A life coaching group that uses LinkedIn to target hundreds of middle-class recruits is accused of abusing, exploiting and fleecing vulnerable victims.
Former members said Lighthouse International Group 'groomed' them with promises they would find personal fulfilment and a dream career through its up to £100-an-hour mentoring programmes.
But they say they ended up in thrall to its leader Paul Waugh, who lives in a £2 million country estate, drives a Range Rover with plates bearing the initials of his group and boasts of 'numerous' celebrity friends and of being 'very connected' in government.
New recruits, who are often vulnerable because of divorce, depression or previous abuse, are assigned a mentor who becomes like a 'brother' to them and to whom it is claimed they are encouraged to share their 'inner most secrets' in sessions which are recorded and stored by the group's leaders.
But these turn into 'abusive relationships' with members later 'pressured' into 'investing' tens of thousands of pounds, often by taking a loan which plunges them deep into debt, without any formal written financial agreement or receipt, it is alleged.
Some members asking for their money to be returned were reminded their innermost secrets had been recorded in coaching sessions — which made them feel as if they were being threatened.
In one case, a mother says she remortgaged her family home to help raise over £200,000 for her two sons to invest in the group, which they were promised would be repaid. She says she has not received a penny back.
Ex-members said they were told to isolate themselves from friends and family who criticised Lighthouse, with the group's leaders even urging husbands to sue wives and children to sue their parents.
An environmental consultant who questioned the value of the mentoring with other members said she was left 'terrified' and in tears after Mr Waugh bombarded her with abuse during a two-hour phone call.
When she later politely emailed requesting a refund on her £25,000 investment, Mr Waugh refused and reminded her that the group had recordings of her describing the 'long-term sexual abuse' she suffered as a child — which she felt was a threat.
Lighthouse strongly denies this was the intention, saying it referenced the recordings to 'remind [her] of the level and extent of work Lighthouse had done with her'.
Her mentor told her that for several years when he was being 'negative' with other Lighthouse members and clients, Mr Waugh 'helped' him by arranging a senior group member to chaperon him whenever he wasn't alone and to check his text messages because: 'Paulie couldn't trust me, I couldn't trust myself.'
Ex-members said Lighthouse implied part of their cash was going into African water purifying programmes — but it never produced firm evidence of this and the published company accounts give no indication of where the cash has gone.
Primary school teacher Jo Holmes asked for a receipt for her £19,000 'investment' and evidence of what it had been spent on, only to receive a reply from Mr Waugh calling her a 'psychopath' and 'malevolent' and implying her behaviour made her a danger to the children she taught.
When she later posted her concerns about Lighthouse online to try to warn others, the group complained about her to the headteacher of her school and threatened legal action.
A computer graduate mentored for anxiety and depression who shared his concerns with other members when he left was deluged by messages from Lighthouse leaders, initially suggesting he was having a 'paranoid episode', then warning they would take out a restraining order against him and finally saying they would be giving police 'various recordings and communications' he'd had with his mentor.
The group says it has 'mentored' individuals who have 'suffered from the most terrible abuse', but senior Lighthouse counsellors are not part of any professional body, have no academic qualifications in their field and said their only expertise comes from the 'university of life'.
Parliament has heard calls for statutory regulation for counselling groups after peers described hearing how lives had been destroyed by an explosion of unqualified and unregistered counselling, mentoring and life coaching groups in recent years.
Graham Baldwin, of Catalyst, a charity that deals with abusive groups and the victims of psychological manipulation, said: 'In the past year, 10 per cent of our calls have been about Lighthouse, from families and individuals.
'In my opinion, they are one of the nastiest and most dangerous groups we have come across in 30 years of working in this field.'
Lighthouse was set up in 2012 by Mr Waugh to 'inspire, empower and unite' through coaching and mentoring programmes which mix self-help and spirituality. Espousing his philosophy, Mr Waugh frequently references self-improvement books, especially the 1989 bestseller The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People.
He also regularly discusses the teachings of Christ — though Mr Waugh told the Mail he often stresses to members that they should not 'idolise' him or paint him as a modern-day 'fat, bald Jesus'.
