Apr 29, 2017

Romano: Scientology's problems on Clearwater land deal are of its own making

John Romano, Times Columnist
Tampa Bay Times
April 29, 2017

I've been bothered by these questions all week:

What if it had been the Roman Catholic Diocese? What if it had been the Jewish Federations of North America?

What if it had been any religious organization other than the Church of Scientology being snubbed by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in a land purchase deal?

I can't say for certain, but I assume there would have been some consternation. A lot of hand wringing. Maybe even some people in positions of prominence talking about religious discrimination.

After all, the Scientology folks offered more than triple the price that the city of Clearwater agreed to pay the aquarium for a coveted piece of downtown land.

The church's lawyers have certainly suggested the deal is shady. As the Times' Tracey McManus reported, the church has complained to the state attorney general, the auditor general and other elected officials about a non-profit organization that receives taxpayer funds and then turns around and cuts a sweetheart deal with a government entity.

Eventually, I came to these conclusions:

1. Philosophically, the Scientologists have a point.

2. Realistically, they got what they deserve.

In the end, this wasn't about religion. Not in the theological sense.

Frankly, I don't think most people care about Scientology's religious doctrines, auditing exercises or past life theories. Pretty much every religion requires its own peculiar leaps of faith.

This is about Scientology's reputation in the community. And that's a mess.

Scientology has invited almost all of its problems with an aggressive, vindictive and bullying manner when it comes to dealing with anyone questioning the church's mission.

That includes elected officials, journalists, former members and even parents, children and siblings who are outside the church.

Defending your religion is entirely understandable. Hiring private detectives or conducting smear campaigns — and there seems to be ample evidence that this happens routinely — is something completely different.

Does the church have a right to be disappointed by the aquarium's land sale? Of course it does. Does it have a right to question how a non-profit could ignore the huge difference in offers? Absolutely.

But it seemed counterproductive to deliver an extensive and accusatory portfolio to the Pinellas County Commission that aquarium officials contend was rife with half-truths.

Commission chair Janet Long said it was ironic that the church accused the aquarium of acting in bad faith after Scientology officials assured her more than a year ago that they were not buying additional land in downtown Clearwater, only to snatch up numerous parcels under the guise of anonymous corporations.

"They are not honorable, trustworthy partners,'' Long said. "They intimidate. They bully. They lie. Those are not qualities you normally think of when you're talking about a church.''

I know very little about Scientology other than one of its core beliefs is that the truth is what you witness. And, around here, there are plenty of witnesses to the church's darker impulses.

Sadly, it doesn't need to be that way.


The Family: A Cult Revealed

Allegations of stolen children, drugs, abuse and a leader who claimed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ -- "48 Hours" follows the trail of a cult that began in Australia and led the FBI to New York

Peter Van Sant
April 29, 2017

To some, Anne Hamilton-Byrne was a yoga teacher with a penchant for plastic surgery. To others, she was the evil leader of The Family -- an apocalyptic cult with about 500 followers and more than 28 children. Some were the children of cult members, others were newborns that came from unwed mother tricked into thinking their babies were going to good homes, a few were out and out stolen, investigators say.

Now, some of those children are speaking out about Hamilton-Byrne's attempt to build a perfect race through a collection of children -- some of whom were forced to have their hair bleached blonde, were home-schooled on an isolated property, and were injected with LSD as part of an initiation ritual.

The harsh treatment was carried out by some of the women known as "Aunties," loyal cult members who lived with and taught the children. The children believed they were brothers and sisters and thought Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne were their parents until they were rescued by police and the cult was broken up.

"The Family" is also the story of the incredible determination of a detective in Australia and an agent at the FBI who joined forces to bring the Hamilton-Byrnes before a judge.

"My whole life was wrapped up in this investigation," says Lex de Man, a former detective with the Victoria Police Department in Melbourne, Australia. He tells "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant, "She is the most evil person that I've ever met."

In the Catskills region of New York State, Lex de Man is far from home. He is here to retrace the steps of the biggest case of his career -- hunting down a dangerous fugitive cult leader.

Lex de Man: It's incredible, absolutely incredible that I'm standing here … unbelievable feeling.

Peter Van Sant: Lex, for a man who has been emotionally as well as professionally involved in this case for so many years, to see this house for the first time, what has this day been like for you?

Lex de Man It's been a tough day. …it brought back memories for me of some of the victims.

Innocent victims -- children who had no choice -- and true believers who de Man says fell under the spell of Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a one-time yoga teacher-turned-cult leader who convinced followers she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: If you would learn how to tread the path of attainment, you must go to the one who has successfully passed through it.

Her cult was known simply as The Family.

Peter Van Sant: The Family still lives.

Lex de Man: Well, even today, The Family still lives in Australia. It still exists. There are still followers.

Now, some of the cult's children are telling their stories of what life was like inside The Family's fenced-in compound in Australia with its leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: It is possible to make contact with the secret source of life, of the most high.

At the core of that life were Hamilton-Byrne's mystical teachings. Each week, hundreds of her followers gathered at a lodge to worship Anne.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: We get ready to enter the next universe.

Adam Lancaster: Under the influence of LSD, she had this vision that she's got to collect all these children from birth.

Dave Whitaker: Because the end of the world was coming.

Adam Lancaster: Most of the population of the world's going to perish … She was preparing us … to re-educate the world. What's left of it.

Adam Lancaster grew up in the cult. Dave Whitaker had parents who were senior cult members.

Dave Whitaker: Only one rule -- do absolutely everything she tells you.

There were 28 children in all, ranging from toddlers to teens. They only learned the truth of their lives much later.

Sarah Moore: The cult doctor arranged for my biological mother to be … drugged and made to sign an adoption form.

Sarah Moore, who had believed Anne Hamilton-Byrne was her birth mother, only learned the truth when she was an adult.

Sarah Moore: During my birth a pillow was put over her head, she was given major tranquilizers and as soon as I was born I was taken away instantly. She wasn't even allowed to see -- look at me.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne did have one child of her own; a daughter, who was a young adult by the time Hamilton-Byrne started her cult. Later on, when Anne was in her 50s, she'd sometimes explain the arrival of new children by telling followers that she was their mother, and even took to wearing maternity clothing. She once told a young Dave Whitaker that she'd given birth to triplets.

Dave Whitaker: She's just looked me straight in the face and said, "I had these three children" and I'm thinking, "You didn't have those three children. You must think I'm a bloody idiot to tell me that." [Laughs] But I just said, "Oh yes, OK," agreed with her. She's not somebody you argue with.

The children who were adopted by Anne were all given the last name of Hamilton-Byrne and believed they were brothers and sisters. Anne even groomed them to resemble one another.

Sarah Moore: I think she simply set about it as a project. You know, I'll collect as many kids as I can … Once she became the leader of the cult I think she could get whatever she wanted, I think one thing that she wanted was lots of little children. …little perfect little children in perfect little dresses, with perfect little blond hair.

Adam Lancaster: We all did look the same. We all had blonde, bleached hair. Not all of us. Some had red hair … because Auntie Anne was actually naturally a red headed [sic].

Steve Eichel, a psychologist and an internationally recognized cult expert, says at its peak, The Family had branches in the United States and in multiple countries in the world.

Steve Eichel: Anne Hamilton-Byrne was the leader of what we would call a hybrid new age cult.

Peter Van Sant: I wanted to show a couple of pictures from The Family. How about this one?

Steve Eichel: That's a really harrowing picture.

Steve Eichel: To me that represents children who are clearly being controlled who are having their individual identities destroyed. …The average person though … would think, "What lovely children. How could this group possibly be evil?"

The cult's home movies made it seem like a paradise, but Sarah Moore and Anouree Treena-Byrne say they were carefully orchestrated.

Sarah Moore: …she'd sometimes brush our hair herself … or put us in curlers the night before the photographs and stuff were to be taken.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: So much effort to get that scene on film. …Why wouldn't you want to be part of this? It looks idyllic -- mmm.

Peter Van Sant: In some ways, this is like a marketing campaign?

Steve Eichel: It's absolutely a marketing campaign.

Leeanne Creese: Anne showed them to her followers … showing off to the world that she's normal with lots of children -- lots of happy children.

Happy children with beautiful singing voices. Hamilton-Byrne -- who would never be mistaken for Julie Andrews -- nonetheless dreamed her children could one day become Australia's version of the Von Trapp family from the film "The Sound of Music."

Adam Lancaster: We were brought up that we've had many millions of lives. And Auntie Anne promised us that this was our last life if we stood by her.

Sarah Moore: I think she believed that the world would end in some sort of apocalyptic event and we would be so perfectly trained and so disciplined that we would be able to lead what was left of the world into the next epoch.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: Those who are devoted to me, they are united with me. Those who are not devoted, they don't know me.

The adopted children lived apart from the adult cult members in an isolated compound near Lake Eildon, about three hours outside Melbourne. The stark reality behind the images of a carefree childhood, the children say, was a constant fear of the woman they called mother, and the cult women she assigned to take charge of them.

Leeanne Creese lived in the cult from her birth until she was 17 years old.

Leeanne Creese: The women that looked after us were called Aunties … They starved us. They beat us. They did all sorts of horrible things to us.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: The Aunties were to be avoided at all costs.

Ben Shenton: …if someone wet the bed, they'd get … cold showers … one of the youngest girls … did not speak until I think she was 5.

At the age of 18 months, Ben Shenton was sent by his mother -- a grateful cult member -- to live at the children's compound.

Ben Shenton: One of the boys … had asthma … he was wheezing, and sniveling. …So these nurses would put him outside in the cold at night.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: One could never be sure what could happen next … we were frightened for each other all the time.


Michael Stevenson-Helmer: Anne was waiting for me, and just welcomed me, and took me in … Looked at me and I was numb right through to my toes.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne's magnetism and command always seemed to hypnotize some of her followers.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: It's hard to put into words, but it's was the most … amazing, wonderful feeling … It was just a feeling of being known, and understood.

