The Twelve Tribes Communities began in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1972 as a loose fellowship of disaffected youth trying to obey the Jesus of the Bible. Today their members number around 2500 in twenty-five Communities in eight countries on four continents. Under the leadership of its founder Elbert Eugene Spriggs, his wife Marsha and others, local community governments have been established to function independently, but in an affiliated network adhering to the beliefs and practices that produce the life demonstrated in the Book of Acts.
Beginning as early as 1978 and spanning the last twenty years, activists of the anti-cult movement have plagued and pursued the group. Their activities include attempted deprogrammings in the late ’70s and interference in child custody battles in the early ’80s where children were uniformly taken from the Twelve Tribes parent. The most dramatic attack was the orchestration of the illegal seizure of 112 children from their homes and families by the State of Vermont in 1984. As a consequence of these events, in the ’90s two Twelve Tribes fathers have suffered the loss of their three sons and months in jail as the result of unsubstantiated criminal charges that were eventually dismissed, but at a tremendous human cost. Anti-cult activists were largely responsible for both the false charges and the unjust custody orders that provided the basis for them.
While child custody battles are not nearly as frequent in the Community as they are in the larger society, they are complicated by the activities of anti-cultists who, often for monetary gain or a personal vendetta, seek to prejudice state agencies and judges against the parent who remains in the Community. The results have been uniformly tragic for the children.
One of the favorite tactics of the anti-cult movement is to work through disaffected, ex-members of the Twelve Tribes Communities, using their testimony to manipulate government agencies and the media. Consequently, families are separated involuntarily by biased government interference. Children have been violently and forcibly estranged from their parents, not by supposed “cult members,” but by the supposedly protective agents of government themselves. These officials were led to action by anti-cult propaganda, which deliberately disregards the truth to manipulate the use of the awesome power of the government, to influence - or even ruin - lives. Yet rarely does anyone investigate the credibility of their stories, much less the harm and disruption caused by these biased activities to innocent families of an unfamiliar faith.
The focus of this paper is the fact that most all of the children who were the subjects of these early anti-cult controversies in the ’80s, are now adults who have chosen to return to the Twelve Tribes Communities. They are marrying, raising their children and choosing the faith of their parents who taught them according to the Word, including the command to discipline by spanking, a practice that has provoked the wrath of many and has provided fodder for the anti-cult movement to charge abuse.
Looking back over 25 years, however, despite the tactics of the anti-cult movement, claims of abuse and mind control remain unsubstantiated. The evidence is that the children are coming home and in increasing numbers. What these young adults are saying about what happened to them is that who they needed to be protected from as children were the anti-cult activists and the government officials misled by them, not their parents who were Twelve Tribes members.
When the Twelve Tribes members initially started to gather in the early ’70s, there were only several couples and increasing numbers of single people, both men and women. By 1975 and 1976 the first children of young couples who had surrendered their lives to obey the gospel of Yahshua, the Son of God, had been born and these disciples who took seriously the command to “be fruitful and multiply” did just that. Today, nearly twenty-five years later, approximately half of the population of the Community consists of children fifteen and under. Meanwhile, the children of the first-generation are reaching adulthood in increasing numbers. While not every child raised in a Twelve Tribes Community remains faithful, the vast majority of them do.
Significantly, part of the gospel that Twelve Tribes parents strive to obey is to be devoted parents, “raising their children up in the way that they should go, so that when they are old they will not depart from it.”1 While controlled discipline by spanking in love during the early years is routine for disobedience and disrespect, the mandate for the fathers to “turn their hearts to the hearts of the children” is recognized as essential to being a good parent.2
Since husbands and wives vow to stay together in a marriage covenant that values love, unity and fidelity, the mothers strive to be of “one heart and mind” with the fathers. The husbands, in turn, need the diligence and support of their wives to raise offspring who will bring honor, and not shame, to their parents. This effective restoration of the hearts of the parents and children is essential for the prophetic future of the Twelve Tribes Communities in order to signal the return of Yahshua to this earth to establish His kingdom.
