The Family cult's secrets exposed

The Herald-Sun, Australia/August 16, 2009

The leader of Australia's most notorious cult, The Family, remains unrepentant two decades after the raid that shocked the nation.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne broke her silence yesterday, saying she was ready to die after reconciling with Sarah Moore, the "daughter" who betrayed her to the authorities.

The Family made headlines around the world in 1987 when the Australian Federal Police and Community Services Victoria raided the cult's property at Lake Eildon and took six children into care.

Police later found 14 children had been brought up in almost complete isolation believing they were the offspring of Hamilton-Byrne and her late husband Bill.

In fact none of them was the Hamilton-Byrnes', but children of single mothers who had been pressured into giving them up for adoption or cult members who did not want them.

But it was the way the children had been treated that really shocked the nation.

Hamilton-Byrne had ordered the children's hair be dyed peroxide blonde and they be dressed in identical outfits.

It was also alleged they had been half-starved, beaten and forced to take large quantities of tranquilisers to "calm them down" and even fed LSD when they became adults.

Now, in the first ever interview at her sprawling Olinda compound, the cult leader has defended how she raised the children and attacked those who said she mistreated them as "lying bastards".

Of her critics, she said: "I would love to put them right, but I can't."

She also said she could have sued for defamation, but had decided against any action.

Asked about whether she mistreated her "children", she said: "They were normal children and they could be disobedient to a point, but not all the time."

But she would not discuss any specific claims.

On the issue of alleged LSD use in the cult, she said: "Everything on earth has its uses."

And asked about whether she had any regrets, she would only say: "I've got regrets about losing touch with daughter."

"I'm ready to die now. I don't mind when I go," she said after an emotional reunion with her favourite "daughter" Dr Moore, witnessed by the Sunday Herald Sun.

Inside the compound - one of at least half a dozen properties owned by Hamilton-Byrne - elderly helpers scurried around, avoiding eye contact.

The "wrinkly disciples" wore coloured wigs, with heavy make-up, and are said to be among up to 50 cult followers who still defer to Hamilton-Byrne - some living on the property and others in surrounding hills.

From the moment she invited this newspaper into her home, the frail woman was at pains to show off as many happy group photos as she could, to prove her family was as normal as any other.

"We have our differences like any other family," she stressed, smiling.

The sole male on the sprawling, but crumbling estate was self-professed senior cult member Michael Stevenson.

Dr Moore, also known as Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, had been expelled from The Family two years before the 1987 raid for disobedience, with the curse that she go and die in the gutter, she claimed.

She later qualified as a doctor and volunteered extensively in India and other parts of Asia.

But four years ago her life began to unravel - she developed bipolar disorder. Suffering from chronic pain, she began self-prescribing pethidine, but was caught in 2005.

In December her life took another turn for the worse - she lost her leg, the result, she says, of hospital mistreatment following a suicide attempt.

Having survived, Dr Moore said she has regained her will to live.

Yesterday as she reunited with Hamilton-Byrne, Dr Moore became emotional as remembered their rift.

"I just feel incredibly sad about it," Dr Moore said.

"When I was holding Anne then, I could feel her shaking and crying. I thought 'Why did it have to come to this?' "

Dr Moore said she could not escape the fact that she looked on the 87-year-old as her mother.

"I do love Anne and my feelings are still mixed about her," Dr Moore said.

"For many years I went nowhere near her or the cult.

"I was a prominent part of the public face of those that wanted to expose what happened to us children and to see justice done.

"But, despite perhaps appearances to the contrary, at that time I felt enormous loyalty to Anne. To my mind, I had put my life on the line to oppose her, as I believed at the time that to oppose her, to betray her, was to die."

Dr Moore said she still believed Hamilton-Byrne was responsible for mistreatment of children, but she said the cult leader blamed the "Aunties" for any abuse.

"That's as far she will go in acknowledging any wrongdoing," Dr Moore said.

"Otherwise she is unrepentant. She is a powerful and charismatic person, and I believe she initially meant well with both creating the cult and collecting us children.

"Both acts were in compensation and delusional repair for her own childhood."

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