Joaquin Phoenix Discusses Growing Up in the Children of God Religious Sect

PHOTO: Joaquin Phoenix attends the screening of "Inherent Vice" during AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi at the Egyptian Theatre, Nov. 8, 2014, in Hollywood, Calif.Alberto E. Rodriguez/AFI/Getty Images
Joaquin Phoenix attends the screening of "Inherent Vice" during AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi at the Egyptian Theatre, Nov. 8, 2014, in Hollywood, Calif.

When Joaquin Phoenix was a child, his parents briefly joined the Children of God religious group, which some critics have called a cult.

However, Phoenix said that his time living with the group was brief.

"My parents had a religious experience and felt strongly about it. They wanted to share that with other people who wanted to talk about their experience with religion. These friends were like, 'Oh, we believe in Jesus as well,'" he told Playboy magazine. "I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, 'We’re like-minded people. This is a community,' but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out."

Children of God, now called The Family International, has been criticized by former members, including actress Rose McGowan, for sexual misconduct, including child molestation.

In the 1980s, the group, which had by then been reorganized, formally prohibited sexual contact between adults and minors and renounced its previous endorsement of sharing sexual partners and polygamy. "TFI reorganized four years ago (May 2010) and currently exists mainly as a small virtual community, so there is little relation of controversies and allegations from the distant past to the current membership, or alignment to its history of the past 10 years," a spokesperson for the organization told ABC News via email. "TFI has expressed its apologies on a number of occasions to any members who feel that they were hurt in any way during their membership, which are also posted online. For all intents and purposes, TFI no longer exists as a structured entity or communal movement."

Phoenix said he never bore witness to any of those practices.

"As I understand it, you’re on the outside of that group until you’re accepted. I don’t think we ever got to that point, because frankly, as it got closer, I think my parents went, 'Wait a minute. This is more than a religious community. There’s something else going on here, and this doesn’t seem right,' so they left very early on," he explained. "When people bring up Children of God, there’s always something vaguely accusatory about it. It’s guilt by association. I think it was really innocent on my parents’ part. They really believed, but I don’t think most people see it that way. I’ve always thought that was strange and unfair."

After leaving the group, Phoenix and his family moved to southern California. It wasn't long before the actor, then six years old, landed an agent.

"We were always singing and playing music, and we were encouraged to express ourselves. When you’re a kid, acting is an extension of playing," he said. "You have an imagination, right? If that’s encouraged and you’re in an environment where you’re given these props and opportunities to express yourself, it’s terribly exciting. I always loved it."

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