A fresh storm is brewing around controversial Miss Indonesia 2009 Kerenina Sunny Halim.
The 23-year-old beauty has admitted that she is a member of The Family International, a “non-governmental-organisation” for which she did humanitarian work in Aceh after the Asian tsunami in 2004. Kerenina, whose American mother and Indonesian father were members, was born into the organisation.
The Family International is the modern day spawn of The Children of God – and admits as much on its website. The name was changed in the 1980s after negative publicity forced it “underground”.
Founded in California in 1968 by David Brandt Berg, The Children of God was a counter-culture evangelical group with a foundation of biblical fundamentalism – and bonking.
Berg, who was also addressed as “Moses”, “Chairman Mo” or “Dad”, preached free love to his followers, to the extent that females were encouraged to go into the world and engage in “flirty-fishing” of men: essentially to use sex to proselytise, according to the Mail & Guardian Online.
The now deceased Berg has been described as “a self-professed prophet who was an alcoholic, incestuous, paedophile” by Perry Bulwer, a Canadian lawyer and blogger who “escaped” the cult in 1991.
Kerenina, who was crowned Miss Indonesia on June 6, was in South Africa for the Miss World finals which ended Saturday.
At that time, she sparked controversy because of her poor ability to speak Indonesian although her fluent English has amazed many people.
On the final night of the Miss Indonesia pageant, Kerenina, the girlfriend of actor Nino Fernandez, needed a translator to help her understand the judges’ questions.
Kerenina had admitted then that this was a weakness and promised to improve her Indonesian language skills.
“It’s been hard for me to speak Indonesian because I use English every day,” she had said. “But I will learn. Indonesian is an easy language, as long as we’re willing to learn.”
According to the Jakarta Post, Kerenina’s brother, actor Steve Emmanuel (now Yusuf Iman), revealed that his sister was not exposed to Indonesian as a child because she didn’t go to a formal school. “She was with homeschooling,” Steve said. “She barely uses Indonesian at home, and doesn’t go out often so she can’t practise Indonesian.”
Kerenina, who holds six diplomas – in public relations; sales and marketing; primary school teaching; economics; performing arts; and music and art – won the competition over two other finalists, Viviane (from Bali) and Melati Putri Kusuma Dewi (West Sulawesi). Kerenina impressed the judges with her fluent English, and was considered to meet the contest’s criteria of MISS (Manners, Impressive, Smart and Social).
Coming back to The Children of God, the group was during the 1990s investigated for prostitution, child abuse and kidnapping in countries such as Argentina, France and Spain, with some members jailed briefly.
Thomas Bergstrom of Family Care, the Indonesian arm of The Family International, said Berg’s sexual-healing approach to lost souls was “ancient history” and that while “there have been allegations, these were all proven untrue in court”.
“Some members may have done things that maybe they shouldn’t have, but that is like any other family, or group or company,” said Bergstrom who pointed to the Catholic Church’s perennial child abuse scandals by way of example.
Bergstrom said Kerenina should be judged “as any other individual who is associated with a church ... I know her parents and they are wonderful people and I couldn’t find anything negative to say about them.”
But allegations of child abuse have dogged the cult, the Mail & Guardian reported.
Berg is alleged to have written religious tracts for followers promoting sexual contact between children and adults.
In 1982 the cult released a how-to parenting guide, The Davidito Book.
Written by one of the several topless nannies who tended to Ricky Rodriguez – Berg’s stepson, son of his second wife (Karen Zerby, aka Queen or Mama Maria, who now leads the organisation) – it has Ricky, then a toddler, as its main subject.
Rodriguez committed suicide in 2005 after stabbing Angela Smith, another former nanny, to death.
According to the New York Times, which was sent “several pages” of The Davidito Book after the murder-suicide, there were pictures and pages where “the toddler Ricky is described or else pictured as watching intercourse and orgies, fondling his nannies’ breasts and having his genitals fondled. All that is recounted in a tone of amusement and delight.”
Ex-members have, on various Internet forums, blamed the cult’s unconventional lifestyle for the high incidence of suicide among children who grew up then left the cult.
The Children of God changed these child-rearing guidelines in 1986 with the threat of excommunication for anyone found having sexual contact with minors. Following Rodriguez’s suicide, The Family sent out “purge notices” to members detailing which cult literature and pages of The Davidito Book to excise or destroy.
At Berg’s behest, cult members spread around the world in the early 1970s after the organisation was accused by the New York State attorney general of tax evasion, rape, polygamy, draft dodging, incest and kidnapping. The Family now operates in countries around the world and as Family Africa in South Africa.
The Miss World press office refused to allow the Mil & Guardian access to Miss Indonesia or to forward to her questions relating to this story.
A spokesperson, who refused to be named, said: “Miss World neither inquires, nor comments, on the religious or political affiliations of its contestants.”
When pressed on whether this procedure would be followed if a contestant was, hypothetically, involved in genocide or war crimes, the spokesperson said again that “Miss World neither inquires, nor comments, on the religious or political affiliations of its contestants”.