There is nothing "sinister" about the Fiji hideaway of guru Da Free John, an official of the Pacific island nation said yesterday.
Home Affairs Minister Militoni Leweniqila said he and other Fiji officials spent two days on the island in February and found it to be a quiet "paradise" inhabited by 30 Americans and 60 natives who tend coconuts and orchids.
Leweniqila was responding to allegations by disillusioned former followers of Da Free John that they were sexually abused, deceived and psychologically humiliated during "spiritual theatre" sessions in their years with the San Rafael-based religious group.
One former member, Beverly O'Mahony, filed a $5 million lawsuit in Marin County Superior Court last month, contending that she was sexually abused at the direction of the guru who was born Franklin Jones. Among the nine defendants is her estranged husband, Brian, president of the sect.
Jones and a small group of followers of his Free John's Johannine Daist Communion withdrew to an island in Fiji in March of 1983. About 1000 other adherents around the world continue to support the group by tithing 10 to 15 percent of their salaries.
Leweniqila said he was surprised to learn of the allegations against the group encamped on an island in the northeastern part of the Fiji Islands known variously as Naitauba, Translation Island and "The Hermitage." "We are satisfied there is nothing sinister," he said in a telephone interview. "If there is any truth to these allegations, we will be quite concerned."
"The island has a lot of resources, quite enough to sustain them. It's a very fertile island, with lots of cattle and copra, and the waters abound with fish. They have the largest collection of orchids in the Fiji Islands."
"These people are developing it, giving employment to the local people," said the minister. "The Fijians from the surrounding islands were there, and not one of them said a single word against these people."
Leweniqila said that the island contains a number of buildings, organized around a central, open meditation hall, where members meditate each morning.
Meanwhile, a San Rafael spokesman for the group said the "spiritual theater" on the island is being misunderstood by outsiders.
"Nobody in the church has ever been coerced to do anything against his will, and as with any other church in America, people are free to join and leave at any point they choose," said Crane Kirkbride, who visited the Fijian island late last year.
"This is very unusual tradition, you've got to realize. We don't operate as the Methodist Church. I have been involved for 10 years. It's a difficult, demanding spiritual way of life. There are great tests."
Kirkbride said yesterday that Jones' teachings were similar to the "crazy wisdom" traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, where teachers may humorously trick and humiliate their followers for their spiritual growth.
Accounts from the group's own literature describe the island as a place where humiliating encounters with the guru were undergone in the name of spiritual growth and purification.
According to articles in the group's monthly magazine, "Crazy Wisdom", Jones, described as the "God-Man" and "Master Da", called his followers "paranoid schizophrenics" and accused them of becoming "mediocre" in spiritual encounters that appear, to the outsider, to be humiliating. Kirkbride said small groups of mainland adherents do visit the island to perform "service" - cooking, child care and cleaning - for the group's inner circle. But he said no one is coerced to do so.
In response to allegations by former members of the group that ammunition and guns had been smuggled onto the island, Kirkbride said that he had been told there was only one gun on the island. The weapon, he said, is used for slaughtering cattle for the native Fijian workers.