The group, which claims to have helped thousands of people in their personal and professional lives, has global ambitions and plans to launch in India, the U.S. and China. A sister organisation called Lighthouse Kidz, which claims to help children and their parents, has previously enjoyed glowing coverage in The Guardian.
A senior member of the main group has said one aim is to get a 'Lighthouse beacon' in every UK school and have teachers reporting to the group.
But a 48-year-old consultant who borrowed £10,000 to invest in the group after joining in 2019 said she eventually felt she had to move abroad to escape them.
The woman, who did not want to be named because her counselling involved discussing previous childhood sexual abuse, said: 'I was going through a divorce at the time and it felt extremely positive to begin with. They encouraged us to use LinkedIn, for us to connect with people, so it is just like multi-level marketing.'
But when she raised concerns about the mentoring with other members, Mr Waugh turned on her and during a two-hour call branded her 'nasty', 'pernicious', 'selfish', 'horrible', 'vindictive', 'broken', 'very damaged', 'stupid', 'dishonest', 'duplicitous', 'misleading', 'f*****g deluded', 'seriously f****d up', 'sinister', a 'cynical little old witch', a 'weasel', a 'negative, self-defeating, self-sabotaging automaton', 'the worst, weirdest, sickest f**k', having 'an ego like a feral dog' and being an 'emotional, mental and spiritual toddler'.
He also reminded the woman that every conversation she'd ever had at Lighthouse was taped and 'every journal you've ever written is stored'.
And he told her that if she had behaved with her children the way she had been behaving in the group he would immediately have reported her to social services — where he claims to have connections. When she broke down in tears, he berated her for 'crying for herself', saying: 'It's all about you.'
The woman said: 'It is terrifying. We need to stop them.'
Fiona Ballantine Dykes, Deputy Chief Executive of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said: 'We're concerned that vulnerable members of the public looking for support with their mental health don't realise the risks of seeing unqualified, unregistered practitioners.
'Our fear is that clients working with unregistered therapists are more at risk of harm, as their practitioner won't be required to meet the training, proficiency and ethical standards of a recognised professional body.'
In a 17,000-word response to the Mail, Lighthouse described the allegations as 'false and baseless', said it was a 'healthy community' that does not tolerate abuse or bullying and was a victim of 'persecution' and 'trolling' from ex-members with whom it had financial disputes. It said the group offered 'life coaching' rather than therapy, and was supportive of stronger regulation for the 'personal development industry'.
It said police had twice visited Lighthouse members at their homes after warnings from concerned relatives that they were being 'manipulated and held hostage financially', but in both occasions the officers left without taking any action.
Lighthouse initially told the Mail that active police investigations were under way against former members, but when asked which forces, it said it had not yet reported them to the police.
Boss who loves to boast about wealth
Paul Waugh's online profile describes his habits as including 'impromptu random dances' and 'outbreaks of deep laughter'.
And the leader of the Lighthouse International Group has much to be merry about. He lives in a £2 million, six-bedroom, secluded country home — complete with a sauna — set on the northern edge of the Cotswold Hills and drives a Range Rover.
The 57-year-old father-of-two, who moved from South Africa to the UK in 1999, is a regular at his local golf club, where he plays off a ten handicap, and claims to have many famous friends and to have previously mentored a Premier League and England footballer.
Mr Waugh has told Lighthouse members he is very connected in government — both in the Commons and the Lords — and has helped to get laws passed.
And he says he is now so personally wealthy that other nations have 'courted' him to try to get him to emigrate and take his money into their country.
Current Lighthouse members told the Mail Mr Waugh had generously supported them financially in times of need and they had benefited greatly from his mentoring.
Given his expertise, on the open market, his time would be worth up to £5,000 an hour, he adds.
In YouTube videos, he describes himself as deeply 'spiritual' with a 'very sophisticated and advanced understanding' of what can be known compared to most people.
This, he believes, sets him apart from the group's new members, some of whom he says are of 'exceptionally low emotional intelligence' and 'know nothing about how to succeed in life.'
His life's work, as he explains it, is to empower and unite them in a 'genuine state of family and community' through mentoring and coaching.
But recordings shown to the Mail show that when people start questioning the value of the group's methods, Mr Waugh's happiness vanishes and he turns to abuse.
Mr Waugh classifies members from level 1-4, depending on how 'evolved' they are.
