Mother of God

The information gathering strategy was to "know the person inside out so that 'billion dollar control' is possible."

Edith Difato

"The other kids thought the community was pretty weird."

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Fitting Into the Hierarchy

Edith Difato
Edith Difato

arly on, Edith Difato helped to develop formal rules for Mother of God. The group put its principles into a covenant to which committed members would subscribe.

Like other communities of its kind, Mother of God evolved toward a structure often referred to as "headship and submission" or as "shepherding and discipleship."

Each new member who joined would be assigned a "head" or "shepherd" or "buddy." That head, in turn, would report to another head up through a chain of command that terminated with a small cadre at the top.

Edith Difato took some of her ideas from the works of Stephen B. Clark, a leading charismatic organizer who wrote that in such communities, leaders would be chosen by God; a believer's duty was to obey them without question. Another theoretician whose works Difato read and recommended to her followers, Douglas Hyde, was a onetime member of the British Communist Party who proposed incorporating communist indoctrination techniques into Christianity.

Prayer Meeting
Prayer meeting

When new members joined Mother of God, they spent the first few months — even a year or two — soaking up warmth and spiritual guidance. Gradually, they would be moved into a series of large classes and smaller confessional groups, sometimes called clusters. There they would be introduced to a philosophy that held that the Mother of God community should be the dominant force in their lives.


ormer members say that as they spent more and more time answering questions posed by their head or buddy, they gradually realized that they had been fitted into an elaborate community hierarchy presided over by the Difatos and a close circle of loyalists. Former members say that virtually every scrap of information gathered by the heads — especially personal information about sex and psychological or family problems — would find its way up the chain of command.

A Mother of God document from the early 1980s explicitly describes the information-gathering system. The document was provided to The Post by a former member of the community, and its authenticity was confirmed by two people who say they were involved in writing it. Titled "Information Gathering," the document says that conversation between heads and followers about "seemingly mundane topics" could reveal important information. Heads should be careful "not to appear to be prying" but they should go after the important facts, the document says. "The more perceptive we are and the more we ask the right questions and know what to look for, the more painlessly and thoroughly we will be able to gather information," it says. "All areas of the individual's life should be covered."


he document says that the ultimate purpose of this strategy was to "know the person inside out so that 'billion dollar control' is possible." The document counseled Mother of God operatives to find out from people about their "involvement with drugs, premarital sex, homosexuality, the occult, criminal offenses, alcohol" and a host of other issues. "For the person to be competently cared for, not one iota of this information can be lost," the document says.

Mother of God documents:

Buddy Report

Information Gathering


At one point Mother of God generated a form called a "Buddy Report" for information gatherers to fill out. A copy of the report was mailed anonymously to The Post during its inquiries about Mother of God, and its authenticity was confirmed by the person who says he drew up the form. It asked for information in the "sin areas" of "sexuality," "alcohol/drugs" and others. The form contained a large blank space under such headings as "Sexual relationship with spouse." It asked for a judgment about the subject's "teachableness." And it asked for a report on any "Old ideas (refuses to part with)."


embers were encouraged to plan their schedules to the minute and their household budgets to the penny, and to submit these plans to their heads for approval. Many members were encouraged to fill out daily diaries called "States of the Day" that laid out their thoughts, emotions and activities for each day, with an emphasis on intimate information. These, too, would be passed up the chain. Former members say that highly personal information was kept in files and on computer disks for use by the community leadership. This information would be used by some heads to create detailed plans for members about how they should raise their children, interact with their spouse or conduct themselves at work.

Some former members still loyal to the Difatos acknowledge that this sort of information gathering took place, but they argue that generally it was part and parcel of the intense commitment to Christian faith that a community like Mother of God required. They say the information was used to take care of members and to direct them onto God's path.


s they inched further and further into the Mother of God system, former members say, they learned that questions about its provisions weren't tolerated. Roger Cavanaugh remembers bringing up doubts in small discussion groups and getting back icy stares. The Difatos and other leaders never quite explained why such blind loyalty was necessary, Cavanaugh and others say; instead, the message was conveyed by shunning those who were perceived to ask too many questions. Members who didn't learn to echo the Difato line would be pushed to the margins of the community or forced out entirely.

