A High Price For Keeping Faith

Ex-church member in battle over daughter's future

San Francisco Chronicle/September 12, 2000
By Nanette Asimov

Mason McKinley's minister presented him with this simple test of faith: He should give up his baby daughter and never look back. The year was 1997. McKinley sat in a semicircle of devoted followers and stared at his spiritual leader.

It wasn't the first time Rev. Bill had challenged McKinley, who had come out loyal every time. And why not? The minister was second only to Jesus in his ability to see the ways of the world.

What Rev. Bill saw now was that McKinley's wife should divorce him and that McKinley should let her raise Christina alone.

He couldn't do it. He knew then that he would have to leave the gated confines of his Berkeley church forever.

This is the story of a man who devoted his life to a religious leader, only to find that it wasn't enough. Along the way, he would come to fear that his little girl was on the same path but with no way out.

The church is the Spiritual Rights Foundation. The Academy for Psychic Studies is its seminary. Inside, a few dozen ministers and students are promised a world of health and wealth, a haven far better than where they have been.

Yet members of that world are expected to give nearly a third of their earnings, sending some into bankruptcy. The church has prospered, meanwhile, buying real estate in several states, stocking up on Cadillacs and running a handful of local businesses.

Beyond the view of casual visitors to the church, say McKinley and other former members, children are hypnotized, schooling is an afterthought, and fathers are purposely alienated from their sons and daughters.

And hanging over it all is a cloud of highly charged sexual tension.

The McKinley family of Broomall, Pa., lived a Norman Rockwell existence, and the son they welcomed in 1959 fit right in. Bright, athletic and cheerful, Mason went fishing in the summer and sledding in the winter. He joined the Boy Scouts.

The McKinleys instilled a strong moral upbringing in their boy, teaching him to do as he was told. They were proud when he graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in education.

But at 23, Mason wanted more. "A lot of my friends were interested in the Grateful Dead. The lifestyle. Expanding horizons. Love. Enjoying life,'' he remembered. "How could we take it further?''

McKinley and his girlfriend, Barbara, moved to Berkeley in 1983.

Fascinated by the idea of the supernatural and brought up to appreciate religion, McKinley was ripe for the warm hearth of the Spiritual Rights Foundation.

William Henry Duby's journey from junkman's son to spiritual savior began with the death of his mother in upstate New York in 1952.

It is a story that he alone may fully know. Neither he nor his father agreed to be interviewed, despite repeated requests by phone, registered mail, e-mail and in person.

Yet from Duby's numerous essays in his church newspaper and his 1986 book "Cosmic Acid,'' from the Web writings of his followers and exhaustive interviews with former church members, a portrait emerges of a boy who hungered for love and for control over the chaos of his life and who found a way to get both.

Duby was 7 when he was sent to live with relatives in California. But it was not long before he was sent away again, to a foster home. Then to another, and another.

Duby soon showed a talent for shaping his own reality.

In school one day, his teacher gave out an exam and explained that each student would begin with a score of 100 but would lose points for each wrong answer. Duby returned a blank test, saying he would rather quit while he was ahead. The teacher branded him a wiseguy.

The incident fed a growing sense in Duby that formal education was too rigid and that schools served as society's brainwashing tools.

Religion, on the other hand, could be flexible in the right hands. Faith held a new flavor and intensity in each foster home. Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian Duby tasted them all. He then turned to the New Agers, Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians, all believers in psychic and hypnotic powers.

By 1970, Duby was living in Emeryville. The bayside sliver of land was not yet the center of high-tech business it is today, but the center of a seedier sort of work gambling, prostitution and lucrative deals sealed with a policeman's wink.

And Duby not yet 30 years old, not yet divorced from the wife he later left with two babies became a protector of prostitutes. Should a pimp steal a working girl's cash, Duby would try to win it back for her at the card tables.

In return, the women listened as he preached. He became a Jesus figure among con men, junkies, pimps and prostitutes, loving the sinner while not quite hating the sin.

