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Mothers of invention

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Reporter Michael Valpy travels to Cape Cod to explain how a bizarre religious group fabricated by two charismatic women sparked controversy and alleged abuse at an elite Ontario private school


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

October 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

ORLEANS, MASS. — They were two overweight boozing housewives who hid their drinking, their harridan brawling and their lesbian affair from all but a few obeisant servants.  They lived like royalty with a private plane at their command, a Jaguar, a Bermuda estate and a flat in England.

Community of Jesus founders Mother Cay, left, and Mother JudyIn private, they read cheap magazines, consumed vast amounts of food, fought physically and shrieked at each other for hours on end.

Publicly, they consorted with important figures in American politics and society, and met Pope John Paul II for a chummy chat.

And having founded an ultra-authoritarian Christian community that attracted the wealthy, the successful and often the mind-bruised to their compound on Massachusetts's Cape Cod peninsula, they reached across the border to embrace Grenville Christian College, the private Ontario school now the subject of great controversy, and a naive hierarchy of the Anglican Church of Canada.

These were the Mothers, as the two women styled themselves.  The prioresses of the Community of Jesus.  Mother Cay Andersen, who ran a bed and breakfast with her building contractor husband Bill at the picturesque Orleans cove of Rock Harbor — until she met up with Mother Judy Sorensen, who, with her wealthy financier husband, also called Bill, had a summer cottage two miles away at Crystal Lake.

Their partnership, amazing in its audacity and charismatic despotism, produced the multimillion-dollar faith-based community that continues today under the mantra, "There's nothing more beautiful than a life of obedience."

Mother Cay died 19 years ago and Mother Judy has largely moved offstage, replaced by the equally authoritarian, more intelligent but less charismatic Mother Betty Pugsley.

But the religious dogma they stitched together out of their imaginations and the twists and turns of their own lives is what lies behind the current Anglican Church inquiry and Ontario Provincial Police criminal investigation into allegations of 20 years of psychological, physical and sexual abuse of students at the recently closed Grenville, located near Brockville.

As a close relative of one of the founding Mothers, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it: "Everything at Grenville was right out of the Cay and Judy playbook."

In fact, the community at Cape Cod and the staff of the private boarding school on the St. Lawrence River were one organic body for several years longer than has been owned up to.  Representatives for the community and the school said the two drifted apart in 1997 once headmaster Charles Farnsworth, an Anglican priest and devoted acolyte of the founding Mothers, was nudged into retirement.  But a letter from Mother Betty in 2000 reminded school staff that "the vows [to the Community of Jesus] taken by many at Grenville" — among other things, swearing obedience to the group's leaders — still applied.

For at least two decades, the regimes of autocratic leadership purporting to represent the will of God, absolute submissiveness from members, apocalyptic sin-drenched theology, bizarre abhorrence of sex and reported degradation and maltreatment of adults and children at each venue were identical, hidden behind a veneer of genteel respectability and high-society schmoozing abetted by Anglican priests and prelates as well as, in the U.S., clergy from other supposedly liberal mainline Protestant denominations. 

What is surprising, maybe even astonishing, is that Community of Jesus control over Grenville was first reported in the U.S. media more than 25 years ago during a periodic journalistic branding — there have been five since the 1970s — of the organization as a mind-control cult.

Yet, in Canada, Grenville has been seen as nothing other than an elite private school associated with Ontario's WASP moneyed class and the Anglican Church — until this past summer when abuse allegations surfaced shortly after the school announced at the end of July that it was closing because of declining enrolment and rising costs.

How the two images of Grenville operated side by side for so long may never be clear. 

How the Mothers of Cape Cod got such a grip on so many rich, well-educated and psychologically hurting people opens up a fascinating excursion into North American culture and the human psyche.

How a faith of love — as Christianity generally is thought to be — could be construed as a licence for physical beatings, for removing children from their families to avoid having them "idolatrized" by their parents in violation of the Second Commandment, and for ritualistic psychological humiliation and other "disciplines" to avoid and eradicate sin maybe doesn't bear thinking about.

On the other hand, how the Anglican Church of Canada became a party to all this is worth looking into.