For cult children, talent shows and hours-long lectures on sin Freed youths appear to have been well-cared for, schooled

March 08, 1993|By Sam Howe Verhovek | Sam Howe Verhovek,New York Times News Service

WACO, Texas -- Brian is a 3-year-old towhead who throws so many tantrums that his playmates, who like him anyway, call him Cryin' Brian.

Heather has blond hair down to her waist and a purposeful expression. She is 8, but older children gravitate toward her as something of a leader.

Joshua, 7, has a Dutch-boy haircut and a knack for "getting in trouble with the little girls and bothering them when they're playing," as one of his friends put it. His nickname is Mischief.

Even as their parents remain barricaded inside the compound that was the scene of a deadly shootout between a heavily armed religious cult led by David Koresh and federal agents, the 21 children who have come out in the past week are now firmly in the custody of the state of Texas. No one seems sure just what to do with them.

Seventeen more children are inside, and most of them, unlike the children who have left, are believed to have been fathered by Mr. Koresh. A self-declared Messiah, he once told his followers that these children were destined to rule at his side in the Kingdom of Heaven. No one knows what will happen to them, either.

The children who were released have been visible to the world only for seconds, usually through the window of a police van. But in interviews with social workers, former cult members and a 14-year-old boy who lived in the compound until hours before the shootout, a picture is emerging of the children's life before the bloody events of Feb. 28.

It shows a routine that is by turns harrowing and almost eerily pleasant: Mr. Koresh reproaching them for their sins and the sins of the world in lectures that could stretch for hours, or displaying his arsenal of weapons and a group talent show every few weeks and the little doghouses that the children helped build for 11 Alaskan malamute puppies.

Despite allegations by former cult members that Mr. Koresh sexually abused girls, there is considerable evidence that the children were, in at least some important respects, well-cared for. None show any signs of physical abuse, and most seem consumed with a wish to see their parents.

Many of the children, from 5 months to 12, emerged from the compound with small bags of favorite belongings or notes from their parents about their favorite foods, books and bedtime rituals, said Joyce Sparks, a caseworker for the state's Child Protective Services agency.

Reports from social workers who have seen them suggest that these children, the most innocent victims in the case, are a strikingly interdependent group.

"They seem to be very much like brothers and sisters," Ms. Sparks said. "They're interacting as you might see children of a family interacting."

The children have described to the social workers a sporadic system of home schooling that sometimes included up to six straight hours of lectures about the Bible by either Mr. Koresh or one of their parents. But if the teaching schedule was less regular than what the children would have been exposed to if they had been allowed to go to public school, many seemed perfectly proficient at math, reading, and describing the world around them, social workers say.

Mr. Koresh is a figure who inspires a certain fear since he punished children from time to time by spanking them with a paddle and describing whatever he said were their sins, such as lying, in great detail to their playmates. But partly because he is capable of being extremely affectionate and partly because many parents taught to revere the leader, many children have spoken fondly of him.

"If you were punished, he said it was because you had done something wrong and maybe it hurt him to have to do it," said Kalani Fatta, 14, who missed the shootout only because he and his father had gone to a gun show on that Sunday.

The boy also described many far more pleasing aspects of life inside the compound and in several hours of interviews with him and his father, Paul Fatta, it was clear that both badly wanted to go back inside the compound and be reunited with their friends and what they repeatedly called their "family."

Mr. Koresh is said by three former cult members to have fathered at least 13 children by at least five different women. Two children are no longer in the compound, their mothers having left with them and successfully warded off threats by Mr. Koresh to bring the children back to Texas.

The crucial mystery surrounding Mr. Koresh's children is whether he is keeping them in the compound because he believes he is protecting them or he intends to carry out his stated vision of leading them to the afterlife.

"He used to say to us, in essence, my kids are better than your kids," said Marc Breault, of Melbourne, Australia, who emerged even before the raid as one of the few former cult members willing to offer warnings about Mr. Koresh.

But asked whether he believed Mr. Koresh would actually lead himself and his children into death, Mr. Breault said he did not know.

Mr. Breault's wife, Elizabeth, also a resident of the compound until 1989, said she was concerned that Mr. Koresh's report of 17 children left might be an understatement. She said she knew of several cult members whose children were still inside, while Mr. Koresh probably had nearly that many children of his own.

At a news briefing here Friday, the state agency said all 21 of the released children were being kept together at an undisclosed location. The agency also said it would probably be several days before courts begin to determine if there were any who should be sent to live with relatives.

The immediate question about the parents is whether they will come out of the compound alive. If they do, there is also a possibility they will be sentenced to years in prison or be found mentally incompetent.

In either case, despite the evidence available here that they have provided for their children, a judge may require that the children be sent to live with someone else.

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