Some cults get all the publicity. The Manson Family, the Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate—everybody's heard of them. But last week's arrest of Goel Ratzon in Israel reminds us that there are many cults that continue to attract followers and have managed to flourish due to a lack of publicity. Here are four such cults you might not have heard of.
1. The Savior
Goel Ratzon (his first name means "Savior" in Hebrew) was arrested in Tel Aviv last week and charged with enslavement, rape and incest. But his victims weren't the ones who blew the whistle on their savior; it was Israeli social services and police who'd launched an investigation when they'd heard rumors of children living in overcrowded conditions and possibly being abused. They found out that Ratzon had been head of a bizarre cult he'd founded about 10 years ago.
The 60-year-old self-described "healer" had 17 women and dozens of children (all of whom he'd fathered) crammed into in three small apartments in the Hatikvah area of Tel Aviv. (The total count of his offspring may never be known, as some of them were allegedly sired via his own daughters, and they are keeping mum to avoid additional
charges.) He monitored their activities via closed circuit TV, dictated their modest mode of dress, and collected the wages they earned from their day jobs (mostly as cleaning women). Oh, and he issued them cell phones so that they could text him when they were ovulating. A TV documentary aired on Israel's Channel 10 last year presented a tableau that would make your blood boil. The women and children all had Goel's name tattooed on their bodies and took turns brushing his hair and spoon feeding him.
Why wasn't the "Messiah" arrested immediately after that mind-boggling broadcast? Actually, authorities did launch their investigation shortly after the program on the grounds of child endangerment. But what with the women so slavishly devoted to their collective husband and protective of him, it took some time to gather the necessary evidence. While Ratzon sits in jail awaiting trial, most of his harem have remained loyal to their leader and have told the press that outsiders just don't understand their guru, this Perfect Man.
2. Children of God
David Berg, who called himself Moses David, founded the "organization" called Children of God in 1968. The so-called Jesus Movement was gathering steam in the late 1960s and a lot of disenfranchised hippies were ripe for the picking. Berg started his first "colony" in Huntington Beach, California, and similar colonies soon sprung up in other states, as well as Europe and South America.
Members were required to relinquish all their worldly possessions to the commune and cut off all ties with their families. In the beginning, members panhandled or busked to earn money to pay for food and other supplies. But as their numbers increased, Moses decided they needed to earn dollars, not spare change. With so many young attractive women ready to do his bidding, the answer was simple "“ why not exploit the world's oldest profession? Berg called this fund-raising effort "flirty fishing" as a result of his unique interpretation of Matthew 4:17. Flirty fishing was officially banned by Berg in 1987 (mainly due to the escalating AIDS epidemic). Watch Berg's daughter explain the practice:
Children of God has changed its name several times in recent years after a barrage of bad publicity, including accusations of incest and other abuse. Berg passed away in 1994 and the group, now known as The Family International, is led by Steven Kelly (who calls himself King Peter).
3. The Ant Hill Kids
The majority of Canadians consider Roch ThÃ©riault to be one of their country's most notorious criminals, but his devoted followers still call him "Moses." In 1979, ThÃ©riault set up a safe camp in Burt River, Ontario, in preparation for the apocalypse. Charismatic and politically savvy, Roch attracted a small group of followers he called "The Ant Hill Kids," all of whom were looking for spiritual salvation and a pure existence. The nine female members were his concubine and were required to be subservient to the few male members of the sect. Over 20 children were born to the group in the ensuing years, many of which were sired by Roch.
The group earned money by selling baked goods door-to-door. Because Moses had officially registered his commune as a church, provincial officials were unable to do much about the primitive living conditions the members were subject to; they could only ensure that the children had warm clothing and proper nutrition. ThÃ©riault had a drinking problem and a superiority complex and demanded absolute obedience from his followers. Such unquestioning submission led to the death of one of his "wives" when she allowed him to operate on her for a stomach ailment. Another female follower risked his wrath when she fled to a hospital after he chopped off her forearm with a cleaver in a fit of anger.
It was that act of brutality that finally brought authorities swooping down on the Ant Hill. ThÃ©riault was found guilty of murder in 1993 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was denied parole in 2002, but has fathered three more children during his years in jail as a result of conjugal visits with some of his remaining faithful few.
4. The Source Family
What Jim Baker had that other cult leaders did not was timing and (as realtors say) location, location, location. Retired medal of honor-winning Marine and judo champion Baker first headed to Los Angeles after the end of World War II to work as a movie stunt man with his eye on becoming filmdom's next Tarzan. When that dream didn't pan out, he fell in with a local group of beatniks called the Nature Boys, strict vegetarians who lived according to "Nature's Laws." Baker flourished in the hippie lifestyle to the extreme—he studied philosophy and religion and became a follower of Yogi Bhajan. Like all good gurus-to-be, Baker eventually left Bhajan and formed his own religion. He also adopted a more spiritually-jazzy name, Father Yod. He called his new religion the Source Family and opened an organic vegetarian restaurant in Laurel Canyon called (what else?) The Source.
Religion plus natural food plus nubile young servers in colorful robes equaled celebrity cachet in the early 1970s. Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Frank Zappa, Julie Christie and many other famous people made The Source the hip place to dine. As a result, Father Yod was able to rent a small home in which to house his devoted followers, which numbered about 160 at its peak.
In addition to the sex and drugs typical of most communes of that era, Yod also embraced rock and roll. He and his faithful formed an ersatz band called Ya Ho Wa 13, which ultimately released nine albums (recorded in a home studio and mostly sold via his restaurant). The recordings were a mixture of an avant garde acid rock-type background while Father Yod chanting his wisdom.
All seemed groovy until Father Yod's natural treatment of whatever ailed his minions failed, and a Source baby had to be taken to a local hospital due to a severe staph infection. In anticipation of The Man swooping down on his kingdom to investigate the possibly unsafe environment in which children were being raised (more than 100 people in a three-bedroom house), Yob moved his "family" to Hawaii. In 1975, a totally inexperienced Baker decided to try his hand at hang-gliding, and his first flight was his last. The Source Family pretty much disintegrated after his death.