However, in spite of the Community members’ devotion to the family, Twelve Tribes parents have been repeatedly subject to state intervention, prosecution, discrimination, and public harassment. These consequences are largely the result of anti-cultists and their effectiveness at creating suspicion in the minds of public servants: social workers, elected officials and judges alike. However, judges who have taken the opportunity to listen to the truth and weigh the evidence have repeatedly exonerated Twelve Tribes members from the charges leveled at them. It is worth noting that packets of anti-cult literature distributed throughout the world do not contain these legal decisions which undermine the anti-cult propaganda as untrustworthy.
Twelve Tribes members constantly appeal to jurisprudence by appealing to the conscience of rulers and judges to make decisions based on the evidence, the actual spiritual “fruit,” in the lives of the parents and children at issue. Members see that the foundation of the struggle over the children is a spiritual one with spiritual consequences, based upon a conflict of interest between the evil spiritual ruler of this world in this age and the ruler of the coming kingdom in the next age when Yahshua will rule.
In the early 1980s eleven children were taken from three mothers in the Community in Island Pond, Vermont in the context of three custody battles when, in each instance, the husband defected. The cases of Alexander v. Alexander, Gregoire v. Gregoire and Mattatall v. Mattatall were all decided in Essex County, nestled in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont prior to the 1984 Raid. In 1982 the Citizen’s Freedom Foundation (predecessor to the now bankrupted “old” Cult Awareness Network) held a public meeting in nearby Barton Vermont and fomented fear and controversy surrounding the group and their practice of corporal punishment, judiciously administered. Apostates such as Juan Mattatall and anti-cult activists influenced these hearings in Family Court. In these three custody cases charges of physical abuse were leveled at the mothers despite the fact that there was no specific evidence against any of them.
Newspaper stories rapidly spread through Vermont, painting the picture that some children were being rescued from an abusive and mind-bending cult. The anti-cult network played a major role in these cases, strategically manipulating the courts and the media to arouse fears and nurture the stereotype of an abusive, destructive cult. Their specific and stated intention was to “bust up the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.” Galen Kelly, the notorious C.A.N. deprogrammer who served jail time for erroneously kidnapping the wrong target, boasted that this plan was “full-proof.”
The experienced Kelly, with his tactics of the anti-cult program firmly outlined, and Juan Mattatall, with his dynamic and charming personality, persuaded a willing media that the Community was a dangerous and destructive cult. They enlisted the active support of both private and public individuals in their crusade. Together, the citizen activism motivated by the anti-cult propaganda proved to be a promising combination, especially with public officials ready to be heroes in an election year, 1984.
The two components functioned together. The anti-cult movers enlisted the State officials to endorse their biased beliefs about the group. By using press coverage that they had generated, they convinced public servants that it was in the general welfare to send state investigators at public expense to gather information to prove that there was child abuse in the Community. With the anti-cult motive of destroying the group already determined, it follows that the investigators produced only “bad” affidavits, gleaning only negative aspects from what defectors had to say and forming molded accounts to accomplish their influenced goal: stop the abuse of the children at the Church in Island Pond. This laudable state purpose, however, was merely the façade for the anti-cultists clearly articulated motivation: “to destroy the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.” While some officials may have been unwitting participants in this scheme, the legitimate state goal of protecting children in danger became indistinguishable from the illegitimate and illegal anti-cult motive of destroying a religion they don’t like. No one bothered to recognize the difference and the story of Juan Mattatall’s custody battle fueled in the press by the anti-cult movement provided the rallying point. The State of Vermont was lead into police action by the anti-cult agenda.
These three divorce cases, which removed eleven children from their home in the Twelve Tribes Community, and the media attention they received, served to make the public wary of the quiet and peaceful group. The stage was set for a public outcry to demand a political response. “What about the other children, the ones nobody sees?” was the fearful theme. The anti-cult plan was working.
Directly following the pressure of several devoted anti-cult activists, both local and national, Governor Richard Snelling and his council decided to conduct a massive round-up of 112 children from the Church in Island Pond. Such seizure was later judged “the worst state-sanctioned violation of children since Herod the Great,” a term used by Judge Frank Mahady who dismissed all the cases, condemning the state’s action for its “Draconian” approach This massive police attack at dawn on families at home making breakfast with their children was the effect of anti-cult activism on public servants.
