JERUSALEM, Israel, Jan. 15, 2009 -- An Israeli man is under arrest in Tel Aviv, charged with leading a cult in which he kept least 17 women in a state of near-total obedience, and had at least 37 children with them, according to Israeli Police.
Goel Ratzon, a self-styled sage, is being held after charges of sexual abuse and harassment, rape and enslavement were brought against him in a Tel Aviv court of justice.
Israeli Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld tells ABC News officers simultaneously descended on the four apartments in south Tel Aviv where Ratzon and his followers lived.
Most of the 17 women who were held for questioning by the police have been released, although some of them are still talking to investigators.
The investigation that led to Ratzon's arrest started in June 2009, after three of the women living with him complained to a social worker about mistreatment. The complaint was passed on to the Tel Aviv police.
Police said some of the cult members had Ratzon's face tattooed on their bodies as proof of their devotion to him. Some of the young women broke off relations with their biological families, or threatened their parents if they revealed anything about the life of the cult, the police said.
Cult Allegedly Was Formed in 1990s
"This was not the first time Ratzon came under the scrutiny of the Israeli police," said Rosenfeld. They believe the cult dates to the early 1990s. They began an investigation once before, but closed it in 2006 for lack of conclusive evidence.
Investigators said they considered charges of polygamy, but the women living with Ratzon are legally registered as single mothers.
Shlomtzion Gabay is the public defender assigned to represent Ratzon. " My client has been living with a large number of women for a long time. They all agreed fully with this way of life, had children together, some even brought their own children..there are rules governing their lives," said Gabay. " They all go to work and return.. they are all free to go if they want."
Alleged Cult: One Man, 17 Women Around Him
Gabay asked an Israeli court to release Ratzon, but the judge declined the appeal.
Ratzon's defense was based on the argument that his group had a rule book, laying down clear do's and dont's of life together and listing fines that could be assessed if rules were broken. But investigators said the rules were all meant to achieve one purpose: to allow Goel Ratzon full control over the cult members idolizing him.
In 2006 Israel passed new laws dealing with slavery and trafficking in women; they were put to their first use in the Ratzon case.
A date for an official indictment in this case is yet to be announced.
Three women who were members of the cult are now reported to be describing their unusual lives to investigators. Court observers say prosecutors hope the women's testimony will help them build the case against Goel Ratzon.