Shot in the arm for crusade against the fringe religions
June 19, 2010
The raids in South Australia are causing a rethink on protection against so-called spiritual groups
THE assets are frozen, arrests have been made, a huge cache of weapons and ammunition seized and the main man, convicted thief turned charismatic cult leader Rocco Leo, is in hiding.
But a month after South Australian police raided more than a dozen properties associated with the bizarre Adelaide-based Agape Ministries doomsday cult, several questions remain unanswered.
Most concern Leo, the 52-year-old former coffee shop proprietor also known as Brother Roc who is presumed to be somewhere in the Pacific, most likely Fiji or Vanuatu, and who may still be looking to buy the island paradise he has promised a core group of 60 to 70 followers.
Here, according to the comical story Leo concocted in Adelaide, the Agape faithful will be able to escape an evil force that is micro-chipping the world's population in the lead-up to 2012, when all humanity will be programmed for extinction.
But nobody has seen Leo for a month and the SA police haven't issued a warrant for his arrest. So it raises the question: is Leo really a dangerous fugitive?
It certainly seemed that way after 90 police last month raided the Agape Ministries' fortress-like compound in the Adelaide Hills, its $5 million headquarters and several other cult-connected properties in and around the city.
The police seized about 20 illegal guns, assault batons, detonators, fuses for explosives and more than 35,000 rounds of ammunition.
Follow-up raids during the next two days uncovered more weapons and a further 30,000 rounds of ammunition, though not a number of high-powered automatic and semi-automatic firearms police know exist and are anxious to locate.
According to one former cult member, the purpose of stockpiling all this firepower was to protect the cult from its enemies, who could, Leo had explained to his followers, include the police.
Not surprisingly, this has seen Leo and the Agape Ministries portrayed as a Waco-in-waiting, a reference to the infamous 1993 Texas shootout that killed four FBI agents and 75 Branch Davidian followers of David Koresh, 21 of them children.
The Waco siege lasted 51 days and the Davidian arsenal included a 50-calibre cannon, machineguns and more than a million rounds of ammunition, but Detective Superintendent Jim Jeffery, head of the SA police commercial and electronic crime branch who is in charge of the Agape Ministries investigation, doesn't dismiss the comparison.
"With the amount of weapons and ammunition we recovered, we have managed to defuse a high-risk situation," Jeffery says.
"Whether that could have escalated into a Waco-type situation is speculative, but it is certainly a bizarre circumstance that we have here."
For independent senator Nick Xenophon, who has twice failed to convince the Senate to inquire into some allegedly abusive practices of Scientology (the last vote in March was 33-6 against with only the Greens in support), the weapons are a chilling reminder that decisive action must be taken to prevent cults getting footholds in Australian society.
"Ninety police, 13 premises raided, thousands of rounds of ammunition -- what more do we need to say that we need a national debate about whether people are being protected," says Xenophon. "I mean, if this isn't a wake-up call, what is? Do we have to wait until someone is hurt or killed as a result of some of these cults before we do anything?"
Xenophon has long believed the best way to weaken the influence of cults is to limit their access to money. He says existing laws on deceit and false and misleading conduct are inadequate and fail to give full protection to cult members who are at financial risk from predators such as Leo.
He wants legislation specifically targeting the brainwashing or mental manipulation strategies that cults use to squeeze money and assets from their weakest and most vulnerable followers.
However, Xenophon's previous efforts to push this agenda have floundered. Mainstream churches have been worried that their fundraising activities may be affected by any new legislation. Politicians, fearful that any action will be seen in the community as anti-religion, have steered clear.
Xenophon also has faced vigorous lobbying by the Scientologists who feel (with some justification) they are the primary target.
Finally, there is the legal question of how much reform can be achieved given the Constitution's protection of religious freedom.
Xenophon's response is that churches doing the right thing have nothing to fear; politicians should have greater courage and the Scientologists should be resisted. On the legal problems, he says: "Just because it's a difficult area of law reform doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix the problem. You can have freedom of religion as well as protect people being hurt."
During the past month Xenophon has pressed his case with all manner of state and federal law officers. Some, such as South Australian Attorney-General John Rau, have been encouraging and even some old foes have shown signs of compromise.
