Sep 1, 2023

'It was definitely a cult': Catholic commune with Bay Area hippie roots faces allegations of sex abuse and violence

Catholics United for Life became one of the country’s most vocal anti-abortion groups, protesting outside of clinics and operating a pro-life printing press. But it’s now the subject of multiple lawsuits and former members of the community say sexual abuse and violence permeated their lives.


By Candice NguyenMichael BottMichael Horn and Alex Bozovic 

NBC Bay Area

August 30, 2023 

A lay Catholic commune with roots in the Bay Area hippie movement is now the target of multiple child sexual abuse lawsuits, and three sisters raised within the community say a dark undercurrent of violence and control ran beneath its virtuous facade. 

“I know what a cult is, and it was definitely a cult,” said Margo, the oldest sister, who left the community when she was 26.

The community’s own writings tell its origin story: A group of hippies living communally in Santa Rosa whose spiritual questing 50 years ago led them to Catholicism, the anti-abortion movement and the creation of Catholics United for Life. 

“It wasn’t what most people would consider how you would become Catholic,” Margo said.

Decades-old newsletters printed from the Catholic commune they later formed in Coarsegold, California, a small town just outside of Yosemite, detailed the lives of the dozens of men, women and children who lived there. The old photos chronicle the kids’ homeschooling in a one-room schoolhouse, abortion protests from city to city and speaking tours that preached chastity and other Catholic values. 

“The images of happy children were used to raise money,” said Ruth, the youngest sister, who left the community when she went off to college around 1991. “And that was a lie. That was a lie.”


The sisters say they still bear the trauma from what wasn’t depicted in those old dispatches: Forced relationships with older men, separation from their families outside of the commune, being stripped of personal control and enduring physical and sexual abuse.

“If you haven’t lived a cult experience, you can’t really understand it,” said the middle sister, who NBC Bay Area is calling Jane because she requested anonymity. 

Among the three sisters, Jane stayed in the community the longest, not leaving with her family until 2019.

“I want to take away their power over the narrative of who I am and what my life’s been,” Jane said.

The sisters say the abuse all happened under the watchful eye of the Catholic church and the priests and bishops who lent credibility to the group since its inception. Their newsletters highlighted the community’s resident chaplain, and prominently displayed the names of local bishops they said acted as the community’s advisers. The sisters say priests routinely passed through the community, sometimes staying for long periods of time.

They wonder why no adults, clergy or others in the community ever alerted authorities about what they witnessed.

"There was this gaggle of children that were basically like children of the Lord of the Flies," Ruth said. "I don't know how people looked at us and didn't think, 'What the hell is going on?"'

Catholics United for Life still exists today, based in New Hope, Kentucky. As recently as last year, the Archdiocese of Louisville listed the group in its official directory.

Now, both the commune and the Catholic church are in the sisters’ legal crosshairs. 

Jane and Ruth both filed lawsuits in 2022 alleging they were sexually molested or assaulted by different men in the community, including past and present leaders of Catholics United for Life. The legal claims accuse Catholic officials of giving the sisters’ alleged abusers power and credibility and turning a blind eye to obvious red flags.

“There’s this sense of, ‘Oh, you were bad hippies before, but now you’re Catholic and everything is forgiven.’” Ruth said. “We’re not going to say a word about the weird s*** that you’re doing.”

In her lawsuit, Ruth accuses the group’s longtime former leader, Hal Barton, of repeatedly sexually abusing her over a period of years.

“He was terrifying and chaotic and unpredictable,” Ruth said. “Every single one of those kids that grew up there is a victim and a survivor in their own way,” 

The sisters say Barton instilled fear in both children and adults.

"I was very scared of him," Jane said. "He liked to torment people."

Barton died in 2011, and his surviving wife declined to comment on the allegations. 

The group, which also goes by the name St. Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, is now led by a man named Dennis Musk and his wife.

In her lawsuit, Jane accuses Musk and other men in the community of sexual abuse.

"Plaintiff was conditioned to comply with their direction and to respect them as persons of authority in spiritual, ethical and educational matters," her lawsuit states. "Their conduct constituted 'grooming' of Plaintiff and culminated in repeated sexual assault and abuse of Plaintiff."

NBC Bay Area reached Musk’s wife by phone, but she declined to comment on the recent accusations, and Musk never directly responded to interview requests.

Catholic officials in California and Kentucky, as well as representatives for the Dominican Order, also declined to answer questions about their ties to Catholics United for Life. 

Although Margo said she decided not to file a lawsuit of her own, she told NBC Bay Area she was also a victim of sexual assault. She alleges being abused by two members of the community when she was a young girl during the group's early hippie days. Margo said the community shamed her into silence when they learned of her alleged abuse.

“Blaming you, shaming you, telling you that you can’t talk about it because it’s going to ruin the mission, it’s going to ruin someone’s family,” Margo said. “But the truth of the matter is, I never as an 8-year-old girl asked to be sexually molested.”

Jane said she had a similar experience when she spoke up about what happened to her.

"These things were always your fault, and there was always a lot of humiliation around them," Jane said.

The abuse wasn’t only sexual, the sisters say, and it took many forms.

There was violence, they say, like the gay conversion therapies they described witnessing. 

“Beating gay men in front of us and asking them if they have sex with animals,” Ruth said.

They also remember being publicly humiliated and being deprived of personal freedom. Margo said she might get “slapped around” if she wore eyeliner.

“When I was 14, they shaved our heads,” Jane said. “You’re not in charge of your children, you don’t get any compensation for your work, you don’t own anything.”

It was a recent online photo of Musk at a Catholic youth conference for children the sisters say helped spur them to go public with their stories.

“That was really a trigger for me,” Margo said. “I couldn’t live with it anymore.”

The sisters aren’t the only ones coming forward. A separate lawsuit filed last year accused another man in the community of sexually abusing a young boy when they lived in Coarsegold.

“The defendants should have been committed to protecting the children that were living right there with them,” said Michael Carney, the plaintiff’s attorney. “They owed those children that much, and they absolutely failed.”

Now that the group’s former members are speaking up, the sisters say the Catholic church needs to listen.

“[Catholics United for Life] needs to disband as an entity,” Ruth said. “The Catholic church should demand that they do, and they should pay us recompense and reparations for the abuse that we experienced for years.”

Ruth now works in marketing and communications, Margo runs her own business, and Jane is a teacher. All three graduated from college.

“We’re a pretty talented bunch of ladies,” Margo said. "The world has changed, and it feels a lot more accepting of victims, but it's still a scary thing to step out and show your vulnerable side."

Jane recently filed a report with the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, but a department spokesperson said the investigation was closed due to the statute of limitations. She also says she reported her alleged abuse directly to the church but hasn’t received a satisfactory response. 

“It’s affected me and my kids,” Jane said. “I had to go and file [a lawsuit] in California because nobody would take me seriously.”

Despite everything, Jane still considers herself a Catholic. 

“That’s the failings of human people, and it’s not what God would want,” Jane said.

Seeking accountability for their alleged abuses hasn’t been easy, the sisters say, but coming forward now is part of living life on their own terms and protecting other children.

“Get married and have babies for Christ, that was me,” Ruth said. “That was the way they told me I should be. I learned that I’m not a thing, that I’m a human being, and I get to be whoever I want to be.”


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