Joker star Joaquin Phoenix had an unconventional beforehand childhood, living in Venezuela, Florida, and also eventually Hollywood with his peripatetic parents and siblings Summer, Liberty, Rain, and also late fellow actor River. However until Phoenix was approximately three year old in 1977, the household were followers of the children of God, a cult helmed by a rogue preacher referred to as David Berg that would later end up being notorious between allegations of child sexual abuse. And he’s not the only celebrity that spent few of their beforehand years in the group—Rose McGowan also spent part of she childhood in the cult. Here’s what you need to know.

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Who space the children of God?

In 1968, preacher David Brandt Berg established a team initially referred to as Teens for Christ, which at an initial consisted of young runaways and also hippies. This church would evolve right into the kids of God, which at one suggest counted 15,000 members about the world. The church believed in group living and also zealous proselytizing, and also soon prospered to encompass hundreds that communes. Members of these neighborhoods could be isolated, as they didn’t work—people who held real-world jobs were referred to as “systemites”—or send their children to school.

Berg’s church melded prayer of Jesus Christ with ’60s-era totally free love, and also preached a reasonably standard cult leader prophecy—the apocalypse to be coming, and soon. This doomsday predication motivated his followers to live hand-to-mouth quite than making irreversible plans; ex-members later on told The Guardian the begging because that alms and subsisting off of donated food.


Members the the youngsters of God dance in Toronto in 1972.
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What space the allegations versus the group?The cult earn notoriety for its sexual practices, which consisted of what Berg referred to as “flirty fishing,” and which uncovered him bespeak female pendant to have sex with guys in bespeak to lug them into the cult. In 1979, that reported that “flirty fishers” had included 19,000 members to the group’s ranks. "It was spiritual prostitution," one of Berg"s daughters said Timeline in 2017.

Joaquin Phoenix told Vanity Fair the the advent of the "flirty fishing" plan drove his parents to leave the group. "They gained some letter, or however it came, some suggestion of that," the said, "and they to be like, "Fuck this, we’re outta here.’"

His mother, heart Phoenix, said the magazine the "it took numerous years to get over our pain and also loneliness" after ~ leaving the group. Climbed McGowan’s family likewise escaped the cult during her childhood.


Members of the team sit down to a communal enjoy the meal in 1974 California.
Michel GINFRAYGetty Images
Some in the cult reportedly extended its sexual plans to children, allegedly permitting and even encouraging child sex abuse. Berg self was accused of sex-related abusing young girls, consisting of his daughters and granddaughters. "It definitely wasn’t a safe location to prosper up, particularly if you were a girl," one former member told The Guardian in 2017. "Close friend of mine cultivation up to be abused and raped."

In 1993, a previous member the the team named Ricky Dupuy appeared on Larry King Live, and also told the organize that he’d to be ordered through the team to rape a 10-year-old. Dupuy, like various other ex-members that the group, later committed suicide.

David Berg died in 1994, and at the time of his death he was under investigation from both Interpol and also the FBI. His wife, Karen Zerby, inherited leadership. But the cult landing in the headlines again in 2005 after their son, Ricky Rodriguez, eliminated himself and another former member of the group.

Rodriguez was renowned in the cult—his childhood had actually been recounted in a parenting manual spread amongst the members. The new York Times, after reviewing pages of the publication sent by previous followers, reported the in it, "the toddler Ricky is explained or else pictured together watching intercourse and also orgies, fondling his nanny"s breasts and also having his vul fondled."

Rodriguez left the cult in adulthood, and his wife told The Times that he want his mom “prosecuted for boy abuse.” He likewise supported various other women’s accounts the Berg had actually sexually abused his very own daughters and granddaughters.

At the age of 29, Rodriguez invited one of his former nannies—a mrs who showed up in the publication documenting his alleged abuse—and stabbed her to death before killing himself. His wife provided reporters a video clip he videotaped the night prior to the murder-suicide. "He said he witnessed himself together a vigilante avenging children like him and also his sister who had been topic to rapes and beatings," created The time of the footage.

A spokeswoman because that the team recently said the BBC that, "although the family International has actually apologized top top a variety of occasions to former members for any kind of hurt, genuine or perceived, that they may have actually suffered throughout their time in our membership, we carry out not provide credence to story of institutionalized abuse."

What is the condition of the team now?

In 2004, the church again changed its surname to the family members International. In the years following Berg’s death, the group relaxed numerous of its requirements of its pendant in an evident attempt to rise declining membership. Followers room now allowed to live in exclusive homes and also work exterior of the cult. In 2009, the management announced that they no longer believed the apocalypse to it is in imminent. The church still exists, and though the website states that the team underwent a “reorganization in 2010 as an online community,” it claims to have 1,700 members.

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Gabrielle BruneyGabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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