Like true believer Michael Stevenson-Helmer, who was 19 years old when he met Hamilton-Byrne.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: She just radiated out, don't you know that? Haven't you experienced that?

Even those who later broke away from The Family are still awed by Anne's seductive strengths.

Adam Lancaster: When Auntie Anne walked into a room, you knew she was there … she had the airs and the graces of the Queen of England.

In fact, Hamilton-Byrne told her devoted believers that she had descended from royalty.

Adam Lancaster: …we, as children, thought she was beyond the Queen of England. There was one … time where Mum said that she even spent time with the Queen, having cups of tea. So, we just assumed that Auntie Anne was … in the same league as the Queen of England.

Leeanne Creese: …we all believed as children that she had … the perfect childhood.

But Anne Hamilton-Byrne's childhood was far from perfect … as the children would learn years later.

Sarah Moore: Her mother was psychotic … and the father worked on the railways and was absent a lot of the time … She came from an extremely impoverished and horrible background.

Which may explain why she tried to create her own Von Trapp family.

Leeanne Creese: I think that she was trying to portray this perfect life and this perfect family. Something that she didn't have.

As an adult, Hamilton-Byrne turned to yoga and began studying eastern religions.

Voice of Anne Hamilton-Byrne: I had been teaching yoga quietly, because that was my master's last utterance. I had to start it. That was divine orders. That was my mission. That was the divine vision.

She created a new persona -- a new age guru available to those in need of spiritual guidance. But she needed credibility and zeroed in on a highly respected British physicist and author, Dr. Raynor Johnson, who had a large following.

Sarah Moore: He was a very kindly old man. Very clever, but very, very, very gullible.

So gullible, he believed Hamilton-Byrne was Jesus Christ. Anne had received some inside information after having sex with Johnson's gardener, but pretended she was clairvoyant and Dr. Johnson bought it.

Sarah Moore: …she appears at his door in the middle of the night saying that she knows that he is going to go to India with his wife and the wife is going to get sick over there and that she is the messiah and after that he was hers.

Convinced Anne was a messiah, Johnson began sending her referrals -- students and friends, some of whom were suffering personal crises.

Fran Parker: This lovely voice answered me. It was an enchanting voice full of depth and love and encouragement.

Fran Parker was an early follower.

Fran Parker: We didn't think of ourselves as a cult … everyone there seemed to be on a similar wave length. They were just lovely people who were sincerely looking for the spiritual dimension in their lives.

Sarah Moore: In Australia there was a huge interest amongst upper middle class people in alternative spirituality.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne's teachings struck a chord. With her newfound credibility, courtesy of Raynor Johnson, she began to attract more and more followers and the cult known as The Family was born.

Lex de Man: The cult was made up professional people -- architects, solicitors, barristers, nurses -- professional people in society.

Peter Van Sant: How do you get someone so smart to do something that the rest of the world perceives as just so stupid?

Steve Eichel: That's a question that haunts all of us all the time … one can be extremely highly educated and yet have a real psychological naiveté. …And a lot of times people who are really smart, are really educated, mistakenly believe that they are now invulnerable to any kind of influence. …Because I'm too smart … to be conned.

Lex de Man says Anne targeted anyone who could help her amass power and money. She set her sights on Bill Byrne, a successful and married local building contractor.

Leeanne Creese: I think that he was captivated by her charm just like everybody else was.

Bill Byrne divorced his wife and married Anne. They became the unquestioned leaders of The Family, sharing the new last name which would become known around the world: Hamilton-Byrne.

Anne's adult followers agreed to live by her rules; "unseen, unheard and unknown" was the cult's motto. They kept their jobs and congregated on one street, miles from the children's compound.

Adam Lancaster: In the '70s and '80s the majority of The Family owned the whole street … every house on the street because they wanted to be near Auntie Anne … and Auntie Anne wanted them to be near her.

Anne had a sure fire way to keep many of her followers under her thumb: the mind-altering drug LSD.

Adam Lancaster: I just remember being in this world of color … purples, to pinks, to reds, to greens, to blues … and it was as if I'd walked into jelly.


In Australia, locals would call Detective Lex de Man a "copper" and investigating Anne Hamilton-Byrne had been this "copper's" life's work.

Lex de Man: Anne Hamilton-Byrne is the most evil person I've ever come across and I've come across quite a few evil people in my life. …when you look at what she did to children -- what she did to young mothers, taking children … breaking marriages up, taking money off people, she is an evil, evil person.

Sarah Moore: She'd just change your whole world. She'd turn it upside down overnight.

Sarah Moore, taken from her unwed mother at birth, grew up watching Anne manipulate her disciples -- children and adults – with unquestioned power, combining love with fear.

Sarah Moore: They'd have a marriage, they might be in love with someone or they might have a kid or whatever, and she'd just take that away overnight and say … "No, you're with this person now," or, "No, you're having this kid now, not that one," and that was the way it worked.

But there are also stories of Anne winning over converts by allegedly performing miracles. Ben Shenton, who grew up in The Family, describes how Anne won over his mother Joy after a life-changing encounter.

Ben Shenton: Joy is completely bedridden, she's been that way for months. Scoliosis, a calcified spine, she's on death's door … Anne knocks on the door. My eldest brother gets up, opens the door and Anne comes in … and she says to Joy… "Joy if you serve me … I will heal you." …within six weeks, Joy is up and walking around.

Ben Shenton: And from that moment, Anne was, as far as she's concerned, exactly who she claimed to be -- the reincarnation of Jesus with the power to prove it.

By the 1980s, the family's membership topped 500. Lex de Man says Anne began ordering her followers to take LSD in bizarre ceremonial rituals she called "clearings."

Lex de Man: And once … they … were … administered … the LSD in a dark room, the door … would appear open and here would be Anne standing there in a flowing white gown … behind her was a bucket of dry ice which permeated like smoke … and under the hallucinogenic drug LSD, they were actually convinced that they were seeing the Almighty, that they were seeing Jesus Christ.

Peter Van Sant: So all Anne needed was a bucket of dry ice, some LSD … and this production and she could convince some of the smartest people in Australia to follow her.

Lex de Man: Professionals, absolutely … it's a bizarre story, but it's a fact.

Peter Van Sant: is this crazy or what?

Steve Eichel: Well, it certainly looks crazy to anybody outside of the group, outside of a cult.

Steve Eichel: In a cultic group, typically there's a separate reality… And through a process of brainwashing … individuals basically come to believe that the leader is the ultimate arbiter of truth. …The purpose of purifying individuals was to increase their belief in Anne Hamilton-Byrne as Jesus, as the messiah, as a pure spiritual being.

And that's exactly what happened to Dave Whitaker, who was a teen when his father -- also a cult member and a doctor -- injected him with LSD.

Dave Whitaker: Anne would come in every now and again and … sat down beside me and whispered in my ear, 'Who is Jesus?'…and then somehow the thought popped into my head, "you're Jesus." …and she goes, "that's right David, you always knew I was the Lord."

Over time, some members grew disillusioned, left the cult and dared to speak out.

Phillippe de Montignie is an investigative journalist.

Phillippe de Montignie: We were contacted by one of the members who had become disaffected … the people who were disaffected … they referred to things like brainwashing … husband and wives swapping all the time … children who didn't know who their parents were … no matter which way you looked at it, it seemed wrong.

He confronted Anne's mentor, Dr. Raynor Johnson, about all those rumors.

Phillippe de Montignie: It's been suggested that drugs are used within your group. Can you see any basis for this?

Dr. Raynor Johnson: Well this of course, I deny, I deny absolutely. We're respectable citizens as I've tried to indicate to you.

Those obedient "citizens" included Fran Parker. Anne turned her life upside down one day by unexpectedly giving her a baby boy.

Fran Parker: She said, "Frances, your little baby has arrived." …And I just fell in love with that baby at first sight. I took him home and I was just so happy. He was gorgeous.

But her joy was short-lived when Anne ordered her -- for no apparent reason -- to divorce her husband.

Fran Parker: She said, "Why don't you just go home and leave a little note."

Anne succeeded in ending the marriage. No adult dared cross her in part because one of her cult members ran a local psychiatric hospital.

Fran Parker: There was always the threat of the mental hospital. She said it only takes two Psychiatrists to commit you.

Anne could be ruthless and was greedy as well, says Adam Lancaster who lived in the cult for decades.

Adam Lancaster: Auntie Anne sucked as much money out of people as what she possibly could … Anybody who joined The Family had to pay dues. …She was offering them, um, a way into heaven.

With those "dues," Anne's critics say she began enriching herself, buying up properties in England and New York State. She and Bill began to travel more frequently, sending back short gushy films to her followers and the children.

At one point, the father of Michael Stevenson-Helmer met Anne and asked how she made money.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: Dad asked Anne, 'Where does all your money come from?" And Anne said, "That's my private business, I don't ask where your money comes from."

As Anne accumulated money and property, she began traveling more but her "collection" of 28 young children was getting to be in the way. So Anne often left them at the compound with those so-called Aunties. And the Aunties carried out Anne's instructions with brutal efficiency.

Leeanne Creese: The philosophy behind that was it was better to have a dead child than a child that lied to you.


Anouree Treena-Byrne was a child of The Family cult. Now, she's revisiting her childhood home, back where her nightmares began.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: Anyone who saw this house … would think it would be a lovely holiday house. …For us, of course, Eildon was … a dreadful place to live.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: It was very hard to relax. I don't know if I even knew what that meant I don't think. It was just a terrible place to be. … I uselessly dreamed of going to Mars, and living there.

Anouree was actually Bill Hamilton-Byrne's biological granddaughter. As an infant, she was given to Anne and Bill. As she grew older, she wondered about the outside world, sometimes sneaking off the property.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: We did go for midnight walks … And we'd peer into people's houses. And we were very curious as to what exactly it was they were doing.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne has always insisted the children were well cared for.

