Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970.

Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and an ominous, yet unspecified new threat late in 2018.) While non-believers shall perish, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (including his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci) Burton and his followers will be spared, founding a new, and more perfect civilization.

Many regard Robert Earl Burton a narcissist and sociopath, surrounded by a largely greed- and power-driven inner circle. The following pages offer abundant evidence supporting that conclusion.

This archive draws on official Fellowship publications and websites, news archives, court documents, cult education and awareness forums, the (former) Fellowship Wikipedia page, the long-running Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the (former) Fellowship of Friends wiki project, and the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Monday, March 13, 1995

"In the name of Religion" - Last of Two Parts

Church leader's sexual trysts cause membership defections

The San Diego Union-Tribune

March 13, 1995

By Gordon Smith
Staff Writer


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.

Psychological trauma

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 [ed: Wim Pieters].

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."

[ed. - This is Colin Lambert, not Robert Burton.]

Philosophy supports sex drive
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.

Taken advantage of

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.

Members nervous around leader

"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.

Photo caption: "International headquarters: The Fellowship's 1,300 acres in the foothills of Yuba County include a vineyard and winery. The group also owns 130 pieces of antique Chinese hardwood furniture, some valued at $100,000.

Feuding With The Locals

Effort to keep low profile didn't work
The San Diego Union-Tribune/March, 1995

By Gordon Smith - Staff Writer

When the Fellowship of Friends chose the foothills of Yuba County for its home back in 1971, "we thought we could come up here and disappear," one of the group's leaders, Girard Haven, said not long ago.

Members not only focused on inward-looking spiritual work, but were actively encouraged not to socialize with "outsiders," according to many people formerly in the group.

As Haven noted, however, the effort to maintain a low profile didn't succeed. The Fellowship's wine making, its art collecting, its esoteric religious beliefs and its mostly middle and upper-middle-class members all stand out in Yuba County, a blue-collar agricultural area whose median per-capita income is one of the lowest in the state.

Many locals were suspicious of a group that quickly became one of the largest property owners in the area yet kept to itself, said former county Supervisor John Mistler.

Some still are. There have been numerous complaints that the relatively affluent Fellowship has received kid-glove treatment from Yuba County officials on building permits and various kinds of code enforcement.
The most vitriolic accusations come from the Olivehurst Gospel Assembly (OGA), a small group of fundamentalist, antigovernment Christians that lost a 107-acre ranch to Fellowship members in an access dispute in 1993.

Interviewed recently in a sparsely furnished office while guarded by an enormous Rottweiler named Buck, several OGA members accused the Fellowship and county officials of conspiring to cover up murders and child sexual abuse, as well as arranging for selective enforcement of building and health codes.

Far-fetched as some of these complaints sound, they helped bring about a grand jury investigation of the Yuba County Building and Planning Department last year.

That investigation blamed department director Larry Brooks for failing to control illegal building and building use, applying some regulations inconsistently and obstructing the grand jury's inquiry, among other things.

Brooks sued the grand jury for defamation and libel, and was fired by the County Board of Supervisors in October. He is considering further legal action.

Nevertheless, an inspection by the Yuba County Environmental Health Department in December discovered serious code violations at the Fellowship's "lodge," where members ate.

The violations included an unauthorized second story, open wiring and bare earth exposed through the floor, according to Carol Fitzgerald, a county environmental health specialist. The lodge was closed. [ed. - For nearly twenty years, the Fellowship knowingly ignored the law. See "Imitation Meditation Room".]

Cynthia Hill, the Fellowship's director of public relations, said the group's architects will work with county officials to resolve the issue.

President Kristina Nielsen added that the Fellowship is making a deliberate effort these days to reach out into the community that surrounds it.

"We don't have an isolationist attitude," she insisted.

The 600 members who live on or near the group's 1,300-acre property patronize local stores, and some have built houses and started businesses, she pointed out.

We've upscaled the area," Nielsen said.

The group's small restaurant is open to the public. So are its winery and its small museum of antique Chinese furniture, albeit by appointment only.

An orchestra and chorus from the group performed at a church in Sacramento last month, and its collection of antique Chinese furniture is scheduled to be displayed at the Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco for nine months beginning April 20.

"We wish to be more attentive to relations with the community," said Nielsen.

[ed. - Other references to the Olivehurst Gospel Assembly:]

"Ames Gilbert" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, June 11, 2007:

To LOL (#11-355, 424 and many others)[blogger and post numbers]

Like it or not, to many you represent the Fellowship of Friends. I have no idea if you are doing this as part of what you conceive to be third line work (advancing the aims of the school and the teacher), or if it is just a convenient place to vent off the pressures of your life (your implication). I suppose it is possible that you are officially here as part of a plan to try to disrupt the blog. But, as I said, you are seen as a representative of the FoF, as one aspect of its being, and I have to point out that you are not doing a good job as ambassador.

You burst in on the scene a couple of pages ago (in your incarnation as LOL, at least) in a flurry of activity and negativity. I read your words and see a lot of thoughts about injustice, bias, and lying. I’m sure there are aspects of those here, and yet if that was all there were, your own experience should tell you that the blog would have died long before this. When you talk about the Inner Circle of the Blog, I wonder what you mean. By it’s very nature, a blog is disorganized, even if it built around a theme. The only way to have an inner circle, or favorites, is to have an organization, or a vote. So, you must be measuring frequency of posts, in which case you certainly qualify for the “Inner Circle”; you’re welcome to that lofty space, watch out for altitude sickness!

