true crime

At 11, Joe Dageforde escaped from a notorious cult. The reason why is horrifying.

Content warning: this article contains descriptions of child sexual and physical abuse.

Joe Dageforde's Canadian father was living in Australia, busking on the streets, when he met Joe's mum.

He invited her to a barbecue, run by his church group called, The Children of God. At the time, they were feeling disenchanted with the world and were desperately seeking a sense of belonging. They found it within the church.

That barbecue set the tone for Joe's life, and the life of his siblings, all of whom were born as active members of the church.

Watch: Hillsong Church defends itself after a video emerged. Article continues below.

Video via Channel Seven.

"I was born in Canada, and moved to Australia as a one-year-old," says Joe. "We lived in Australia, New Zealand, and India for my first 11 years of life."

The family was constantly moving, but always within the confines of the church, a global operation, that still exists to this day. 

"We lived in a caravan for a couple of years, communes, even in a tent for a while."

By the time he was 12, Joe had lived in 52 different locations. Each location had one thing in common though. They were cut off from the outside world. 


"Everyone lived in communes, share houses etc, and then there would be gatherings of multiple communes and members from larger areas from time to time," he says. "It was led by regular mail-outs and publications from the 'Upper Leadership', who were always in a secret location and no one knew exactly where they were."

Mail would mostly come from Switzerland.

A facade of simplicity and dedication to God.

Life for members of The Children Of God was routine-based and heavily controlled. 

Each day was made up of prayer meetings, devotions, or 'whole house sessions' run by the Home Leaders — the people selected to be in charge of those living within the confines of the home, which often included multiple families.  

"Then it was jobs. Lots of housework and child care," shares Joe. "As there were so many kids, the older ones were constantly caring for the younger ones."

Joe ran the 'dishes crew' for the three daily meals, and at just nine years old, could be running teams of up to 15 children. 

"We had to keep quiet and hide most of the time so that no one outside the house knew how many people lived there," he shares. 

The children would regularly perform sing or dance routines in restaurants, schools and aged care residences, sometimes for "people of influence". 

"We would have to go out and sell cassette tapes and posters created by the group in order to raise funds for daily life and to send money back to the leaders. If we weren’t selling or performing, we were practising."


A sinister reality. 

While the church painted a picture of devotion to God and each other, the reality was a sinister world dominated by physical and sexual abuse.

Joe says physical abuse was constant, with beatings and other punishments able to be administered by any adult who lived within the home. 

"You could be punished for things as slight as running down the stairs, laughing too loud, being foolish, playing too energetically, not doing what you were asked to do immediately or to the standard deemed fit. 

"If something happened and one of the kids wouldn’t fess up, we could all be lined up and hit with fly swats, wooden spoons, paddles, bamboo, belts, anything. Sometimes the welts and marks left from spankings had to be covered up with longer clothing, even in summer, when we went out busking and fundraising. We lived in fear and constantly tread on eggshells."

Then, there was the sexual abuse, perpetrated under the guise of 'showing love' as instructed by God. 

"We existed in a heavily sexually charged environment with sex being taken as ‘love’. And God was love so withholding sex from someone meant you were holding back God’s love from them, which meant you thought you were better than God."

Because so many church members lived within the church-run living quarters—often up to eight large families with five or more children — coerced sexual interactions were frequent. 


But according to Joe, the worst sexual exploitation took place during what was known as 'romantic nights' or 'sharing nights'.

These nights involved pre-arranged sexual interactions, where children under 12 were split into two age categories, while those over 12 were considered 'adults' for the purpose of sexual conduct.  

"Little kids would run around with nothing but see-through pieces of cloth wrapped around them, while the bigger kids would be 'paired off' with each other by an adult, and ordered to perform sexual acts on each other. 

"I was once 'paired' with a 9-year-old girl and a 10-year-old girl when I was just 8 years old."

By age 11, the church would begin training Joe to be included in adult sexual interactions. He was chosen by a 30-year-old woman, who would go on to sexually abuse him under the guise of 'preparation'.

"Sexual abuse was constant, systematic, and systemic. The group has always defended itself by saying it was a few rotten apples, but this is 100 per cent untrue.

"They even put out publications in the early days teaching people how to 'show God’s love to' their child, which was essentially instructions on how to groom and abuse children."

Listen to Mamamia's true crime podcast, True Crime Conversations, where in this episode we interview Daniella who also escaped The Children of God. Post continues after audio.