Voice of Anne Hamilton-Byrne: It was love. Just love, started it.

But Anouree and the other children say that's a lie; that day-to-day life swung from the fear of severe discipline to mind-numbing boredom.

Sarah Moore: Usually every single day was the same, to the exact minute.

Ben Shenton: ...5:30 in the morning we would be woken up…

Anouree Treena-Byrne: Always too early for me.

Ben Shenton: …there would be the hatha yoga meditation.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: …and then set up the boys' room for school.

Journalist Marie Mohr.

Marie Mohr: These children were registered for home-schooling so there were the occasional education department checks.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: There was these wonderful equations on the board … to make us look advanced and sophisticated. …you know, above our level, which was never true.

Marie Mohr: And the children certainly were too frightened to tell outsiders anything that was going on.

Anouree says she fantasized about telling the education inspector the truth but never got the chance.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: He was never in the room with us by himself. …The Aunties were always around.

Behind the mask was a harsh reality.

Ben Shenton: The rules change. And you just work out what they are and decide how you're going to play the system to get what you need to survive. … The aunts were the disciplinarians.

But the Aunties were just following Anne's orders.

Leeanne Creese: You never questioned her because you'd be slapped across the face.

Leeanne Creese: There were times when she would want to hear us scream for being naughty over the phone.

Ben Shenton: She'd ring up and ask to listen to us receiving beltings.

Leeanne says the children suffered other terrifying tortures -- similar to waterboarding.

Leeanne Creese: They used to fill up buckets of water … and one by one they would hold us down and put our heads in the water and ask us questions and pull your head up and ask the question again and put it down in.

Ben Shenton: You remember absolute terror. That's the horror, when it was uncontrollable, which is what Bill would do.

Leeanne Creese: He used to have a very, very bad temper.

Ben Shenton: Sarah was thrashed [emotional pause] …excuse me, yeah it was … watching her being belted with a buckle, being beaten to the point where she's wriggling out of her clothes -- just horrendous.

Worst of all, Leeanne says, Anne starved the children. Sometimes, she withheld food to punish them and padlocked the fridge. But her cats and dogs had all they could eat.

Leeanne Creese: Oh [laughs] the animals were fed so much better than we were.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: It was of interest for some of us to perhaps try some of their food, every now and then.

Leeanne Creese: I remember loving the bacon [pork] bones. So I would watch for them for when they put them out for the animals and I would go and scavenge. Pretty awful, but …

Even more appalling was what happened when one of Anne's pets died. Leeanne says Anne honored them with a macabre memorial, making the children share their bedrooms with the decomposing animals.

Leeanne Creese: A white sheet would be put on the bed and the dog would lay on the bed for three days and then we would have a burial for it -- a burial service and it would be buried in the garden.

But the most important ceremony happened when a child turned 14 -- the initiation into The Family -- which meant getting that hit of LSD, sometimes by injection, sometimes by mouth.

Sarah Moore: Well, she had me under LSD for days. …She'd just come in like every 12 hours or so and give me another piece because I wasn't working hard enough. …I just more or less flipped out into some sort of psychotic state.

Sometimes the children screamed into the night. Neighbors across the lake called police. But Anne was prepared. Her Aunties welcomed the officers in and served tea, distracting them while the children hid.

Leeanne Creese: They didn't even know we were there because we were stuffed into this little hole … At one point I think there were 28 children thrown on top of each other into this space, and then they put the covering back over the wall and then a painting on top of it. …and we were too scared to make any noise whatsoever.

Sarah Moore: We were taught that everyone out there was evil … and police you know, would put you in a bag and beat you.

One time, Sarah says, the children couldn't hide in time. Still, Anne had a backup plan. The kids stuck closely to her script, reciting rehearsed lines that nothing was wrong.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: I do remember one question the police people asked us and that was … "Are you being fed properly?" Well that -- that's -- that's, um, a very difficult question … you know, I was surviving, I was alive. Yeah, sure, I'm being fed properly. You know, well how much are you supposed to have? You know? I -- I had no idea [laughs].

Leeanne Creese: We were all very protective of our parents, and of what was happening at the time. Nobody would dare say anything. …As a child of course you love your parents, it doesn't matter what they do to you, you love them.

But as the horrors wore on, Sarah and Leeanne finally had had enough. They were determined to find a way out. The children's futures were about to change forever.

Sarah Moore: I agreed to talk to the police even though I knew that was betraying her. …And I didn't think that, you know, it would tear the whole thing apart.


Leeanne Creese: …as children Sarah and I … used to talk about … escaping.

Sarah Moore: From … 14 or 15 age, you see the hypocrisy … I don't want to be part of her cult. I don't want her to be my guru.

Fed up with the hunger, abuse and psychological torture of life under cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Leeanne, now 15, found the courage to confront her face to face. She says Anne responded with violence.

Leeanne Creese: She had attacked me quite viciously … had slapped me … I was very angry with her so I actually slapped her back. And I thought, "Oh God, I'm not going to hang around for this."

Leeanne Creese: So I jumped out the window… and ran down to the lake… Kept running as far as I could possibly get away from them. …And I saw a light in a house and I thought, "Oh well, I will go to them and ask them to go and get the police." …they were a lovely couple, old couple… I remember the wife being very concerned … she said, "Oh, are you one of those children from around the lake?" All I could say to them was just, "Please get me the police."

When an officer arrived, Leeanne told him about the horrors. But instead of rescuing her, the officer called the Aunties at Lake Eildon, who convinced him that Leeanne was unstable.

Leeanne Creese: I think that if you're confronted by a story like that, you don't actually want to believe it, so he actually took me back.

Remarkably, Leeanne wasn't punished. It would be two more years before she got the nerve to run away again.

Leeanne Creese: Quite by chance, I ended up in exactly the same house. …the husband was there … and he said to me, "Oh, you're the same girl that ran away those few years ago.

Incredibly, the police even sent the same officer.

Leeanne Creese: This time … I said to him … "I will sleep in the gutter if you don't do something … You didn't believe me the first time, and I don't care if you don't believe me this time, but I'm not going back there." …So he said, "no, that's OK" … he said, "I've got someone I'll take you to."

The officer brought her to a local foster family. But Leeanne wasn't prepared to turn her back on the cult just yet. She clammed up about her past, instead focusing on her future in the real world.

Leeanne Creese: We weren't taught anything about the outside world, I didn't even know how to cross a road.

Leeanne Creese: I remember going to the bank and asking them if I could borrow $50 to go and buy clothes. So, I mean, they must have thought I was really weird because no one asks to borrow $50.

Meanwhile, Sarah was 17 and still living in the cult. Until, she too, had a fallout with Anne.

Sarah Moore: I was excommunicated and asked to leave the cult. …At that stage, I could have groveled to her and apologized and said "sorry great master" and all that…. I just said "OK. I'll go and die in the gutter like you've told me to."

Sarah was quickly taken in by some friendly locals and reunited with Leeanne. The two couldn't stop thinking about the other siblings they'd left behind.

Sarah Moore: The kids were suffering so much … that I couldn't see it going on a moment longer.

Leeanne Creese: I actually was seeing a counselor … and one day … she … said to me, "Well, what are you going to do?" …and I said, "Well, I think I'm going to go to the police."

Now, police were hearing firsthand how the cult children were starved, beaten and given LSD.

In the police interviews, the girls are, understandably, emotional:

Leeanne Creese: I feel as though Anne and the other members of the sect stole my childhood.

Leeanne Creese: I resent not being allowed to go to a normal school and not being allowed to form normal relationships.

Sarah Moore: We wanted so much for her to love us, and I don't think she really ever did.

Sarah Moore: Once I betrayed her I was the Judas … every messiah has to have a Judas, I guess.

Sarah says there was a price to pay for spilling Anne's secrets. Anne wrote her enemies' names on slips of paper and put them in ice. They were forever damned.

Sarah Moore: I thought I was cursed to die.

Police officer: How did you believe you'd die?

Sarah Moore: Um…

Police officer: By what means?

Sarah Moore: I don't know. Um, I just knew that I was going to 'cause you can't sort of betray your master and expect to sort of live.

Journalist Marie Mohr, who was investigating the cult, experienced Anne Hamilton-Byrne's wrath firsthand.

Marie Mohr: I also had a long period of time where I'd be lucky to get a night's sleep without the phone going through the night. Hang up calls, hang up calls.

But Mohr wouldn't quit. The more she learned, the more she worried about the rest of the children.

Marie Mohr: The stories I was told from day one were horrendous. It wasn't just manipulation of their lives. It was also being subjected to cruelty on an unimaginable level.

Leeanne Creese: We needed to save the rest of the children that were in the sect .

With Sarah and Leeanne's chilling statements, cops now had an overwhelming mass of evidence and a sinking feeling the children's lives were at risk. Finally, they hatched a rescue plan -- a raid on the compound at Lake Eildon.



Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: If you would learn how to tread the path of attainment, you must go to the one who has successfully passed through it. …It is possible to make contact with the secret source, of life of the most high.

The world first became aware of the Australian cult known as The Family on Aug. 14, 1987, when the Victorian and federal police staged a dramatic pre-dawn raid to remove children living at an isolated compound near Melbourne. The cult was led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a self-appointed mystic who controlled her followers for decades.


Woman: OK everybody, I'll explain to you what's going to happen.

Voices of children: They're taking us somewhere … where are we going?

Woman: We realize it's going to be very stressful for you…

Voices of children: We're going to children's court, we are…

Woman: Great big deep breaths -- I know you're scared.

By day's end, news was spreading about Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher turned cult leader who, investigators say, had been collecting children for years. At one time, there were 28 kids in all, ranging in age from toddlers to teens.

Dave Whitaker's parents were senior cult members and knew Anne well.

Dave Whitaker: She was a very charismatic sort of person … she had a huge presence about her.