All these things happened slowly, over months or years. Members moved further into the community one step at a time. Many now recall developing doubts, but say these were submerged by the demand for loyalty. Always they had in mind the positive things that had drawn them to Mother of God to begin with — the extraordinary warmth, the strong family life, the conviction that God had blessed the community.

Former members say this is how they slowly opened themselves up to manipulation and became part of a network of informers.

Control Through Rules

Joe Difato's wedding
Joseph Difato and Felicia Burdick at their wedding.
Early on in his time at Mother of God, Rick Herald went on a couple of dates with another member, Felicia Burdick. Herald was in his early twenties. He chatted about his hopes with Edith Difato. "We were in the kitchen talking and this came up, about dating and girls," he remembers. "She started zeroing in. She said, 'You really like Felicia, don't you?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to keep dating her.' And she said, 'Well, I don't really want you to. I'm saving her for Joe.' "

He knew she meant her eldest son. "She was not kidding," Herald says. Joseph Difato and Felicia Burdick married on May 31, 1975.

This was an early glimpse of an aspect of Mother of God that contributed greatly to the community's later crises. Former members say Edith Difato and her inner circle had a feverish desire to control the emotional lives of their followers.


he control began with dating, the former members say. "It was almost like, 'Big Brother is watching,' " recalls ex-member Bonnie West. Parents learned from their heads that their teenaged children were forbidden to date until the community's leaders judged them ready. Even then the community would try to control every step. Many parents say they were taught to distrust everything their own children said and were encouraged to mount a steady surveillance of the community's youngsters.

"We'd be reporting back and forth to other parents: 'We saw your girl talking to this boy,' " Stan Weightman recalls. "We'd be encouraged to look through their dresser drawers for things, to read diaries if they had any." Rick Herald recalls being asked by his head "about how you thought about certain girls, whether you fantasized about them, how far your sexual fantasies went." Roger Cavanaugh says he was asked questions about whether he masturbated, whether he fantasized about particular women and how many minutes it took for him and his wife to have sex.


s community children grew older and entered high school, the cultural gap between them and other kids in the Gaithersburg area grew wider. "The other kids thought the community was pretty weird," Stan Weightman Jr. recalls. "One of the nicknames for it was the MOG-fia, with its network of eyes everywhere."

As young people reached college age, they say, Mother of God's leaders took a keen interest in their plans. Going away to school was strongly discouraged, and some young members turned down scholarships for that reason.

In their late teens and early twenties, many young people were pushed to live in single-sex households of six or eight other Mother of God members, bunking three or four to a bedroom, like summer campers. Each household had a head who kept close tabs on members' lives and reported on them to the hierarchy.

Studying Catholic theology was discouraged. Many ex-members say the Difatos viewed Catholic education as a threat to their control. Christopher West, Bonnie West's son, says that as he read Catholic theology on his own and learned more about the church's emphasis on each person's conscience and dignity, he began to question Mother of God's operations. The community's leaders objected. "I was continually told not to study Catholic theology but just to study the teachings that they gave me," West says. He turned down a half-scholarship to a Catholic graduate school, acceding to community pressure and taking a low-level job instead.


et the internal conflict West felt — the struggle between who he was and who the community wanted him to be — kept building. He recalls sitting in his car one day, doubled over in emotional pain, crying out to God for help. "Who I was and what I was supposed to do in life — all of that was getting crushed," he says.

