Warning: This story contains graphic sexual description.
A California-based spiritual organization renowned for its natural wine is being sued by several former members who allege the leader sexually assaulted them along with “hundreds—if not thousands of other young men” and the group trafficked members to the U.S. to satisfy the leader’s “uncontrollable compulsion to engage in sexual conduct with scores of men.”
Six former members of the Fellowship of Friends filed a state lawsuit against the sect—which some experts have referred to as a “cult”—and its leader Robert Earl Burton in late November. The 84-year-old teaches that most people exist in a state of “waking sleep” and urges his students to immerse themselves in high culture and art—like Renaissance paintings, rare books, opera, ballet, and wine—to become more “present” and achieve higher consciousness.
The fellowship’s 1,200-acre headquarters is in Oregon House, California, 70 miles north of Sacramento. The sprawling compound, known as Apollo, is filled with Baroque statues, fountains, elaborate gardens inspired by Versailles, hundreds of palm trees, white camels, water buffalos, a Roman-style amphitheater, and a vineyard.
Wine enthusiasts may know about the Fellowship of Friends through its award-winning winery, called Renaissance. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov included one of its vintages on his list of “The Most Memorable Wines of 2023,” published Dec. 8.
The group also has some influence in Big Tech since many members live in the Bay Area and work in the industry. Last year, the fellowship made headlines after an ex-Google employee sued the company alleging he was fired because he complained that fellowship members dominated a business unit called Google Developer Studio. The suit was settled out of court.
The fellowship claims to have 1,500 members internationally, with about 500 to 600 living near its compound. The group recruits new members—who are required to give at least 10 percent of their income—through centers around the world. Some international members are selected to move to Oregon House where they live with Burton in his Louis XVI-style mansion filled with fine art and antiques, according to the lawsuit.
The sex abuse lawsuit claims that fellowship officers and directors knew of Burton’s abuse and “intentional targeting of young, vulnerable male members” and “enabled, covered up, aided, and abetted” in the abuse and trafficking, sometimes “procuring immigration documents, including tourist visas and religious visas” for young men to travel to the U.S. where they were “victimized” by Burton.
These allegations were first brought to light in the investigative podcast Revelations, produced by the reporter of this article, which includes interviews with six men who alleged Burton forced them to have sex with him while they were fellowship members. Two of the men, both from Eastern Europe, claimed the fellowship helped them obtain visas after they were selected by Burton to move to the U.S., and spoke of participating in sex rituals known as “Lovefests,” during which Burton attempted to have sex with 100 men in a 24-hour period.
“Robert had this initiative to celebrate with a special Lovefest, where he wanted to have sex with 100 men—which required a lot of effort to make it happen,” one participant said in Revelations. “It needed special organization so that he will have people back-to-back, in order to fit in 100 men. But I think he couldn’t quite do 100, and he got run down. But he did about maybe 70.”
These rituals were also described in the lawsuit. “Between approximately 2002 through 2005, defendants systematically organized two days, in back-to-back years, wherein [Burton] would attempt to have sex with 100 men in a day; these were called ‘Lovefests’ and occurred on Valentine’s Day,” reads the complaint. “Upon information and belief, [Burton] was able to successfully sexually assault between 70-80 men during these ‘Lovefests.’”
If you would like to share a tip or information about the Fellowship of Friends, email firstname.lastname@example.org
One plaintiff, unnamed in the suit, alleges that Burton sexually assaulted him between 280 to 300 times from about 2000 to 2008. The assaults included forced masturbation, oral sex, and anal penetration. He claims Burton coerced him into placing his penis in his leader’s mouth and urinating, adding that Burton wanted “two young men to do this to him at the same time, with both of their penises placed fully inside of his mouth.”
The plaintiff said he was also coerced into participating in two Lovefests, and that he felt unable to leave the fellowship because his religious visa was “tethered” to the organization.
“That is human trafficking,” he told The Daily Beast this week. “They were using this immigration law and there was a whole committee helping with how to make this happen, so that more and more young men would come to Apollo to supply [Burton’s] appetite.”
“I was 20. He was 60. I was a young man coming to America for the first time, and he was an enlightened—so-called enlightened—teacher and author. And everybody that I met in the school, they had a high opinion of him,” said the plaintiff, who was born in Romania. “This is a complete abuse of power.”
The lawsuit alleges that Burton taught his followers that disobedience was sinful that people who left the fellowship were punished by the angels, and that leaving the group was worse than never being born.
