Esoteric Cult at Center of Church-State Controversy
LOS ANGELES TIMES MAY 6, 1979
Morningland Leaders Deny Alleged Dymally Bribe
By Russell Chandler, Times Religion Writer
Candles flickered in front of framed photos of Donato, the “ascended master” and founder of Morningland Church of the Ascended Christ. The heavy fragrance of incense filled the small room where an interview was being conducted. “We are spiritual; we are apolitical. We never had any political connections,” said Gopi Gyan, one of the four highest leaders (all female) of the Long Beach-based metaphysical religious group.
The Gopi (a title indicating “direct telepathic communication” with Donato) leaned forward, her gold triangle medallion, the symbol of Morningland, dangling from her neck as she stressed her point:
We would never interfere in the political arena.”
The state attorney general alleges otherwise. In an affidavit that was the basis for an April 5 search of Morningland’s offices in Long Beach and its attorney’s suites in Westwood and Sherman Oaks, an officer of the Department of Justice said:
My investigation reflects that $10,000 in Morningland funds were paid to Edward L. Masry (the Morningland attorney) for (former Lt. Gov.) Mervyn Dymally to influence an official act by a state official. These funds have not been reported as campaign contributions. ”
The alleged church bribe, according to the affidavit, was in connection with a plan by Dymally when he was lieutenant governor last year to set up a legislative subcommittee. It was supposed to hold hearings on reported harassment of Peoples Temple in San Francisco and Morningland in Escondido where until last October the cult had a temple. Morningland leaders who were interviewed insist Morningland “never had any extensive or formal contact with Dymally.” But they conceded that several of them did meet Dymally in the spring and summer of 1978 including one meeting with Dymally in Masry’s Universal City home. Accounts by Morningland leaders about what happened at the meetings differ sharply from those of former Morningland members who testified in the affidavit and talked to a reporter.
Sri Patricia, widow of Morningland founder Daniel Sperato (Donato) and now the church’s “spiritual directoress,” points out that Morningland has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. She said the Morningland leaders who attended a Dymally fund-raising dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel last May 11 “went as guests” of Masry simply to be introduced to Dymally. Masry, a high-powered attorney whose clients include well-known politicians and sports figures, said in an interview that the meetings were arranged “basically to help Merv with the band.”
Morningland’s rock group, Shiva, was seeking to play at Dymally functions “free of charge. like all of the singing groups appearing for (Mike) Curb,” the present lieutenant governor who took the post away from Dymally in last November’s elections, Masry said. Dymally, through his attorney (Masry), said: “The charges regarding bribery are so ludicrous that to answer them would be to deviate from the main issue which is whether a government entity can transgress into a church and a lawyer’s files in the manner in which the attorney general did.
Since the April 5 search, which Sri Patricia refers to as a “raid by a Nazi Gestapo force,” Morningland has mounted a vocal campaign with several other Southern California religious groups, including the Worldwide Church of God and the Rev. Eugene Scott of television Channel 30. They say the state-and the attorney general in particular – are part of a conspiracy to wipe out religious freedom for “all churches and ministers everywhere.”
Morningland has been surrounded by an aura of mysticism and controversy almost since its beginnings eight years ago. Donato, born Daniel Mario Sperato in Syracuse, N.Y. 50- some years ago (chronological age is de-emphasized at Morningland), was arts and crafts director for the North Branch Boys Club of Long Beach. He turned to metaphysics and automatic writing (a kind of “divine dictation” from the spirit world) in the 1960s. On May 16, 1971, according to Sri Patricia, Donato achieved his avesha, or divine incarnation, making him “the true personification of Oneness.” He performed psychic readings, healings and metaphysical teachings in the early 1970′s, and on May 30, 1973, received his “final initiation” as the “Christ avatar for the Aquarian Age.”
Incorporating as a non-profit tax-exempt organization, Morningland, under Donato’s leadership soon began to grow from one store-front with half a dozen devotees in 1973 to nearly a block of buildings in Long Beach and a mailing list of about 3,000 persons. The church also opened a retreat center at Crestline. In 1975, a second ashram, or congregation, was formed in Escondido. Morningland offers a virtual smorgasbord of psychic wares for persons seeking spiritual illumination and “the truth as it is,” to cite an oft-quoted Morningland slogan. For suggested donations, seekers may sample Morningland’s brand of scientific knowledge and intuition based on a blend of tarot ( a 78-card deck used in predictions), astrology, parapsychology, palmistry, numerology, spiritualism, dianetics, esoteric healing, Hinduism, Buddhism, Lamaism, Christianity, Taoism, Zen, yoga, aura readings, the “Urantia Book” (which describes universe and superuniverse personalities) and “The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.” (The list is not exhaustive.)
Morningland concepts are amalgamated by vocabulary from Eastern religions, Scientology, popular metaphysics, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” On November 7, 1976, Donato completed his work on this physical plane, according to his widow, and returned, “to his rightful throne beside our Holy Father. as a fully realized Christed being.” His death certificate says he died of a heart attack. Now, says Sri Patricia, a small woman with straw-blonde hair and large luminous eyes, “Donato is just a thought away,” one of “millions of ascended Christs, not all from this planet. Morningland followers believe Donato forms the link between the spirit world, Sri Patricia, the remaining gopis (he had appointed nine women gopis before his death) and disciples who hone in to his directions through telepathy. Devotees call it “The Mind Lock.”
Sri Patricia has said Donato hovers 25 miles up in a space ship with the “space brothers” or “white brotherhood” (the spiritual hierarchy of ascended beings). In more earthly matters, there is less precision. For reasons best known to Morningland officials, the group has used at least four corporate names in business dealings. Morningland, Church of the Ascended Christ, the Church of the Brotherhood and the Brotherhood of Peace and Tranquillity. Outward indications of problems within Morningland began to surface in early 1978 when about 400 members of the Escondido temple were excommunicated. Sri Patricia, who directed the Escondido church then, stressed their need to become “clear,” or at one with the Holy Father, through Donato.
