OREGON HOUSE, Yuba County- Five months after he had a sexual encounter with Robert Burton, the founder and leader of the Fellowship of Friends, Richard Laurel wrote an open letter to his fellow members in the group.
The letter explained that Burton had asked Laurel to become a night guard at his chateaulike home at the Fellowship's headquarters, called Apollo, here in the tiny foothill community of Oregon House. Among the duties of the guards, Laurel said, was to give Burton massages.
Like most members of the Fellowship, Laurel went on to say, he considered Burton to be practically a god, and someone whom he "could fully trust in every regard."
So it surprised and shocked him, Laurel said, when during a massage, Burton pulled down his (Laurel's) pants and, without a word, performed oral sex on him.
"I felt betrayed and used by the man who I thought was my spiritual father," wrote Laurel, who prefers to be identified by the surname he used while in the Fellowship.
It bothered him even more when he found out that many other members, including his teen-age son, had been pursued for sex by Burton for years, added Laurel, who is married.
Laurel's letter led to a wave of resignations and expulsions of longtime members of the group. The resulting loss of as much as $500,000 in annual dues may have in turn sparked a financial crisis, according to some former members.
But a spokesman for Fellowship denied that it's in financial trouble.
And Abraham Goldman, Burton's attorney, insisted that the sexual encounter between Burton and Laurel was consensual.
"It was not the only time they had physical affection with each other," Goldman added. "Mr. Laurel's letter doesn't tell the full story."
It did, however, lead some longtime members to question Burton s behavior-partly because Laurel's complaint echoed charges made against Burton and the Fellowship in a lawsuit by former member Samuel Sanders in 1984.
Sanders claimed he felt betrayed when he discovered that Burton made a habit of having sex with rank-and-file members, most of them heterosexual males and many of them married.
Some members suffered lasting psychological trauma as a result of the sexual encounters, alleged the suit, which was settled out of court after a three-year legal battle.
Laurel, reached at home in Sacramento recently, said he didn't want to talk about the letter he wrote last year because he is considering legal action against Burton. But his open letter to the Fellowship prompted another similar letter from a second man, who agreed to be interviewed recently on the condition that his real name not be used. In this article he'll be called Johan Van Gaal
Van Gaal, who joined the Fellowship in 1985 at its center in Amsterdam, said he was told repeatedly how spiritually enlightened-almost saintly-Burton was.
"I was (also) told that in order to further my personal evolution as fast as possible, I had to give over my will (to Burton), so that something more real could grow within myself."
He learned that homosexuality among group members was banned, too. But he wasn't told that Burton personally ignored that rule (which ended in 1993). Or that Burton frequently had sexual relationships with male members of the group.
So he was surprised and confused when Burton seduced him shortly after he moved to the group's headquarters in 1986, Van Gaal said. He simply covered his face in shame as Burton performed oral sex on him.
"I had never had a homosexual encounter before this," said Van Gaal. "But he told me it was the wish of C-influence (the group's term for higher forces, or gods) that I have sex with him."
Van Gaal subsequently became a night guard at Burton's home, and the sexual encounters continued- sometimes as often as three times a week-until 1990, he said.
The Fellowship teaches "that you're supposed to transform suffering and negativity, utilize energy that can ignite through this friction." Van Gaal explained.
"I was of the impression that I should bear this suffering to get a spiritual transformation."
But he gradually came to believe that the philosophy was being used to support Burton's personal desires for control and sex.
"I was needy for spiritual guidance, and I guess if you're needy, you re willing to take certain things for granted more than you would if you're not quite as gullible," said Van Gaal.
He began resisting Burton's advances after getting married in 1990, and left the Fellowship last October, he said.
Attorney Goldman said Burton had a consensual sexual relationship with Van Gaal.
"I can't say how long it lasted or how often it occurred. But there were times when Mr. (Van Gaal) initiated the meetings." Goldman said.
He pointed out that laws vary from state to state regarding whether sex between a religious leader and a disciple-or a doctor and patient, for that matter-is illegal.
"Mr. Burton has never abused his position of power or trust with a member, either involving a sexual relationship or any other aspect of his teaching," Goldman added.
A current Fellowship member who said he became one of Burton's Lovers for a time while separated from his wife agreed.
"Robert's in a position of power being the founder of the Fellowship... but I don't think he misuses that position", said the man, who asked to remain anonymous.
"I've refused Robert sex," he said, "If someone feels pressure to give in it's basically their imagination.
"One thing that rules most of our lives is what people think of us," he went on, "I feel I took a big step in the direction of being free from that" through having sex with Burton.
