A woman sexually abused by a "cult" leader when she was a girl has told an Adelaide court she was made to feel like "a piece of meat purely for his pleasure" and that she was required to serve the group's "god", or she would be punished.
James Gino Salerno, 76, was found guilty in the District Court of six counts of unlawful sexual intercourse against a girl nearly two decades ago at a property in the Adelaide Hills.
Salerno, often referred to as Taipan, was the "revered leader" of a group called the Ideal Human Environment.
During sentencing submissions, the victim – who cannot be identified – told the court it took her nine years to not be afraid of Salerno or the group to report the matter to police.
She said the group had made her feel "brainwashed, belittled and isolated" and she still feared the repercussions from it.
"I felt like everyone was too scared of you, Taipan, to do anything to help me," she told the court.
"Your words kept going through my head 'no one would believe me'.
"You made me feel worthless, like no one cared about me, and that I was alone, a piece of meat purely for his pleasure.
"I felt worried, anxious, fearful and scared of what the repercussions might be from the cult as I had been subject to – and witnessed – what members were capable of through physical, mental and emotional abuse … because I had gotten their leader, their god, arrested."
Before Salerno's District Court trial in October, the court agreed to use the term group instead of cult.
During the trial, the court heard the group was based at a historical property in the Adelaide Hills that was once the home of the Downer family.
The group also spent time interstate, including on El Questro Cattle station in northern Western Australia.
Certain women within the group were allegedly required to tend to Salerno's personal needs including doing his laundry, running his bath, giving him massages and doing his nails.
During her victim impact statement, the victim told the court she was not allowed to have friends outside the "cult" and was required to have a chaperone anytime she went outside the group.
She said she needed to have permission from Salerno to get a job, could only work on his terms and had to give all the money she earned back to him.
"I had to cut down shifts and was told time and time again by Taipan, and other members higher in the rank, that my focus was not 100 per cent on you and that humans were only ever put on the earth to serve you," she told the court.
She said she was also subjected to physical punishment, including going days without food, doing extra chores or being forced to sleep outside in the cold without a mattress or blanket.
The victim said once she left the group, she had a limited support network and was forced to have a secretive relationship with her mother because they were not allowed to communicate under the group's rules.
"This made me feel horrible and worried that if my mum got caught communicating with me that she would be physically punished," she told the court.
Salerno was first arrested in November 2015, and spent more than a year in custody after he was convicted in 2019, but was later released on appeal.
He has been back in custody after being found guilty following his retrial.
The victim told the court she had been harassed and sent threatening letters by current members of the group, who had even shown up at her workplace.
"I was very worried that they might send some of the big people in the cult … who made me feel scared and intimidated to come and hurt, harass and bully me," she told the court.
"I felt so violated and damaged, my dignity and innocence had been stolen from me."
Salerno's lawyer, Michael Edwardson QC, told the court his client was highly regarded within his community and was not to be sentenced for the way "he lived his life".
"The reality is the extended family … has dedicated its life or itself to a better way of life and in many cases to assist others who are suffering from alcohol or drug addiction and indeed supporting Indigenous communities across the country," Mr Edwardson QC told the court.
He said Salerno deserved a merciful sentence given his age – meaning "he could die in custody" — and the media coverage his offending had had, which would make his time in prison harder.
"The way this has been written up from day one, has been that this is some sort of cult that somehow implicated or complicit in sexual misconduct," Mr Edwardson QC told the court.
"It makes him even more vulnerable because the world at large – including the prison population – regard him as some sort of sexual cult figure and that's simply not true."
But prosecutor Patrick Hill said that was just speculation and his grooming of the victim was "calculated" and was a significant breach of trust.
"As the revered leader of this group which lives so closely together, we submit that he effectively replaced her parents as a person who was ultimately in charge of and responsible for her," he said.
"He cultivated a position where he had unfettered access to her."
Salerno will be sentenced next month.
He is also appealing his conviction.
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