Eventually, Duby went in search of a mentor. In 1976, he found Michael Ehrlich, a convicted swindler known as Marc Reymont to those who followed his psychic predictions in the National Enquirer and on late-night TV.

Teacher and student remained close for six years, until Reymont was bludgeoned to death by an Oakland man in 1982.

Duby took the death hard. That year, he founded the Spiritual Rights Foundation. In so doing, Duby took the final step toward creating a world far more loving to him than the one he was born into.

And with the tax-free blessing of the Registry of Charitable Trusts, a church and Rev. Bill were born.

McKinley and his girlfriend, Barbara, enjoyed a warm welcome at the Spiritual Rights Foundation in March 1983. Each signed up for a psychic reading.

It was there that McKinley met the man with the gentle eyes and the small smile.

"I was totally fascinated right away by Rev. Bill,'' McKinley recalled. "He talked to me for a good half-hour during the break, telling me all about myself. I believed he was a superpsychic. That was a given. A lot of what he said about me was very flattering, spiritually.''

In his six-week beginner's course, McKinley learned more. He found that he had been misunderstood and misled all his life by friends, family and the world in general. They were caught up in a "worldly hypnosis,'' a spiritual vacuum, Rev. Bill explained. The Spiritual Rights Foundation could help.

By now, Rev. Bill had developed an elaborate, Christian-based theology. With Jesus at its helm, Rev. Bill's religion relied on the notion that each person was surrounded by an aura of energy that governed all actions, illnesses and achievements.

But "foreign energy'' caused trouble. You could pick it up from another person, from the "family programming'' of your own past and from "earthbound entities'' billions of dead people and creatures wandering the earth unseen.

Hugging was generally avoided, as church members believed that it transferred energy from one person to another. And sexual liaisons were closely monitored by Rev. Bill.

By the time McKinley and Barbara had signed up for the yearlong Intensive Clairvoyant Training Program, Rev. Bill had taken to lambasting McKinley for "putting his energy into her space.'' As McKinley seemed unable to extract it, Rev. Bill rechristened his girlfriend "Barbed Wire.''

Barbara's enthusiasm for the Spiritual Rights Foundation waned, and she fled. McKinley stayed 14 years.

Within the church was a world order that went something like this: God. Women. Children. Dogs. Men.

Life could be tough for those at the bottom.

"Jill's energy is in your space, Mason,'' Rev. Bill was saying one night. "You're blind to it, but your nose is open. You're sniffing her.''

It was 2 a.m. in 1989, and McKinley was on the hot seat.

Those who were out of favor with Rev. Bill often found themselves on the "hot seat,'' their self-worth and private sex life publicly denounced for hours. Men were reminded of their lowly place, sometimes having to watch Rev. Bill grope their partner's breasts as evidence they were not in charge.

Women, chastised for failing to live up to their spiritual potential, were often told they "just want sperm and money.''

The hot seat was seen as a healing and could last for days, even months.

To McKinley, it was the price of being included in an elite corps of clairvoyants who could heal everything from a stiff neck to a tumor with a few graceful waves of the hands.

By now, about 20 ministers and a dozen ministers-in-training were living on three church properties, including headquarters in the lavender Victorian at 2432 Ellsworth Street. No one was immune from chastisement.

McKinley's hard times had begun months earlier, after he became friendly with Jill, another student.

She had received a special healing from Rev. Bill, who had psychically cleared all the foreign energy from her space that any man might ever have deposited there. When asked who she might still welcome in her space, Jill named McKinley.

Rev. Bill lauded that union as an "antidote to Barbed Wire,'' although Barbed Wire had been gone for years. When McKinley asked what he should do about it, Rev. Bill advised, "Take her, Mase.''

He did as he was told. Days later, to McKinley's astonishment, Rev. Bill declared that his intimacy with the recently cleansed Jill was "beastly male behavior.''