Some ousted and disillusioned disciples were among Escondido-area citizens who appeared last April before the Escondido City Council to demand a police investigation of Morningland. The anti-Morningland group accused the sect leaders of practicing mind control, breaking up marriages, luring children from their homes and promoting Morningland teachings in public schools. Other accusations by some members of the community to Escondido officials included murder, kidnapping, illicit drug use and petty thievery. Morningland officers vigorously denied all charges and countered that Morningland was being irrationally persecuted solely because of its beliefs.
The Escondido City Council formally called for the investigation several weeks after the police, acting on tips from upset citizens, had already started looking into Morningland. It was then that Morningland came into contact with attorney Masry and his associate, attorney, Andrew Zanger. On April 28, 1978 Morningland filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Escondido and top city officials, saying Morningland’s constitutional freedoms of religion and assembly had been violated. The $30 million suit also charged violation of rights and due process, equal protection under the law, privacy, speech and general civil rights. Also, according the suit, the defendants had conspired to harass the cult by unfair enforcement of local building and safety codes.
Meanwhile a $22 million civil suit was filed against Morningland and several of its gopis by the husband of 31-year-old devotee who died of cancer while allegedly depended on metaphysical healings. The suit alleged fraud, negligence and malpractice leading to the wrongful death of Katherine May (words missing). [Morningland healers say that the] breast [tumors] actually were the crystallization of bad thought forms that could be removed through the spiritual influence of Donato. Zanger, representing Morningland in the case, said an answer to the charge had been filed stating that “Donato’s powers of healing could enable an ailment to be cured or lessened if the person accepted the healing and believed in the powers.”
Morningland leaders interviewed this month were reluctant to discuss past events in Escondido. “Donato taught, If you live in the past, you will die in the past,’” explained Gopi Gyan, “We are not very interested in the past. We’re concerned with the present minute. We’re not in Escondido right now-it just doesn’t concern us.” Gyan said Morningland believes in spiritual healing but advocates that members see physicians.
A wrongful death suit is still pending in San Diego county But the $30 million suit by Morningland against Escondido was dismissed last October, shortly after the Escondido branch of Morningland shut down. Escondido police had completed their investigation and no criminal charges were filed against Morningland. Masry said Morningland was “happy with the agreement,” which stipulates that Morningland may not refile the charges and that each party bear it’s own court and attorney costs.
Former members of the Escondido temple say an internal power struggle among Morningland members led to the split that closed it. Masry called it “philosophical differences” between members in Escondido and members in Long Beach. In any case, following the shakeup, Sri Patricia moved to the Long Beach temple. All but three of the nine Morningland gopis left, several moving out of state. Perhaps 300 “hard-core” members remain in the Long Beach church, down from a claimed high of 1,000 two years ago. Two leaders and a handful of followers moved to Arizona, ostensibly to set up a similar metaphysical group in the Tucson area.
Former members say that Sri Patricia’s lifestyle is simple and that she displays few tendencies toward lavish expenditures exhibited by some leaders of some other sects. Gopi Gyan said she had “no idea” how much Morningland’s annual income was and that financial records had been seized during the search by state Justice Department agents. She added that Sri Patricia lived on Social Security payments available to her as a widow and received “zero” from the church.
(part of this section is missing for website transcription purposes) last year when he agreed to represent the church. The fee was not exorbitant, considering the work necessary, Masry said, adding that he had opened and office in Escondido for Zanger at the time of the harassment suit. Masry said that in fact his firm “ate (absorbed) $5,000 in services we didn’t bill to Morningland.” Masry also said Dymally “ate” the cost of the $125-plate dinners consumed by five Morningland leaders, including Sri Patricia, at the Dymally fund-raiser in Beverly Hills last May. Morningland came with a check for about $1000 for the dinner,” Masry said, “But I got to worrying about separation of church and state and so Dymally paid for their dinner tickets.” Masry indicated he had had similar church-state qualms about the Morningland band playing for Dymally functions and recommended that they not do so.
In an interview, Masry acknowledged that they had talked to another of his clients, the Rev. Eugene Scott of Glendale Faith Center, about Dymally’s setting up a committee “regarding the right of the attorney general to subpoena books and records of churches. I maybe brought up (with Dymally the matter of) looking into the harassment of Morningland,” Masry said. But he, like Sri Patricia, was adamant that any talk of paying Dymally was “trumped up” by disgruntled ex-Morninglanders. In fact, Masry filed suit Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court against three members of the band, Shiva, alleging that they had attempted to extort $15,000 from the church or they would “tell all. . the Dymally stuff.”
The affidavit supporting the search warrant issued by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Keene alleges that sometime between April, 1978 and July 1978, Masry was paid $10,000 by check from Morningland by Steve Tamietti, a Morningland official also known as Mahanta who has since severed ties with the sect. Tamietti moved to Green Valley Ariz. With former Gopi Milickia (Barbara Dickerson). Tamietti did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him by telephone. Meanwhile, last week Morningland sent out RSVP invitations addressed to “all defenders of the Holy Father.” They said.
“We urge you to join with us in the first Anti-Genocide Conference to prevent the elimination of the church from the State of California and the United States. Legal advisers will be present.” Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian called the publicity a smokescreen “to cloud the issue.”
Whatever may eventually sift out of the emotional and bizarre case, two things are clear: The Morningland band did not perform at functions for Dymally or other political figures. And Dymally did not set up a committee to investigate harassment of cults.