Former 'Friends' petition for probe

Appeal-Democrat, California/October 2, 2008

Former members of the Fellowship of Friends want state officials to investigate the Yuba County-based religious group, contending the nonprofit organization uses donations to fund "the extravagant lifestyle" of its leader Robert Burton and that unpaid labor of foreign nationals developed its Yuba County property.

Workers with religious visas have made possible the vineyard and commercial winery at the Fellowship's 1,171-acre headquarters in the Sierra foothills community of Oregon House, the petition states.

"This fact has been intentionally hidden from authorities," according to the petition. "Workers are required to donate back to the church the largest portion of their salary, leaving an average monthly wage of about $460."

The assertions are part of the petition reviewed by anti-cult attorney Ford Greene, who represented a former Yuba College student in a 1996 lawsuit against the Fellowship.

The suit in Yuba County Superior Court, which asserted that Burton had seduced the former college student, was settled before going to trial and its terms remain confidential.

The petition asserts that most lawsuits against the Fellowship are settled financially and "largely concealed from current followers."

Girard Haven, 63, senior minister with the Fellowship, has said Burton does not grant interviews. Haven could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday about the petition, which began circulating last week and asks that regulatory agencies and officials in California and elsewhere investigate the Fellowship.

The Web site for the Fellowship lists centers in American cities including New York and Los Angeles and states the organization was founded in 1970 in the Fourth Way tradition, also known as "esoteric Christianity."

Greene said he consider the Fellowship to be a cult similar to Scientology, although not as well known or with as many members.

"Scientology's got Cruise and Travolta," Greene said of the two Hollywood stars. "The Fellowship has wine and olive oil."

The Sierra foothills property has land for olive oil production, as well as a winery.

Greene said the Fellowship is dominated by Burton.

"He's kind of like the Queen Bee," Greene said. "And others are drones."

The petition includes nine letters said to be from former Fellowship members. Among the letter writers, only Oregon House resident Elena Haven, 49, is identified by name.

Haven in her account states that Burton initiates sexual contact exclusively with young male church members, often 30 to 40 years younger than the 69-year-old Burton.

Haven left the Fellowship in 2007 after 17 years. She could not be reached for comment about the petition and her letter.

Arthur Brooks, 67, who is among former members signing the petition, said that in 2007 he discovered a Web site of former members of the Fellowship and was shocked to read about the lawsuit filed in 1996 against Burton.

Brooks, who now lives in Texas, said he has been out of the Fellowship for more than a quarter of a century.

"What I want to do is prevent somebody like me going into it," he said about signing the petition.

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