As many as 500 adults followed Anne Hamilton-Byrne willingly, but the children had no choice. Some were the offspring of cult members; others were taken from unwed mothers who were strong-armed into giving up their babies by cult doctors and nurses. Now those children are speaking out about their ordeal.

Sarah Moore: There was a child that was nearly dying from malnutrition and was only three foot tall … and was 12 years old.

Sarah Moore, who lived in the cult from birth until she was 17 years old, says the children were supervised by cult women who home-schooled them. They were known as Aunties and, Ben Shenton says, some resorted to torture.

Ben Shenton: You going to be dunked in … a bucket filled with water, and … have your head held under that for a period of time … to the point where you are asphyxiated, you're close on blacking out.

When the children became teens, they told police that some of them were forced to take LSD in a ceremony that helped reinforce the cult's fundamental belief that Anne was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ -- raising a master race of children.

Dave Whitaker: Anne … whispered in my ear, "Who is Jesus?" …and then somehow the thought popped into my head, "you're Jesus." … and she goes, "that's right David, you always knew I was the Lord."

But Anne did not embrace the humble life of Christ. She traveled extensively to properties she owned in Kent, England and New York State, sometimes with her children.

Investigators say the homes were mostly paid for with the millions Anne extracted from her wealthy followers, many of them well-educated, high-earning professionals.

By the time of the raid in 1987, only seven children -- ranging in age from 11 to 18 years old -- were living at Anne's special compound. Of the rest, some were living with their cult parents and others were in boarding schools in England. Anne happened to be overseas on the day of the raid, but her husband Bill was there and so was Leanne. She had run away months earlier but had gone to police and told them her story.

Leanne Creese: I actually went in with the police when the raid happened because I thought it was best that one of us was with them so that the children realized that it was OK, because it would have been very, very scary for them.

Leanne Creese: Bill came out of his room and saw me and he said to me, "How could you betray us like this?"

Incredibly, not a single adult was arrested. Police allowed Bill and the Aunties to leave the compound as the investigation continued. Meanwhile, the suddenly free children were taken to a group home where they found normal life -- even a simple meal -- bewildering.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: I think we had breakfast. We had something to eat. …and you know, they said you can eat as much as you want, and, well I said, "My stomach's only a certain size." [Laughs]

Ben Shenton, then 15 years old, was one of the rescued children.

At the age of 18 months, he had been sent by his grateful mother, a devoted cult member, to live at the children's compound.

Ben Shenton: I'm lying in bed at the end of that night, thinking through what had happened through the day. What I'd said, what I hadn't said, and realizing I no longer have to check what I say. I'm not going to get into trouble if I say something wrong and I think, to me [emotional pause] … that's probably when I'd realized the prison doors had opened, for good.

Behind closed doors, the adult members of The Family were shaken by the police raid. Many left, including Bill Hamilton-Byrne, who vanished overseas to join Anne. Some of the devoted continued to assemble weekly at The Family's special lodge, where they listened to Anne's audio tape-recorded messages:

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: I'm looking right at each one of you. You are the initiate. You're staring into the awakening.

It was clear more needed to be done and the children were about to get the champions they deserved. Investigative journalist Marie Mohr tracked down senior members of the cult.

Marie Mohr: "Marie Mohr's my name Dr. Mackay. I'm wondering if you've got any comment to make?

It was around the same time that police detective Lex de Man came on the scene to investigate the biggest case of his career.

Lex de Man: Anne Hamilton-Byrne is the most evil person I've ever come across … and I've come across quite a few evil people in my life.


Marie Mohr: You couldn't hear those stories without it affecting you if you had any heart at all.

Back in the 1980s, Marie Mohr was a tough as nails investigative reporter hot on the trail of cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne. But once she bonded with cult children Sarah and Leeanne, her hard-edged attitude softened.

Marie Mohr: I do remember one of my bosses saying to me at one stage, "are you a social worker or a journalist?" and I said, "well at the moment it seems I'm a bit of both."

Leeanne Creese: Marie was the one, ultimately the first person that we actually grew, all of us to trust …and she was a bit of a bulldog in the fact that she wanted justice for all of us for what had happened and she's always been there.

Eager for answers, Mohr tracked down one of The Family's psychiatrists, Dr. John Mackay.

Marie Mohr: I'm wondering if you've got any comment to make now about what happened to the children...

[Dr. Mackay hits Mohr and the camera with a briefcase]

Marie Mohr: Why won't you have? Is that all you've got to say?

She had questions about an autistic baby boy Dr. Mackay had adopted and given to Anne to raise.

Marie Mohr: I wanted to ask him if he knew, after he handed that child over, what had happened to that child, the brutality that he experienced.

Mackay later admitted to another reporter that he had indeed given his adopted baby to Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne:

Dr. John Mackay: I think that they've been able to provide a stable environment with a lot of help, a lot of love, a lot of dedication.

Reporter: Something that you weren't able to do?

Dr. John Mackay: I think, you know, that's true. I wasn't able…

In 1988 and 1989, prosecutors built a case against eight cult members. Three were Aunties who allegedly abused the children physically. But because there were no photographs of bruises and no police or hospital reports, those Aunties were not charged with child abuse. Instead, all eight women were charged with applying falsely for government benefits -- money they turned over to Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

One of the Aunties charged was Helen Buchanan, who Leeanne Creese says, "would beat us with anything she could get her hands on." Buchanan denied abusing anyone.

Auntie Helen Buchanan: I suppose you'd call it a little bit old-fashioned nowadays because the values were those of high standards of dress, behavior, speech … although the discipline was firm, it was very loving.

Buchanan pleaded guilty of Social Security fraud along with the others. Some received a few months in jail. All were hit with fines and ordered to pay back the $223,000 they had stolen. Sarah Moore, a child of the cult, felt horribly cheated.

Sarah Moore: They didn't go to jail for beating us nearly every single day and starving us, you know, for three days at a time. …and you know, all the other things that happened up there.

Enter Police Detective Lex de Man. Four months after the raid, de Man was investigating an arson fire and one of the suspects was teenager Adam Lancaster, who'd been adopted by a cult member when he was 2 weeks old. Adam was a self-described troublemaker.

Adam Lancaster: I was a little bit of a ratbag, you know. I was just being a kid. … I was doing some things that really – like, for example, cutting people's car brakes that went for a walk into the forest … I'd started lighting fires.

One of de Man's colleagues alerted him to Adam's involvement in The Family and told him to steer clear.

Lex de Man: …his first words were "Don't get involved. If you get involved, it will be with you for a lifetime."

Lex de Man did not listen. In 1989, he teamed up with five other detectives to launch "Operation Forest" -- a special unit assigned to target The Family. It's mission: investigate allegations of physical abuse and whether any of the children had been given LSD.

Lex de Man: Right at the start of it, we didn't know much about the sect, about the cult, apart from what we'd been told by the then-children.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne was de Man's No. 1 target. But he had a big problem.

Lex de Man: We didn't know where Anne was. We were told that Anne was in the UK. We were told that Anne was in the United States. …We were told that Anne was here and there, but never in Australia.

Wherever she was, she was casting her spell over true believers like Michael Stevenson-Helmer who still thinks of Anne as a kind of sun goddess.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: A pale blue color just went straight through me and through to every part of my body and ended up in my toes, yeah.

But Lex de Man wasn't feeling the vibe, blue or otherwise. He kept hearing horrific tales of abuse, but with no hospital or police reports backing up the children's claims, it was hard to build a case. Then he caught a break—he heard that Anne's lawyer, Peter Kibby, had left the cult.

Lex de Man: Peter was the key to the door.

De Man knew how to get to Kibby, who had a condition that made the thought of living behind bars in a dirty jail cell inconceivable.

Lex de Man: Peter suffered from the disease of compulsive obsessive disorder … it would take him, to have a shower, sometimes two to three hours and three or four bars of soap, and so he never got to the office.

De Man had Kibby arrested on fraud charges. When he made bail, Kibby surprised the detective with a phone call.

Lex De Man: A week or two later the phone went in the office. This really animated and I have to say delightful voice gets on the end of the phone saying, "Lex, Peter Kibby." "Yes, Peter." "I'd like to have a cup of coffee with you."

Kibby slowly opened up and eventually admitted he'd helped Anne forge birth certificates for the children she claimed were her triplets.

Lex de Man: I look at Peter as, as someone who had the guts to actually stand up and say, "No, what we did was wrong."

De Man finally had the first tangible evidence to arrest Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne. He could only pursue them on a minor charge -- conspiracy and perjury for falsifying birth certificates, but it would be enough to bring them back to Australia -- if only de Man could find them.

Marie Mohr, meanwhile, had tracked down the couple in Hawaii:

Marie Mohr: Hello Mrs. Hamilton-Byrne. Marie Mohr from Channel 9. …Have you got any comment now about why you kept those children locked away for so long?

Bill Hamilton-Byrne: No comment.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: No comment.

Marie Mohr: When are you going to tell the children the truth about who their parents are?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: I don't know.

Marie Mohr: You're not going to tell them?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne soon vanished again and for three years managed to stay one step ahead of Lex de Man – until she made a disastrous mistake.


The scenic and secluded town of Hurleyville, New York, was about to take center stage in an international drama much to the surprise of Australian detective Lex de Man.

Lex de Man: Who would have thought Anne would have been in this house, two hours north of New York City, in a remote part of upper New York State – 10,000 miles from Victoria?

Peter Van Sant: It's like the dark side of the moon, right?

Lex de Man: To me it is … And seeing it today, I'm amazed that we were actually able to find her.

For four-and-a-half years, cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband, Bill, had managed to elude the detective.

Peter Van Sant: How did they end up here?

Lex de Man: They knew that … there were warrants for their arrest. And they also knew that we thought at the time they were in Kent in the United Kingdom.

But Anne, whose cult members believed was clairvoyant, didn't see that her future was about to dramatically change.

Lex de Man: We had luck on our side.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne had called one of the children back in Australia, Sarah Moore, even though she knew Sarah was cooperating with investigators.

