Teens Taken From Cult at Center of New Film

After Allegations of Abuse, Three Teens Were Taken From Religious Compound

ABC News/May 2, 2008

Three teenagers were removed from a New Mexico doomsday cult compound after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced. The teens two girls and a boy were removed Wednesday after allegations of inappropriate contact between minors and the church leader, Michael Travesser, said state officials.

The Lord Our Righteousness Church centers on Travesser, who led his acolytes to Strong City, N.M. seven years ago and declared himself the son of God and the sect's messiah, according to material posted on the group's Web site.

Travesser has acknowledged that naked, underage virgins had laid with him on his bed, according to the group's Web site.

Romaine Serna, a spokeswoman for the state's Children, Youth and Families Department, said that the state took three children into custody.

"We did receive information alleging inappropriate contact with minors on the compound," Serna confirmed to ABC News. Serna would not say who provided her department with the tip, but said it came from a "very reliable source."

Though he admitted in a new National Geographic documentary to lying naked with minors to bring them closer to God Travesser denies having sex with them.

"Nakedness is another symbol of our relationship with God. We are naked and unashamed," Travesser told National Geographic in a film that airs next week. "I treated them with the same deference as if I was a physician, an M.D. who was doing surgery."

"Esther," a cult member, described her interaction with Travesser.

"He took me to bed and laid me down and somehow it was like all of heaven was open to me, somehow I started to see God, after all he is the son of God," she told National Geographic.

In 2000, shortly after moving to the New Mexico property in the state's northeastern corner, Travesser, 66, began claiming that he was annointed by God as the group's divine leader, according to the group's Web site.

"God said to me, 'You are messiah,' certainly by no instruction from me," Travesser told National Geographic. "Two witnesses, these two left their homes, left their families and it wasn't at my instruction or behest."

The group began in California after Travesser broke from the Seven Day Adventist church in 1987 to form his Lord of Our Righteousness Church. Reports have put the number of church members between 50-60 people.

Serna said that the state is looking into the best options for the children. "From a child protective standpoint, our concern is the parental role where the parents, either by neglect or active participation, abandoned or neglected a child," she told ABC News.

It's not the first time police have been to Strong City. The FBI, state police, local law enforcement and social workers went to the compound in 2002 when rumors circulated that the group was planning a mass suicide. No suicides took place, no arrests were made, and no children were taken into custody, according to state police and child protective services.

In the current case, Serna said, concern is focused more on the parents of the teens taken into custody than the group's leader.

Prudence Welch spent 15 years as a member of the cult. In December 2005, she fled the cult and its compound in Strong City, New Mexico with her then-husband Jim.

Welch told ABC news that while she "somehow believes" Travesser did not have sex with the virgins, the mental abuse exerted by Travesser is intense.

"One day, you can have cakes and cookies. The next day, it's a sin. One day you can talk to your relatives. The next day, you can't," Welch said, calling the compound a "mental gymnasium."

Welch recalled the beginning of Travesser's claims that he was the group's messiah. Travesser got rid of the other ministers in the church, divorced his wife and started implementing new teachings.

"He started to take other men's wives as his own and other odd behaviors," she said. "Pretty much all marriages were somewhat on hold or dissolved." Travesser took two female witnesses and started laying with the seven virgins a few years later, according to Welch.

Welch now lives in Washington state with her children, but other family members including her mother still live in the compound.

In 2007, Travesser proclaimed the world would end at midnight on Halloween. With glee, his followers prepared for an end that never came.

"He's gained their trust, so what he says is the truth. It doesn't matter if it matches the Bible or anything else," Welch explained. "You just take what he says and swallow it and smile."

Another cult member, "Heal," said her mother thought she had been brainwashed.

"My mom, she told me one time that she thought I was brainwashed and I thought yeah, I am brainwashed, Michael has washed my brain of all my corrupt thoughts," she laughed.

Travesser has not been charged with a crime and lashed out angrily Wednesday on the group's Web site, calling the state's removal of the children a "kidnapping."

"No sex acts with teenagers have ever happened here, but the satanic forces of the media continue to concoct their witches brew in order to destroy the message that was sent to you from heaven," according to a posting on site apparently made by Travesser. This also included video shot by church members showing the first of the teens taken from the compound by officials.

"There was never any child molestation, or adult molestation by anyone, including myself," the posting continued. "There has never been 'sex with minors' or anything remotely approaching that, and, I was never the initiator in any of the events."

The posting identified the teens who were taken from the compound and provided what purports to be writings from them that show their confusion over why the state would take them into custody. "She's very clear about the direction she's going in in her life," a narrator says over video footage of one of the teens being taken away, "much clearer than many adults."

The group claims that the teenagers taken by the state have family members living among Travesser's followers and consent from parents who do not live on the compound.

"Even so, there have been no national laws broken here in this land, even if the laws are manmade and concocted for the slavery of children," Travesser wrote in one post. "Instead of marriage, the world now must watch their children have sex in the back seats of cars, and behind the garage, and they must submit to a million abortions every year."

The group's Web site also features a slew of anonymous postings, both written and video, by church members professing various doctrines tied to the church. An April 10, 2008 posting is entitled "The Apocalypse Is Come," and there are many references to the Oct. 31, 2007 doomsday. A recent post points to the crumbling American economy as evidence that the eternal end is near. "Never in earth's history has the prophecy of final things come so clearly."

In the meantime, the three teens, a 16-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl, are being kept away from the compound. Child welfare officials will work with the district attorney in Union County, N.M., as the criminal investigation continues. "We're conducting a thorough assessment," Serna told ABC News.

Learn more about the Lord of Righteousness church from National Geographic's documentary "Inside a Cult." The film premieres on May 7, 2008, on the National Geographic Channel.

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