On June 22, 1984, as the power and might of the State of Vermont was brought to bear on this little rural village, it seemed as if the airtight plan had been executed. Ninety state troopers in flak jackets and fifty social workers arrived with a search warrant and took 112 children into protective custody planning to examine them for signs of abuse. But after forty individual detention hearings on that sunny, summer Friday afternoon in Newport, Vermont, the State’s Attorneys were unable to produce any evidence whatsoever. When called to prove their claims of abuse before the court, they had not one witness to make their case. The state’s request for a blanket detention of the children to have them all examined based on the faith of their parents was denied. There was no lawful basis for any emergency action. All the children were sent home with their parents and the Raid made national news.
The entire scheme was found to be “grossly unconstitutional” in an eloquent and scholarly judicial opinion by Judge Frank Mahady. Although the State filed a perfunctory appeal, which made the headlines in an election year, after the appointment of an independent special prosecutor, the appeals were quickly abandoned.
While the state did not succeed in taking the children in 1984, the significance of the Raid remains. The inflammatory and libelous publicity which surrounded it, with its charges of atrocious abuse stories, is still circulated today, as members celebrate the 15th Anniversary of their deliverance that day. Those whose lives have been, and continue to be, affected by the distribution of such misinformation, cannot simply consider the Raid a mere historical footnote because it was a legal victory. The role the media reports and their distribution played to portray the Twelve Tribes as an abusive cult continues to harm both children and adults today. Stale and faulty newsclippings still circulate throughout North and South America, Canada and Europe, instead of the solid legal opinions based on the facts presented to the court. The judicial decisions expose the religious discrimination that resulted at the hands of government agents who were fueled by anti-cult hysteria. The fact that anti-cult groups do not include these and other judicial decisions, belies the anti-religious agenda that is not looking to communicate the truth.
However, the Alexander, Gregoire and Mattatall children already removed from the care of their Community parent by divorce orders in 1982 were not protected by the decision denouncing the Raid as a serious violation of Constitutional rights in 1984. What happened to these families and children whose lives were disrupted by the activities of the anti-cult movement?
In 1982 Mason and Jeremiah Alexander, ages 11 and 9, were sent by the court to live in southern Vermont with their father who was a prison guard. For the next eight years, until the early ’90s, Mason, Jr. barely saw his mother and was disinterested in Community life. Jeremiah, in contrast, persuaded his father to allow visits and trekked to Island Pond every chance he could to spend time with his mother and her friends. While still 17, his father finally agreed that Jeremiah could return to the Community and pursue the proven desire of his heart, to live in the Community he could not forget. The older brother, Mason, graduated high school and within a couple of years also chose to return to the life that he had been taken from as a pre-teener. Mason Jr. is now 28, married with a young daughter, raising his family in the Community in Hyannis, Massachusetts. His father came to his wedding several years ago. He was pleased to be there, thankful that his son was in the Community and acknowledged that it was his own pride and selfishness that caused him to leave Island Pond fifteen years earlier and not anything bad that was happening to his sons. He went along with the orchestrated campaign to paint the Community as an abusive cult to get custody of his sons. Their mother Susan has been in the Community Church nearly twenty years now and is overjoyed with her children and her grandchild and pleased with the obvious change of heart in her former husband.
Three of the four children of Tommy and Eileen Gregoire now live in Community households spanning the East coast from Boston to Florida. They range in age from 17 to 27. The fourth visits on occasion. Despite a 1982 custody order that found the children to be victims “of systematic abuse,” embroiled in some sort of “holy war between the parents,” the children have returned. 27-year-old Paul testified in court in 1994 that when he read the 1982 order about himself he could not identify or recall any disciplinary mistreatment coming to him as a child. The contents of the order initially stunned, and later perplexed him. Defectors who became apostates, such as Juan Mattatall testified at the 1982 custody hearings, so that testimony was most likely the basis for the court’s comments.
