Five second-generation members of the Children of God say a small band of disgruntled defectors has painted a twisted portrait of what it was like growing up in their controversial sect, now known as the Family International.
Their comments come in response to allegations by former second - generation members who say the group's philosophy of free love led to widespread child sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s.
J.P., 28, was born to Family missionaries in Venezuela and grew up in communal homes across South America.
"My upbringing was different, but I'm very proud of my parents and my upbringing," J.P. said.
"I know a lot of these people who are bitter and are fighting against us now. A lot of times it's situations in their personal families. They get all worked up about it and generalize it over the whole Family. It makes us all suffer."
John Orcutt, 26, was born in Italy, the third of nine children. Growing up, he lived in Argentina, India, Thailand, Puerto Rico and the United States before going out on his own as a Family missionary in Hungary.
He says he's not surprised by the latest wave of negative news coverage about his religious movement.
"Persecution is part of our lives," he said. "You read news articles and meet people who don't like you, but in a way it motivates me more.
"They said Jesus hung out with whores. If they said those things about Jesus, they are definitely going to say those things about his followers."
Orcutt and J.P. were among five second-generation Family members who agreed to speak with The Chronicle "at a neutral location," a Mexican restaurant in Old Town San Diego.
They work for Activated Ministries in Escondido, which produces the sect's book, periodicals and musical products sold by about 8,000 Family missionaries around the world.
They were accompanied by Cassandra Mooney, 52, one of the directors of Activated Ministries and a member of the Family for 33 years.
Mooney raised two daughters in the movement, both of whom now serve as missionaries in Mexico.
"I love my girls and would never let anyone touch them," she said. "I was in the Family 5 1/2 years until I had sex -- and that was with my husband. We were prudish in a sense. I was a very wild hippie before I joined the Family, so that was a big change for me."
Mooney concedes that changed in the mid-1970s, when the sect's founder, David "Moses" Berg, directed his female followers to practice "flirty fishing, " which allowed them to seduce male converts.
Asked whether she engaged in flirty fishing (or FFing) in the 1970s, Mooney replied, "Very little."
"When it first started happening, we were in Beirut, Lebanon, which was a difficult place to do it," Mooney said.
"FFing was going out and meeting lonely people and witnessing to them. If it happened that we had an attraction or wanted to have sex, our religion did not forbid that. It wasn't prostitution. It was witnessing."
Family International leaders say they no longer encourage "flirty fishing, " but they do follow "the law of love," which allows sexual relations between married and single adults living in the sect's communes.
Current members insist that sex is just a small part of the equation and blown out of proportion by the news media and their critics.
"Why can't the law of love expand to all of your life? What's wrong with God and sex mixing?" asked Grace Galambos, who at age 20 was the youngest member at the interview session. "God created sex."
Paula Braaten, 24, also defended the unorthodox teaching.
"Do we live the law of love? Yes. The core of the law of love is to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and to love your neighbor as yourself," she said. "If you want to have sex with other people, you can do whatever you want."