then bring up what happened to the child Davidito at the instruction of his mother and Berg, they deny it happened.
However, I know Ricky's abuse occurred because we have a copy of The Story of Davidito in our research library. I have seen the pictures and read the accounts of his sexual "training." As a parent, I sorrow for the young child depicted in those accounts and pictures. Unfortunately, those to whom his care was entrusted did not also sorrow, then or now, over the abuse they put him through.
Without question Angela Smith did not deserve the horrendous death she suffered anymore than Ricky deserved the abuse he endured as a child. Both were victims. Sadly they are neither the only nor the last victims of abusive religious groups. Many such groups are still out there waiting to prey upon the searching and the innocent.
So, are there any lessons to learn from this? Yes.
First, we need to remember that children do not join cults, their parents do. A child who is in an abusive situation did not choose to put himself there. If we cannot reach the parent, then we must speak on behalf of the child and point out the injustice and abuse, demanding that those in authority take action. For those who were raised in such an environment, we must do all we can to make sure they get the professional help they need to work through their unresolved pain and anger.
From a more personal perspective, if you have children, you might want to give them a hug after reading this. Assure them you love them and commit anew to do everything in your power to nurture them and help them to grow up in a healthy environment so they might develop to their full potential. And don't forget to thank God for giving them to you and allowing you the privilege of being responsible for their well-being.
In June of 2002, Ricky wrote a lengthy article describing what life was like for a child in the Berg family. It provides a descriptive picture of the abuse they endured. Its closing also provided a glimpse into the hurt of a young child and the hope that he yet saw for others:
I'm writing this article in a very beautiful park down at the waterfront… There's a young couple nearby, walking with their twins… Seeing kids with normal, loving parents who really seem to care about them is a bitter-sweet experience for me. On one hand it hurts because I'm reminded of the stark contrast between parents who most likely want what's best for their kids, and the kind of parents I had… On the other hand it brings me such joy to see kids like these little twins running around, because I am so thankful that they have a good shot at happiness and success in life. They have a loving, caring family to stand behind them, and don't have to struggle with the horrible memories and abuse that many of us who grew up in the Family do.10
Truly the phrase "Rest in Peace" was coined for such as Ricky Rodriguez.