The two older children, Paul and Charity, have married in the Community and have chosen their life’s course, following in the faith and footsteps of the mother they were taken from by the courts. Their father Tommy, has a similar tale to tell as Mason Alexander. Attending the wedding of his son in the Community in 1997, he is satisfied at the choice his children have made to reside in the Community and makes it clear that he left because of doctrinal differences having nothing to do with harsh treatment of children.
The most dramatic family history by far is that of the Mattatalls. Juan Mattatall became a charismatic “career apostate” who made it his purpose to remove his wife and five children from the Church in Island Pond when he was sent away for a time in 1982 when several (relatively minor by today’s standards) incidents of child molestation were uncovered and he would neither admit them, nor receive help. He then joined with Galen Kelly, a Cult Awareness Network deprogrammer, in his plan to “to destroy the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.” The activities of Kelly and Mattatall provide a telling example how anti-cultists, with the help of disaffected ex-members, are able to manipulate state agencies and the media, and how, as a consequence, innocent people are made to suffer.
Cindy Mattatall was, by all accounts, a loving and devoted mother who was unwilling to move out of the Community with her five children, ages infant to seven years, to live with her husband Juan, whose pedophiliac tendencies she was keen to. She kept losing in court as the judges refused to weigh the evidence against her husband as significant in determining “the best interests” of her children Desperate, she planned to take her children to Europe, when on the eve of her departure, the Citizens’ Freedom Foundation helped Juan grab the children from her at gunpoint with the aid of the New Jersey State Police. The children were taken from their mother and embarked with their father, Juan, on an eight-year course of foster homes and orphanages, denied visits with their mother, despite the fact that visits were ordered by the court. Juan Mattatall effectively persuaded social service agencies to distance the mother, even while he faced criminal charges for his behavior with children.
Finally, in April 1990, his own mother shot him dead in the head as he napped in her home in Oveido, Florida, before turning the gun on herself. Her husband testified that she did it because her son’s life was a non-stop series of problems with “children and the law” and she wanted to spare both him and herself further shame. The remarried Cindy went to Florida and regained custody of all five of her children, then aged 9-16. They all returned to the Community in Island Pond. Today, at ages 17-24, four live in Messianic Communities. Of those who do, all but the youngest boy are very happily married and raising families, following the teachings they were born into.
Nine out of these eleven children have returned to the Community as adults, the news accounts of the early ’80s alleging abuse continue to be distributed internationally when a new Twelve Tribes Community begins. Despite the efforts of anti-cult activists, however, new Communities begin and continue to be established. These children, once portrayed as “silently abused,” are now adults and no longer silent. They are coming home.
In 1994 when a Community in Rutland, Vermont was just starting, a divorced mother who had custody of her four daughters, ages 4-12, moved in and became a believer. Her husband, a college English professor who retained custody of their two teenage sons, failed to return the girls after a weekend visit. He went to court seeking custody of the girls, alleging abuse. Lavin began receiving anonymous phone calls warning him of the dangers of the “cult,” as well as unsolicited anti-cult information packets in the mail. For six months Stuart and Rosemary Lavin were in the news whenever they appeared in court. The father vowed to protect his girls from the hands of the abusive cult and the mother took her stand in the truth of her right to keep custody of her daughters and practice the religion of her choice without losing her girls.
After days of contested hearings, the court ordered a comprehensive psychological assessment of the entire family. The practitioner judged by what he saw and heard first-hand. His report concluded, he found the Community to be safe for children, albeit a viable departure from the mainstream culture. He visited several Communities, talking to children of all ages. He found them to be secure, social and well adjusted. While the mother voluntarily agreed to joint custody and the girls lived with their father for a time as a result of fears generated by anti-cultists, the psychologist and the court supported the children’s visits in the Community without reservation. The results are quite noteworthy.
Now, five years later in 1999, all four girls reside in the Community with their mother, each of their own choosing and with the indispensable consent of their father. Once he had physical custody of the girls, he became simply curious about why they wanted to return to the Community in Rutland. He made it his business to become a regular visitor and find out. He was welcomed. In 1998 the reconciled family members appeared on a Boston TV program, the Chronicle, in a featured documentary entitled “Community or Cult,” with the girls detailing the reasons for their choice. When the girls, now ages 9-17, proclaimed the benefits of spanking and rejection of the pop culture, their father wholeheartedly agreed. He remains outside the Community, a frequent visitor. Even his two older sons are periodic guests at the Messianic Communities.