But former members said only he and his partner were ever 'very high level 4', while others were 'bullied' and 'intimidated'.
Mr Waugh acknowledged hostility from some relatives of Lighthouse members, and in a YouTube video he denounces 'toxic parents' who try to stop their children from continuing with the group.
'I just couldn't believe the narcissism in families. It's a real problem,' he said. 'It's huge.'
Money is a major source of dispute. From four ex-members and the relatives of two members, the Mail has identified at least £300,000 given to Lighthouse, all without a formal written agreement because the group says it operates on 'trust'.
They say they were told some of the money was going towards investment in a clean water scheme in Africa, a plan Lighthouse stresses on its website is a central tenet of the group.
One post by a Lighthouse member in January says: 'We are currently launching a global initiative to help look after our children, giving them hope and a glass of water.'
But Lighthouse told the Mail it has 'never claimed to be currently providing funds to clean water in Africa' and the initiative was an 'aspirational long-term goal'.
They said members' investments funded their 'growth and development' through mentoring and training, and that members who chose to leave were not legally entitled to a refund.
Mr Waugh and other group members are directors of registered businesses Lighthouse International Group Holdings and The Lighthouse Self-Leadership Society, and community interest company Lighthouse Kidz [sic], all of which have shown £0 in every return filed with Companies House since their incorporations in 2012 and 2013.
Lighthouse said it had no property or fixed assets and thus is not required to publish any profit and loss accounts.
It added that 'any income has simply been reinvested in cost-covering research'.
The group did tell the Mail that some of the cash had been invested into 'research papers and retainers for PhD students'.
But when asked at which universities, it said it did not fund any PhDs.
It said other cash went towards business infrastructure costing £10,000 a year, legal expenses, a house in Rugby, Warks, for nine of its members and supporting vulnerable members.
It said verbal financial agreements with members were 'sufficient and legally binding' under UK law.
It added that Mr Waugh was very supportive of 'healthy families' and personally devoted to his partner, Amanda, and their two children.
It said: 'He is a strong man, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.'
'They threatened to sue my wife. They need to be stopped'
Lighthouse leaders branded an e-commerce accounts manager's wife 'destructive' and wanted to sue her after she supported her husband's decision to quit the group.
Father-of-two Richard Thomas, from Essex, became involved in Lighthouse in 2015 when his then company offered to pay for a mentor.
One of his colleagues was already being mentored by one of Lighthouse's leaders, Shaun Cooper, and so he did the same.
But things started to go wrong when he invested thousands of pounds in the group.
Richard Thomas invested in Lighthouse, but after he became ill he decided to quit and asked for his money back - but he says he was met with threats to sue his wife who encouraged him
Richard Thomas invested in Lighthouse, but after he became ill he decided to quit and asked for his money back - but he says he was met with threats to sue his wife who encouraged him
'It took me months and months to actually do this because there was no actual financial agreement,' he said.
'But Shaun said: 'Rich, you've been working with me all these years and you say you do not trust me? Are you invested in me?'
'So, ultimately, I was stupid, obviously, because I did hand over the money.'
Mr Thomas says after investing he was expected to attend group calls lasting up to six hours with Lighthouse leader Paul Waugh.
'We had to listen to him ranting on about what he thinks is happening to the world.
'There was so much love and reverence for him from the group. But the interesting thing is that Paul classifies people individually in terms of levels. If you are evolved, you move from level 1 to 4.
'Only Paul is ever at level 4. Everyone else is broken, you're wrong, and it became very, very transparent.'
It was only after Mr Thomas became ill last year that he reflected on his involvement and with the encouragement of his wife decided to quit.
He says: 'I went back to Lighthouse respectfully and said: 'I would like to ask for my investment back.' '
The request prompted a message on November 11 last year, in which Mr Cooper blamed the decision on the 'animosity and destructiveness' of his wife towards the group.
He added, if Lighthouse had to refund the cash 'we would have to make a legal compensatory claim for that money' from his wife 'plus legal costs'.
'Do we hold [your wife] accountable for that or you? Let us know because with your permission (in writing to our solicitors) we will hold her accountable by law.'
On November 24, Mr Cooper messaged to say no refund was possible and Lighthouse would be passing the content of Mr Thomas's texts to their solicitor, whom he said would 'act accordingly in connection with yourself as they have with others who have behaved unlawfully as you are behaving'.