Sarah, now knowing Anne was not her real mother, had come to realize her entire life had been a lie.

Sarah Moore: We'd rock ourselves to sleep at night … calling out "mummy, daddy…" As I got older I realized that it was her creation and that she dictated the laws … It wasn't to do with religion. It was to do with just power, money, and control.

When Sarah told Lex de Man about the call, he traced it, discovering Anne was at her New York property -- a moment almost too good to be true.

Lex de Man: Had she not made that phone call, she may well still be there today.

But that still leaves the question of why Anne Hamilton-Byrne, with millions at her disposal, ended up in a house in the Catskill mountains? The answer goes back to the 1970s, when the area was a mecca for hippies in search of enlightenment.

Joan Bridges: In the 70s and a little bit before that, there were quite a few yogis coming over to the West and attaining a lot of money, and fame and power.

Joan Bridges was a Georgia prom-queen-turned-hippie back in that golden age of gurus. While the Beatles followed their Maharishi, Bridges followed another celebrity guru, Swami Muktananda, to upstate New York … as did someone else.

Joan Bridges: Anne Hamilton-Byrne showed up. And she had her whole entourage of these small children with dyed blonde hair and identical bows in their hair. …It was one of the strangest things I'd ever seen.

Anne appeared to be one of Muktananda's faithful disciples. but she was actually anything but that.

Joan Bridges: I think Anne's design for being with Muktananda was to figure out how he did what he did … obviously she was trying to take people.

Peter Van Sant: In some ways was this like the ultimate field trip, a business trip for her? She came here to study him, learn his techniques?

Lex de Man: That would be a good way of describing it...and also bringing the children along here to … get the confidence of Muktananda with her as a loving mother.

But behind closed doors, Leeanne says the abuse never stopped -- even when Anne would take some of the children along on her travels.

Leeann Creese: She beat me so badly that I could hardly move. I was black and blue all over. …I mean, that was just part of life but that was probably the most horrific time.

Over the years, Anne Hamilton-Byrne gave several television interviews:

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Over 21 years, 28 young people went through our hands.

Reporter: Why did you do that?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: I love children.

Now, decades later, Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne were on the run and the children they professed to love were left behind half a world away. With his prey unaware that he had tracked her down, Lex de Man's next move was to alert the FBI.

Lex de Man: When the agent picked the phone up in New York, the first words were now, "I'm from Victoria. I'm an Australian police officer. Don't think I'm mad, but I'm gonna tell you this story about Jesus Christ reincarnated in the female form."

Agent Hilda Kogut: Most of the investigations I had were weird.

Dedicated FBI special agent Hilda Kogut was assigned the case.

Agent Hilda Kogut: This is what we do; this is what the FBI does.

Peter Van Sant: What did you know about this group? And were there any concerns about whether they could be a potentially dangerous organization?

Agent Hilda Kogut: We were concerned … based on allegations that some horrible things had been done to children that they had kidnapped and abused.

To lay the groundwork for an arrest, Kogut first needed to verify that Anne and Bill were at their Hurleyville home.

Agent Hilda Kogut: The House was isolated on a very quiet country road. There would be really no good place to sit and watch that house for 24 hours.

Peter Van Sant: What do you do?

Agent Hilda Kogut: My method was, I think the failsafe method. You go to the post office because everybody knows that the mailman knows all. And I guess I can say this. My father was a postal worker, so I know he did.

Agent Kogut did her reconnaissance while riding around with the mail carrier, confirming Anne and Bill were at the house.

Agent Hilda Kogut: I took a good look at the front entrance and the back entrance. Taking every bit of it in.

Peter Van Sant: What are your concerns, what are you worried about?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Well, you wanna make sure that you have enough people to surround the house. …I mean, there's two people you're taking into custody. But you don't know who else is in that house. …We're looking at a cult. … You never know.

It was June 4, 1993. Hilda Kogut and her team of agents swung into action, arriving at the Hurleyville house at dawn.


Lex de Man: This so-called Jesus Christ … was nothing more than a heinous criminal. …I don't think Anne Hamilton-Byrne was evil; I know that Anne Hamilton-Byrne was evil.

Lex de Man's dogged pursuit of Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband had led to this moment in upstate New York.

Agent Hilda Kogut: I say "FBI. Open the door. We have arrest warrants for Anne Hamilton-Byrne and William Hamilton-Byrne. Open the door."

Special Agent Hilda Kogut didn't know what she would find behind that door.

Agent Hilda Kogut: I see a look of shock…

Instead of a commanding cult leader, she saw a sad-looking 71-year-old woman.

Agent Hilda Kogut: A very frail-looking old woman.

Peter Van Sant: Did she look like Jesus Christ to you?

Agent Hilda Kogut: No. …She looked like a woman that had had a lot of reconstructive surgery, including a hairline that pretty much started in the middle of her head. That's how many facelifts she'd had.

While the cult leaders gave up peacefully, Anne did complain on the ride to jail.

Agent Hilda Kogut: She asked how long it would be. She hadn't eaten breakfast.

Peter Van Sant: Anne Hamilton-Byrne was hungry, you're telling me, right?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Could be … We didn't stop.

No doubt the irony was lost on Anne. Remember, she routinely withheld food from the cult's children.

Leeanne Creese: We were always starving… One of the punishments for us was to take away our meals, so the longest I ever went without food was for a week.

The FBI found no children in the Hurleyville house and Anne had not adopted any in the U.S. Ten-thousand miles away in Australia, Sarah Moore waited with mixed emotions at police headquarters for word of an arrest.

Sarah Moore: It was so hard to betray her at the end, to talk to the police. …But I knew that the kids were suffering so much.

Finally, a six-year international manhunt was over. Hilda called Lex.

Lex de Man to Peter Van Sant: And the words she said to me on the phone was "we've got the son of a bitch." … And I just lost it.

Lex de Man: And I screamed out and I picked up the nearest chair and I threw it.

Agent Hilda Kogut: And I could hear this scream from him and everybody else in the room. …It was like a football game; everybody was screaming.

Peter Van Sant: What a moment, huh?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Exactly. It was great.

Anne and Bill remained behind bars in New York for two months.

Lex de Man: I was desperate to meet Anne Hamilton-Byrne from day one.

It was now August 1993 and the detective would get his wish. Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne were to be extradited to Australia. Lex de Man flew to New York's JFK airport to escort them back home.

Lex de Man: And I'll never forget the first words she ever said to me. She said, "So you're Mr. deMan. You're a lot younger than I thought." … And I thought to myself, "and you're the bitch that has destroyed people's lives."

Agent Hilda Kogut: If his eyes would've allowed him to drill a hole into her, it would've happened; he was that focused.

Reporter: "Just before 9 o'clock this morning Victorian police had Anne and William Hamilton-Byrne back on Australian soil…"

Lex de Man hoped that in capturing Anne he'd convince cult members to see her as he did.

Lex de Man: She was basically a very cunning crook.

Still, not all of them could.

Adam Lancaster: I was devastated when she was put into jail. … Yes, I know that they've all done wrong. Ah, but what can you do, they're your family.

After so many lives left in ruins – what would justice look like for the victims of the cult? The case was about to take another dramatic turn.


When Anne Hamilton-Byrne finally set foot on Australian soil for the first time in six years back in August 1993, she did not look like the glamorous cult leader her followers had come to expect.

Sarah Moore: Anne … being shown on national television without her wig -- that really was a blow to her narcissism.

A year later, with her wig back in place, Anne and her husband were hauled before a judge.

TV report: Anne and Bill Hamilton Byrne appeared confident when they arrived at court.

It was a moment ex-cult child Sarah Moore just had to see firsthand.

Sarah Moore: I still wanted there to be justice and for there to be some sort of acknowledgment that something bad had happened to us children.

The children of The Family, some of whom had been brainwashed, physically and emotionally abused, and even given mind-altering drugs, thought that Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne would face charges that could put them in prison for decades.

TV report: Anne and William Hamilton-Byrne registered the children in 1984 as their own triplets…

But a child's story is not proof of a crime. There was no physical evidence proving the children had been abused; no photographs, no police or hospital reports. So prosecutors ended up charging the world's most notorious cult couple with a single paltry charge: conspiracy to make a false statement. They still each faced five years in prison and $60,000 in fines, but the judge had other ideas.

TV report: Judge David Jones said he took into consideration the couple are in their 70s, have no previous convictions and are not in good health.

Marie Mohr: They said, "Oh, she's quite an elderly woman." That's just so much nonsense. There was nothing wrong with her. She was as healthy as an ox.

Shockingly, neither Anne nor Bill would spend a single day in an Australian prison. Instead, the couple who had ruined countless lives would each pay a fine of only $5,000.

Marie Mohr:To me, that wasn't justice. I'm bitterly disappointed it ended like that.

Sarah Moore: She didn't get anything. Nothing. And it seems like in Australia, society doesn't care about children that are abused.

Leeanne Creese: I think it's absolutely disgusting what the government did.

But Detective Lex de Man and prosecutors decided not to pursue any other charges in order, he says, to spare the children.

Lex de Man: We felt … that to have put these children in the witness box to be torn apart by defense counsel … would most likely have done more psychological damage in the long term to these people than securing a conviction on those other charges.

Marie Mohr: I don't think it was fair for anyone to make that call … I personally believe some of the children could have done that. They're very bright. They're strong. They've survived a lot more than a courtroom. So they could survive their childhood, but they couldn't survive being crossexamined? … I think it underestimated them, and I think it let them down.

Agent Hilda Kogut: …the fact that she was only fined, not imprisoned -- is an affirmation to the believers that she is divine. That she is all-powerful. She beat the Australian legal system. What more could you ask if you were a believer in someone like that and what someone like that espoused?

