Officials of the San Rafael based religious sect led by Da Free John told local followers Sunday that "sexual experimentation" within the church did not end in 1976, as the church had previously maintained.
The admission came during a meeting of about 300 members of the Johannine Daist Communion. Sources close to the church told The Record that at least some members were shocked by the news.
Until Sunday, the church had said that during a short period in 1976 some church members had engaged in "sexual experiments" as part of their religious teachings.
Reports of sexual abuse within the church first appeared in The Record last week. In response to those reports the church prepared an open letter that was delivered late Monday.
According to the statement:
"We understand our way of life is an ongoing spiritual experiment in which we constantly consider and discover what will best serve our spiritual evolution. For this reason we value the period of liberal experimentation with various lifestyles in the early years of our existence. It was a time full of learning, growth, and spiritual celebration. It was a happy and foolish time."
The statement also says that the period of experimentation "occurred within the context of selfunderstanding and with a view of developing life conducive to spiritual growth as individuals and as a community."
During interviews with The Record, church officials had resolutely maintained that the sexual experimentation ended in 1976.
At least some disaffected former members, however, said that drug use and sexual assaults allegedly have taken place within the church community as late as 1984.
The admission Sunday by church officials corroborates at least in part some of the allegations The Record printed last week.
Crane Kirkbride, speaking for the church, said Monday that there "have been incidents up to the fairly recent past." Kirkbride also said that no illegal acts took place and the church has a right to continue experiments in lifestyles.
In the course of a lengthy investigation, many former members of the church told The Record that part of the experimentation included humiliating sexual activities they were asked to perform in front of Da Free John and some of his "inner circle."
Church officials have said they withheld information about the sexual activities because lowerlevel members and the general public would misunderstand the relationship between the activities and the church's teaching.
Members of the religious sect call the sexual experimentation "spiritual theater." The purpose of the program, church officials said, is to shock people out of everyday complacency and into a higher spiritual state.
But some former members allege that the "spiritual theater" was and continues to be a form of sexual coercion for the benefit of some individual church members.
Until the announcement Sunday that the sexual practices had continued after 1976, most members of the sect, whose guru lives on a Fijian island, knew little or nothing about the activities in the higherlevels of the organization.
One former member alleged that she was sexually assaulted by Da Free John while some followers watched. She also alleged that he told another women to sexually assault her while she was held down by three women.
She said she left the church shortly after the incident.
But other, loyal followers have told The Record that they experienced no such incidents during their years in the church.
One former member, who identified himself as "Richard," said he was a member for about four years. "My experience was quite positive," he said.
Another former member, Dennis Nagel, said he never experienced any of the alleged sexual abuse that has come to light in recent reports.
An example of the church's "spiritual theater" was revealed to The Record last week by a former member who said she had suffered emotional pain during one of the churchsanctioned "sexual experiments."
The woman told a Record reporter that, as a child, she had been sexually abused by a neighbor. The incident left deep emotional wounds, she said. While at the church's 600 acre retreat in Lake County in 1976, Da Free John told her to perform oral sex with three men, she said. She was then told to have sex with the guru himself, which she did.
"I was traumatized," she said.
According to sources close to the church, the incident was used Sunday by church officials to explain the benefit of "spiritual theater."
The officials told their assembled flock that the woman had benefited from the experience.