When Steve Sanchez left the church, it was "like walking off into an abyss."
According to his old religion, Steve Sanchez suffers from an incurable affliction. It's called a penis. Until a year ago, Steve Sanchez was "Rev. Steve," a devout follower of William Duby, aka Rev. Bill, for fifteen years -- more than one-third of his life. Rev. Bill is the founder of the Berkeley-based Spiritual Rights Foundation, a church that combines psychic teachings with Christianity. In the world according to Rev. Bill, men are dirty, sex-obsessed animals. As one disgruntled male ex-church member puts it, "The typical scenario is that the man gets mercilessly chastised for not being a man, for treating women like whores, for disrespecting women, for being a beast. Then the women have to go back to Rev. Bill because he is the only true man. ... He can show them what a man of God is, and how to treat a woman correctly."
Like other men who once belonged to the church, Steve Sanchez eventually became fed up with Rev. Bill -- the self-professed "spiritual pimp" -- and parted company. And like other male defectors, Sanchez left some very important things behind: his wife, who remains a Rev. Bill devotee, and his thirteen-year-old daughter. "Bill told me he would take my soul if I left," says Sanchez, a wiry guy who used to run Liberty Construction, a church-affiliated for-profit company. "Every person who leaves there is terrified they're going to hell. It's like walking off into an abyss."
Sanchez is now involved in a nasty custody battle with his ex-wife and, he believes, Rev. Bill -- following in the footsteps of a well-publicized custody case involving another disaffected Bill-follower, Mason McKinley. "Bill once said that I must be a complete failure as a father," Sanchez recalls, "because my daughter loves him more than me." In spite of being such a paternal "failure," Sanchez nevertheless contributed several articles on parenting to the church newspaper, American Spirit.
If having a penis is a liability in the Spiritual Rights Foundation, it can also function as a liability in the American family court system, which tends to favor mothers over fathers in custody matters. Still, Sanchez has managed a couple of victories, including a court order to send his daughter to a Berkeley private school, according to his attorney. Church members prefer to homeschool their kids, though church exiles question how much education the kids really get. Last year, the Berkeley Unified School District considered six children in the church truant, but the district attorney declined to prosecute after parents showed that the kids were enrolled via correspondence in a Southern California school. Sanchez and others say that the church insists on homeschooling because Rev. Bill wants to maintain as much control and influence over the children as he can.
Sanchez has also won regular visitation rights on weekends and one weekday. But while the judge may have granted Sanchez the opportunity to see his daughter, the court can't order a warm relationship between father and child. When Sanchez sees his daughter, she refuses to talk to him. He's convinced that Rev. Bill and his ex-wife have turned her against him by bad-mouthing him when he's not there. "It's very painful to be rejected by your kid," Sanchez sighs. "It's your worst nightmare." His ex-wife's attorney, Rosanne Calbo-Jackson, responds by pointing out that Steve Sanchez actually lived with his daughter for only three of her thirteen years. "Given the circumstances of the Sanchez family, there would still be a battle even if the church were not an issue."
Nonetheless, Sanchez says he's determined to keep fighting for his daughter. He's encouraging other fathers in the same situation to do the same. And now some of them are not just listening, but also taking action.
As the legend goes, William Duby had a rough childhood, going from one foster home to another. When he grew up, he became a hustler on the streets of Emeryville in the '70s. He had a flair for poker and was a regular at the Oaks Card Club. Along the way, he met famed local psychic Marc Reymont, a convicted con man whose predictions occasionally appeared in the National Enquirer. In the early '80s, Duby decided to form his own church, which he called the Spiritual Rights Foundation. Its seminary was named the Academy for Psychic Studies.
The church grew quickly. By the mid-'80s, the Spiritual Rights Foundation had occupied a Victorian house at 2432 Ellsworth Street in Berkeley and gone on to acquire properties on Russell Street and California Street. Church members also launched several businesses: Liberty Construction; Freedom Estates, a real estate management company; Sterling Rose Press, which publishes the church newspaper American Spirit; the International Spiritual Hypnotherapy Institute; and a psychic helpline that charges $4.98 for the first minute and $1.98 for each additional minute. According to church literature, members are expected to donate up to thirty percent of their gross income to the church. Sanchez, however, says that percentage went up to as high as eighty percent.