Mr Thomas branded the threats made in the messages 'ridiculous'.
He said: 'These people need to be stopped.'
Lighthouse said it encouraged 'healthy families' and only advised legal action against members' relatives or partners to protect them or when 'all other options had failed'.
Accused of being hateful and toxic
A primary school teacher persuaded to take out a loan to fund a £19,000 'investment' in Lighthouse was branded 'malevolent' and a 'psychopath' when she asked how her money had been spent.
Jo Holmes, 50, was introduced to Lighthouse International Group in early 2018 by a friend who had been mentored by Shaun Cooper.
She hoped it would help her self-development and professional relationships with colleagues and pupils.
'My marriage was breaking down at the time,' she said.
'Shaun became like a brother and it felt like he was really helping me.'
After a few months, he made 'very subtle' suggestions that she should invest in the group.
'He said I could build on my existing work with pupils and teachers and make a difference for them and said the charity part of Lighthouse would invest in purifying water in Africa.
'Because a friend had invested, it seemed feasible.
'I invested £19,000 in instalments, but I had to get a loan out to fund it. But they knew I had a big asset with my house. I think they saw the long term.
'Now I feel stupid, but they build a relationship with you and they know your secrets, you trust them and believe in them.'
Because of her investment, she became an 'associate elect' and part of a 'business unit' of members.
This meant, during lockdown, she was expected to join calls lasting hours on Saturdays, during which Lighthouse leader Paul Waugh would spout his wisdom and grill other members.
'I began to question these calls. I did not like the way they spoke to people, it was quite aggressive bullying. I was a bit scared of Paul,' she adds. 'He pulled me apart and talks over you all the time . . . Paul was intimidating.'
'Paul was intimidating to the point you felt you had to give positive feedback.'
After the calls, members were sent edited audio recordings to listen to in the evenings — which they were then expected to provide feedback on so that Mr Waugh could assess their 'level of understanding'. But after speaking to another alienated member, Ms Holmes began to research the group and eventually decided to ask for evidence of where her cash had been spent.
The response, following an email and a call, was a long message from Mr Waugh in which he accused her of being hateful, toxic and disturbed, claiming it was 'downright terrifying . . . that you are a schoolteacher with delicate little and innocent children in your care'.
He also said he had sent a report and a recording of the phone call with her to PhD students who 'work specifically with teachers and their pathology in relation to their profession for observational analysis.'
Ms Holmes said: 'I took that as a clear threat to my professional reputation.'
She adds: 'Lighthouse bears all the hallmarks of a group that takes advantage of people by promising to transform your life and the world. But I have seen no evidence that any of their global initiatives have ever happened and it begs the question where the money goes.'
She has yet to receive any cash.
Lighthouse said the recording had been shared in 'full compliance' of the law and with Ms Holmes's details anonymised.
It accused Ms Holmes of trolling the group after leaving and said it had contacted the police and the school where she worked to complain.
'I believe they are a dangerous group'
A web designer said Lighthouse threatened to sue him and send personal details from his 'therapy' to the police after he quit.
Anthony Church, of Peterborough, started volunteering with Lighthouse in late 2017, a year after completing his master's degree in applied computing.
He later joined one of its therapy groups and was assigned a mentor to help with anxiety and depression, which he had struggled with since a teenager.
He paid £13,700 in mentoring fees, but said as he began to look into the group, he grew concerned about how it operated. He wrote a polite email explaining he was leaving and raised warnings with some other members.
His actions triggered a series of increasingly desperate and then aggressive responses from Lighthouse, threatening to report him to police and take out a restraining order.
It culminated in a message from one of Lighthouse's senior directors, saying they would be sharing the correspondence with their solicitors and the police 'along with various recordings and other communications' he'd had with his mentor over the years. This, they said, was to 'ensure that they have an accurate take on your highly questionable character and behaviour'. It added he would be liable for Lighthouse's legal bills.
Mr Church said: 'In my opinion, they are dangerous group disguised as a business opportunity, charity or community interest company. They try to hide what Lighthouse is really about, but what it's about is money and power.'
Lighthouse said it had not shared the private and personal details of members with the police.
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