Cult head 'took money from cancer victim'

AAP, Australia/September 6, 2011

An alleged doomsday cult leader accused of swindling thousands of dollars from followers appropriated money set aside for a cancer sufferer, a court has heard.

Former Agape Ministries followers Martin Penney (Penney) and Silvia Melchiorre are suing Agape Ministries leader Rocco Leo in the South Australian civil District Court, accusing him of misappropriating money they gave in donations.

In the court on Tuesday, Leo's lawyer Tom Duggan said he was insettlement negotiations with Ms Melchiorre.

Mr Penney is continuing his suit but has reduced his claim from $1.2 million to about $866,000.

Mr Penney's lawyer, Richard Armour, said his client wanted back $517,193 he donated to the organisation, $132,000 he gave for plant and equipment, and $217,000 he gave in trust to Mr Leo for a cancer-stricken parishioner.

"My client wanted to help them (the cancer sufferer's family) by making gifts to them to help them through their crisis," he said.

Mr Armour said Leo never passed the money onto the family.

Leo was arrested in Fiji in June, with his closest associates Mari Antoinette Veneziano and her brother Joseph, for visa breaches.

The two associates are also defendants in the civil claim.

The trio fled Australia last year just before SA police raided several of the cult's properties in Adelaide, seizing guns, slow-burning fuses, detonators, extendable batons and 35,000 rounds of ammunition.

District Court documents allege Leo told his followers world governments would try to microchip people to control them and behead or gas anyone who refused.

Master Mark Rice urged parties to speed up these civil proceedings which have been plagued by delays and scheduled a new directions hearing on September 28.

South Australian authorities said they will not pursue Leo over the 126 fraud allegations with no reasonable prospects of a conviction.

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