Thus began the bleakest months of McKinley's life. A fellow minister was assigned to shadow him. The months passed, and thoughts of suicide crossed his mind.

The session that night in 1989 had gone on for hours when Rev. Bill drew in another student, Ann Savino, to help work on him.

"Ann, Mason is treating Jill like a whore, isn't he?'' Rev. Bill said, although McKinley had barely spoken to Jill for months.

Ann closed her eyes and did a "reading'' on McKinley. She saw his father's energy invading his space. His father had treated his mother that way, too, she declared.

McKinley used those minutes to consider. Had he treated Jill like a whore? Was his parents' seemingly happy marriage of 40 years a sham? Years would pass before he focused on the answers.

That night, McKinley concentrated instead on his cramping muscles. He yawned and looked up. The mood in the room had shifted.

"You're getting the healing, huh, Mason?'' Rev. Bill said gently.

The worst was over. In that instant, McKinley was transformed into Rev. Bill's Golden Boy. Savino became the Golden Girl. Together they emerged from the late-night session gleaming and polished, their auras shining. Savino and McKinley had become an engine powered by Rev. Bill, who decided to steer it toward marriage.

It would take four years with frequent healings to rid them of family programming but on Dec. 19, 1993, they said their marriage vows.

The church sat three blocks south of the University of California at Berkeley a beacon of public education. But public school was the last place that most parents of the Spiritual Rights Foundation thought their children belonged. Perhaps the harshest critic of public education was McKinley himself a teacher in the Oakland school district. He used the church's newspaper, "American Spirit,'' to rail against a lack of spiritual values in education. He urged homeschooling. Church parents paid him $15 an hour.

His first student was a 7-year-old girl named Kshanti in 1993. Nick, Claire and Molly joined in when they became old enough, as did siblings Victor and Vanessa when their mother joined the church. Eventually, there would be eight children at the Spiritual Rights Foundation, ranging in age from 5 to 16.

McKinley taught the three Rs reading, writing and arithmetic and largely ignored social studies, science and history. But if he was told to paint the church kitchen or sand a drywall, McKinley was expected to cancel class altogether. He did.

State law requires that children receive 700 hours of classroom education each year. McKinley says he taught about 20 hours over four years.

But if academics took a back seat at the Spiritual Rights Foundation, "trancing'' did not. Its relaxed, hypnotic state was the church's antidote to worldly programming. Children learned the practice early.

Kshanti signed this testimonial on the church's Web site:

"The other day Claire, Nick, Jenny and I were trancing. Man, oh, man, it was fun! I love trancing with the kids. It is especially fun when adults trance with us, because you get to see a side of them you wouldn't see normally. The kids get to trance every day, and what I really like about trance is that you can release other people's energy and be playing at the same time. What a concept!''

Ann Savino was a waitress in Berkeley in the late 1980s when co-workers introduced her to the Spiritual Rights Foundation.

She had worked briefly as a teacher's aide in a middle school after graduating from San Francisco State University in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in film. But nothing prepared her for the joy she would find at the church.

Today, she cleans houses for a living and uses computer skills she learned at the church to help manage her small business. But Savino finds trancing an equally important tool.

It has helped her conquer guilty feelings about her sexuality, Savino wrote on the Web site, and overcome a sense that she caused her father's heart attack. Trancing also helped her to stop being "a doormat in my relationships'' and to see that "we are taught through our robotic school systems and false system of morals and ethics to become less of ourselves as we grow up.''

Marriage to McKinley added to Savino's happiness. "For the first time,'' she wrote, "the pieces of my life fell into place without me trying to make something happen. And for the first time, I really enjoyed being a woman.''

Christina's birth in 1995 made life complete, and Savino used her experiences to teach a church class called "Psychic Parent/Psychic Child Communication.''

Rev. Bill lived with two women in adjoining cottages in the church's backyard. One was Rev. Angela, his longtime companion. The other was Rev. Robin, with whom he had a baby girl.

Rev. Bill and McKinley spent hours "talking Dad'' after Christina was born.

