Mother of God



The people of Mother of God were drawn together by a shared longing for a sense of community, a spiritual refuge from the ravages of modern life.



Edith



Along the quiet suburban streets of Montgomery Village, many former members are struggling simply to put their lives back together.


Origins

People Are Forced to Choose Sides

The Word Among Us
The Word Among Us magazine
H

ickey's intervention effectively ratified the split in the Mother of God community. It forced people to choose sides, to declare whether they were dissenters or loyalists to the old regime.

Most of the 1,200 people who once belonged have voted with their feet and departed from the community. Perhaps 150 people have remained as members of the new Mother of God, allied with the Catholic Church and operating under democratic leadership. These people have repudiated the Difatos' practices and pledged to reform the community. Still others-perhaps as many as 100-have remained fiercely loyal to the Difatos, and some have joined small new groups that apparently embrace the old Mother of God ideas.


Cardinal Hickey's address


T

hese Difato loyalists are angry at both the dissidents and the Catholic Church. Some of them feel the breakup of the Mother of God community was Satan's work; others emphasize what they see as the destructive role of the archdiocese. Some Difato loyalists acknowledge that some mistakes were made in the community, such as in the way its dating system was managed, but they feel strongly that the Difatos and Mother of God did far more good than harm.

The Tondo Family
Dominic Tondo and his family
Photo by Dudley M. Brooks

"I agree that we've done some things in the community that maybe people who were less strong were not able to fight," says Dominic Tondo, a former member still living near Gaithersburg. When Tondo discusses the departure of hundreds of former members, he blames anti-cult activists who, he says, "wrote the blueprint" for the community's breakup. Tondo also suggests that perhaps the Catholic Church covets Mother of God's property. "The cardinal took over the community, and isn't it convenient that they suddenly wound up with all these nice facilities?" Tondo says. "You might have a bigger story than you think. A big, powerful organization like the Archdiocese of Washington pulls off a coup, and runs roughshod over a group of people. I believe the cardinal and his people are going to have to answer to the Great Judge one day. I pray for him."

Steve Valentino
Steve Valentino

Still other Difato loyalists seem genuinely mystified by what has happened at Mother of God. Many of them angrily reject the idea that the community was ever a cult. "It's absolute lunacy!" says Steve Valentino. He still has fond feelings for members of the Difato family, particularly Joseph Difato. "He's a great man," Valentino says. He blames "unclear thinking" for the problems that have beset the community, and he says the allegations of wrongdoing are a result of "rumor and slander and gossip blown way out of proportion."

The community's breakup has split families. At least six families in Gaithersburg are wrestling with grave internal divisions over community membership, often because parents have left the group while their adult children remain loyal to the Difatos or their ideas. These family fissures prompted the Rev. Michael Duggan, a former Mother of God priest who quit the group and moved back to his Canadian parish, to write an impassioned letter to Edith Difato, in which he argued that family alienation was a prime characteristic of cults. "You and your sons have an influence over these young people that apparently exceeds that of their parents, their bishop, their pope and their church," Duggan wrote. "A word from you that would direct them back to their parents could, at least, rescue them from the delusion that their present behavior in some way corresponds to the will of God."

Duggan says Edith Difato has not responded to his letter. Former Mother of God members say she still meets regularly with loyal followers in Gaithersburg.

T

he people of Mother of God were drawn together by a shared longing for a sense of community, a spiritual refuge from the ravages of modern life. As they have watched their vision collapse, many of them have had to grapple with the dispiriting thought that there may be no such place.

On a rainy night, under the glare of a street lamp in a parking lot, former member Joseph Kilner struggles to put his feelings into words. "This wouldn't be a tragedy if something wonderful hadn't been violated," he says. "People thought they had found a place where you could be part of a community, love each other, help each other, serve God. The reason people are hurting so much now is that utopia was shattered."

Some dissident members found it hard at first to acknowledge they had been abused and deceived. But by now, they have moved on to seek a deeper knowledge of the psychology and operation of cults. To their disappointment, they have had to pursue this study without much assistance from the Archdiocese of Washington. In other areas of the country, "covenant communities" with operations similar to Mother of God have also fallen apart in recent years. Catholic dioceses in some of those places have called in top anti-cult experts to help former members rebuild their lives. By contrast, the Washington archdiocese has declined to apply the word "cult" to Mother of God, and it has not called in nationally recognized experts. Instead, many former Mother of God members have continued to rely on the volunteer work of anti-cult counselor Quelet. She herself is a committed Catholic, but she expresses disappointment that the former members in Gaithersburg are not getting more help.

Mother of God building
Part of the Mother of God compound

Along the quiet suburban streets of Montgomery Village, many former members are struggling simply to put their lives back together. At midlife, they find themselves going back to college, or divorcing their way out of arranged marriages, or falling in love, or rebuilding derailed careers, or straightening out chaotic finances.

Some say that one of their biggest challenges is to reclaim some privacy. Young people who grew up in Mother of God say they are discovering for the first time what it means to have an interior life that no one knows about.

Former members still living in Montgomery Village cross paths often with the remaining Difato loyalists. Their exchanges have on occasion devolved into shouting matches in the grocery store and arguments at the post office. Not everyone has stayed in town, though. Some former members felt a need to get away and have moved to places such as Arizona, Colorado and Oregon.

S

everal of the Difatos have also moved. All three of the Difato brothers have set up homes near the beach in St. Augustine, Fla. Two of the homes sit at the edge of golf courses, and on a recent weekend, Mercedes-Benz automobiles were parked in front of all three houses. Joseph Difato has established a new nonprofit corporation in Florida called Together in Christ Inc.

On Goshen Road outside Gaithersburg, a shell of the Mother of God community still meets on Sunday nights. Operating under the supervision of the Catholic Church, the remaining adherents say they are resolved to do away with the practices that caused so much damage.

Among the hundreds who have departed Mother of God altogether, some find themselves wrestling with the most basic questions of religious faith.

"I still believe in God," Roger Cavanaugh says. "But I will never again believe what men say about God."

Justin Gillis is a staff writer for The Post's Metro section. Staff researcher Margot Williams contributed to this article, as did special correspondent Brian L. Thompson in St. Augustine, Fla.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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