A global phenomenon. 

The Children of God were the subject of an international documentary, Children of the Cult, that describes the church as one of the "world's most notorious and prolific cults".

Now known as The Family International, and previously Teens for Christ and The Family of Love, the church has been accused of sexual and physical abuse on numerous occasions, with multiple former members speaking out about their alleged abuse. Despite this, the church still flourishes. 

Founded in the United States of America in the late 1960s by David Berg, the church reportedly had 10,000 full-time members in 130 communities around the world by the 1970s.

Hollywood stars Rose McGowan and River and Joaquin Phoenix were born into the cult, but later escaped, which warned of a future anti-Christ, and promoted sex as a way of showing God's love, regardless of one's age. 

Joe says while many of the adult members were living under extreme coercive control, genuinely believing they were doing the right thing by God, he believes many took advantage of 'the rules'. 

"There were many that took a little too much joy in the abuse, both physical and sexual, of children," says Joe. 

"They could have done a lot less and still adhered to the guidance of the rules. It was a safe haven, and an incubator, for abusive people. It was rampant."

The escape. 

Despite his environment, Joe has always had a questioning mind and an intrinsic dislike for authority, for which he was often heavily punished. 


"I’'e often wondered whether I knew something wasn’t right, as I had no point of reference," he says. "But I knew I hated what was going on, and dreamed of the day I was old enough to escape, or strong enough to fight back."

Joe says he survived by living "inside my own mind", hiding his true self and feelings, and doing whatever he could to protect himself and his younger siblings. 

"Comply in public and rebel in private."

As Joe approached his 12th birthday, his parents knew it was time to escape. 

"They knew I would be sent to Japan or the Philippines or something, to teen training camps and they would likely never see me again."

The family's escape had to be planned meticulously and executed swiftly. At the time, they were based in India. 

"My parents had squirrelled money away and sold what we had that was of value. We had to leave the city and stay in hotels, until the plane left for Australia."

When the family landed in Australia, Joe and his siblings attended school and quickly developed his own internal strategies to help him adapt to normal life. 

"I came up with a few strategies — millions and millions of tiny steps — to be able to pick through the issues at a pace I could mentally handle and employed them to avoid becoming overwhelmed," he says. 

"They didn't always work, but I’d drag myself back to them, and the process, and have not stopped. One of my biggest advantages has been my dogged refusal to let them win, to let them have any further control of my life, and to get as far away from where I started as possible."


But Joe, now 48, says the impacts have been severe and lifelong. 

"And while I try to focus more on the benefits of my positively processed trauma, I’ll forever find new ways that severe abuse during my formative years has impacted me. 

"There are even some things that I think are just part of me or one of my 'quirks', then I’ll see this quirk described in perfect detail in a social media post… as a classic example of response to childhood trauma."

Kindness, and why Joe now advocates against domestic violence. 

Despite its impact, Joe says he can now speak about the years of abuse without feeling shaky, weak or emotional. 

But, when he talks about acts of kindness shown towards him throughout his life, he becomes "completely undone". 

"Kindness is entirely disarming. For starters, I didn't get much of it and had issues with feeling I was worthy of it. Kindness is a universal power and appeals to each and every human’s inner child, which is the vulnerability in each of us."

As well as running his multimillion-dollar company, 4Shore Projects, Joe is an ambassador for domestic violence charity, Friends with Dignity, which directly assists women and children who have escaped a domestic violence situation.

"I like this charity because they are secular, the management is directly involved, they have an amazing funds-raised-to-action-delivered ratio, and they hit the problem in the field, they get down and dirty at a grassroots level," says Joe. 


"I would like to show through my example, that you can be a strong masculine man, and still be unashamedly kind and gentle. We don't need to surrender our masculinity, (but) we want calm, kind, loving co-parents, husbands, team members, and partners who know they don’t own their partners; who respect that our partners have the right to leave us if they choose to do so.

"It takes far more strength to be kind, understanding and respectful when things don’t go our way, than it takes to be violent and controlling. Men need to step up, take responsibility, and focus on emotional intelligence."

Joe says while he's been able to carve out a successful life, that includes actively helping others, he says the healing journey is never really over. 

"I started consciously working on my healing from age 12. I'm now 48, and the journey is far from over. The heaviness never leaves, it just gets easier to live with and carry."

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

If this brings up any issues for you, contact Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, on 1800 272 831.

Feature Image: Supplied.