That was not an unusual feeling among Mother of God's younger members. As they formed their identities as young adults — struggling with the emotional challenges that face all adolescents — many of them felt keenly the gulf between their natural and independent selves and the personalities demanded of them by Mother of God. They were taught that God had called them and their parents to the community, but they didn't understand why a situation blessed by God could be causing such pain. Some teenagers developed severe emotional problems — depression, inchoate anger, suicidal thoughts. A few spent brief periods in mental hospitals.


ormer Mother of God member Gary Cummings says he wrestled with inner torment throughout his teenage years and early adulthood. He periodically rebelled against the community's strictures, then felt guilty and repented. Over the years, he says, Joseph Difato would publicly chastise and humiliate him. "It wasn't that I thought the system was bad," Cummings recalls. "I thought I was the problem. I felt like I wasn't good enough. I was just a screw-off. It was so painful. I remember driving my car out on country roads in high school, and just thinking about wrapping myself around a tree."

At 20, he was thrown out of a communal household for unauthorized dating. The nadir came a couple of years later when he met and fell deeply in love with a woman who did not belong to the community. Cummings says he was subjected to fierce pressure to break up with her. He did so continually, but their feelings for each other were powerful, and they would always get back together. In his diary, he would record one pressured breakup and anguished reunion after another.

Convinced that the wishes of Mother of God and the wishes of God were identical, Cummings prayed for deliverance. He pleaded in his diary: "Lord, please break this resistance inside of me."

Arranged Marriages

Former member Jim Kiernan and his wife, Valerie, married while both were deeply involved with Mother of God. Looking back, they describe theirs as an "arranged marriage," a union created through community manipulation.

Each joined Mother of God at a young age and came to accept its rules as normal. "I thought this was elite Catholic teaching," Valerie Kiernan says.

Several former members estimated that there was heavy community involvement in at least 50 marriages.

The two did not know each other well. In his mid-twenties, Jim Kiernan says, he was still a virgin and eager to marry. He was urged to sit down and make a list of young women on a piece of paper. "I got the community phone book out," he recalls. He jotted the names of five young women into a notebook. Valerie Smith was not on the list. Kiernan says he turned in the list but heard nothing back for months. He says he wasn't seen as prime marriage material, since he wasn't on the fast track to Mother of God leadership.

Valerie, meanwhile, was asked similar questions by her head, but she did not come back with a long list. There was only one person on it: Jim. "I think he's good-looking," she told her head.

Looking back, the Kiernans surmise that someone in the community hierarchy saw an opportunity to make a match. Valerie recalls being told at one point, "You're not on Jim's list, but we're talking to him." Jim says a Mother of God member pulled him aside and asked if he'd consider dating Valerie. "It could have been almost anyone at that point," Jim says. "I said that's someone I'd consider." Their respective heads set up the first date: Jim would give Valerie a ride home from a prayer meeting. They were told what route to follow, straight down Interstate 270. "You can't go the long way on the Beltway," they recall being told.


n later dates, they say, they were told ahead of time where to go, what route to take, what subjects they could discuss. Most of these were double dates with married couples where they had little opportunity to talk one-on-one. After three months and perhaps 10 dates, they got permission to marry. Jim recalls going to a priest who was a member of the community, Michael Duggan, to seek his blessing. He explained his reasons for wanting to get married, without saying much about his feelings for Valerie. Duggan interrupted him. ". . . And because you love her," the priest said.

The words brought Jim up short. That had never occurred to him. "I felt like I had been hit upside the head with a two-by-four," he says. But he went ahead with the marriage plans anyway.

In retrospect, Valerie says she can see how Jim was pressured into accepting her. "He was manipulated into this," she says in a tired voice, looking across the living room at her now-estranged husband. "He was ripe for the picking."


t is impossible to know exactly how many marriages were arranged in this fashion, since most of the people involved will not speak publicly about them. Several former members estimated that there was heavy community involvement in at least 50 marriages, although the degree of control varied from case to case. Some of these marriages have worked out. (Arranged marriages are, after all, a common practice in many parts of the world.) Even in the Mother of God marriages that haven't worked, most couples are reluctant to go public for fear of subjecting their children to ridicule. But clearly some couples feel they have paid a price for Mother of God's marriage practices. In four instances where couples say they were pressured into marriage by Mother of God, the couples brought a total of 16 children into the world. All of those marriages are now on the rocks.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company