1986-Oct.: The ML Church, and Its Controversy

Morningland “healing” church lives on in L.B. despite criticism

Ranks decimated by death, purges, scandal, state investigation

By Larry Keller, Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram

He was the son of Italian immigrants, a former Catholic altar boy who ran a pizza shop in Syracuse, N.Y. She sold Tupperware and was “a typical middle-class lady,” her daughter says. Together, they started their own religion, called Morningland, in Long Beach.

Thirteen years later, the church founded by Daniel “Donato” Sperato, who once taught arts and crafts at the North Long Beach Boys Club, and his wife, Patricia, still survives at 2600 E. Seventh St. In a former synagogue and a group of adjacent storefronts.

Over the years, the ranks of the faithful — once estimated at 1,000, including a second temple in Escondido in northern San Diego County — have been decimated by the death of “Donato the Christ,” wholesale purges of members, sex and drug scandals and a state investigation into allegation s that the sect tried to bribe Mervyn Dymally when he was lieutenant governor.

(Dymally, now a congressman from Compton, was not charged, and charges against all others ended either in dismissal or acquittal.)

Despite problems, though, a cadre of about 50 followers, led by Donato’s widow, still adheres to a philosophy based on an eclectic mix of Christianity, Eastern religions and such practices as astrology, spiritual healing, tarot, numerology, aura reading and palmistry. Adherents believe Morningland will lead them to spiritual salvation and eternal life. Detractors say it is a dangerous cult.

Lately, Morningland has openly advertised that it can cure AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome — through the powers of its spiritual leader, 52-year-old, blond haired, bespectacled Patricia Sperato, or Sri Donato. The sect published a pamphlet that called Sri Donato “a visionary healer. Through Sri… AIDS is healed.” The brochure added: “It is urgent that the men who have AIDS or are afraid of contracting AIDS meet Sri Donato. You haven’t got anything to lose.”

It isn’t clear how many men, if any, have sought “healing” by Donato, although a Long Beach health official attended a seminar that attracted about seven people.

Former disciples believe the AIDS “healings” are a recruitment tool aimed at adding members to Morningland, which they say is a destructive cult that has claimed success healing everything from cancer to herpes and continues to use “mind control” and fear tactics to hold members.

Ranks thinned by death, purges, scandal.

More than a dozen disciples who have left the church in the past two years have sought psychiatric or other counseling, according to two counselors who have treated former members.

A review of the sect’s publications, public records and interviews with a dozen former members found the following:

  • Sham marriages were allegedly arranged to enable immigrants to remain in the United States.
  • Men say they were pressured into getting vasectomies, husbands and wives say they were encouraged to split up and some families say they were persuaded to give up their children.
  • Disciples say they were encouraged to have homosexual relationships or participate in other sexual activity.
  • Many members have helped keep the sect solvent by donating money or possessions. One woman said she gave $40,000 in cash, possessions and services over three years, and another disciple said he gave between $20,000 and $24,000.

In addition to the row of storefronts and church on Seventh Street, the group also owns a lodge at Crestline in the San Bernardino Mountains, making its property holdings worth more than $1 million.

Until recent years, much of the church’s income appears to have come form outside print jobs done by the sect on its own printing press, and from small businesses, such as a boutique and a bookstore.

Because of its church status, Morningland does not have to disclose to the Internal Revenue Service how much it receives in donations, classes and fund-raising efforts. Ex-disciples say that, beginning around 1981 or 1982, the sect began accepting only cash donations and cash payments for classes and readings it offered.

Most former disciples interviewed in recent months would not allow their names to be used fearing unspecified harassment by the sect’s followers.

Morningland has rejected or declined to reply to Press-Telegram requests by telephone and in writing for interview with a Morningland representative would be arranged, but it was not.

One of these attorneys, Edward Masry of Sherman Oaks, issued blanket denials of several accusations or said he was unaware of some of the sect’s more controversial practices.

“When people leave the church, they’re usually angry about some sort of spiritual philosophy,” said Masry who was made an honorary disciple by Morningland. “Since the Crusades, people have been leaving churches. It’s nothing new. Anybody can make allegations. Without more information, it sounds like hearsay.”

Most former Morningland disciples who were interviewed are articulate and sensitive. Most are in their 20s and 30s. Some are white collar workers: one is in sales; another is successfully self-employed; another works at the Navy shipyard. A former business employee of the Press-Telegram also was a disciple. All were looking to improve their lives when they joined Morningland.

