Fear ruled lives of cult children Interviews yield stories of paddling, 11-year-old 'wives,' visions of fiery death


HOUSTON -- For sins as small as spilling milk, the children said, they were struck with a wooden paddle known as "the helper." To train for the final battle, they were instructed to fight each other, and if they did not fight hard enough, they were paddled for that, too.

David Koresh told them to call their parents "dogs"; only he was to be referred to as their father. Girls as young as 11 were given a plastic Star of David, signifying that they had "the light" and were ready to have sex with the cult leader.

Those are some of the things that 19 of the 21 surviving children of the Branch Davidian cult have told them about their lives inside the compound, a team of therapists said. Those interviewed ranged in age from 4 to 11.

The team, headed by Dr. Bruce D. Perry, chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital and vice chairman for research of the department of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, spent two months working with the children, who left the cult's compound near Waco in the first five days after the Feb. 28 shootout in which four federal agents and at least six cult members were killed. Two children, ages 7 months and 3 years, were too young to be interviewed.

President Clinton and the FBI have maintained for weeks that children inside the compound were physically and sexually abused, but the only known evidence for those assertions consisted of 2-year-old allegations by some former cult members. Many current cult members and their lawyers have called such charges baseless.

Now, a report by Dr. Perry, an expert on traumatized children, and interviews with several counselors who worked with the children provide the first details from the Branch Davidian children themselves about their lives in the compound.

The report, which Dr. Perry said he wrote for the families of the children and any therapists who work with them in the future, characterizes the world described by the children as "a misguided paramilitary community" in which sex, violence, fear, love and religion were all intertwined.

The report, which was made available by Dr. Perry, depicts an insular religious community of many contradictions. Although men and women were strictly segregated, Dr. Perry writes, the children told him that Mr. Koresh had "wives" as young as 11 and routinely discussed sex openly with even the youngest girls during Bible lessons.

Dr. Perry said that though the children seemed highly protective of the cult's secrets, "over the course of two months, the kids became increasingly open about 11- and 12-year-old girls being David's wives."

He said it was clear in the conversations that the status of "wife" included having sex with Mr. Koresh

Under Texas law, sex between an adult and a youth under the age of 17 is statutory rape, a felony.

Mr. Koresh was reported to have an assortment of electronic equipment and high-powered weapons, but the compound lacked running water and plumbing.

"The children described using a pot for urinating and defecating, which they would empty every day," Dr. Perry wrote. After the children's release, he recalled, "there was a fascination about flushing toilets, most apparent with the young children."

In addition to being struck with "the helper," the children were disciplined by being deprived of food, sometimes for a day, the report said. Dr. Perry said the children "had a difficult time making the adjustment

to a nonphysical form of discipline" after leaving the compound.

The report notes that the children seemed to be reading at appropriate grade levels but that there was no discussion of formal schooling outside of Bible classes.

Girls were allowed to sleep as late as they wanted, but boys were forced to arise as early as 5:30 a.m. for what the children called "gym," which the report describes as "marching, drilling (possibly with firearms) and other physical activities that sounded like paramilitary exercises."

To the children, however, the world inside the compound was normal, Dr. Perry said. Even after their release, and as they described their treatment by Dr. Koresh, nearly all of the children have talked about their love for him. During therapy sessions, several of them drew pictures with hearts, under which they wrote, "I Love David."

But Dr. Perry thinks their feelings about Mr. Koresh were something other than love.

"Fear is what it was," he said in an interview in Houston last week. "They learned to substitute the word 'love' for fear."

The cult leader controlled everything -- sex, school, play and even diet. "There were a number of unusual ideas about combining fruit and vegetables in the same meal," Dr. Perry wrote, adding that when the children were first placed in the custody of the state Child Protective Services agency, they "frequently talked about how odd it was to have warm food."

What emerged in the children's portrayal of their world, Dr. Perry wrote on March 11, was "the sense that there is going to be an absolute explosive end to these children's families."

"We'd ask them, 'What do you think is going to happen?' " Dr. Perry said in the interview. "They'd say, 'Everyone is going to die' or, 'We're going to blow you all up.' "

Dr. Perry said all of the children told him that as they left the compound, their parents promised they would see them in heaven.

"All of the children that I have interviewed speak about the fact that both of their parents are dead," he said.

"This sense that all the parents are dead leads me to believe there has been some group consensus about a final end to this confrontation."

Dr. Perry said that when federal agents asked him whether he thought the cult leader would commit suicide, "I told them I thought it was unlikely that he would put a gun to his own head."

Sunday, medical investigators in Fort Worth said they had identified the body of Mr. Koresh and that he had died of a bullet wound to the head. The authorities did not say whether they thought the wound was self-inflicted.

But Dr. Perry said he also told agents that he "thought it was highly probable that he would carry out an abstract suicide -- some way for everyone to die, like setting up a large-scale explosion."

Federal officials say that is what Mr. Koresh ultimately did. Instead of an explosion, they say, he had cult members set fire to the compound April 19. Seventy-two cult members are thought to have died in the blaze.

Dr. Perry, who went to Waco as a volunteer, has worked with children who have experienced many kinds of trauma, including sexual and physical abuse at home, the violence of inner-city neighborhoods and the murder of their parents.

To the children of the cult, Dr. Perry wrote in his report, "the outside was full of 'bad guys,' unbelievers without the 'light,' evil and hurtful people."

Some things were impossible to hide. In his report, which is to be released to relatives, doctors and counselors working with the children, Dr. Perry noted that several of the girls who were released from the compound "had circular lesions on their buttocks that probably came from being paddled with 'the helper.'"

The report concludes that the children who were released "likely experienced physical punishment as very young children, the girls were likely exposed to inappropriate concepts of sexuality, parental ties were undermined by David, a whole variety of destructive emotional techniques were used including shame, coercion, fear, intimidation, humiliation, guilt, overt aggression and power."

Texas child-welfare workers made two visits to the compound a year ago to investigate former cult members' allegations of abuse. But, because of the highly secretive nature of the cult, workers were unable to gather enough evidence to justify further legal intervention, said Robert Boyd, program director for the Child Protective Services in Waco.

Dr. Perry and the other counselors say the children described a world that revolved around Mr. Koresh. The cult leader, Dr. Perry said, undermined all relationships -- between husbands and wives, between the children and their parents and among the children themselves.

Even outside the cult and the compound, the lives of many of the children are still dominated by Mr. Koresh, Dr. Perry said.

"A permeating and pervasive fear of displeasing David or betraying his 'secrets' is present in all of the children -- even those as young as 4 years old," Dr. Perry wrote. "The children have a sense that he will be able to punish them if they violate his prohibitions. They even allude to the fact that he will be able to return from death and punish them or others who betray them."

Outwardly, at least, the children seemed fine to some adults, Dr. Perry said, but their heart rates were elevated to 140, far higher than the normal rate of 70 to 90. "It took three weeks to get their heart rates under 100," Dr. Perry said. "These children were in a persistent state of fear."

Five of the children are still at a group home in Waco, waiting to be placed with relatives. The others are with family members, all of whom have been extensively screened by child-welfare workers.

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