David Berg; Founder of Controversial Sect

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

The leader of the Children of God, a controversial Christian sect that began in a coffeehouse near the Huntington Beach pier and later became involved in conflicts with the law around the world, is dead, his followers said Thursday.

David Berg was 75, said Rachel Scott, a spokeswoman for the organization speaking from Leire, Leicestershire, in central England. The group claims a membership of 6,000 adults and 3,000 children in 50 countries.

Berg had been in hiding since 1971, and Scott said she was informed of his death two days ago in a telephone call from Berg's wife, Maria. Scott said she did not know what country Berg was in when he died, or when he died.

"He fell asleep in his sleep, peacefully," Scott told Associated Press, quoting Berg's widow. "He was getting weaker and weaker; he died of old age, basically."

Maria Berg will now the lead The Family, as Children of God now calls itself, a statement said. She is to continue living in hiding, Scott said.

"I've been with this organization 23 years, and I don't know where they are," Scott said.

As a traveling preacher, Berg organized the Children of God as a small, Christian commune in 1968. Berg, himself the child of evangelists, preached an anti-Establishment, apocalyptic creed.

As the movement grew, Berg, known to his followers as Father David and Moses David, started spreading a bizarre collection of prophecies. The comet Kohoutek, he predicted, would doom America. He charged that Jews and blacks were conspiring to ruin the world.

What made Berg and his followers stand out, however, was their fervent espousal of a free-love gospel to gather new converts, which eventually escalated into allegations of sexual abuse of children in a number of countries.

The group has been investigated by authorities in Argentina, France, Spain, Australia, Venezuela and Peru on charges of forced menial labor, child abuse and using prostitution to attract recruits, but no members have been convicted.

More recently, the group--with a new, more wholesome and conservative image--has returned to Orange County.

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