Burton founded the Fellowship of Friends in 1970, basing his teachings on the “Fourth Way” system of self-development created by 20th-century Russian mystic-philosopher George Gurdjieff. Burton, who is also known as the Teacher, says he is guided by a pantheon of angels, which includes Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, William Shakespeare, Socrates, and other historical figures who achieved higher consciousness during their lifetime. He claims he receives messages from these angels and that they tell him about future apocalyptic events. Burton has made many predictions of global catastrophes over the last few decades, teaching that when the world crumbles, the Apollo compound in Oregon House will survive and become the new cradle of civilization.
Over the last 50 years, Burton has given many orders to his followers. He instructed some to change their names to sound European and banned sex before marriage. According to the lawsuit, he instructed students to marry certain people and buy certain properties and “demanded that many women give up their children or have abortions.”
Burton also forbade same-sex relationships, which he deemed “wrong” and “degenerate”—while he allegedly targeted men who were not attracted to other men. According to the plaintiffs, Burton claimed to them he was a “goddess in a male body” or a “feminine angel in a man’s body.” He told male followers that “holy sex” with him would enhance their spiritual evolution and that the gods wanted students to submit to him sexually.
One plaintiff said that due to the indoctrination of the Fellowship and Burton, he became convinced the only way to go to heaven was to do whatever Burton told him to do. Another plaintiff said that Burton told him “his dick was a golden chain to heaven, [and that] sucking on it would take [the plaintiff] to heaven.”
“It is very difficult to face the experience of having been exploited sexually as a male by a gay man, when that is not a person’s preference,” a second plaintiff told The Daily Beast. “Since it involves the sexual exploitation of males, it’s a very difficult topic and difficult position to be in as a victim. I’m very grateful that the law firm [representing this case] is well positioned and well respected in the field.”
The firm that brought the suit against the fellowship, Slater Slater Schulman, has represented clients in institutional abuse cases against the Boy Scouts of America, Uber, Catholic institutions, Rikers Island, and former Columbia University gynecologist Robert Hadden.
“There’s no telling how many other men are either in denial or simply not yet ready to come forward. This could very well just be the tip of the iceberg,” attorney Mackenzie Johnson, who represents the plaintiffs, said. “It’s taken time for the world to understand that processing mental trauma, particularly trauma caused by sexual assault, takes time. Survivors often grapple with depression, self-blame, fear of not being believed, and sadly, suicidal ideation, before finally realizing that what happened is not their fault.”
Fellowship president Greg Holman, who operates the business side of the organization, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the lawsuit.
When Holman was asked about the allegations of trafficking and sexual exploitation for the Revelations podcast he dismissed the concerns. “I don’t sit around saying, well, gosh, I hope somebody comes in and talks to me about sexual exploitation today But there’s plenty of people that would pay attention to such things,” Holman said. “But I don’t know of anything. If you want to encourage them to come talk to me, I’ll listen to them. But they better come armed for bear and with the facts and information, because I don’t like to take idle accusations—I don’t take them idly and lightly.”
The lawsuit mentions that in approximately 2015 and in 2019 a former member filed two reports with the FBI alleging that the fellowship “had for decades, been recruiting and illegally hosting people on visas for the purposes of working at Apollo for free and for the sexual satisfaction of [Burton].” The FBI declined to comment for this story.
As reported in Revelations, in 2005 Immigration and Customs Enforcement also received a tip claiming that the fellowship was bringing non-citizens to the U.S. with religious visas for sexual exploitation. The tip triggered a multiyear Homeland Security investigation and two federal raids of fellowship property. An internal ICE report obtained through a Freedom of Information request revealed the investigation found the fellowship brought non-citizens to the U.S. to work menial jobs for “extremely low wages.” But an ICE representative said in 2020 that the investigation did not substantiate the sexual exploitation allegations.
The November lawsuit is not the first time Burton and the Fellowship have been sued by former members. In 1996, Troy Buzbee filed a lawsuit alleging that Burton coerced him into “sexual servitude.” Buzbee alleged that when he was 17, he “submitted to the sexual predations of” Burton; that Burton brainwashed him, plied him with alcohol, and told him that the angels wanted Buzbee to be with Burton. The complaint alleged that Burton sexually exploited Buzbee from 1986 until 1994, when Buzbee was 25. The suit sought $5 million in damages and was settled out of court. That year the organization made $11.2 million by selling off its collection of antique Chinese furniture at a Christie’s auction.
In 1984, Samuel Sanders, an ex-member who was on the fellowship board of directors, brought a suit alleging that the was excommunicated after trying to alert members that Burton was sexually exploiting male members. The case was also settled out of court.
An internal fellowship report from that year, reviewed by The Daily Beast, shows that a fellowship lawyer asked Burton about Sanders allegation—specifically why Burton had sex with male students even though he forbade same-sex relationships within the group.
Burton responded by telling the lawyer that when someone is an enlightened being, “then a man may have everything he wants. There are no longer any laws for him, he is a law unto himself.”