Cultists Insist Kids 'are not oppressed'

New York Post/April 13, 2001
By Kenneth Lovett and Jeane Macintosh

Cambridge, NY -- Unapologetic members of the controversial Twelve Tribes cult yesterday called a press conference to defend their lifestyle against allegations of child-labor abuse and racism. But even while doing so, they admitted to pushing the envelope on child-labor laws and physically disciplining their kids.

"We in the Twelve Tribes make no apology for our way of life," cult member Brian Fenster told reporters at one of the group's compounds, about 45 miles northeast of Albany, where they manufacture soap and other products.

The adults carry the load for the group's various cottage industries, but the children often help out their parents, cult members said. They denied claims that kids under 18 use power equipment, which violates state labor laws.

"Our children are not oppressed by child labor," Fenster said.

But former member Dante Garganese III, who was not at the news conference, told The Post he started working in a New Hampshire soap shop when he was 12. By 13, he said he was working in an iron forge, using machine-driven hacksaws and other equipment, sometimes as much as 30 hours straight.

"They have a saying that 'the man who doesn't work shouldn't eat,'" said Garganese, now 21. "They play serious head games with you from the time you're very little."

The Post reported Sunday that the cult uses unpaid child laborers to churn out its products, including some that were sold in Robert Redford's Sundance catalog.

Sundance has since cut its business ties with the group.

Tribe member Bob Racine admitted the group often "comes so close to the limits of the letter of the law."

Based on The Post's report, state labor officials are investigating whether the group is violating labor laws.

The group is led by Elbert Eugene Spriggs, whose anti-black teachings and strict child-discipline policy has brought considerable controversy.

Members yesterday admitted spanking their kids and using small balloon sticks to swat them "to teach them responsibility and obedience."

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