This week Australian current affairs program, 4 Corners ran a shocking report on abusive Pentecostalist sect, Christian Assemblies International. CAI has numerous similarities to New Age cult, Universal Medicine – including secrecy, exorcistic practices, sexual abuse and tax exempt charity fronts.
The abuse within CAI is horrendous, and the report included interviews with a number of ex cult members who’d been recruited as children and subjected to sexual and psychological abuse for decades. Yet, the group and its leader, Scott Williams, have evaded prosecution.
Harmful groups earn the label of cult when they focus around a central personality; they use thought reform or mind control techniques to manipulate followers, and the leader or hierarchy exploits followers financially, sexually or otherwise. They are hostile to questions and criticism, censorious, develop an ‘us versus them’ mindset, seek to isolate followers from outside sources of support and claim access to an exclusive ‘truth’. They induce fear to maintain a hold on followers, are secretive and often operate outside the law.
Similarities with Universal Medicine
Beginnings – sporting coach turned guru
Scott Williams was a charismatic pool attendant at a military school turned self-styled Pentecostal preacher, prophet and healer. His victim, Gunther, recounts he was recruited by Williams as a 12 year old with numerous other young men. Sexual abuse of Gunther commenced soon after and continued for nearly 25 years.
Serge Benhayon was a big talking tennis coach turned self-styled messiah, prophet and healer, who persuaded the parents of pupil, 13 year old Miranda Smith, and others to move into his home so they could receive his ‘elite’ coaching program. Miranda entered an intimate relationship with Benhayon at some point and is now Benhayon’s wife.
Williams recruited many youths who’d had little or no previous exposure to the Bible. He groomed some boys born into the cult for sexual abuse from birth. CAI includes special children’s and teen groups. Williams worked at Gunther’s school but began to spend time after hours with victims grooming them for abuse.
Universal Medicine also has dedicated teen and children’s groups led by Serge’s adult children, most notably daughter, Natalie Benhayon. Little girls have been regular houseguests of Benhayon at least since his time as a tennis coach in the early to mid nineties. The cult publicly excuses this behaviour as Serge taking an interest in youth, and helping to support them financially.
Healing powers and exorcisms
Williams styled himself as a healer, and the CAI website features testimonials claiming ‘miraculous healing’ of disorders like cancer and schizophrenia. A follower claims her drug use was caused by demonic possession. Her full immersion baptism served as an exorcism.
Benhayon styled himself as a healer, and the UM websites feature testimonials, many from health professionals, claiming ‘miraculous healing’ of an array of disorders. Benhayon teaches that disease and recalcitrant behaviour is caused by entity possession and his workshops feature entity insertion and removal performances (exorcisms) – including on children.
CAI holds camp retreats, and UM holds workshops and retreats where intense thought reform processes are employed while recruits are isolated from outsiders.
Both groups combine body work, such as massage, with spiritual practices and inappropriate touching. Body work intensifies interpersonal bonding within the group, breaks down personal boundaries and reinforces thought reform indoctrination.
Fear and guilt as control
Scott Williams and CAI seek control over every aspect of followers lives, down to their family interactions, intimacy, manner of dress, diet and access to information. Such controls enable and maintain thought reform, or mind control. Followers are told that Williams is ‘the anointed one’ with special authorisation from God. He prophesied cataclysmic events including the end of the world. They are told failure to adhere to Williams’ commandments will result in ‘eternal damnation’ or that they could be ‘attacked by Satan’ if they leave. Williams alternated friendliness, affection and charm with an explosive temper and instilled fear into followers with tirades of verbal abuse and threats of punishment from God. Outsiders are described as ‘heathen dogs’ who will ‘burn in hell’ unless they are converted. Followers also believed they were intrinsically evil.
It’s a cult…I was abused and I didn’t understand it. For me I just thought maybe it’s me, it’s me? I just don’t understand why is this happening? Gunther Frantz on CAI
Benhayon seeks control over every aspect of followers’ lives – teaching that emotion is the cause of all disease, that ‘maleness’ is the cause of the world’s troubles and that prana (life energy) is stopping us from reuniting with God, and needs to be ‘cleared’. Followers restrict their diet, change their manner of dress and speech, and attempt to cut their emotional connections with loved ones. Reason and intellect are derided and followers are told to mistrust facts. They’re told not to read our blogs, or to listen to pranic music or read pranic literature. They are told failure to adhere to Benhayon’s commandments will result in disease and damnation for many lifetimes, and that they and their children can be entered or raped by supernatural entities. Benhayon alternates friendliness and humour with denigration of followers who are ‘contracted’ or ‘detracting from the work‘. He predicted the ‘new era’ would bring increases in disease and natural disasters, and the human body would be the ‘new battlefield’ for the war between the soul and ‘Astral’ forces. Outsiders are described as ‘Astral cult members‘ and detractors, who are ‘loveless and in pain’.
