Anne Hamilton-Byrne / The Family:
Notorious cult 'Lodge' in legal battle
The Sydney Morning Herald
April 7, 2015
Disambiguation: This is a different group to "The Family" aka "The Children of God" founded by the late David Berg in the USA in the 1960s. - CIFS
Sitting pretty on three hectares of prime Dandenong Ranges land at Ferny Creek is a brick hall called the Santiniketan Lodge. It was – and still is – the headquarters of Australia's most notorious cult, The Family, led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne.
Now legal dramas over ownership of the infamous property have surfaced. It is worth an estimated $1.5 million; a local real estate agent who asked not to be named said: "It is an amazing piece of land, very unusual. It backs onto the Dandenong Ranges National Park. Most land around there is hilly with a lot of trees but this is flat, open and sunny."
Anne Hamilton-Byrne is 93 and has dementia.
Cult members, through an organisation called the Santiniketan Park Association, are using a legal method called "adverse possession" to wrestle exclusive ownership from a small group including Hamilton-Byrne's daughter Natasha Hamilton-Byrne, who lives in Britain.
An adverse possession claim means that users or occupiers of a property can lay claim to it after 15 years. "We expect the application to be granted," said the lawyer for the association, David Lucas.
In the Supreme Court in 1999 cult lawyer turned police informer Peter Kibby tried to retain part-ownership of the property, which was bought with six cult members in 1968. Current Santiniketan Park Association secretary and cult member Geoffrey Dawes, the son of former cult heavyweight Leon Dawes, would not comment on the new legal bid. But fellow cult member Michael Stevenson-Helmer said: "It was owned by the association but the court deemed it wasn't a legal entity in the early years. So we set it up and now we have spent 15 years paying the rates to get ownership so it has taken time. It's very slow moving, the law."
He said Natasha Hamilton-Byrne never contributed money to the building of the hall.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne is 93 and has dementia. She lives in a nursing home in suburban Melbourne. Remaining members of the cult she formed in the 1960s have control over her legal and financial affairs. Her estate is worth an estimated $20 million.
The cult held dozens of children, obtained through adoption scams, at Lake Eildon and in the Dandenongs from the 1960s. They were allegedly treated cruelly and administered LSD. Australian Federal Police and a Victorian state government agency raided the Eildon property in 1987 and six children were taken into care.
The children were told Hamilton-Byrne was a living god. Their hair was dyed blond and they were made to dress identically. Cult members gave her money and property and remarried at her behest. Since 2010 Ms Hamilton-Byrne's lawyers have used her dementia as a defence in court actions by former victims claiming damages. All have been settled for amounts of about $250,000.
At the cult's peak about 150 people would meet at Santiniketan Lodge every week; it had a throne for Hamilton-Byrne and elaborate sound and light systems installed, according to cult victim Dr Sarah Moore's book Unseen, Unheard, Unknown. "Anne was surrounded by a bluish light that created an aura around her," she wrote.
Mr Stevenson-Helmer, who is related to former governor-general and prominent Melburnian, the late Sir Zelman Cowen, said a small group used it now for meditation and yoga.
"In the good old days it was packed but now the world works its way and people are too busy or too tired or too old I suppose it happens to every institution or church as people get older."
The inside of the lodge was still ornate, he said. "It is wonderful inside. It is our privilege to keep it as it was always meant to be."
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