However, not all cases involving anti-cultists in which children are taken from parents as a consequence of their membership in the Community end happily. In the intervening years since the 1984 Raid, two Messianic Community fathers have faced criminal prosecution, having been accused of abducting their sons from two mothers who used the courts to execute their anti-cult agenda in order to take custody from the fathers because of their faith. These two men, Stephen Wootten in Vermont and Edward Dawson in Canada, were both acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing after each spent months in jail and suffered the loss of their sons. In both instances although the father had sole legal custody of the boys, the mother persuaded the authorities to lay criminal charges without first making adequate investigation into the status of the boys. Such undue influence being brought to bear on the legal system is a deliberate and often effective tactic of anti-cultists. It can have devastating and life-determining consequences.
The provincial and state governments involved could have saved tens of thousands, if not more, of taxpayer dollars had they taken the time to educate themselves to anti-cult tactics. If they had investigated the facts and looked behind the hysteria, they would have seen that charges were not even justified. Government agents and courts would not have fallen victim to a calculated agenda aimed at destroying families, robbing the right to free exercise of religion, and discrediting a viable and safe alternative way of living.
Edward Dawson spent five years defending himself against a parental kidnapping charge while he had legal custody of his son Michael the entire time. Nevertheless, the boy lived with his mother for five years, 1994-1999, by default as the lame criminal charges prohibited Dawson from contact with his son. He won an acquittal by a judge in 1994. After the Crown appealed this Nova Scotia decision and the case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, Dawson got a second “Not Guilty” verdict in 1997 from a jury after a two-week trial where he represented himself. His son Michael testified on his behalf.
The trial court judge determined that Dawson had been the target of religious discrimination when his wife, her lawyer, and an anti-cult witness, falsely claiming to be an expert, effectively deprived Dawson of his right to be heard at a critical hearing concerning the custody of his son in 1992, prior to the laying of the charges. The tragedy is that after five years in the unlawful custody of his mother in Montreal, the governmental authorities have intervened, alleging her to be unfit, while Michael’s future rests with the very authorities who wrongfully took Michael from his father in the first place. The government agencies don’t even know or acknowledge the fact of the unjust anti-cult influence or its monumental effect on the life of Michael Dawson. At 16, he sits in juvenile detention, a very angry and confused young man. Michael Dawson lost his relationship with his father because of religious discrimination by the provincial government who was persuaded to believe lies by anti-cult activists who are not held accountable for their lies and the damage they cause.
Stephen Wootten’s two sons, Nathan and Seth, now 19 and 15, remain with their mother in upstate New York, after 1-2 weeks of “exit counseling” by Rick Ross in 1997 at the hands of their mother, an avid apostate from the Messianic Communities. The dismissal of the custodial interference charges is precious little comfort to their father who had been their lifelong primary caretaker until their seizure upon his arrest. The Wootten boys were also taken from their custodial father as a consequence of ungrounded charges founded in the biased story of their mother, a former Community member who convinced authorities that Wootten was a criminal because of his faith, without evidence of criminal wrongdoing. It is interesting to note that the very judge who gave custody to the defecting mother at an ex parte hearing in 1990 where the father was not present is the same judge who dismissed the criminal charges eight years later in 1998.
The case of Twelve Tribes member Amy Brown is another family tragedy fostered by anti-cultists, but with a new twist. As the custodial parent of 6 year-old Ian, she joined the Boston Community. When his father wanted to take him for his annual month’s visitation of summer sailing, she was reluctant. Her son’s paternal grandfather had been persuaded against her faith by anti-cult literature and activists in action. He had a high-powered lawyer named Herbert Rosedale of the American Family Foundation. Amy Brown was threatened repeatedly and intimidated, told she had better transfer custody of the boy “or else there would be trouble.” Amy did not succumb to the pressure to turn over custody, but she did allow the visit in July 1996 after a supposed “mediation” session. The “mediator” turned out to be an undisclosed anti-cult activist, on hand for the occasion to “lend his services” to set the stage to kidnap her son. Her former husband has yet to return the boy. An arrest warrant for the father Jonathan Brown remains outstanding in Massachusetts for the crime of parental kidnapping. The boy Ian, now 10, has not seen his custodial mother who raised him since she released him for his 1996 summer visit. It seems others who are aware of the charge seem to know where the boy is and are not telling. Despite knowledge of Amy Brown’ custody order, Herbert Rosedale has tried to persuade the Boston police to drop the charges against the father, regardless of the fact that he has deprived the mother of lawful custody for three years.
