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or most of its history, Mother of God had been controlled by a family named Difato, led by a mother-and-son team, Edith and Joseph. Hickey asked the Difatos to step down. Ultimately, in exchange for agreeing to leave, the Difatos negotiated a legal settlement that protects them from lawsuits by their former followers and casts a veil of secrecy over community financial records. A coterie of people who think highly of the Difatos wound up in control of Mother of God's prime cash engine, a magazine called The Word Among Us, which is still published in about half a dozen languages and distributed worldwide.
Money is one subject of the questions still lingering around the community. Some ex-members have come to believe that power and profiteering, not religious faith, became the real motives behind Mother of God. "The Difato family business," Roger Cavanaugh now calls the community. Ex-members have been asking for a detailed accounting of the money that moved through the nonprofit corporations controlled by the Difatos about $23.9 million over the six years for which tax returns are available.
uestions also linger about the role of the Catholic Church. Dozens of priests and nuns visited Mother of God over the years, and some stayed for long periods, becoming aides to the Difatos. Their presence legitimized the community in the eyes of many members. Surely, these people thought, Catholic priests would blow the whistle if anything were seriously wrong. In fact, some of the priests now say they did see problems but failed to bring them to the attention of the church hierarchy.
The account that follows is drawn from interviews with more than 70 former community members, as well as outside specialists and church leaders. It is also based on more than 5,000 pages of internal community documents, as well as speeches, videotapes and other materials. The Difatos declined many requests from The Washington Post for interviews and also declined to answer written questions about Mother of God. Joseph Difato, who ran the community's day-to-day operations for many years, issued a brief statement:
ome former Mother of God members who remain loyal to the Difatos did agree to be interviewed. In general, they argue that while a few of Mother of God's practices may have been ill-considered, overall the community's leaders did their followers far more good than harm. They argue that true, intense Christian faith of the kind demanded by Mother of God's rules requires strength and commitment from believers, and that some of the dissidents who now complain about supposed excesses just were not strong enough to follow the community's path.
Moreover, they say, it is wrong to blame the Difatos for the choices made by their followers. Nobody was forced by violence or physical threats to stay in the community, they point out, and ultimately each believer was responsible for his or her choices. Finally, some of these former members express consternation about the role of anti-cult activists and the Catholic Church in Mother of God's final breakup, arguing that destructive, false ideas were planted by outsiders if not by Satan in the minds of community dissidents.
Some of these former members loyal to the Difatos say they're still trying to sort out what happened. "In the Bible there was a lot of discord, a lot of anger, a lot of grieving," says one. "That's what we as human beings have. That's the only thing that makes a little bit of sense."
Although suburban town houses may not be a typical setting, bands of Americans for centuries have aspired to a purer, higher form of community, the sort of place that John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts, referred to as a "city upon a hill." The impulse is an aspect of American national character the move to a new place, the search for a better way of life, the longing for a deeper, richer spiritual experience.
Playing out repeatedly in American history, this impulse has given birth to groups as diverse as the Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists, the people of Brook Farm, the Mormons. Many such groups have felt the need to separate themselves from "the world," a place they have seen as corrupt and evil, and to turn inward. Often these groups have done so under the sway of charismatic leaders preaching that they have discovered transcendent truths about human life.
Some groups have turned so far inward, become so clannish, and embraced such unusual values that mainstream society has labeled them "sects" or "cults."
ult is a loaded word. American academic experts are engaged in a vigorous debate over whether it has any real meaning, with intelligent, well-credentialed people arguing on each side of the question. Many clinical
On the other side, some sociologists of religion don't believe the word "cult" can be meaningfully defined. In the absence of physical violence and coercion, they doubt that any set of manipulative techniques is powerful enough to change people against their will. If people in a particular group don't like what's going on there, these sociologists ask, why don't they just walk away? These sociologists also argue that groups labeled cults don't really differ much from established religions, and that they have incurred the suspicion of society mostly because they are new or different.
By anybody's standard, it is unusual to find a large community of educated, middle-class Catholics in an American suburb applying the word "cult" to themselves. But that is exactly what has happened near Gaithersburg.
Perhaps the only way to explain the events in those Montgomery Village town houses is to start at the beginning.