Sure enough, a couple of dozen true believers stayed loyal to Anne following her court appearance and are followers even now … cultists like Michael Stevenson-Helmer.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: There was an awful lot of goodness that went on there too … that's never mentioned by those dear children who are victims, and will remain victims until the day they die. They never mention the good times do they?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne disappeared from the public eye until 2009, 15 years after her day in court. She finally resurfaced on" 60 Minutes Australia" to face some tough questioning. She was a feisty 87-year-old:

Karl Stefanovic: Were the children ever hit?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Course they weren't.

Karl Stefanovic: Because...?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: They were not beaten.

Karl Stefanovic: Never?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Never. You would have to be pretty good to see through that bulls---. It's absolute bulls---. It's lies.

The children Anne Hamilton-Byrne collected have tried to outrun their past.

After years of searching, Adam Lancaster reunited with his biological family, but his mother had died.

Adam Lancaster: There's a huge sadness that I actually never got to at least give her a cuddle, or, say, "Hey, I'm your son." Yeah.

Ben Shenton did reunite with his mother who at one time had rejected him.

Ben Shenton: I -- have a relationship with my mother that is to the level where she will allow it to go … and it's very painful for her.

Upon being rescued from the cult, Anouree Treena-Byrne learned that her mother had committed suicide, but she was able to reconnect with her father.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: The last 10 years, before dad passed away, were our best. That was when we really consolidated a wonderful, understanding, caring -- intellectual relationship. Yeah.

But Anouree did carry her scars into motherhood.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: I was unable to hold my first baby, by myself at first. For quite a little bit of time…

Leeanne Creese, who ran away from the cult twice as a teenager and once slapped Anne, has nonetheless always been fond of Bill Hamilton-Byrne.

Leeanne Creese: He was my father. I was always daddy's girl, always. Sorry [sobbing].

She even asked Bill to walk her down the aisle at her wedding and she is now the proud mother of two grown children, although her past lurks in the shadows.

Leeanne Creese:We're still all trying to survive. We're still all trying to live in a world that we never grew up in.

And then there is Sarah Moore, once Anne's favorite adopted child. She became a doctor.

Sarah Moore: One of the ways I tried to alleviate the effects of my childhood was to dedicate my life to helping others. I spent a lot of time overseas, you know, going to remote places and you know, war zones and volunteering all sorts of things.

Shockingly, last year, Dr. Sarah Moore passed away from a heart attack. She was only 46 years old.

And Detective Lex de Man, he still often breaks down when he thinks of the children.

Lex de Man: It's been a long journey and it's still with me [emotional]. I need a break. …I need a break.

Bill Hamilton-Byrne died in 2001, Incredibly, Anne is still alive and still a millionaire with an estate estimated to be worth at least $10 million. She's 95 years old and is living in a nursing home in Melbourne suffering from dementia.

Peter Van Sant: In some ways, did Anne Hamilton-Byrne win?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Yes. She did … her evilness won … she shoulda been imprisoned and, and so should he have been … for the rest of their lives. And lives after that.

Lex de Man: Some might find this a bit harsh of me to say, but to me it will be a great day when they bury the bitch six foot under.

True believer Michael Stevenson-Helmer visits Anne Hamilton-Byrne every day

There is no designated successor to take over The Family from Anne Hamilton-Byrne


<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Official website: The Family

<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>The Family: The shocking true story of a notorious cult

"The Family" is a co-production with Australian filmmakers Rosie Jones and Anna Grieve. Paul LaRosa is the senior coordinating producer for "48 Hours." Jones and Grieve are the senior producers. Clare Friedland and Kat Teurfs are the producers. Gabriella Demirdjian is the associate producer. Phil Tangel, Joan Adelman, Marcus Balsam, Richard Barber, Marlon Disla and Diana Modica are the editors. Anthony Batson is the senior broadcast producer. Barbara Ghammashi is executive producer with Women Make Movies. Susan Zirinsky is the senior executive producer.


Daphne Bramham: Two child brides gave birth at 16. So why wasn't Blackmore charged with sexual exploitation?

Daphne Bramham
National Post
Postmedia News
April 25, 2017 


CRANBROOK, B.C. – It doesn’t matter that both Winston Blackmore and James Oler had child brides because that’s not what they’re on trial for.

What matters for a conviction in this trial where each man is charged with a single count of polygamy is that the prosecutor proves that they married multiple times in religious ceremonies.

Still, evidence entered Monday points to an inescapable conclusion that some of their wives were younger than 18. Two of Blackmore’s were only 15.

It does once again raise the question: Why isn’t Blackmore on trial for sexual exploitation? Why isn’t Oler?

It’s a question that RCMP investigators have been trying to get an answer for since 2006 when they filed a lengthy report to the B.C. Attorney General’s criminal justice branch recommending both men be charged with sexual exploitation and polygamy.

Under cross-examination, the lead investigator Sgt. Terry Jacklin said it remains an open question.

“We have had no communication why sexual exploitation charges were not laid,” he said. “We have never had an explanation and no communication.”

But Jacklin noted that as bishops in positions of authority, Blackmore and Oler engaged in sexual relations with girls who were young enough that it constituted an offence under the criminal code.

Although not charged with sexual exploitation, the criminal justice branch did charge each of them with one count of polygamy in 2009.

Those charges were stayed after Blackmore’s lawyer successfully argued that the special prosecutor had been improperly appointed.

RCMP were asked to reopen the investigation after the polygamy law was found to be constitutional in 2011 because there was new evidence.

Boxes of marriage records, personal records and other church documents had been found in 2008 in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ Yearning For Zion ranch in Texas. Among those boxes were marriage and personal records for both Oler and Blackmore.

Those records have already been entered as evidence in this case by Jacklin and Texas Ranger Nick Hanna.

But even with those records, the criminal justice branch and special prosecutor Peter Wilson only approved polygamy charges.

On Monday, the B.C. birth certificates for Blackmore’s 24 wives and for one of each of their children were entered along with the records for Oler’s five wives and children. (Only four women are named on Oler’s indictment, despite the five marriage records.)

Earlier in the day, Jacklin played the videotape of the interview he did with Blackmore in 2009. Blackmore didn’t deny that he was a polygamist.

“If I’m guilty of something it’s being Mormon,” he said.

(It’s a comment certain to raise the ire of mainstream Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended the practice in 1890. Mormon fundamentalists including Blackmore and, before him, his father refused to accept that and have splintered off. While Blackmore calls himself a Mormon, other fundamentalist describe themselves as “true Mormons.”)

Blackmore went on to say: “In our faith, so many people never ever had a chance to get married. Why that is I don’t know. To have family like I have is a huge reason for people to be jealous.”

He claimed that he’s opposed to under-aged marriages. Under-aged marriages only began after 1998 when FLDS prophet and president Rulon Jeffs had a stroke. His son, Warren, began influencing his father.

“All of a sudden our president told us that we were no longer going to participate in plural marriages of people (who were) not 18,” said Blackmore.

“When I marry them, people have to prove how old they are. They need to be educated. That’s what I want for my children.”

During the 2009 interview, Blackmore bragged that because of his arrest, a crew from CNN was probably on its way and that “Larry King has probably emailed a couple of times.”

It was on King’s show in 2006 that Blackmore first said that he’d married a girl who was only 15. He told King that she’d lied about her age, joking that that’s common for women. But he said to both interviewers that the girl was 17 before she had her first child.

Birth records entered Monday indicate that the wife whose parents allegedly lied and said their daughter was 17, was only 15 on the wedding day. Her first child was born 16 months later.

The records also indicate that another wife was six months shy of her 16th birthday as well. Ten months later, when she was barely 16, their first child was born.

Despite that, Justice Sheri Donegan is limited to the charges before her.

So, instead of facing the prospect of a maximum jail sentence of 10 years and a mandatory minimum of one year if convicted, the maximum these two men now face is five years.

The RCMP investigators would still like to know why the more serious charges weren’t laid. So too, I suspect, would most British Columbians.


Apr 28, 2017

Daphne Bramham: Former wife testifies against husband, brother in B.C. polygamy trial

Jane Blackmore, ex-wife of fundamentalist Mormon leader Winston Blackmore, is shown in an undated
Vancouver Sun
April 25, 2017

CRANBROOK, B.C. – Winston Blackmore already had 12 wives and 46 children and he didn’t seem to have any intention of stopping there.

That’s when his first and only legal wife, Jane Blackmore, confronted him.

“I did go to him and ask where are you taking this,” she testified Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court where Blackmore is facing a single count of polygamy.

“I told him I am feeling a heavy responsibility for the number of children we have and the number of women in this family that need care and support. I just felt a huge weight of responsibility for children and for them to get what they needed.”

When her husband told her he was doing God’s work, Jane said she replied: “I’m sorry I believe in a God that wouldn’t ask you to do something that was impossible.”

Winston insisted that he would lose his position as bishop if he didn’t accept all the wives being assigned to him by the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“I thought that was not a bad idea,” Jane said tartly during her testimony. “But he was unhappy with my confrontation.”

Winston Blackmore, 60, is alleged to now have had 24 wives and he’s said to have 145 children.

James Oler, 53, who is also being tried on one count of polygamy, has had five wives. It’s not clear how many children. Oler is Jane’s half-brother.

As a plural wife, sister-wife and midwife, Jane has a unique perspective on the fundamentalist Mormon community known as Bountiful, which she left in 2003. She divorced Winston two years later.

She testified that she was present for three of Blackmore’s marriages including the day that he married two sisters. One young woman had come to Canada with her sister from the “mother community” of Short Creek on the Utah-Arizona border knowing that she was to marry Winston.

But after the ceremony, FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs asked whether her sister was with her. When told that she was, Jane said that Jeffs told the witnesses present, “The Lord has just inspired me that she also should be married to Winston.”

And, a few minutes later, the sister was.

Jane was also a witness when Winston married another young American woman. It was the same day that their oldest daughter was married. Winston’s new bride and his daughter’s groom were sister and brother.

