Wave of resignations and expulsions following open letter


The San Diego Union-Tribune/March, 1995
By Gordon Smith - Staff Writer

Charles Randall, the Fellowship's former business manager, noted that Burton is known within the group as the Teacher and is revered for having extraordinary knowledge and spirituality.

Thus, many members don't anticipate having sex with him, and feel awkward resisting any sexual interest that he expresses, Randall said.

'They don't see it coming, and when it comes, they don't know what's happened," he said.

Wave of leave-taking

Randall resigned last fall, part of a wave of resignations and expulsions of longtime members in the group that occurred in the wake of an open letter written by member Richard Laurel to the rest of the Fellowship.

The letter- circulated widely among members and former members-told how Burton performed oral sex on Laurel one night after asking Laurel to give him a massage. It led to a similar open letter by another man in the group.

Burton-tall, handsome, described by many as alternately charming and intense -did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.

"It's just his policy not to make public statements," said Abraham Goldman, Burton's attorney.

Goldman said Burton had sexual relationships with both Laurel and the other member who circulated a letter last fall, but said the relationships were consensual.

"We don't think a (sexual) relationship between a leader and a member of the congregation is abusive in and of itself," he added.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Hill, the Fellowship's director of public relations, denied that the group is a cult.

"People leave all the time, so if we are 'brainwashing' people, we are certainly not very good at it," she said.

But Margaret Singer, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Berkeley who has counseled thousands of former cult members, including people from the Fellowship, said the group has all the hallmarks of a cult.

"It was started by one man, who gets followed and adored like cult leaders do," she said.

"It's just that this group has upper-class manners. And most people expect cults to be youth-oriented, rather than full of grown-ups."

Singer said cults are increasingly targeting mature adults, who tend to have better sources of income than youths.

And the groups are proliferating, she added-particularly in California.

"There are more cults today than there were during Jonestown," said Singer, referring to the infamous mass suicide of more than 900 members of the Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana in 1978. "People are catching on how easy it is to manipulate other people."

Randall said that's exactly what Burton does. The Teacher even promises that Fellowship members will somehow re-civilize the world after a catastrophic earthquake and nuclear holocaust.

"Most of the people I know in the Fellowship were walking around with a hole in their heart where religion should have been," Randall said.

"And that's right where they got hooked."

It starts with bookmarks tucked into selected works in metaphysical bookstores around the world. The bookmarks-diligently planted by members of the Fellowship of Friends-bear small portraits of George Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian philosopher who died in 1950, and Peter Ouspensky, a Russian journalist who became Gurdjieff's student in the early part of this century.

Next to the portraits are phone numbers for nearby Gurdjieff-Ouspensky "centers." There are about 40 of these centers around the world, including one in San Diego. Most are rented houses staffed by half a dozen or so members of the Fellowship.

People who call up are invited to a series of three introductory meetings at which center leaders present some of the arcane theories of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, along with the notion of seven fundamental "body types" that supposedly provide broad insight into human psychology.

Afterward, the curious can either join or not. Those who do join agree verbally to give 10 percent of their income to the group.

But Joel Friedlander, an author and former teacher and spokesman for the Fellowship who resigned last year, charged that the group's recruitment process is deceptive.

Friedlander's book, "Body Types," is one of those that Fellowship members target with their bookmarks. He said it has become a hobby of his to visit metaphysical bookstores and take the bookmarks out.

The bookmarks "use the aura of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky to entice people to call up," Friedlander said.

"But the group has virtually nothing to do with the Gurdjieff system ... it's basically Robert Burton's ideology grafted onto a Gurdjieff base."

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, he pointed out, never talked about body types.

They likewise didn't talk about 44 angels-also called higher forces, or "C influence"-that Burton claims he communicates with personally, and who supposedly watch over the Fellowship. The angels include Jesus, Plato Goethe, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.

Another deceptive thing about the introductory meetings, according to Randall, is that "they don't explain that you're going to be heavily indoctrinated with the idea that you better never leave" the group.

Only through Burton

Members are told they can have a relationship with C influence only through Burton, and that if they leave the Fellowship their spiritual progress will end and their friends who are members will never talk to them again, Randall said.

Goldman, Burton's attorney, said that when Friedlander and Randall left the Fellowship, they told Burton how much they appreciated him and how much they had gained from his teaching.

"It's not an uncommon thing, when people have been in a religious group like this and have devoted the better part of their adult lives to it, that they see things differently and say something very different (after) they leave," Goldman said.

As for Burton's ideas about C influence, public relations director Hill said the group believes higher forces are working with it, but that members have great freedom and diversity in interpreting what that means.

The group's philosophy "is not just somebody's idea about something," she insisted, but an expansion and interpretation of the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, which in turn were based on ancient spiritual traditions.

Nevertheless, Girard Haven, who recently resigned as president of the Fellowship but remains a key leader, noted: "We believe Mr. Burton is a (fully) conscious being, and has an understanding that we do not have. He's a very active force in directing and providing guidance."

That guidance includes the prediction that California will be stricken by a massive earthquake in 1998, followed by a nuclear war in 2006-yet another idea that isn't presented to prospective members until after they have committed themselves to joining the Fellowship.

"Our position as a group is that we are preparing these things, although we don't know if they will actually happen," Haven said.

"I would discourage people from setting a great deal of faith in it. And yet it is realistically a possibility, and we can see that Mr. Burton understands things that we don't understand."

In this doomsday scenario, the Fellowship will preserve the world's fine art and culture through the divine intervention of C influence. A new civilization will sprout at the group's Yuba County headquarters.

"Burton talks about it all the time," said Randall. "He's even talked about being able to get the Mona Lisa after the holocaust

What you read in the Gurdjieff and Ouspensky books becomes a doomsday theory."

Burton also predicted a worldwide economic collapse in 1984. While some members may not have set a great deal of faith in it, former member Charles Preston recalls being advised to buy 100-pound sacks of rice at the time and store them as a hedge against the coming global depression.

The collapse never took place, of course. But some members of the group found their faith shaken even further later that year, when a prominent member of the group, Samuel Sanders, filed suit against Burton and the Fellowship.

In charges remarkably similar to those leveled by Richard Laurel last fall, Sanders said that after nine years in the group, he was dismayed to discover that Burton regularly had sex with numerous male members.

In fact, Burton manipulated the beliefs and assets of the entire membership in order to satisfy his own "voracious appetite for perverted sexual pleasure and elegant lifestyle... ," the lawsuit alleged.

Former Fellowship board member Carl Mautz was one of the lawyers who helped defend the group in the long, bitter court battle that followed.

"When Sanders said that he had been brainwashed, we looked down at him and said, 'You (jerk),'" Mautz recalled not long ago.

"But he was right"


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