South Australian Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has been a staunch opponent of Xenophon's attempts to outlaw Scientology, but in the wake of the Agape Ministries revelations he concedes there may be a case for some kind of anti-abuse legislation.
"I would not want to see us launching some kind of inquiry into religion and ideally the existing law should catch them out," Bernardi says.
"But if there are circumstances where it doesn't and there is an opportunity to be more prescriptive, then I'm open to that."
Xenophon says he's acutely aware of the need to protect individual and religious freedom and safeguard against unintended consequences of any legislation but insists the focus must be on the remedies.
"When people lose their life savings, when they are suicidal because of harassment and stalking, the priority has to be how do you give protection to people against behaviour where the criminal law and civil law is not adequate," Xenophon says.
Just how well Australia's civil law works in relation to cults will be tested in two cases involving Leo and the Agape Ministries that are before South Australia's District Court.
In a statement of claim filed last month, Adelaide businessman Martin Penney, a follower of Leo for 14 years, has listed losses of $1.2 million comprising $800,000 in cash, $132,000 in plant and equipment and $250,000 in labour provided to Agape Ministries at no charge.
The week before a wheelchair-bound woman whose name has been suppressed filed suit for $420,000. The woman, who has limited capacity to read and communicate because of strokes resulting from a brain tumour, claims she sold her house and gave Leo the money because he promised to take her to a secret island where she would be safe from eternal damnation.
Leo also allegedly said the island had healing waters that would make her walk again and warned she would end up in a concentration camp and be exterminated, by beheading or in a gas chamber, if she failed to hand over the money.
Penney, who made news last year when federal immigration authorities found him underpaying his Filipino guest workers and is barred from accessing Australia's guest worker sponsorship scheme for three years, also claimed that Leo represented himself as personally chosen by God to guide him to the island.
While many people may struggle to understand that level of gullibility, Xenophon says it's about vulnerability.
"They're often people who have just come through a difficult period in their lives," he says. "They've suffered some kind of loss, they may have had a bereavement, they're suffering from depression. It can be a whole range of reasons. But it has to be stopped."
As part of campaign for change Xenophon has held meetings with officials of the French embassy to get a better understanding of the French anti-cult laws that he believes are world's best practice.
Passed in 2001, the laws originally contemplated a new crime of mental manipulation, but this wording was replaced in the final draft with a less provocative offence of fraudulent abuse of a person's ignorance or weakness.
The law carries three years' jail and a fine of E375,000 ($535,000) for anyone found guilty of abusing the ignorance or a state of weakness of a minor or other person mentally vulnerable because of age, sickness, disability, psychic or physical deficiency or pregnancy. Also liable are those who exploit someone who has a physical or psychological dependency because of repeated pressure techniques used to affect their judgment. If this offence is carried out by cult leaders, the jail time is increased to five years.
But if this sounds the right direction to go, the French laws have been heavily criticised across Europe for their discriminatory effect on some non-conformist and non-national religious movements. It suggests Xenophon has a long road ahead of him.
In the meantime, the adequacy of Australia's existing laws will be tested in the Agape Ministries cases.
This week the District Court temporarily extended its freeze of the cult's assets to cover all Agape Ministries' assets in Australia after David Riggall for the plaintiffs said he expected many other claims to be filed.
Craig Caldicott for Leo argued no other claims had been lodged and the freezing order should be limited to the sums sought in the cases before the court.
The matter will return to court next month.
Jeffery confirms that the Agape Ministries leadership -- primarily Leo, his girlfriend Marie Antoinette Veneziano and her brother Joe Veneziano -- have called on followers to sell all their assets and hand over money but says police had limited powers to act.
"We haven't got sufficient grounds to initiate action in relation to fraud-related offences," Jeffery says.
"I'm not saying there won't be people coming forward and that there won't be a need for us to take action along these lines but, as it sits at the moment, any seizure of property is in the civil arena as opposed to the results of our investigations."
Jeffery also points out that there was no restriction on cult members continuing to meet at the Adelaide Hills stronghold or other cult properties, "so long as they operate within the confines of the law".
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