Jane said she expected that her husband would have multiple wives since it is a core principle of fundamentalist Mormon belief. Without plural or celestial wives, not only can men not hold the FLDS’s highest positions, the FLDS don’t believe that righteous men will be able “to become a God in their own right in the hereafter.”

In her testimony, Jane confirmed that all of the women listed on the two men’s indictments were their plural or “celestial” wives.

During her daylong testimony and cross-examination, Jane said she had attended the births of at least one child of each of Oler’s five wives – either as a nurse at Creston Valley hospital or as the busy midwife of Bountiful, where she delivered an average of 50 babies a year.

Earlier in the trial, birth certificates of one child for each of the women named on the two men’s indictments were entered as evidence. Their father’s names are on those documents.

Also in evidence are church marriage records that give the date and place as well as who officiated and who witnessed the ceremonies along with church’s personal records for Blackmore and some of his wives and for Oler and all of his wives.

The records indicated that two of Blackmore’s wives were only 15 when they were married and nearly half were under 18. At least two of Oler’s wives were under 18, according to Jane Blackmore.

But the wives’ ages aren’t relevant. The men are only be prosecuted for having multiple wives.

Also not relevant is the religious nature of the alleged marriages even though a great deal of court time has been devoted to the FLDS teaching. Neither Blackmore nor Oler will argue that it is their religious right to have multiple wives.

In fact, Oler doesn’t have legal counsel and isn’t expected to put up any defence at all.

Blackmore does have a lawyer, but his lawyer did not give notice that the constitutional validity of the Criminal Code’s polygamy section would be challenged.

The trial continues with the prosecution now expected to shift its focus to Oler.




You Paid For It: Scientology trying to kill $26 million Clearwater aquarium funding after land sale dispute

Mark Douglas
April 25, 2017


CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) — The Church of Scientology has declared an economic war on Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the stakes are high — $26 million in tourism tax funding that the church wants to block at Tuesday’s Pinellas County Commission meeting.

The church’s anger stems from a land purchase dispute involving a dirt parking lot next to Clearwater City Hall. The aquarium recently defied the church by selling that land to the City of Clearwater on April 20 for $4.25 million and rejecting Scientology’s $15 million offer.

City of Clearwater leaders want to develop the 1.4 acre parcel as part of its $50 million Imagine Clearwater plan to pump new life and commerce into the city’s downtown waterfront. The church wanted to buy the empty lot on the corner of Pierce St. and Osceola Ave. in order to build a pool and playground area for its Oak Cove religious retreat located next door. The church insists it is a critical element to its self-funded downtown development plan.

A scathing letter sent to the Pinellas Commission Monday by Scientology Attorney Monique Yingling accuses Clearwater Marine Aquarium of fiscal foolhardiness and gouging taxpayers. “Astoundingly, CMA rejected $15 million in private funding, and is now essentially asking to recoup that amount from taxpayer funds,” Yingling wrote.

The 7-page letter goes on to allege the aquarium is swimming in money due to the popularity of Winter the Dolphin and pays its CEO David Yates an exorbitant salary compared to other aquarium managers across the nation.

Yingling’s letter also includes a report by USF Economics Professor Philip Porter that concludes the aquarium’s claims of economic impact, which form the basis of its $26 million tourist tax funding request, are grossly exaggerated and based on a study that includes a “massive and false claim.”

“Because the study is biased and self-serving, its claims offer no good basis for decision-making and should be ignored,” Porter writes in an executive summary of his report..

At Tuesday afternoon’s Pinellas County Commission meeting, commissioners will vote on a recommendation by Commission Chair Janet Long to fund the Clearwater Marine Aquarium $26 million over a 3-year period with proceeds from the county’s bed tax. Long’s memo calling for funding is based on a recommendation from the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council.

According to TDC records, the bed tax funding will be used for the Clearwater aquarium’s planned expansion estimated to cost $53 million. The TDC study claims the Clearwater aquarium has a total annual economic impact of $674.7 million, a figure that the Church of Scientology and its experts vigorously dispute.


Why Putin's persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses should worry us

Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses wait in a Moscow courtroom, 20 April 2017
The brutal treatment of this small, resolutely non-violent religious group is loathsome testimony to the ruthlessness of Russia’s authoritarian regime.

Andrew Brown
The Guardian
April 25, 2017

Hardly anyone noticed last week when the Russian supreme court last week suppressed the Jehovah’s Witnesses there and seized all the group’s property. We were all too busy worrying about fascism in France or war in Korea. But it was a very important blow against the principle of freedom of belief. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are mostly regarded as slightly ludicrous in the UK. They have odd beliefs about blood and a slightly unhealthy interest in the end of the world and that’s the end of what most people know, if they know anything.

A more important tenet of their faith is their refusal of military service. They refuse conscription and even non-violent “war work”. This stance led them to be persecuted in almost all the countries that fought the second world war. They were imprisoned in Britain and the US, and persecuted viciously under Hitler: by the end of the war half the Witnesses in Germany were in concentration camps and a quarter of them had died.

This is an impressive record of non-violent stubbornness. It makes them about the most determinedly harmless fundamentalists in the world today. In Russia, though, they have been treated almost as if they were violent fundamentalists since at least 2004. Their meeting places, known as Kingdom Halls, have been raided; members have been imprisoned for refusing military service, and the ministry of justice has sued to have them declared an extremist organisation.

If last week’s decree is not overturned on appeal, these people will lose their Kingdom Halls. The central, co-ordinating headquarters will also be taken by the state, and vast quantities of literature deemed “extremist”, such as the Witnesses’ Bible translation and even, in one earlier raid, a picture book of Bible stories for children without words at all.

The Witnesses blame this on the resurgent power and authority of the Orthodox church which has flourished under Vladimir Putin, and at the same time revived its historical suspicion and, where possible, persecution of Protestant and Catholic churches. The Witnesses, as the Protestant sect that deviates most from the values of the society around it, have been harassed even more than the Baptists. According to Forum 18, an organisation that monitors religious freedom in Russia and the former Soviet bloc, the only other group to have been pursued in this way is a Sunni sect that may not even exist.

The spread and survival of the Witnesses over the last century shows two central characteristics of religious belief: held strongly enough, it can become more precious than life to believers; and its strength has no simple relationship with its plausibility to unbelievers. If anything, the scorn and hostility of outsiders tends to strengthen the fervour and cohesion of the persecuted group. There are now more than 8 million Witnesses internationally, and more than 170,000 in Russia.

Their persecution around the world is a horrible testament to the relish we take in the bullying of small, alien and defenceless groups. In Russia it is yet another testimony to the ruthless and brutal dishonesty of the Putin regime. All authoritarian regimes loathe minority religions, perhaps because religious groupings are one of the most powerful ways of imagining a world that might be different.

Tolerance is a late and perhaps unnatural development in human history but that only increases its value. Freedom of religion means freedom to be wrong or it means nothing at all. And in the case of the Witnesses, with their astonishing stubborn patience in the face persecution, we can see how the content of their beliefs really doesn’t and shouldn’t affect their right to hold them.

At a time when most of the concern about Putin’s Russia is concentrated on its behaviour abroad, the attempted suppression of the Witnesses shows just how much damage he can do within his own borders.


Court rules that extremist Haredi community is a cult

Lev Tahor
Lev Tahor
An Israeli family court judge rules that Lev Tahor, currently located in the Guatemalan jungle, is a cult with children who at-risk, including for being married as young as 15 to partners 20 years their elder.

Gilad Morag
April 25, 2017

An Israel court ruled Tuesday that the extremist ultra-Orthodox community Lev Tahor ("A Pure Heart"), which lives in a jungle in Guatemala and has many Israeli members, is a cult.

"It is sufficient for my ruling to consider the conduct of the community towards its children, in order to determine that this is an abusive cult that severely harms the bodies and souls of the children of the community," wrote Judge Rivka Makayes, vice president of the Family Court contained within the Central District Magistrate's Court. Makayes ruled in the petition filed by the attorney general and relatives of minors who are in the cult.

The judge further wrote, "The evidence presented to me, both in direct testimony and in indirect testimony, led me to the conclusion that the Lev Tahor community treats the children of the community, inter alia, with severe physical punishment, with underage marriage (from the age of 14 for boys and 15 for girls), with spouses who sometimes have age differences of up to 20 years.

"In addition, there is a punitive policy towards members of the community that includes the separation of children from their parents—even in infancy—and the transfer of children to be raised in another family; preventing formal education and isolation from the outside world and all external sources of information; intimidation and threats; exiling minors from the community who are disobedient to the community's authority and its leaders and emissaries alone are able to get by in the world; allegations of unique clothing; frequent migration from place to place, leaving overnight without any preparation, all in accordance with the decisions of the head of the community.

"Finally, it was proven that when the minors leave the community, they suffer from severe psychiatric problems for many years."

In Israel, it is estimated that the sect has between 50 and 60 families, including among them between 150 and 200 children. The cult wanders around the world and made headlines after a Quebec juvenile court ruled that some children should be removed from their parents' custody. The sect then moved to another province in Canada and then to Guatemala, where it settled in an isolated place in the jungle.

The attorney general asked the court to declare the children of ultra-Orthodox who want to join the sect as at-risk. A court order preventing the children's being removed from Israel, but their parents disappeared with them before the legal proceedings were finalized, and they apparently live today in the jungle.

Therefore, the ruling was given today in the presence of one party only. Despite this, the judge explained that the court's decision is important in helping to prevent other families from joining the cult and to use the full resources of the state to try to return the children of the community.


DEADLINE: MAY 1, 2017- Call for Posters - ICSA Annual International Conference 2017 - Bordeaux, France

Though the deadline for submitting a proposal to speak at the 2017 ICSA annual conference is long past, ICSA will continue to consider poster proposals until the deadline of May 1, 2017.