Once, McKinley said, Rev. Bill said he should expect to have "incestual feelings'' toward his daughter. McKinley wanted to object, but one did not contradict Rev. Bill. The last time someone had, Rev. Bill wrote a six-page, single-spaced chastisement he read to his followers. McKinley kept a copy. It said, in part:

"When any of you ministers get upset in my class, you have no class. ... You people don't support me. You rape, pillage, disrespect my presence and have total disregard for the privilege God has given you to keep house with him here. ... I wonder where is your faith? It's not in God, not in me and not in you. It must be in that human love juice. ... You invalidate me so much. You speak love with hate in your heart. ... No wonder I failed.''

It was signed "Rev. Bill, Resident Clairvoyant.''

McKinley felt great. All the signs of success were in place: a good job, high status within his church, a happy baby, a wife he loved. And he was healthy.

But in 1996, at the Spiritual Rights Foundation, it might have been better to feel ill.

Rev. Bill had been diagnosed with diabetes and had taken to diagnosing followers with the same disease. A frenzy had settled over the church, and people rushed for blood tests.

But McKinley remembered the church teaching that if people got "stuck on a sick picture'' if they believed that they were going to be sick they would be. So McKinley argued that he wasn't sick. Savino punished his insubordination in the manner of most women of the church: She banished him to one of the many mobile homes parked like fairy rings around church properties.

Obediently, McKinley moved into one of the hulking vehicles outside of their Alcatraz Avenue apartment. Savino brought Christina around for 15-minute visits. And Rev. Bill worked on McKinley nearly every night.

"He would get right in my face and scream and yell at me, telling me that he hated my guts, with his spittle hitting me in the face. He said that he wouldn't care if I died or committed suicide,'' McKinley said.

"It was `suggested' that I had diabetes, that I would fail in everything I did in life, that I was walking away from God and love, that I was a loser, that I was a bully, that I was a wimp, that I was a beast, that I was a stalker and a psychic vampire.''

Rev. Bill advised Savino to get a divorce, and she filed the papers.

McKinley was stunned. He loved his wife. And he trusted Rev. Bill.

Then came the edict that would end it all: Rev. Bill told him to give up Christina so that his wife could raise her alone.

Days later, McKinley wandered into a bookstore while waiting for his clothes to dry in the coin laundry next door. He picked up a book about people who revere a religious leader a Jim Jones, a David Koresh or a guy no one has heard of.

"This was the first time,'' McKinley wrote in his diary, "that I had considered that I spent the last 14 years in a cult.''

McKinley found an apartment in Oakland, his first that did not belong to the Spiritual Rights Foundation. Once out in the world, he felt like a newly arrived immigrant alone, fearful, optimistic.

It took nearly a year for McKinley to gather the courage to contact other former ministers, people he once considered friends but who had left, disgusted with the church. He was sure that they would be disgusted with him, too.

What he found was that they were as hungry to dissect their experiences as he was.

They recalled the prurient air hanging about the church. Rev. Bill's language laced with sexual imagery. His bragging about sexual conquests. His touching a woman to teach her boyfriend a lesson.

Two former members, Mike and Nancy Burnett, said Rev. Bill proudly told of trancing a preteen girl and getting her to believe, on awakening, that he had put his tongue down her throat.

Concerned for their 10-year-old daughter, Amanda, the Burnetts quit the church in the mid-1990s. Like many involved with the Spiritual Rights Foundation, they left heavily in debt.

The Burnetts had been among those who responded to the church's promises of greater wealth, only to find that the constant tithing requirements and fees for classes at the Academy for Psychic Studies meant they were unable to save any money for themselves.

In an essay for the church Web site, Savino, Christina's mother, explained that "tithing works by giving 10-30% of all we receive each month'' and that the Supreme Being is "like a wise Father who knows that unless He teaches His children about putting money in their piggy bank, they will spend it all on candy and toys ... ''

Members were expected to give the church a list of all they owned, from house and car to appliances and even clothing. At least three members have filed for bankruptcy, while others have tax liens against them.