Harpreet Sandhu, a 49-year-old systems analyst, was one of the founding board members of the Spiritual Rights Foundation. He resigned from his post approximately three years ago. During his time at the church, Sandhu met his now-ex-girlfriend, Rev. Debi Livingston. Together the couple had two daughters, who are now twelve and fifteen years old. Sandhu says that he hasn't seen his children on any regular basis since he resigned. "I can't see them [his children] because they've been completely turned against me," he says. "I've been talked about in negative ways and now they want nothing to do with me."
With encouragement from Sanchez, Sandhu plans this week to file a lawsuit asking the court to grant him a specified visitation schedule as well as an order to send his kids to a "regular" private or public school. It won't be easy for Sandhu to get everything he wants. Sanchez acknowledges that the courts give a lot of weight to the desires of older children like Sandhu's kids and his own daughter. And even court-ordered visitation rights don't guarantee access.
Just ask Rafael Orbegoso, a Morgan Hill car salesman whose ex-wife, Donna Hart, is a member of the Spiritual Rights Foundation. Although Orbegoso took a few classes at the Academy for Psychic Studies, he never became a loyal follower. His wife did. According to Orbegoso, when he and his wife divorced three years ago, the judge granted him custody on two weekends each month as well as alternate holidays. But the arrangement didn't last long, he says. Orbegoso estimates that he hasn't seen his daughter in sixteen months or his son in four months. "They don't want to talk to me anymore," says Orbegoso, who celebrated his birthday last week without receiving a card, phone call, or e-mail from his kids.
The estranged father even has gone so far as to file a police report not long ago when his ex didn't bring the kids down as scheduled. Without many other options, Orbegoso is talking to his attorney about filing a motion to get the court to enforce its custody order. If only he could see his kids, he says, he could then show them how much he loves them. "It's natural love," he explains. "Deep in their hearts, I know they know that. I have faith." Hart, meanwhile, denies that any parents have lost access to their kids. But she refused to discuss any details of her case. "This is a personal thing," she says.
Members of the Spiritual Rights Foundation bristle when they hear their church called a cult. Linda Sanchez, Steve's ex-wife, said in court papers that her ex-husband is lashing out at Rev. Bill and the church to mask his own shortcomings as a father. In fact, she told the court, Steve Sanchez "never had a close relationship" with their daughter. "They are like strangers," she said in a court declaration late last year. "Prior to his leaving [the church]," Linda told the court in August, "he did not spend much time with her [their daughter], preferring to instead to spend his free time working, and playing basketball at the YMCA."
Petaluma attorney Will Rogers, who represents the Spiritual Rights Foundation, argues that according to the dictionary definition, any organized mainstream religion could be called a cult. "To one person," Rogers says, "the Catholic Church can be considered a cult." Rogers argues that Rev. Bill doesn't boast the charismatic or authoritarian qualities of what people generally consider a cult leader. Bill's style may grate on a few former church members, Rogers admits, but that doesn't make him a cult leader. "These fathers are trying to place the responsibilities for these custody battles on the shoulders of the church," say Rosanne Calbo-Jackson, attorney for Linda Sanchez.
"If I could give advice to the fathers," Rogers says, "I would suggest they exert their legal rights, and then the truth will come out in the legal process." Which is exactly what people like Steve Sanchez and Harpreet Sandhu are doing. Alameda attorney Steve Rosenberg, who represents ex-church-members Sanchez, Sandhu, and McKinley, says that another ex-member, Michael Schemel, may also begin legal action in the near future. Schemel, a librarian, claims that he hasn't been able to see his youngest son for more than nine years. (Neither Rosenberg nor McKinley would discuss McKinley's court battle because the judge has sealed the case file.)
Gradually, Rosenberg says, these dads are finding the courage to take on Rev. Bill and have a relationship with their kids. "These fathers are very, very tough in a sense," Rosenberg says. "They're doing things I don't know I'd have the strength to do."