Mother of God

"I trusted him. I saw him as this holy man, this religious leader."


"I had bought into the whole thing about your esteem in the eyes of the brethren. I was absolutely devastated."


The Questions Begin to Surface

Community compound outside Gaithersburg
Community compound outside Gaithersburg

any churches and religious communities ask their members to pool their funds to achieve common goals, and some operate businesses. So, too, did Mother of God. But it did so in ways that have left some ex-members feeling betrayed and abused.

Mother of God's flagship business was Orange Systems, a computer company. Until it ran into financial difficulty recently, it brought in millions of dollars in revenue selling computer systems and services. The company was the brainchild of Joseph Difato, who had spoken and written for years of putting Christian principles to work in a business venture.

One day in 1980, Joseph Difato pulled aside Ben Van Zutphen, the former head of a successful Canadian engineering firm who had moved his family to Gaithersburg to join Mother of God. Van Zutphen wasn't really looking for a new business venture, but he found Difato's enthusiasm infectious. As Difato pitched the deal, Van Zutphen now says, they would start up a computer company and employ Mother of God members. The startup funds would come from Van Zutphen. Difato wanted a one-third ownership share. But Difato did not put up any of his own cash, Van Zutphen says; instead, Van Zutphen lent Difato the money, which he eventually repaid.


an Zutphen says he understood that legally, Difato was taking his share of Orange Systems as an individual. But Van Zutphen believed that Difato's entire life was devoted to Mother of God. He says he assumed Difato would use his share for the benefit of the community. "I trusted him," he says. "I saw him as this holy man, this religious leader."

Orange Systems went into business in 1981 and began to grow rapidly. Over the next decade, other businesses — a law firm, an accounting firm and more — would grow from similar seeds planted by Joseph Difato.

At first, people threw themselves into these companies enthusiastically, convinced they had found another way to live out their deep religious commitment. As for the Difatos' role, they had talked over and over about not getting too caught up in worldly possessions. Members understood when they were told they would not be able to earn a lot when working in a community-affiliated business.

For some members, this turned out to mean wages at or below poverty level. If they complained, or otherwise crossed the Difatos, they say their careers suffered.


hen Mother of God set up The Word Among Us magazine, targeting a Catholic readership, Elena Herrera left her job with the federal government and went to work there, helping edit the Spanish edition. "The ideal thing was to work for the kingdom," she says. She had been a Mother of God member for years, even living with some of the Difatos for a while. Yet as time went on, she began to have more and more questions about how the group operated — in all its aspects, not just its businesses.

Herrera says she tried to raise her concerns, and persisted in doing so. Suddenly, with little explanation, she was told her hours were being cut from 40 per week to 30 and that her pay was being cut from $13,000 per year to about half that. As her questioning continued, she says, her hours were cut in half yet again. Eventually, she was fired by the magazine and shunned by Mother of God members. The community had been her whole life for years, and now she felt utterly alone. "I had bought into the whole thing about your esteem in the eyes of the brethren," she recalls. "I was absolutely devastated."

Mounting Doubts


he Difatos never achieved complete control over the lives of their followers.

Many ex-members say they developed doubts about the group not long after they joined. They often kept these doubts to themselves, they say, but the doubts didn't go away. For many families, the reservations were forced to the surface by their teenagers, who engaged in a running underground rebellion over the Mother of God dating policy. The teenagers' normal adolescent urge to break the adult world's rules was heightened, not lessened, because the rules in Mother of God were so draconian.

"If we liked a girl, we had to have an elaborate scheme to sneak her out," Gary Cummings recalls. "We would hide notes under rocks. We would use lights as signals. We still got caught."


y the late 1980s, these incidents with the teenagers were weighing heavily on the minds of many parents. They were trying to obey the rules, but in their hearts they were starting to ask themselves: Do the rules make sense?

For others, interference in their professional lives tipped them over the edge. For a while, Roger Cavanaugh says, he kept telling himself there was a higher purpose to all the meddling. "I could see some of the people being helped, if nothing else by a certain order and discipline being restored to their lives," he says. But Cavanaugh himself began to chafe. Tentatively, he raised questions and objections. From other members, he says, he would get nothing but odd looks and mindless dismissals. That only heightened Cavanaugh's doubts. If every problem was off limits for discussion, he recalls thinking, what kind of group was this, exactly?

Problems at the accounting firm where he worked, which was owned and run by Mother of God members, especially troubled him. When the firm started, Cavanaugh says he was told that he would not be allowed to earn more than $40,000 a year. Over time this began to bother him, he says, since he had three children to put through college. Eventually he began to feel that he was bringing in a lot of the business and not getting rewarded. "If I expressed dissatisfaction, it went up the chain to Joe," Cavanaugh says. "I was told, 'This is what God wants. This is the plan Joe has in mind.' "

Reflexively, Cavanaugh began to withdraw from the community. That's when the pressure really started, he says, for he was surrounded by people still committed to Mother of God — including his wife, children and co-workers.

Four members of the Cavanaugh family say that as Roger pulled away, Mother of God leaders tried to undermine Roger and Sue's marriage and Roger's relations with his children. "They would just grill me over what my father would say to me," says Roger's eldest daughter, Meg Ferris. "They would say, 'Your father is not stable. He's trying to ruin your mother.' They trashed my dad to my face."

Although Roger Cavanaugh's doubts about Mother of God became serious by the mid-1980s, it was not until the early 1990s that he and some other members began to develop a comprehensive view of what was wrong with the community.

"There is no recognition that diversity and individuality, even a modicum of privacy, has any place here."


ne of those who did so was Laura Millman, a federal hearing officer who oversees vaccine-injury cases. After hearing two of the community's priests speak, she had joined Mother of God in 1986. She moved to Gaithersburg. Fairly quickly, however, she developed doubts. The group assigned her a head who began prying. "You were supposed to unburden the deepest aspects of your life to total strangers," she says. She was pressured to attend meetings constantly. She was given homework to keep her busy. She learned that confidences were not honored — anything a person said to anybody could make its way up the chain.

When she heard about some new community rules that she felt would impose even greater control on people, the word "cult" came into her head. She began to watch the leaders more closely. "They were control freaks," she says. "They were people who were hard as nails, who would say outrageous things."

Her mind now afire, she began to reread some of the great mid-century writings on the nature of totalitarianism, particularly the works of George Orwell. In 1984, his chilling vision of a "negative utopia," Orwell imagined a society tightly controlled by Big Brother, with the help of the Thought Police. "I would think to myself, 'My gosh, there are people who have died so I can live in a free country,' " Millman says. "How could I turn around and submit to this sort of mind control?"


he decided to inform the Archdiocese of Washington that all was not as it seemed at Mother of God. On October 24, 1992, she sat down to put her thoughts in writing. It was one of the first times that a Mother of God member had dared to air doubts about the community's practices outside its bounds.

Millman wrote that "insanity" reigned in the community. She called Mother of God "a cult that terrorizes and dominates its members and its priests."

"There is no recognition that diversity and individuality, even a modicum of privacy, has any place here," she wrote. "George Orwell described something similar in 1984. The three slogans listed by the Ministry of Justice in 1984 were 'War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.' This is exactly the mentality of the community."

Justin Gillis is a staff writer for The Post's Metro section. Staff researcher Margot Williams contributed to this article.

Saturday, April 19: The Catholic Church investigates, and the Mother of God community breaks up amid conflict and anger.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company