The church, meanwhile, runs five businesses, including a construction company, a hypnosis enterprise and a small publishing arm. The Spiritual Rights Foundation or its top officers own three properties in Berkeley, two in Texas and two in Hawaii. An industrial-sized satellite dish sits atop church headquarters, which is filled with high-end computer equipment.

Nancy Burnett compared the church atmosphere to what she had read of Jonestown, Guyana, where in 1978 hundreds of devotees obeyed the Rev. Jim Jones' order to take a cyanide-laced drink.

"I have no doubt that if Rev. Bill gave them Kool Aid,'' she said, "they'd take it.''

McKinley spoke frankly with the Burnetts and other former members for the first time.

He and Rondi Phillips recalled that Rev. Bill claimed to have killed a man in Emeryville. A strung-out heroin addict of Rev. Bill's acquaintance had been trying to quit the drug. Rev. Bill filled a syringe with battery acid, the story went, and told the man it might contain a deadly poison. The addict shot up anyway.

This was meant as a tale of compassion, because Rev. Bill said he had helped the man kick dope at last, they said. McKinley and Phillips agreed they no longer saw it that way, although church members never were sure if Rev. Bill's cautionary stories were true.

Talking to ex-church members came as a relief to McKinley. But their stories also inspired new fears, this time for Christina.

Soon after leaving the church, McKinley again defied the man who had been his spiritual leader by signing a joint custody agreement with Savino. They would share responsibility equally, though Savino would have Christina 80 percent of the time.

Then 4-year-old Christina was tranced for the first time last year, and McKinley decided the agreement he signed in 1997 was a mistake.

Savino declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an e-mail, she compared McKinley to Hitler and said he, not the church, was to blame for their divorce.

He "has dragged so many innocent people into his circle of insanity because he seems so (convinced) about what he is saying,'' she wrote. "Hitler was (convinced) about what he was saying as well, and people gave him their power and their agreement.''

Meanwhile, the church and its outreach efforts are growing. The San Jose Mercury News recently published a long and glowing interview with Rev. Bill and told how readers could contact the church's San Jose branch.

In May, the Berkeley Unified School District held a hearing and found six church children to be truant, including Rev. Bill's daughter. As required by law, the district sent its findings to the Alameda County district attorney's office. Soon homeschooling activists stepped in, sending letters to the public agencies, threatening legal action, posting complaints on the Web and contacting the press.

The district attorney's office dropped the matter.

Today, McKinley's daughter is a cheerful 5-year-old with green eyes and brown bangs. Like many girls, Christina adores Barbie and favors pink.

McKinley says he doesn't want her hypnotized or tranced or to believe Rev. Bill's maxim that "education gets in the way of learning.'' He doesn't want her to laugh when Rev. Bill says she must, as others do in what Christina calls "the funny class.''

Above all, he does not want Christina to distance herself from him emotionally, as he has seen happen with other church fathers.

Recently, a minister named Rev. Debi Livingston declared on the church's weekly radio program that her two daughters had made a "total psychological separation from their dad.''

"That they could do this is really amazing,'' Livingston said. "There's no looking back. No emotions. No nothing.''

McKinley believes that the same will happen to his relationship with Christina if she remains in the church, and she will be lost to him as surely as if he had agreed to Rev. Bill's plan in the first place.

"They'll turn her against me,'' he said. "There's no doubt in my mind.''

For Rev. Bill, it had been a test of faith that a father give up his daughter. For Mason McKinley, it will be a test of law for a mother to do the same.

On April 22, he filed for full custody of Christina in Alameda County Superior Court. A judge has already ruled that the child must attend school this fall. Last Tuesday, she started at a private, Protestant school in Oakland. McKinley does not know who is paying the tuition.

Now the case moves forward.

"If I screw up,'' McKinley said, "my daughter loses. That's the bottom line.''

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