A retrospective look at the anti-cult movement’s efforts to paint Twelve Tribes members as criminals is revealing. A pattern of religious discrimination in the prosecution of the cases, all involving children, is documented in the judicial decisions since 1984. The Raid decision, State of Vermont v. Charles Wiseman (1985), The Queen v. Edward Frank Dawson (1997) and State of Vermont v. Stephen Wootten (1998) found serious fundamental violations of Twelve Tribes’ member rights, ranging from denial of 1st, 5th and 6th Amendment rights (of freedoms of religion, association, due process and fair trial) to unethical conduct in the prosecution’s handling of witnesses favorable to the Twelve Tribes member. State prosecutors have made a practice of relying on the statements of anti-cultists themselves, or defectors who have been exit-counseled or deprogrammed by them, including some who have become “career apostates.”
One graphic example of a child abused by the tactics of the anti-cult movement is Darlynn Church, the alleged 12-year-old victim in the 1983 pre-raid simple assault charge against Eddie Wiseman. She supposedly endured a “seven-hour beating resulting in 89 welts” on her back side. This one case is probably the single most sensational, untrue and graphic misrepresentation of the Twelve Tribes. It continues to be circulated today despite the fact that the case was dismissed in 1985 for lack of a speedy trial due to the state’s delays in deliberately trying to obtain only evidence of guilt, not innocence. A little-known fact is that the court found the State of Vermont guilty of ethical misconduct because its prosecutors refused to call Darlynn Church once she was available as a witness, because she made known the fact that her original testimony had been coached and persuaded by anti-cultists to distort the facts and escalate them to a contrived charge.
The 1984 judicial decision denouncing the Raid found religious discrimination at the hands of the State of Vermont. In June 1998 Stephen Wootten filed a motion to dismiss his custodial interference charge alleging selective prosecution by the state, a continuing pattern as evidenced in the Wiseman case and the Raid.
One thing about children is that they grow up and that they have memories. Darlynn Church is now 29 years old with three children of her own. She has no gripe or complaint against Eddie Wiseman. She tells of the intense pressure she was under from anti-cultists and state officials to make things “worse and worse.” Over the past fifteen years she has not been in the Community and has been sought out repeatedly to speak against the Twelve Tribes. As recently as September 1998 the Attorney General’s office of Vermont phoned her. They wanted her to cooperate in reinstituting the charges against Eddie Wiseman, fifteen years later. In the midst of facing Stephen Wootten’s claim of selective prosecution based upon a pattern of religious discrimination, the Attorney General told her they knew that “justice had not been served” in her case. Darlynn Church told the State she wasn’t interested.
In all the cases described, anti-cult activities have separated children from parents largely because of a parent’s adherence to the life of The Twelve Tribes. In each instance, judicial decisions were initially made largely on the prejudicial evidence supplied by anti-cultists and/or ex-members whom they recruited. Yet rarely did state agencies or the media, that were often instrumental in propagating false stereotypes of Community life, conduct follow-up investigations on the lives of children or members that their actions disrupted.
Looking back as the century turns over, the evidence shows that many of the children who were tragically and unjustly removed from the Twelve Tribes Community have voluntarily returned to the Community. (as have several defectors whose testimony was used critically by anti-cult activists) It is significant also, that in other cases, such as that of Michael Dawson, children continue to seriously suffer as a consequence of anti-cult activities. The reality is that the Twelve Tribes children are coming home, one at a time, returning to the faith of their Community parent. The efforts of the anti-cult movement, while troubling, inconvenient, discriminatory and expensive, have not prevented the growth of the Twelve Tribes.
Written by Jean A. Swantko, Esq.