The 1999 "Parent of the Year Award," an honor created by Congress in 1994, has been bestowed on a Colorado man with connections to a cult that once prostituted its female members as "happy hookers for Jesus."
Moreover, the National Parents Day Foundation, which chooses the annual winner, has been found to have ties to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church.
Questions from the Houston Chronicle about the recipient's past involvement with the Children of God led him to return the award, Gary Jarmin, spokesman for the foundation, said Wednesday.
The award is given in conjunction with National Parents Day, the fourth Sunday of July, and was created by a resolution sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. It was signed by President Clinton.
This year's recipient was Zack Prendergast of Longmont, Colo., who, with his wife, Naomi, operates a nonprofit group called "Family Services."
Former members of the Children of God said Prendergast and his wife are members of the group, which was started in California by David Berg in the 1960s. The group eventually spread worldwide after Berg fled tax evasion charges in the United States and led his followers out of the country.
They became infamous when, in addition to prostituting female members, they were linked to child pornography in South America.
The group has since changed its name to "The Family" and a number of its adherents have returned to the United States.
The Prendergasts did not return phone calls.
Jarmin, however, said his organization was unaware of the Prendergasts' affiliation with the Children of God when the award was given. He said Prendergast sent a letter Wednesday, declining the award.
"We regret that there seems to be some definite misunderstandings and distortions in what we've heard and can assure you that these criticisms are unfounded," the Prendergasts wrote to the foundation.
The couple did not deny membership in the Children of God, however.
"There's nothing in the information we received on them to indicate that they were involved in anything like that," Jarmin said.
"Of course, we don't ask about religious affiliation. The award is based on the environment they provide for their children."
The Prendergasts have 12 children, three of whom they said were adopted in Hong Kong.
Former members of the Children of God identified Prendergast as a leader who operated a "Victor Camp" in Italy in the 1980s. The camps were indoctrination sites for children.
The Parents Day Foundation shares office space with the American Constitution Committee, another group with ties to Moon, and is headed by Robert Grant, former head of the now-defunct American Freedom Coalition, created by Moon.
Jarmin said the apparent connections with Moon were coincidental, but conceded that the bulk of the foundation's funds came from Moon-supported organizations.
"We're glad to have the money," he said.
The 1999 award was not the first given to parents with questionable backgrounds. In 1994, the foundation handed a state award to a North Carolina woman who had previously been convicted of child abuse.
"I just hope this won't reflect on the other, worthy people who've received this award in the past," Jarmin said.