A rare insight into life inside a religious cult

Australian Broadcasting Corporation/October 27, 2009

Two Australian brothers have written a rare insight into life on the inside, and on the outside, of an extreme religious cult, where the members worshipped a woman who claimed she was god.


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Cults are a social phenomenon, probably as old as religion itself. The perennial question remains: how do otherwise intelligent people let a charismatic guru control all aspects of their lives, sometimes with catastrophic results?

Now, two Australian brothers have written a rare insight into life on the inside and on the outside of an extreme religious cult where the members worshipped a woman who claimed she was god. Rebecca Baillie reports.

REBECCA BAILLIE, REPORTER: David and Margaret Ayliffe are people of faith. While they're now parishioners at a mainstream Anglican church on the outskirts of Melbourne, for nearly two decades they were members of an extreme religious cult.

DAVID AYLIFFE, FORMER CULT MEMBER: It was horrible. I can understand, with the doomsday cults where people commit suicide because the leader says to do so.

MARGARET AYLIFFE, FORMER CULT MEMBER: We got into the habit of living a whacky kind of life. I think we were so young and naive, I don't think the warning bells really rung loud enough for us to sort of really - to get out.

REBECCA BAILLIE: David and Margaret Ayliffe met in the early 1970s when they joined an Anglican church in Sydney's Surry Hills. This church had been disowned by the Sydney Archdiocese because it regularly performed exorcisms.

MARGARET AYLIFFE: People were lying on the floor and sort of coughing up into little ice cream buckets.

DAVID AYLIFFE: And suddenly, you know, they start shaking or quivering, all kinds of things are happening, and you're think to yourself, "There's a power here at work, and that power is God."

REBECCA BAILLIE: It was at that Surry Hills church that David and Margaret Ayliffe first encountered Violet Prior, who went from casting out demons to leading a group she named Zion Full Salvation Ministry.

DAVID AYLIFFE: She claimed in the latter part of 1976 that she had the stigmata. She had marks in her hands and in her feet.

REBECCA BAILLIE: By 1977, Violet Prior had convinced her followers that she was God.

DAVID AYLIFFE: You know, I should have known better. I should have had my eyes really opened. But by that stage, I'd accepted everything along the way. And, to me, this was just, you know, it was just the next step.

REBECCA BAILLIE: Violet Prior controlled every facet of her devotees' lives, striking the fear of God into them if they tried to leave.

DAVID AYLIFFE: Violet would say, "If you leave me, I will kill you, and I will kill your wife and children first, and you will see them die agonising deaths before your eyes. And I can do that because I'm God."

MARGARET AYLIFFE: It was a time when I had the melanoma and she told me to put a banana skin on it. Finally, though, when it was a bit bad, we actually got - we were very fortunate to get into a specialist very quickly, and I was lucky to escape with my life. I really am lucky to be alive.

DAVID MILLIKAN, UNITING CHURCH MINISTER: Oh, she was a fully blown cult leader. There's no question of that. She had no conscience about basically destroying people.

REBECCA BAILLIE: Violet Prior became increasingly more deluded and reclusive. She fleeced her followers of all their money and set up an impenetrable fortress in Sydney's exclusive Palm Beach.

DAVID MILLIKAN: A group becomes destructive when it takes on a posture of extreme hostility to the world outside its doors, when it isolates its members from family, friends and from the surrounding culture.

REBECCA BAILLIE: Only her closest disciples were permitted to visit the inner sanctum. David Ayliffe was one, and he visited this house up to three times a week. His wife Margaret only ever came here once, to cook for Violet Prior and to do her washing.

In 1989, Violet Prior was arrested and charged with fraud. When she appeared at Manly Local Court, David Ayliffe was at her side. The charges were dropped because it was impossible to either prove or disprove her outrageous claims. Two years later, David Ayliffe discovered Violet Prior's body in her Palm Beach fortress.

DAVID AYLIFFE: Yeah, the witch was dead. It's weird: I lay there at night listening for noise. And she was dead, for Heaven's sake! You know, so, yeah.

REBECCA BAILLIE: What were you thinking she might do?

DAVID AYLIFFE: Well, I mean, if she was God, then, you know, she might have come back again, you know.

JOHN AYLIFFE, BROTHER: His mind had been taken over. As I said, it doesn't start out as mind control, you know. Good people aren't gonna let themselves be taken over just like that. It's a creeping thing.

REBECCA BAILLIE: John Ayliffe had to wait two decades for his younger brother to come to his senses. They're now reconciled, but at the time, as David and Margaret Ayliffe got more and more deeply committed to the cult and its leader, they cut off their friends and family on the outside.

JOHN AYLIFFE: I think everybody was pretty devastated. It's a devastating thing, you know, to be shunned.

DAVID AYLIFFE: It was just so wrong, but the fear was so great, this is what I was called to do. Absurd, isn't it?

DAVID MILLIKAN: People who join cults are strong, creative, well-educated, middle class people.

REBECCA BAILLIE: Reverend David Millikan has dedicated a quarter of a century to infiltrating, understanding and busting cults.

DAVID MILLIKAN: I see a lot of Christian groups, but I also see a lot of New Agey sort of groups that go off in all sorts of directions. Really, I've come to the view that there's nothing so mad in this life that someone doesn't believe in it.

ADRIAN NORMAN, FORMER CULT MEMBER: There is pressure to behave in a certain way and there is a leader, then very, very dangerous things can happen.

REBECCA BAILLIE: Adrian Norman joined what he describes as a self-development cult when he was 19 and stayed for seven years. He won't publicly identify the group for fear of being sued, but insists it's leaders brainwashed him and took his money.

ADRIAN NORMAN: There are activities that dampen down the ability to think critically, and at that point you enter into a trance. In that altered state of consciousness, new beliefs can be implanted.

REBECCA BAILLIE: Adrian Norman has made a documentary for high school children which warns of the dangers of groups that apparently offer its members the world.

ADRIAN NORMAN: It's really about what you can do to find out about groups that seem to be offering something too good to be true. 'Cause usually they are.

REBECCA BAILLIE: The Ayliffe brothers are now catching up on many lost years. They've written a book together about surviving life on the inside and the outside of a cult.

JOHN AYLIFFE: If you lose somebody to a destructive cult, there are three things to remember. The first one is: don't fight them. The second one is: give them love. And the third one is: be patient.

REBECCA BAILLIE: For David and Margaret Ayliffe, theirs is a cautionary tale which has ultimately had a happy ending, but it's cost them and their family 20 years of their lives.

MARGARET AYLIFFE: When you get a bit lovey dovey and starry-eyed, you don't see a lot of things that you should really see.

DAVID AYLIFFE: Never, never, no matter where you are let somebody else take over your - your ability to make decisions. It doesn't matter who it is. Because the moment you do that, you're on very dangerous territory.

KERRY O'BRIEN: To view extended interviews with David and John Ayliffe, just go to the website. Rebecca Baillie with that report.

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