In a poster session, one explains one’s paper on a poster placed on an easel or a table or a wall. Typically, the poster presenters will pin or tape pages (e.g., an abstract with a large font) from their paper. You should also have either copies of your paper to hand out or a business card. Attendees pass through the poster area, examining the posters and speaking with authors individually. In a poster presentation, one does not formally present to a group; however, one has an opportunity for quality interactions and followup with those who are most interested in your work. ICSA will contact poster presenters about logistical details as the conference draws near.

To submit a poster, read the instructions here: http://www.icsahome.com/events/callforposters

The instructions include a link to an online form. Posters will only be considered that are submitted via that form.

If you have questions, contact ICSA: mail@icsamail.com

ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association)
P.O. Box 2265
Bonita Springs, FL 34133
Phone: 1-239-514-3081
fax: 1-305-393-8193

Terrorists Are Not Snowflakes


The West has started treating would-be terrorists as children in need of protection from radical ideas. That's as dangerous as it is insulting.

APRIL 27, 2017

Something profound and seismic is happening in the way Western societies understand terrorism, and jihadi radicalization in particular.

Until now, the terms of the debate were set by two master narratives about terrorists, usefully categorized in an Atlantic article published just over 30 years ago by the Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien as the “hysterical stereotype” and the “sentimental stereotype.” The former saw terrorism as a form of pathology perpetrated by “‘disgruntled abnormal[s]’ given to ‘mindless violence,’” whereas the latter characterized it as a form of political resistance mounted by “misguided idealist[s] … driven to violence by political or social injustice or both.”

In the years since the publication of O’Brien’s article, however, these two narratives have gradually lost their intellectual and cultural prominence, thanks in part to the enormous impact of Hannah Arendt’s thinking on the “banality of evil” and the enormity of the 9/11 attacks, which, as terrorism scholar Peter Neumann observed, made it “very difficult to talk about the ‘roots of terrorism,’” still less to sentimentalize terrorists. In their place a very different paradigm has emerged, driven by efforts to rethink the problem of terrorism in response to the rise of al Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State. At the center of this paradigm is the notion of the terrorist as an infantilized “other”: a marginal person whose outstanding characteristic is vulnerability. You might call it the “snowflake theory of terrorism.”

This view is clearly an advance on seeing terrorists as either crazed fanatics or warriors for justice, but its paternalistic implications are just as dangerous as those implicit in the two paradigms it displaced.

The explanatory rhetoric of the snowflake theory of terrorism could not be more different from that of the earlier two paradigms. Far from being a symptom of psychological dysfunction or political injustice, terrorism, in this new reframing, is redefined as a “risk,” borne mainly by the would-be perpetrators of terrorism rather than the would-be victims of future terrorist atrocities. Far from seeing terrorists as perpetrators of violence for political ends, this theory recasts them as victims of “extreme” ideas propagated by manipulative “groomers.” Nearly always, the terrorism or “risk” in question is the contaminant of jihadi-based terrorism, although the proponents of this paradigm commonly insist that it also applies to other forms of terrorism, including that of the far right.

These explanatory tropes and motifs underpin the prevailing ideology of “countering violent extremism” in both Europe and North America. In Britain, for example, the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act makes it perfectly clear that terrorism is a “risk” to which people can be “drawn into.” It’s now a legal requirement for specified authorities, including schools, colleges, universities, and child care services, to conduct risk assessments to identify individuals “vulnerable to radicalization.” In a 21-page document, which provides statutory guidance for the relevant authorities listed in the 2015 act, the word “risk” appears 67 times. In all cases, the risk in question relates to the “risk of individuals being drawn into terrorism.” The word “vulnerable,” in the context of “vulnerable to radicalization,” appears 13 times.

In his remarks at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism in September 2015, President Barack Obama similarly used the language of safeguarding in reference to radicalization. “And finally,” he said, “we recognize that our best partners in protecting vulnerable people from succumbing to violent extremist ideologies are the communities themselves — families, friends, neighbors, clerics, faith leaders who love and care for these young people.”

The same tone of paternal care informs a lot of media commentary on Western members of the Islamic State, who, it is claimed, were “brainwashed” or “groomed” by recruiters into joining the group. Referring to the three East London schoolgirls who absconded to Syria in February 2015, Sara Khan, the founder and co-director of the anti-extremism NGO Inspire, wrote in the Independent that “they were groomed,” adding, “Just like child abusers groom their victims online and persuade them to leave their homes and meet them, male jihadists contact women through social media and online chatrooms, and build trust with them over time.” Hayley Richardson, in Newsweek, similarly insisted that “ISIL are using similar online grooming tactics to pedophiles to lure Western girls to their cause.” In 2015, the New York Times ran a feature on a lonely and mentally unstable young woman from rural Washington who had been befriended online by Islamic State supporters and “flirted” with the idea of going to Syria. Despite the idiosyncrasies of her case — the only Muslims she knew were those she had met online — and the fact that she had never set foot in Islamic State territory in Syria and Iraq, the Times asserted that her story may “provide clues about how ISIL recruits new members around the world.”

Or consider journalist Kurt Eichenwald’s recent article for Newsweek, titled, “How Donald Trump Is Fueling ISIS.” According to Eichenwald, the president’s rhetoric and policies send “a new message … that reinforces the jihadi extremists’ propaganda and increases the likelihood that more Americans will die in attacks.” Imagining the response of Western Muslims to Trump’s use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” he writes, “The emotional reaction of Muslims who are torn about whether to fight against the West would be strong.”

“ISIS could not have asked for more,” he continued, ventriloquizing this time for the terrorist group that the world’s vast majority of Muslims condemns. “If such words can anger an ally as important as the Turkish president,” referring to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rejoinder to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the term “Islamist terror,” “what impact does it have on ordinary Muslims being bombarded with the ISIS message that they are in a fight to save Islam?”

This image of the terrorist as an infantilized and emotionally immature “other,” acutely sensitive to the slightest linguistic slur or trigger, reflects a deeper structural shift in the culture of contemporary Western societies, where, since at least the early 2000s, the language of risk and protection has come to inform and shape a growing number of social practices and organizations involving adults. This language finds its most ostentatious — and, of late, infamous — expression on college campuses, including the one I’m writing this from.

The idea that terrorism is a “risk” to “vulnerable” Muslims has at least three unfortunate social consequences. First, as former U.S. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez recently remarked, it is profoundly demeaning. It portrays Muslims, according to Fernandez, “as if they are easily swayed yet dangerous children susceptible to becoming terrorists because of immigration policy or harsh words that supposedly hurt their feelings.” It has also given rise to the pernicious argument that this group should be protected from words and ideas that risk offending their presumed religious beliefs or affiliations, for fear that not doing so will “push” them toward jihadi groups. Just as the safeguarding movement on U.S. campuses presumes, in the words of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche,” so does the radicalization discourse presume an extraordinary fragility of the psyche of Western Muslims. Far from protecting Muslims, “safeguarding” exposes them to what the Pakistani-Canadian writer Ali A. Rizvi describes as “the racism of lowered expectations.”

Second, it depoliticizes jihadis and their would-be emulators by denying their agency as political actors, whose embrace of jihadi rhetoric and violence is predicated on reason as much as emotion. To reframe the Islamic State as a “risk” to “vulnerable” Muslims is to deny its potent intellectual challenge, and how its dual-message of Western moral degradation and Islamic authenticity can speak to even the most resilient and precocious of Muslims. Of course, stupid and naive people have joined or attempted to join the Islamic State, but many more have been highly intelligent and politically engaged, demonstrating great resilience and bravery by making it to Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq.

Third, the recategorization of terrorism as a “risk” to impressionable Muslims inverts the perpetrator-victim relationship, whereby the former is transformed into the latter. It’s like saying domestic violence is a “risk” to the person who beats his wife. But, of course, like domestic violence, terrorism is a risk primarily borne by those who are on the receiving end of it (most of whom are Muslim). It is pernicious to argue for greater protections for Muslims against inflammatory speech from a counterterrorism perspective in the same way that it would be pernicious to argue that potential wife beaters should be shielded from slights directed at them from their wives. And it should go without saying that hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric targeted at Muslims is wrong precisely because it is hateful and dehumanizing, and not because, according to some engrained, neo-orientalist expectation, Muslims will lash out violently and indiscriminately against those who espouse this rhetoric or are somehow tenuously connected to it.

Terrorism is a form of political violence, and those who engage in it must be taken seriously as autonomous moral agents. No doubt the Islamic State has captivated the imaginations of many young Western Muslims, and it can hardly be disputed that the number of young people involved in Islamic State-related terrorist plots in the West has risen in the past few years. In a recent study, Robin Simcox found that from September 2014 to December 2016 there were 34 Islamic State terror plots or alleged plots in the West involving 44 preteen and teenage participants.

Yet the number of young people involved in terrorism should not be exaggerated. In a 2015 report on Western defectors to the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, the journalist Peter Bergen and his colleagues found that the average age of the 474 individuals in their dataset was 24. This is young for an adult but is clearly beyond adolescence. In another study, carried out the same year, Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes reported that of the 71 individuals charged with Islamic State-related activities in the United States since March 2014, the average age was 26. Moreover, the total number of teenagers involved in Islamic State-related terror plots and defections to jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq is still minuscule and does not remotely justify the reframing of terrorism as a child protection issue, still less the mass thought-policing of Muslim communities, where many young people are suspected of harboring “extreme” ideas. In Britain, of the 3,955 people referred to the government’s deradicalization program in 2015, 415 were 10 years old or under, while 1,424 were between 11 and 15. The ideology behind this program and the broader radicalization discourse on which it draws justify these stigmatizing interventions as “safeguarding” the very individuals they stigmatize.

Even among the small number of young people involved in terrorist plots or terrorist groups, it needs to be acknowledged that, as the sociologist Frank Furedi has observed, “it is not the ‘vulnerable’ but often the more idealistic and intellectually curious who are attracted to extremist ideas.” And this means taking them and their ideas seriously and not treating them as the whitest of “snowflakes” in need of protection.