Sprinkled with words from Eastern religions, pop jargon and phrases from movies, Morningland’s teachings are said to prepare disciples for final ascension form Earth — or space migration — to a spaceship carrying Donato to 25 miles above the planet. Leading the faithful is Sri Donato (formerly Sri Patricia) Donato’s widow, who through telepathic communication “upstairs” with the master, Donato is said to guide believers. In recent years, Sri Donato has proclaimed herself the master and the Christ, since she is said to be one with Donato, and has de-emphasized earlier teachings about the spaceship-in-waiting.

According to the sect’s teachings, Donato, acting as the Holy Father’s representative, descended into hell (Earth) at 7:35 a.m. on May 16, 1971, in the San Diego suburb of Ramona. He completed his mission and ascended back to the Holy Father on Nov. 7, 1976 — the date he died. That mission, according to church dogma, was to prepare 144,000 persons for their final ascension from earth. Morningland was established as “evacuation headquarters.” Its Long Beach temple is in the vortex or center of the world — a place where all good things begin. In recent months, the sect has taken out full-page ads in a free tabloid newspaper distributed in Long Beach and other coastal cities, including one stating that it offers AIDS seminars evenings, Monday through Thursday.

“Morningland offers a special, unique, one-of-a-kind program that works,” the ad stated. A woman answering Morningland’s telephone recently confirmed that the sect claims to heal AIDS. “Several men who have AIDS diagnosed received healings,” she said. “It’s quite an awesome experience to see it reversed. This is the most unique experience. We have had several med diagnosed as having AIDS Ö and restored to health.”

Morningland’s attorney, Masry, said he had no knowledge of his clients’ claims at healing AIDS. Nor has he seen the sect’s AIDS brochure, he said.

“This is the first I’ve heard of any of this.” Said Rob Kamme, president of the Lambda Democratic Club, a Long Beach gay and lesbian activist organization. “I have to appreciate that people have the right to believe what they believe. To me, it doesn’t make much sense.”

Ray Kincade, AIDS project coordinator for the Long Beach Health Department, said he heard about the seminars and attended one in January. He said he declined to pay the suggested $10 donation at the door and received “all kinds of evil looks.” Kincade said there were perhaps seven other people at the seminar he attended. Several Morningland disciples sang or played soothing music, and the sect’s temple was pleasantly lighted.” he said.

It seemed like the beginning of their indoctrination.” Kincade said of the 90-minute session. “They all had this silly smile. It’s very eerie.”

Three or four Morningland disciples told of how their colleagues had been healed through Sri Donato’s spiritual powers of maladies ranging from psychosis to various physical problems, said Kincade. And the sect claimed to have healed one person of AIDS, he said. Kincade said he asked for proof or documentation of the latter, but none was forthcoming. To skeptics such as Kincade, Morningland has a ready response. “If you haven’t experienced it, you can’t know it.” He quoted one disciple as saying.

Sri Donato never appeared at the seminar, said Kincade, but those attending were told her powers were funneled through her emissaries.

Kincade declined a Morningland request to refer persons to the sect who have concerns about AIDS. He said he also rejected a request to post its AIDS seminars flyers at the Center, a gay and lesbian service center where he assists in an AIDS testing program. According to former disciples, Morningland healers place their hands on the subject, purportedly to allow the healing powers of Donato — the deceased founder of Morningland and husband of Sri Donato — to be transmitted.

One ex-disciple said that after Sri Donato placed a hand over her head, her asthma attacks sopped and never flared up again.

Ray Slavin was a Morninglander for 10 years, finally leaving the sect in 1984. He recalls a time when his ears were ringing and his blood vessels kept breaking. Slavin says he was assured by sect officials that he was merely experiencing cloning — a process in which he was becoming a duplicate of Christ. But Slavin, 39, went to a doctor, anyway. He learned that his blood pressure was 205 over 90. (Normal ranges from 90 over 60 to 150 over 90). Slavin had been plagued by high blood pressure in the past but received a “healing” form Morningland.

Slavin’s wife, Judy, 38, also was a Morningland disciple, and she was given a “healing” for a pain in her leg and told she wore high heels too often. When the pain persisted, she visited a doctor and learned she had a ruptured disk.

While former Morningland members can recount numerous healing failures, none was as notorious as that of Kathy May, a schoolteacher, wife and mother who became a disciple at Morningland’s Escondido temple — since closed — in January, 1976. Two years later, she was dead at 31 of breast cancer. Her husband, Forrest, filed a wrongful death suit against Morningland, Sri Donato and two ministers or “gopis” named Celta and Aria, asking $22 million in damages. In December 1982, May and Morningland settled the wrongful death suit out of court for $50,000.

In his lawsuit, May — who along with his wife had been a Morningland disciple — alleged that Morningland had claimed that it had previously cured cancer, defective vision, emotional breakdowns, heart defects, high blood pressure and other physical and emotional afflictions.