Rise and Fall of a Religious Community
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 1997
od seemed to be calling them to Gaithersburg.
Stan Weightman Sr. arrived in a 10-gallon hat and ostrich-skin boots, clutching the wheel of a U-Haul truck. It was April 1980. Gray skies threatened rain. He found his way to Montgomery Village, a sprawling town-house development and planned community off Interstate 270 erected as a mecca of affordable suburban living.
Stan and his wife, Judy, wanted that, but something more, too. They wanted to raise their family in a wholesome environment, where their children could learn genuine Christian values. They had decided to move cross-country from Arizona to join Mother of God, a largely Catholic religious community taking form in Montgomery Village. The Weightmans had heard about Mother of God from Judy's sister, whose family had already joined. Stan and Judy had weighed the issues, then put their house up for sale, packed their worldly belongings and pointed their truck toward suburban Washington.
Stan fretted on the way about having to unload all the furniture. But the Weightmans didn't yet understand the all-for-one spirit of Mother of God. Soon after they arrived, community members poured out of houses up and down the neighborhood.
"All of a sudden people were coming over the mountain like a drove of ants," recalls their daughter Mary, who was 13 at the time. They marched over and formed a "bucket brigade" to pass furniture and boxes from hand to hand. "There must have been 15 or 20 people in our town house, marching up and down the stairs, with my mother just standing and pointing."
Stan and Judy Weightman thought it was wonderful. It was like people on a farm, Stan thought, everybody pitching in to raise a barn. The U-Haul truck emptied out. The volunteers shoved the last piece of furniture a spinet piano through the town-house door just as the skies opened in a deluge.
So they had come by the hundreds, from as close by as Rockville and as far away as Australia. Along with the Weightmans from Arizona came the Van Zutphens from Canada, the Cavanaughs from Annapolis, the Wests from Pennsylvania. Spiritually, they sought a community of Christian faith. Socially, they wanted a haven to raise their children away from the drugs and violence and decadence that plagued America. On some cul-de-sacs in Montgomery Village, Mother of God adherents bought more than half the homes. Not only could the kids grow up together in a Christian environment, the parents reasoned, but the adults could trade news, prayers and cups of sugar over the back fence.
By the 1980s, as the Weightmans settled in, the people of Mother of God some 1,200 at the eventual peak were building something impressive to behold, at least from the outside. Mother of God leaders sponsored retreats and courted high-ranking Catholic leaders. The community started a devotional magazine that was distributed in a quarter of the Catholic parishes in the United States and to all corners of the world. Members did the community's work for low or no wages. Others held outside jobs and tithed 5 or 10 percent of their income to the community.
They seemed, in short, to have found a way to truly live out their values in the Mother of God community they seemed to have found a higher plane.
Over the last several years, since about 1994 without headlines or fanfare or even much notice being taken by neighbors the Mother of God community has come apart at the seams.
Following an investigation by the Catholic Church, hundreds of people who once belonged to Mother of God have left, many of them in anger and despair. Many have concluded that they dedicated some of the best years of their lives to a group that abused and exploited them.
Ex-members say they were told where to honeymoon, how to eat, dress and decorate their homes, and how to have sex. Some say they were told whether or where to go to college, what to study, and what jobs to take. Others say they were pressed to leave good jobs or to cut ties with their families so they could devote themselves fully to the group. Some ex-members also say they were mistreated and underpaid while working for Mother of God businesses, and were pressured to keep quiet about it.
Haltingly, painfully, dozens of ex-members have concluded that Mother of God was really a cult. A suburban cult.
"The best way to describe it is that I feel like I have been raped," says Christopher West, a student of Catholic theology whose family spent seven years in Mother of God. "I did a lot of bad stuff to my husband and my kids, and I have a lot of regrets," says Sue Cavanaugh. "In some ways, I feel I've been had," says the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, a Catholic priest and Oxford University theologian who spent two decades in the community.
Cardinal James A. Hickey, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, concluded in 1995, after an investigation, that Mother of God had wrought "great damage" by violating members' privacy and leaving them emotionally vulnerable. "We crossed a line we should not have crossed," Robert J. Roche, a leading Mother of God member, said in a speech after the community had fallen apart. "Instead of just helping people, we began to make decisions for each other and intruded into each other's private lives. We gave up our own decision-making . . . and, to a great extent, gave up exercise of our own conscience to the community conscience."