The Family's 'living god' fades to grey, estate remains

The Age, Australia/May 17, 2014

By Chris Johnston

Although she can walk and talk, according to former cult members, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Australia's most notorious cult leader, doesn't talk much. A handful of acolytes still cling to the belief that she is a living god and visit her regularly, while behind the scenes her once plentiful assets and properties are being sold, transferred or given away.

At 84, she is frail and isolated, cared for inside the dementia care wing at Centennial Lodge nursing home at Wantirna South, a long way from the messianic figure who ruled The Family in Melbourne through three decades from the 1960s.

''She's at least being fed,'' said former cult child and Hamilton-Byrne's ''adopted'' daughter, Dr Sarah Moore. ''She's very demented, rocking back and forth. Her only connection seems to be a plastic baby doll that she talks to and dresses.

''She is lost in a regressed, demented state. Anne doesn't have to be a guru any more. You can see the child she was and perhaps see how it all ended up in her grand but disastrous illusion.''

Hamilton-Byrne has flashes of her old delusional self: a woman born Evelyn Edwards in Gippsland into a family rife with mental illness, who went to school in Sunshine and taught yoga in Geelong before starting her cult and positioning herself as a god.

Recently, Dr Moore said, cult visitors to the nursing home showed her a DVD about eastern mysticism; when it finished she said to them: ''But I am still the one true master.''

Moore, 45, suffers from a range of mental and physical illnesses that she partly blames on her horrific experiences, such as beatings, drugs and starvation in the cult, mainly in a house at Eildon, from birth until she was 17. She had one leg amputated above the knee after a botched suicide attempt and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. She suffers severe pain in her amputated leg's stump.

She was taken from her teenage mother in Geelong by a doctor who was a cult member.

She qualified as a doctor from Melbourne University after escaping the cult and has worked at the Austin, Royal Melbourne and St Vincents hospitals and Monash University as well as doing voluntary medical work in Thailand, Burma and India.

Now Moore is confronting that which haunts her by calling for fresh scrutiny into The Family's activities from the early 1960s until 1993, when Hamilton-Bryne and her husband were arrested near New York.

She said an inquiry into the Newhaven psychiatric hospital, which was in Kew, could reveal how The Family recruited members and sourced LSD. Staff at the hospital were cult members. She said the cult's adoption scams should be investigated - cult lawyer Peter Kibby confessed to forging false birth certificates and adoption papers. Dr Moore said the cult's assets should be seized by the state when Hamilton-Byrne dies and used for compensation to the cult's victims. Despite getting rid of properties, her estate is estimated to be worth more than $10 million. Land titles show she has given twoproperties in the Dandenong Ranges to a company she is linked to called Life For All Creatures, whose directors are all current cult members.

The neighbouring properties in Olinda were cult headquarters. One was her home.

Dozens of children acquired through adoption scams and cult marriages were imprisoned here and at a property in Eildon until an Australian Federal Police operation freed them in the late 1980s.

The cult also owns a property in nearby Ferny Creek, on Belgrave-Ferny Creek Road, called the Santiniketan Lodge, designed by former devotee and architect Don Webb.

''To us it is a sacred place,'' cult member Michael Stevenson-Helmer told Fairfax Media. ''If you went in there you would feel it. It is our great divine responsibility to preserve it.''

Stevenson-Helmer, who is related to former governor-general and prominent Melburnian Sir Zelman Cowen, is poised to lead what is left of the cult with Eltham man Geoff Dawes, the son of former senior cult member Leon Dawes and former cult ''aunty'' Helen Buchanan.

Hamilton-Byrne's squad of ''aunties'' were the women in charge of the cult children. Buchanan later married another senior cult leader, James Buchanan, otherwise known as Peter Lyall, who died late last year.

Stevenson-Helmer saw Hamilton-Byrne two days ago and said she was ''stable''.

''It is always wonderful to be with her,'' he said. He claims not to know anything about her assets.

Dawes and fellow cult member Helen McCoy, of Gembrook - a wildlife campaigner and principal of a school in Wheelers Hill for disabled children - control Hamilton-Byrne's affairs.

In New Zealand when a dangerous communal cult called Centrepoint was exposed and leader Bert Potter jailed on child sex charges in 1992, cult assets were seized by the government and given to victims for therapy, counselling, education or poverty relief.

Dr Moore said the same should happen in Victoria. ''That way she can make a contribution to society.''

A new inquiry into the cult would ''bring it up to the light'', she said.

''It is an indictment on the state that this thing continued for so long and was able to infiltrate the medical system. ''

Fellow cult child Ben Shenton, now a Christian minister in Perth, said the reason The Family was able to procure children from state institutions and drugs from a research facility was because they were ''too untouchable''.

''The money is still there,'' he said.

Former cult child Wayne Callister, meanwhile, has had allegations of being drugged and cruelly abused by cult doctor John McKay deemed ineligible by the child abuse royal commission. Dr McKay, 82, is a recently retired Ferny Creek GP.

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