Six men allege ‘rampant, unceasing sexual abuse’ at secluded Northern California nonprofit

Black and white photo of a man in a suit and a mustache and beard.
Robert Burton, leader of Fellowship of Friends, Oregon House, Calif., in 1981.
(Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

They were searching for spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Instead, the six men were subject to “rampant, unceasing sexual abuse” by their spiritual guide, in concert with members of a controversial religious group and workers at an award-winning Northern California winery, the men allege in court documents.

The unnamed plaintiffs filed a lawsuit Friday in Yuba County against the Fellowship of Friends — a nonprofit religious group described by some as a cult — along with its founder and spiritual teacher, Robert Earl Burton, and its Renaissance Vineyard and Winery.

Fellowship of Friends bills itself as an organization that helps members reach their true potential, an upscale throwback to the erstwhile Bay Area communes that separated participants from society so they could pursue self-realization. Former Fellowship members, however, allege the group is really a cult of personality masquerading as a nonprofit, and that its true purpose is to satisfy Burton’s sexual needs. On the side, the Fellowship created a famed winery whose lists of honors and accolades for its Cabernet Sauvignons, Sauvignon Blancs and Riesling span pages.


Their civil complaint seeks damages for 15 alleged violations, including gender violence, human trafficking, sexual assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs are also asking for a trial by jury.

Adam Slater, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that although male sexual assault survivors experience “the same trauma as women,” stigma hinders the filing of criminal or civil lawsuits.

“We commend these brave individuals for coming forward and encourage others to do the same,” Slater said in a statement.

Fellowship President Greg Holman told The Times that his organization “has been made aware of the lawsuit” but has yet to be served.

Holman declined to comment when asked about the allegations and his personal interactions with Burton.

The Fellowship of Friends was established in 1970 by Burton, a former schoolteacher.


According to the Fellowship, members are encouraged to “learn both the principles of awakening and practical methods to apply those in their daily life.” Students are aided in this journey by Burton, 84, who is referred to as “The Teacher,” according to court documents.

Burton has told members he is guided by dozens of angels, including Abraham Lincoln, Plato and Jesus Christ.

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The organization’s main campus is on a 1,300-acre tract in the Northern California community of Oregon House and is called Apollo. There, members drink fine wine, listen to opera and gaze upon expensive artwork.

Yet the plaintiffs asserted that the organization has a dark and “secret” side.

They allege they were “sexually assaulted, sexually battered, raped, harassed, groomed, and/or otherwise attacked” during their time at Apollo.

Five of the men were members from 1971 to 1986; the last plaintiff joined in 1997 and left in 2008.

Five of the plaintiffs said they suffered some form of sexual abuse or harassment from four to 30 times.


A sixth said he was “sexually harassed, abused, molested and assaulted” between 280 and 300 times over an eight-year period.

Burton and the organization made sure the balance of power was in their favor, the lawsuit alleges, as they maintained control of the men with threats of punishment and insistence on obedience. They quashed rebellion with “isolation, sleep deprivation [and] the creation of inner conflict.”

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But the lawsuit also alleges that Burton lavished the men with praise and affection — “love bombing” them as a means of seduction and coercion, the lawsuit alleges.

Although Burton maintained that homosexuality was “degenerate” and “wrong,” the lawsuit says, he justified his pursuit of male members by referring to them as “feminine angels in a man’s body.”

A few of those suing were part of a “harem” of men who accompanied Burton throughout the day and were known as “Burton’s Boys.”

Burton told them “they are not sleeping with a man but an angel,” according to the lawsuit.


Between 2002 and 2005, the Fellowship hosted “Lovefests” on Valentine’s Day. On those days, Burton attempted to have sex with 100 men a day, falling short and sexually assaulting “between 70-80” men during these events, the lawsuit states.

He continued to assault members for decades with few repercussions because the handful of sexual abuse allegations made against him were primarily internal and never curtailed his activities, the lawsuit alleges. A female staffer filed complaints with the FBI in 2015 and 2019, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Fellowship twice as part of an investigation into its use of religious visas.

Members who pressed the organization’s board and Burton about the alleged sexual misconduct were shunned and kicked out, according to the lawsuit.

Samuel Sanders, director of the Fellowship board, was excommunicated after he wrote an internal email to fellow board members in 1981. “Burton has over the years pursued and sodomized young men. He has used his position to seduce these young men,” Sanders wrote, according to the lawsuit. “Our omission, and it is one in the strictest sense, is allowing it to continue.”

The men behind the lawsuit said in court documents that they are suffering from a variety of ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse and panic attacks.

“Because the abuse here was committed by a so-called spiritual leader and enabled by the organization, it was all the more insidious,” plaintiffs’ attorney Slater said.


The men have also struggled in personal and romantic relationships, according to the lawsuit, and are pushing for the opportunity to tell a jury about their experiences.