Fear ruled lives of cult children Interviews yield stories of paddling, 11-year-old 'wives,' visions of fiery death

May 04, 1993|By Sara Rimer and Sam Howe Verhovek | Sara Rimer and Sam Howe Verhovek,New York Times News Service

HOUSTON -- For sins as small as spilling milk, the children said, they were struck with a wooden paddle known as "the helper." To train for the final battle, they were instructed to fight each other, and if they did not fight hard enough, they were paddled for that, too.

David Koresh told them to call their parents "dogs"; only he was to be referred to as their father. Girls as young as 11 were given a plastic Star of David, signifying that they had "the light" and were ready to have sex with the cult leader.

Those are some of the things that 19 of the 21 surviving children of the Branch Davidian cult have told them about their lives inside the compound, a team of therapists said. Those interviewed ranged in age from 4 to 11.

The team, headed by Dr. Bruce D. Perry, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital and vice chairman for research of the department of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, spent two months working with the children, who left the cult's compound near Waco in the first five days after the Feb. 28 shootout in which four federal agents and at least six cult members were killed. Two children, ages 7 months and 3 years, were too young to be interviewed.

President Clinton and the FBI have maintained for weeks that children inside the compound were physically and sexually abused, but the only known evidence for those assertions consisted of 2-year-old allegations by some former cult members. Many current cult members and their lawyers have called such charges baseless.

Now, a report by Dr. Perry, an expert on traumatized children, and interviews with several counselors who worked with the children provide the first details from the Branch Davidian children themselves about their lives in the compound.

The report, which Dr. Perry said he wrote for the families of the children and any therapists who work with them in the future, characterizes the world described by the children as "a misguided paramilitary community" in which sex, violence, fear, love and religion were all intertwined.

The report, which was made available by Dr. Perry, depicts an insular religious community of many contradictions. Although men and women were strictly segregated, Dr. Perry writes, the children told him that Mr. Koresh had "wives" as young as 11 and routinely discussed sex openly with even the youngest girls during Bible lessons.

Dr. Perry said that though the children seemed highly protective of the cult's secrets, "over the course of two months, the kids became increasingly open about 11- and 12-year-old girls being David's wives."

He said it was clear in the conversations that the status of "wife" included having sex with Mr. Koresh

Under Texas law, sex between an adult and a youth under the age of 17 is statutory rape, a felony.

Mr. Koresh was reported to have an assortment of electronic equipment and high-powered weapons, but the compound lacked running water and plumbing.

"The children described using a pot for urinating and defecating, which they would empty every day," Dr. Perry wrote. After the children's release, he recalled, "there was a fascination about flushing toilets, most apparent with the young children."

In addition to being struck with "the helper," the children were disciplined by being deprived of food, sometimes for a day, the report said. Dr. Perry said the children "had a difficult time making the adjustment

to a nonphysical form of discipline" after leaving the compound.

The report notes that the children seemed to be reading at appropriate grade levels but that there was no discussion of formal schooling outside of Bible classes.

Girls were allowed to sleep as late as they wanted, but boys were forced to arise as early as 5:30 a.m. for what the children called "gym," which the report describes as "marching, drilling (possibly with firearms) and other physical activities that sounded like paramilitary exercises."

To the children, however, the world inside the compound was normal, Dr. Perry said. Even after their release, and as they described their treatment by Dr. Koresh, nearly all of the children have talked about their love for him. During therapy sessions, several of them drew pictures with hearts, under which they wrote, "I Love David."

But Dr. Perry thinks their feelings about Mr. Koresh were something other than love.

"Fear is what it was," he said in an interview in Houston last week. "They learned to substitute the word 'love' for fear."

The cult leader controlled everything -- sex, school, play and even diet. "There were a number of unusual ideas about combining fruit and vegetables in the same meal," Dr. Perry wrote, adding that when the children were first placed in the custody of the state Child Protective Services agency, they "frequently talked about how odd it was to have warm food."

What emerged in the children's portrayal of their world, Dr. Perry wrote on March 11, was "the sense that there is going to be an absolute explosive end to these children's families."

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