Infamous cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne is lying on her death bed in Melbourne. Just days ago she entered palliative care.
A shadow of her former self, the 96-year-old has had dementia since 2007 and is now reportedly days from death — a fate many will welcome.
Anne was the mastermind behind Australia’s most insidious cult: The Family. A religious sect preaching a combination of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and apocalyptic prophecy, which rose to prominence in Melbourne from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Formed in 1963 with renowned physicist Dr Raynor Johnson, along with Anne’s husband Bill Hamilton-Byrne, the doomsday sect stole children through brainwashing and adoption scams, and Anne raised them as her own.
Convincing followers that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, the cult’s design was for one true master race; the 28 stolen children were dressed identically, with matching bleached blonde hair.
The kids, some aged from only several months old, lived out their childhood years at sect property ‘Kai Lama’ at Lake Eildon, around 240km north east of Melbourne. It was here that the children were subjected to years of abuse.
The victims of the sect were eventually rescued during a police raid in 1987, but the reverberations of their trauma had only just begun.
Anouree Treena-Byrne was forcibly taken from her mother, and moved into the home at Eildon when she was three years old. Anouree recalls being routinely medicated. Doses of Mogadon and Valium were frequently given to the children. “We were given all kinds of other drugs. Drugs to control and calm us down,” she tells news.com.au.
“What I would do a lot is just sit on my bed and look out the window. I didn’t move. I was in a catatonic state and I also was mute. I didn’t speak for lengthy periods of time,” she said.
Ben Shenton never knew a life removed from The Family. He was taken to Eildon when he was only 18-months-old. His earliest memories are living in the confines of the cult, and vaguely remembers feeling like his was often under the influence of tranquillisers.
“They would be given to you, you wouldn’t see the packages, or it would be in your food. What I remember was often being incredibly photosensitive to light, which is a side-product of all the stuff we were given. It also dulled sense, and we were functioning as lethargic at times. I was too young to really know any sense of what was going on,” said Ben.
Stories from survivors, cult members and the people responsible for bringing an end to Anne’s reign have been filmed for the feature documentary The Family.
Director of The Family, Rosie Jones, said the use of LSD within the sect was a “strategic masterstroke”. Followers, including children, were given LSD as part of the ‘clearings’, while isolated in a darkened room, often without their consent or knowledge.
Aside from the medication given without consent, the children of the sect were systematically abused by the ‘aunties’.
Anouree described some of the abuse the kids endured. “For example not being able to eat for over 3 days, being denied food for over 3 days. For some of the kids it might have been longer. I’m talking about serious abuse,” she said.
“We were routinely belted, and absolutely belted and beaten, not just hitting but serious beltings. There was drowning. Our heads were put in buckets of water and held under. We don’t know how long for but long enough for us to think we were going to die.”
Ben added that it wasn’t just the abuse that the kids had to suffer, but the unpredictability of the punishments.
“My way of functioning was to try and control the environment that I was in, to stop people from disobeying the rules. Just to bring some order and predictability to life,” he said, adding “I was very compliant”.
While suspicions about The Family were first raised back in 1971, the sect property wasn’t raided until 1987. This was catalysed by sect children Sarah Moore and Leanne Creese leaving Eildon and reaching out to the police, revealing the horrors they had experienced.
“They came back and rescued us from that house because of their loyalty to us,” said Anouree. “That’s how the whole thing fell apart.”
Once the children were freed from the sect, the psychological impact on all involved was vast, with many still afflicted with PTSD, anxiety, depression and there were even cases of suicide.
Lex de Mann spearheaded the police investigation and worked for five years on Operation Forest, a team dedicated to uncovering the sect’s crimes. The memories of witnessing the child abuse perpetrated by the cult’s keepers have stayed with him. “I live with this every day, it will never leave me,” he said. “For me, Operation Forest continues every day and will never close.”
Despite the decades of abuse by members of the cult, because of extradition conditions Anne and her husband Bill only faced minor fraud charges, receiving a mere $5000 dollar fine each. Bill died in 2001, while Anne has lived out her years in an aged care facility.
Leaving Eildon at 17-years-old, Anouree said it was the children’s loyalty and commitment to one another that kept her going throughout her 14 years being held captive in the cult.
“We were deeply affected by each other’s abuse,” she said.
“It was because of that empathy for each other, even though we hadn’t been given anything[empathy] from the adults, we managed to arrange it that we had empathy from each other. I think that’s the only way we survived.
“We survived because we were all together.”
The feature documentary The Family will screen in Melbourne from, with other states to follow
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