Cult members 'hoodwinked' into selling property

ABC News, Australia/May 21, 2010

The family of a member of an Adelaide-based cult says people in the sect have been brainwashed into selling assets to prepare for the end of the world.

The family has also expressed fears for the safety of 12 children caught up in the sect.

More details have emerged about a doomsday plan by the Agape Ministries to flee Australia and set up a community on a Pacific island.

Three cult leaders are still eluding police. They are wanted over a stockpile of weapons discovered in raids this week.

Lesley Baligod's son is a member of the cult, which is under police investigation.

"They believe that the Government is their enemy. Anybody who has got the mark of the beast is the enemy," she said.

"So I think this is why they have been feeling that they're under threat somehow, and that they have to protect themselves."

Ms Baligod said cult leader Rocco Leo promised followers a new life on an island in Vanuatu to save them from the end of the world.

Police say followers have sold properties and provided the money to help fund the plan.

Ms Baligod's son handed over $700,000.

"I see him as a victim in all of this. He's been completely hoodwinked," she said.

"They were told to get rid of their mobile phones before leaving. Once they get through customs in Vanuatu they've been told to ditch their passports, so there will be no escape."

Ms Baligod was aware the religious group was stockpiling weapons.

"I do know that all of the people in the group had lessons in firearms," she said.

"I know they've been packing things in container crates over the last few months.

"But some people believe that it's all a lie and that he hasn't even bought an island."

Ms Baligod's other son, Joel Baligod, started going to the cult's Bible study classes in 1998 but stopped attending in 2005.

He said he was told the end was coming.

"His [Rocco Leo's] story would change," Mr Baligod said.

He would say that the date would be 2016. [Later] he discovered that there were numerous websites that would say that the end of the world was 2012, and so his story would change and it continues to change."

Concerns for children

Attention has now turned to the welfare of children involved in the cult.

Ms Baligod has complained to child protection authorities about her two granddaughters.

"I found out that my eight-year-old granddaughter was promised in marriage to one of these people in the inner circle," she said.

"I understand the cult believes, under biblical law, that children should marry at 12."

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon is demanding the South Australian Families and Communities Department intervene.

"The system has failed these children. There needs to be an absolute priority given where there is a cult involved," he said.

"Here we have a situation where this group has guns. They believe in the end of the world and there are kids involved. If that isn't a recipe for a potential disaster, I don't know what is."

But the Department says the two children are fine and the Minister, Jennifer Rankine, says they have been interviewed along with their parents.

"We have confirmed this morning that those children are safe and well," she said.

Ms Rankine says Ms Baligod should go to police if she is worried about other children.

"We've had no other reports of any other children. Now I know some people have said there are 12 other children, but we have no detail of that at all," she said.

South Australian police are still looking for Mt Leo and two of his close associates.

They are also searching for a number of automatic weapons.

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