You are pretty keen on the old fart theme, and show that you know something about the past history of the FoF. So it seems possible that you are either an old fart yourself, or joined so young that you have both the first–hand historical view but are not yet old enough to be an old fart. You are obviously in a position where you have either been given permission or feel self-important enough to give yourself permission to attend the festivities. Maybe you are Linda T. herself? She is the only one who can tell us about her inner state without (maybe) lying, and you claim to know it.

Well, we voted to include your views and others like them, and you are keeping on as one of the most frequent contributors. That says something about us, and something about you. Although of course we know you do not represent the whole Fellowship, just as some of your targets on the blog do not represent the whole blog community, one way or another you are giving us a glimpse behind the scenes.

So, thank you!

To Simple Truth (#11-465)

Burton is not a private person with a private life. He is a very public person (at least in the large fish in a small pond scale of things), and invites public scrutiny, not least because he has set himself up as an example and guide. Since the FoF is the form, the vessel being built by students, and he is supposed to fill it, it matters a great deal what he fills it with. There cannot be too much light shed on every aspect of his being. That he operates mostly behind closed doors implies much about his being, and of course leads to some guesswork. That’s the simple truth.

To Unoanimo (#11-483)

Have you ever met Michelle Milligan, her paramour “Reverend” Heinz, or any of the others in the Olivehurst Gospel Assembly? I had quite a lot of contact with them (unfortunately, I was a neighbor to their property), and still see them around in Oroville. Now, there are some pain bodies to study! Michelle did copy the court documents* accurately, but I wouldn’t put much trust in the rest of her articles!

With love to you all, ‘in’ and ‘out’,

[*Ames appears to be referencing these documents.]

"Bares Reposting" wrote on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog, August 13, 2011:
Look, my friends, here is the scenario:

REB lives under his own different laws. There is no male child that REB lays eyes on that does not fall under his spell to groom and have sex with as soon as they are capable of ejaculating into REB’s mouth. Does it happen at a very early age? That is anybody’s quess. (Someone care to fess up here?) But this I can tell you: There are many parents that have precautionarily kept their male children at a distance, and out of sight of, REB.

Do you remember that the Lewis Carroll Elementary School used to be on the property of the Fellowship of Friends (Pathway to Presence – Living Presence – Church of Robert Earl Burton) directly across Hans Christian Andersen Way from the residence of REB? Hans Christian Andersen Way was the name of the main entry road to the FoF property at the time, where the residence of REB was #44 – O! so make believe a fairy tale. From REB’s location, with or without binoculars, the children could be watched.

In the early 1990′s, around when AG first arrived to live longterm in Oregon House and to become the Fellowship of Friends main lawyer, there was the T.B. underaged sex abuse lawsuit brought by Ford Greene. AG was to defend REB against this case, in a ‘no holds barred’ (no maneuvers prohibited) sort of fashion.

At about the same time, there was a lawsuit that AG was working, where some fellowship members were denied access to the property where they lived by the Olivehurst Gospel Assembly (OGA), whose property the access road passed first. The direct quote from REB on how to treat this case was: ‘Go for the jugular,’ as in jugular vein, that is, go for the kill. The case was won but not without significant strife for the Fellowship of Friends and REB. OGA became a thorn in the side of FoF for awhile. But that is a side story.

T.B. did not attend that elementary school, that I am aware of; he was too old. But several departments (octaves) of the Fellowship of Friends were the grounds to employ all sorts of ‘darlings’ of REB’s so that the young men were indentured servants (slaves) and were nearby for quick access for sex. T.B. was one of those.

The message from AG to REB after the TB case was: I cannot defend you against this sort of thing. (The case was settled out of court for a reported $5 million.) So, stop doing that – make sure the sex is with adaquate aged persons and consentual. Would this stop REB? Hell no! He must have his cake and eat it, too.

The way to prevent backlashes from sex partners is to compromise their ability to attack in the TB fashion. So, grooming male children of fellowship members from the time of birth, is a way to grow your own. Example: E.T. and C.C. (an REB personal secretary) had 3 children. They were considered the ‘Royal Family’ as REB doted upon them big time. Their first born male child had REB as godfather. Ownership had been established – except for the tattoo of ‘this property belongs to REB’ on the child’s buttocks. C.C. probably, eventually woke up to where this was leading. E.T. and C.C. split from Oregon House and went to live in Europe. They gave up a new home (which was across Rice’s Crossing Road from REB’s residence) that was virtually given to them along with a life where their needs were ever met by REB. E.T., likely, still is wide-eyed and naive about this from what I know – she still loves REB like a father, god, and teacher – still in a fairyland.

So, is it plausible that AG’s son could come under such perdition? What irony would that be? Defend REB under these circumstances and then have your own flesh and blood exposed? REB can plan and conive and wait patiently for years to get what he wants. The longer he waits, the more tantalizing the prey becomes. Meanwhile, what AG wanted for his child, did that matter? REB has the magic wand in one hand and a club in the other – just like REB describes of Influence C.

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