Berlin, Connecticut. -- The Messiah has returned to earth and is preaching in New England, according to about 200 people who call themselves the followers of Brother Julius.
They live in central Connecticut and their savior is "Brother Julius" Schacknow, 68, a doomsday prophet also known as a "sinful Messiah." He says he intentionally demonstrates the evils of the world so they can be overcome.
Former cult members say these sins include polygamy, sexual abuse of women, and labor fraud. They call him a blasphemer, a charlatan, an exploiter, and worse.
Devoted disciples just as fervently deny the allegations, saying Jesus was scorned and vilified, too. They claim Schacknow has healed addictions and illnesses and brought meaning to their lives. They call him, simply, "the Lord."
The fiery end of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, has heightened interest in the estimated 2,500 cults operating in the United States today -- groups that differ from other organizations mainly in the degree of control exerted over the membership by a leader who claims a special mantle of authority, experts say.
Most go their quiet and often secretive ways, calmly countenanced by local authorities, observing their rights to privacy and freedom of religion. But their existence raises the question that was so unsatisfactorily resolved in Waco: At what point does society have a right to intervene?
Society has stepped into the world of the Brother Julius cult on many occasions. Two civil lawsuits concerning sex abuse and at least one labor fraud case have been settled out of court.
In the only media interview he has granted in six years, Schacknow declined to discuss the allegations against him, calling them "smears" and "smut." But current followers said the charges are unfounded.
"He's brought nothing but good into my life," said an employee at the cult-owned Northwood Real Estate office, in Bristol.
Steven Hassan, a cult expert who has counseled about 15 former members of the Brother Julius group, said it is a basic American right for people to believe whatever they want.
"It's when cult practices break the law and infringe on people's basic human rights that society has an obligation to investigate," said Hassan, of Somerville.
About 5' 7" tall, overweight and balding, Brother Julius has a long grey beard, piercing blue eyes and a deep, resonant voice. In a four-hour interview, he explained why he believes he is the Messiah, why he has come to New England, and his prophesies for the future.
He said he was born in 1924 in Brooklyn, N.Y., into a poor Jewish family. He had no religious training, never went to college and "knew nothing of God" until 1946, when he was a sailor in the Navy.
In a "living vision," he said, he "was taken up into Heaven," where God told him: "You are a very special predestined chosen vessel to help me close the world and your generation of evil."
God said, "When you return to earth, read nothing but the Holy Bible for five full years . . . All things will be made known to you," he recalled.
In a later vision, he said God told him, "You are my son, the Lord . . . There's never been another."
He subsequently found his true identity in the scriptures, Schacknow said, citing chapter and verse showing that God would be made flesh, that Jesus only fulfilled part of Messiah's mission, and that he would come again at the end of the world.
"Think of how it feels to be me," he said. He had come to earth as Jesus and now he's back again, but despite all his teachings humankind is still doing the same old things -- "cheating, stealing, lying and sodomizing," he said.
"I'm disgusted," he said. "And I'm warning all the inhabitants of earth: change your ways, turn back to God, or divine destruction is coming."
Today, his disciples live in separate apartments or houses in Southington, Plainville, Meriden, and vicinity. Schacknow's main residence is in Berlin -- a small white wooden house with a large, flower-filled heart cut into the front lawn.
Followers say they keep to themselves in a disciplined life that centers around Bible study at group meetings and work at one of the cult's real estate or construction businesses.
In addition to Schacknow, true believers are led by "the Holy Spirit" in the form of Joanne Sweetman, Brother Julius' third ex-wife; chief apostle Paul Sweetman, who oversees business affairs; and eleven other apostles. Each apostle represents a sign of the zodiac and looks after members born under that sign.
Every member also is given a word that represents his or her most angelic quality, such as "joy," "peace," "tenderness," and so on. Disciples who displease Schacknow risk having their word downgraded.
The cult began in the late 1960s, when Brother Julius' message seemed like heaven-sent balm to many who were lost, unloved and looking for uncomplicated answers.
Stephen Mehl, a former follower now living in Nantucket, remembered the first time he saw Schacknow. "He was wearing a long blue robe and preaching on a hillside overlooking a lake," Mehl recalled. Brother Julius was a charismatic speaker with an inspiring command of scriptures. Soon Mehl was Schacknow's "South Shore Apostle," recruiting Massachusetts members.
For a few years, all went well, Mehl and others said. Schacknow arranged marriages -- most members were aged 16 to 22 -- provided jobs and gave their lives "vast meaning and purpose," recalled Rick Keegan of Weymouth, who dropped out of college to join Brother Julius' elect band.
Although some followers continued to revere Brother Julius as an ''exhilarating teacher of truth," one said, others saw the situation deteriorating.
When she was 19 and new to the cult, a former follower who was "called" to have sex with Schacknow, explained: "Julius came to me privately and said I was ready to receive the divine seed. It would help me be more godlike."
In civil suits filed in the 1980s and settled out of court, Karen Schacknow, Schacknow's stepdaughter, and Beverly Sweetman sued him for sexual abuse. Daniel Sweetman, Schacknow's son, was sent to prison for sexually molesting two young boys. And to the dismay of many in his flock, according to former members, Brother Julius announced he intended to practice polygamy -- although the marriages were not made official outside the cult.
Some members also charged that they were being exploited financially, paid subminimum wages and forced to engage in fraudulent labor practices. Pat Goski said she worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, and never received more than $60 a week. She also said many laborers were officially "laid off" but still were expected to work full-time at cult businesses. They were paid the difference between the unemployment benefits and their normal wage.
A former member who identified himself as "Clearness" was one of several who sued Brother Julius' enterprises for back wages and damages; he settled out of court for $25,000.
Despite threats that they would become depressed, diseased or damned if they left, disillusioned members departed in droves, causing membership to plummet from about 600 to the 200 stalwarts who remain today.
"It's one of the most abusive cults I've seen," said Lorna Goldberg, a social worker running a support group for former members of several cults, who has counseled about a half dozen ex-followers of Brother Julius. She added that small cults like this one are also "the most dangerous, because there are fewer layers of people between the leader and his followers."
"Only the Lord would know what he knows," countered a current member, who said Brother Julius' healing power is so strong she "has hardly had an aspirin in the 17 years I've been with him."
Police in several communities where the cult operates said they investigated allegations of inappropriate activities, but had not recently found any criminal violations.
Neighbors typically described the cultists as "unfriendly" and "tight- lipped," and Brother Julius as a "charlatan," but they had no serious complaints.
"Very few people will believe that I'm the real Lord," Schacknow said. ''But that won't offend me because there are true sheep who will hear my voice, and they will know."
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