For years, the law enforcement community in Florida heard terrible stories about the children of The Temple of Love.
No one did much of anything.
This week, almost as a footnote to a 25-page indictment of the leader of the Yahweh religious sect and 16 disciples, a federal grand jury alleged the plight of those children in a single phrase:
The leader, Yahweh Ben Yahweh, had "sexual relations with both adult and minor female followers."
Thursday, one day after the federal indictment, State Attorney Janet Reno said simply, "We are investigating allegations of child abuse." She declined to elaborate.
Yahweh has repeatedly and emphatically denied all wrongdoing, saying allegations are from "an army of liars."
To the public in the past, the kids of Yahweh presented a portrait of childhood innocence -- smart, neat, polite, well- behaved.
For visitors, during tours of the school, they performed extraordinary feats of rote learning, reciting, sing-song, in rapid-fire, all the chemical elements and their symbols: "Lithium, Li . . . Lutetium, Lu . . . Magnesium, Mg . . . Manganese, Mn. . . ."
"Yahweh Ben Yahweh asks the most profound math questions in the entire universe, " the kids chanted, occasionally punctuating the litany with swings of fists. "Yahweh Ben Yahweh is causing us to be."
But behind the facade was a grimmer tale. Child defectors say that they were beaten with switches, forced to work long hours and sometimes went hungry.
And on paper, they didn't even exist.
"They didn't have birth certificates, " said Lloyd Clark, a former Yahweh elder who left the sect in the mid-1980s.
Yahweh, he said, "didn't want the devil to know how many of us there was, and he said -- he would say -- 'This is one baby that the devil cannot touch' because he was against going to doctors and hospital unless it was an extreme case, like he didn't want the white people to touch our babies."
Testifying in a civil lawsuit in 1987, Clark said women and girls had to serve the sect leader. "He has free access to all women in the temple.
"He was having some of the girls there that were 12 years old."
In years past, Yahweh published pamphlets in which he exhorted women: "Bring me your infants and young children. . . . I have plenty of room in our house. . . . Our babies do not belong to white people. . . . Our babies belong to our black creator, Yahweh."
Another pamphlet, titled Can I Protect My Child from Whitey's Evil Influence, prohibited Yahweh children from attending public schools.
"As long as they are in public schools, they are daily in the company of others who are selfish, disrespectful, immoral, evil, wicked and drug users, liars and thieves and haters of God's laws."
In other pamphlets, titled America Terrorizes Yahweh's Hebrew Israelites and White Americans Are Kidnappers and Terrorists, Yahweh blasted law-enforcement authorities in New York.
That occurred after prosecutors in Brooklyn charged 11 Yahweh followers with beating children, threatening to cut off their genitals and applying hot barbecue sauce to their welts for failing to meet collection quotas.
Ex-Yahweh Robert Rozier, who pleaded guilty to four sect- connected murders in Dade and is now a federal prosecution witness, testified at a civil trial last year that he had seen Yahweh Ben Yahweh himself humiliate and abuse children.
The kids sometimes underwent conditioning in a prayer room "where I myself spent six days on my knees facing the east . . . (with) no food, only water when he wanted to give it to you."
"It was total humiliation, " Rozier said.
"If you had a child that needed discipline, just like he would do today, take a switch from a tree and make them take their shirt off."
Rozier added that other kids had to "dig in the ground with their fingers."
Ex-Yahweh Wilbert Rolle's three children lived on temple property in the early 1980s. He said his kids were never beaten, but others were. He saw children with "welts" from public beatings, he testified. Once he witnessed Yahweh himself whipping a teen-ager on the back with a footlong switch, he said.
Assistant Dade State Attorney Michael Band, who prosecuted ex-Yahweh Rozier, said he knew of child abuse allegations years ago.
But the state, he said in an interview last summer, could never prove them.
Witnesses were afraid to talk. They were hard to find. In some instances, they expressed concern about sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, who remained in the sect.
The Dade state attorney's office simply lacked the investigative resources available to the federal government, Band said.
Other agencies heard the stories, too. But didn't act.
Florida's Attorney General Robert Butterworth passed on allegations about the misuse of child-welfare funds to Dade State Attorney Reno and Florida's Auditor General.
The auditor general concluded that it was too late to do anything about any possible fraud because the statute of limitations had run out.
The state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, which enforces laws against child abuse and neglect, said it didn't know a thing.
No victim ever called the department's 1-800 number, said HRS spokesman Ruben Betancourt.
Ellis Rubin, attorney for Yahweh, was unavailable for comment late Thursday about the sexual abuse allegations. In an earlier conversation, he said he couldn't discuss child abuse because it was the subject of a federal investigation.
Some months ago, after a Herald inquiry, HRS inspected the school at the Temple of Love. Inspectors tried to find out how many children attended.
In a box marked "census, " an inspector wrote: "Belief does not allow for counting."