Aug 3, 2016

'Evil, Wicked': What it was like to grow up in one of Australia's most notorious cults

WED 3 AUG 2016

ABC Online

By Ange McCormack


Imagine being routinely abused by your parents, administered LSD when you were child, and told your mother was Jesus Christ reincarnated in the female form - while living every day of your life in constant fear.


It happened in Australia for almost two decades, among the notorious cult known as The Family.

Nobody was tried on abuse, and one of the cult leaders, Anne Hamilton Byrne, walked away with a $5000 fine.


Babies taken from mothers - how The Family worked

While The Family still has followers today, the cult operated under Anne Hamilton Byrne, Bill Hamilton Byrne and Raynor Johnson from 1968 to 1987, according to documentary filmmaker Rosie Jones.

Rosie Jones’ film The Family is currently showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The Family was an apocalyptic sect based on a “mish mash” of religions with the aim of designing a master race, Rosie told Hack.

“Anne was very much the guru, she was beautiful, very charismatic of course, and very persuasive, and really for a lot of people she was a mother figure.”

Anne and Raynor Johnson, a high-flying academic and former Queen’s college headmaster, developed their own ideology for The Family, Rosie says.

“[Anne and Raynor] I’m sure colluded on this idea of creating perfect children.”

“All the children were blonde, they all looked the same. They had a strictly vegetarian diet, lots of yoga and exercises. They were trying to bring them up as perfect and to be the people who would take over when the world collapsed, which they thought was imminent.”

From the outside, The Family looked idyllic; the children looked like the Von Trapps.

But it was a front for something far more sinister.

First of all - the children weren’t all blood relatives. And Anne and Bill Hamilton Byrne weren’t their parents.

Some of the babies, like now-44-year-old Ben Shenton, were willingly handed over to Anne and Bill’s care. “That was considered an honour,” Rosie says, “for your child to be selected to be a part of the master race. Who wouldn’t like that?”

But some children were taken from young mothers who were shamed from having babies out of wedlock.

Remember - this was during the 60s and 70s in Australia, when this kind of thing was relatively common. In 2013, then-PM Julia Gillard made a national apology to the victims of forced adoptions.

The forced adoptions had forged “wounds that would not heal”, Julia Gillard said.

Social workers within The Family brought some of these forced - but often legally - adopted children to the sect, Rosie says.

“Older social workers would convince these young girls quite forcibly to give up their babies. [The mothers] would go into the birthing room, they would given massive doses of drugs, a pillow in some cases would be put over their faces so they never saw their babies. Their babies were handed over.”


What it was like inside - meet Ben Shenton

Ben Shenton’s experience inside The Family was traumatic, he tells Hack, but when police finally raided the property in 1987, he didn’t want to leave.

Ben had been told that he was soon going to be taken to England to boarding school; he couldn’t wait. At fifteen years old, Ben had been in The Family since he was eighteen months old, and it was the only world he could fathom.

Ben’s first memory wasn’t of his birth mother—who he was made to believe was his “Aunty Joy”—whom he first “met” at age 12.

His first memory is lying in bed at The Family’s property in Victoria, a place where he would later live through years of abuse.

“When the police came I physically fought against being removed. It’s like my whole world, my whole future was mapped out - I thought it was going to be taken away from me.

“From my understanding, going overseas living in boarding school was a huge thing. I was going to be going to England.

“So [when the police came, I was] at the top of the staircase, I said don’t take me. I was clinging to the staircase.”

But once Ben was taken from the property and was told that Anne and Bill weren’t his parents, Ben embraced reality very quickly, he says.

“That very night, I was lying in bed, I was thinking through all the things I’d said that day to check whether I’d get into trouble for saying them or not.

“We were brought up to believe that police were evil. We were brought up to believe that adults didn’t have our best interests at heart.

“To have that turned upside down, it’s scary.”

Rosie Jones, the documentary maker, says it was the beginning of a long healing process.

“They were children without an identity. They didn’t know who they were. There were birth records but they had been falsified.

“I think the physical punishment is one thing, but really I think the kids were starved for love. There was nobody out there who loved them.”


What happened to Anne Hamilton Byrne?

Anne Hamilton Byrne, a woman who indoctrinated, abused and drugged children ended up in jail, right?


“What she did was totally evil and wicked,” says Ben, thirty years after his time in The Family.

“She promised things as the reincarnation of Jesus to people; that time has shown she could never deliver on. Things that the real Jesus has proven he can deliver on. That is where the wickedness is.

“Everyone will say, 'a $5000 fine for what you did?' We go, 'I want the person who did this to pay the price and be called to account'.”

But at the time of the raid, Anne was overseas, a Royal Commission never got off the ground and police didn’t trial Anne on abuse, Ben says.

Instead, Anne’s fine was for falsifying the documents of three of the children.

A case, Rosie Jones says, that Australian police were confident would result in her extradition to Australia.


Anne Hamilton Byrne

“Anne fought the extradition, she fought the court case with very expensive lawyers,” Ben says.

“The police knew that if they brought forward the crimes they did to us, we would get put in the witness box and we would be absolutely grilled, that we made up this story.

“The powers to be that were around us, said we couldn’t handle this. We weren't asked. We weren’t even given the option [to go ahead with the trial]. But you’re talking about 15 or 16 year old boys, 20 year old girls, and Sarah, who was on suicide watch at various times.

“The police looked at this going, I don’t think these kids can take it. Knowing what Anne will put them through. You have to understand the state we were in.

“Looking back on it now, thirty years on, I don’t agree. I wish they had asked me [to stand in the trial]. And I would have said yes. I think all of us would have. But did we know what we were saying yes to? Police are used to seeing the effect when you put a victim in the witness box and didn't want to risk our fragile state."

Now Anne Hamilton Byrne is in her nineties, living in a nursing home and suffering from dementia. Ben, who visited Anne in 2011, says he’s closed that chapter in his life.

“With Anne, I cancelled the debt. I said, Anne you no longer owe me anything. And therefore you no longer have the power to keep me bitter and cause hate.”

Ben isn’t pushing for a Royal Commission specifically into the alleged crimes committed in The Family but rather into the government process and departments that allowed this to be ignored.




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