However Carl Mautz, a former lawyer for the Fellowship who helped defend the group during Sander's lawsuit, said Burton's sexual relationships with members are "an obvious abuse of power."
Like many other former members of the group, Mautz said he wasn't offended by Burton's homosexuality, but by the inherently domineering aspects of a leader having sex with his followers.
Not all members of the Fellowship are approached for sex by Burton, Mautz noted. But Johan Van Gaal "was completely taken advantage of."
In their 1993 book "The Guru Papers," authors Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad reported that cult leaders often express and consolidate control over their disciples through sex.
Ironically, people who submit to experimental sex with their spiritual leaders often see themselves as liberated spiritual adventures, they wrote.
"That many discontented and innovative people were unwittingly seduced into submission... indicates the depth of people's susceptibility to authoritarian control," they said.
Goldman insisted Burton did not seduce Laurel or Van Gaal, "Sexual relations can arise from mutual attraction," he said.
However the member who is currently Burton's lover spoke of originally turning Burton down "when he first approached me," and added, "It is always up to the person he, Burton, is propositioning to say no."
In any case as Kramer and Alstad pointed out, most [devotees who study under a specific] spiritual leader-and make that study the focus of their lives-find it difficult to deny the leader anything, even when he or she openly expresses a sexual interest.
Moreover, the ideologies of small religious groups typically discourage any questioning of the leader's actions, they said.
The Fellowship is no exception.
Members are taught that Burton is a higher being with understanding they do not have, said Mautz.
"People in the Fellowship who aren't close to Robert act around him the way your ordinary 14-year-old would act around Michael Jordan," Mautz said.
"They're nervous. They fumble for words. It's a totally uneven playing field."
Joel Friedlander, a former spokesman and board member for the Fellowship who resigned last year, agreed.
"One of the teachings of the Fellowship is that doubts come from the false part of yourself. That's an effective control mechanism," he said.
Cynthia Hill, the Fellowship's director of public relations, insisted that while members strive not to express negative emotions, any topic can be discussed as long as it's in "a neutral tone of voice."
And longtime member Colin Lambert said the Fellowship has a teacher-student relationship that is based on established spiritual tradition and is difficult for many Americans, schooled in democratic principles, to understand.
"We do not believe that a teacher has to explain himself to his students," Lambert said. "But you voluntarily enter this relationship, and take responsibility."
Such ideas support Burton's continued leadership and lifestyle. But as Lambert acknowledged, only those who trust the teacher stay in the group. Those who don't, leave.
Charles Randall, the Fellowship's former business manager, left last October in the wake of Laurel's letter.
After 21 years in the group, he said, he came to believe Burton was effectively manipulating the minds as well as the bodies of members through a self-serving philosophy.
"I'm kind of humiliated by the whole thing," said Randall.
"I thought it was the one true way, but as it turns out, it was just a cult."
He's among about 100 members who resigned or were expelled in the aftermath of Laurel's letter, according to Mautz.
Departures create financial bind
The changes could put financial pressure on the group, Mautz said.
"That's a huge amount of money" to lose in the form of annual dues, he explained (most members give 10 percent of their income to the group).
In fact, the Fellowship is in default on most of its 1994 property taxes, and owes more than $415,000 in '94-'95 taxes, penalties and interest. The 1,300 acres owned by the group are valued at nearly $21 million, said a spokesman for the Yuba County assessor's office.
Hill said the Fellowship will initiate a payment plan later this year to cover taxes in arrears.
"This situation is not unusual for businesses," she said. "As often occurs with young wineries in particular, cash-flow difficulties may arise as production and sales become equalized."
Others say that whatever the group's finances, Burton's predictions of a catastrophic earthquake followed by nuclear holocaust could lead to a crisis down the road.
Margaret Singer, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Berkeley who has counseled thousands of former cult members, said both doomsday predictions and mass suicides (which she called mass murders since they are orchestrated by cult leaders) will increase as the end of the millenium nears.
"All these cult 'prophets' enjoy reading significance into the change in the millenium," she said.
Friedlander said he doesn't think the Fellowship's doomsday scenario will lead that far.
"But you can't rule it out," he said. "'The Fellowship certainly has the idea of gathering the faithful for the coming holocaust, of creating a self-contained community, and believing that former members are out to get them."
Randall believes the Fellowship will almost certainly endure, as it did after the lawsuit by Samuel Sanders.
Burton is unlikely to destroy the vehicle that enables him to indulge his whims, Randall said.
And as doubters leave and loyalists stay. he pointed out, the group becomes more cohesive than ever.