Sexist division & men’s groups
CAI paints women as inferior beings, sexually wanton and in need of control by men. Ex member, Katja recounts they are expected to be ‘humble and subdued’. Williams established a system of male bonding, choosing male partners for the men of the group under a pretence of spiritual purpose, and organized secret men’s meetings where men were expected to disclose their sexual behaviours and participate in naked massage sessions.
Universal Medicine portrays both men and women as inferior beings if they are living in ‘male energy‘. Ideal women are ‘lovely and gentle’ and ‘should not lift heavy things’, ask questions or participate in sport. Benhayon established a system of female bonding under the auspices of ‘women’s health’ where groups of women inappropriately touch each other and disclose sexual and gynaecological experiences. Benhayon has also organized men’s groups where men are encouraged to ‘connect’ with their femaleness, including by ‘energetically’ experiencing a menstrual cycle. Two male commenters have reported they were inappropriately touched at a healing workshops without their consent. One was touched by one of the Benhayon sons.
Sexual manipulation and abuse
Scott Williams and CAI sought to control every aspect of followers’ sex lives. Men were expected to report on their sexual activities, and sex talks were held giving specific instructions. Williams only allows missionary position intercourse limited to 3 times per week, telling men they would be controlled by women otherwise. The men’s groups included massage sessions that led to homosexual acts, where, as Gunther put it, men believed it was ‘the only way into the kingdom of God’. They feared ‘the wrath of God’ if they did not participate.
Serge Benhayon has arranged numerous intimate partnerships, usually telling disinterested parties they were ‘connected’ in a past life. UniMed followers disclose their sexual histories to the group and online, and have made the private histories of non cult partners the knowledge of the group. Benhayon gives specific instructions on lovemaking, only allowing ‘gentle’ emotionless sex with women on top. Women are portrayed as asexual and that they only agree to sex to please men, who do it ‘for relief’. Men are not allowed in the marital bed if they have consumed alcohol or come home with ‘pub energy’. Inappropriate touching and sexual or indecent assault is portrayed as ‘healing, and is often carried out on survivors of previous sexual abuse – sometimes in group situations.
Risks to children
Williams originally recruited youth to his group, and as those young people grew older and had their own families, he began to groom their children for the same abuses meted out to their parents, including sexual abuse. The group imposes unreasonable discipline on children, forcing them to be friendly and act happy, and disproportionately punishes minor transgressions by removing them from their families. In some cases, as with 14 year old Emily, children are sent overseas. Children are led to believe they were born evil. Corporal punishment is used.
UniMed followers take children to events where sexually explicit content, including sexual violence is discussed, and where past life regression and exorcistic practices take place. Young girls are sent to stay in Benhayon’s home unaccompanied, and the group grooms more young women via the sinister ‘Girl to Woman Project‘. UM cult children are pressured to look happy and smiling and are reprimanded when play is boisterous or active. They are subjected to a dangerous, non nutritionally based diet, and forced into potentially damaging sleep regimes. Although they are not removed from family as punishment, they are commonly neglected, with parents tied up in cult events and instructed not to love children emotionally, and that normal parental guidance inhibits children’s ‘true expression’. If children act out, or fall sick or suffer a disability, they are told they are possessed by entities or were evil abusers in a past life. Benhayon has taught that boys who are active should have the ‘pack energy’ smacked out of them.
Destruction of families
Gunther reports that Williams split relationships and families if a member wavered in their commitment or didn’t obey commands to the letter. Wives were criticized and beaten if their manner of dress, cleanliness of their homes and cooking didn’t meet the cult’s standards.
Benhayon tells followers their partners and families hold them back from their light if they question the cult’s teachings or practices. Questions and criticism are portrayed as bullying and abuse. Benhayon secures bequests and the proceeds of property settlements by persuading followers that giving or leaving money to non cult loved ones keeps them ‘in contraction’ and will harm the reincarnations of all involved, whereas donations and bequests to his cause gives health benefits and improves their chances of an Esoteric reincarnation.
Charities and regulatory inaction
Williams operated an unregistered charity in Germany, collecting tithes and donations which he used to acquire properties. German authorities expelled him from the country and he moved his flock to Scotland and registered a charity which was investigated by the Scottish regulator in the nineties and again in 2008. CAI currently operates tax exempt as a religious charity in Australia, with 6 full time paid staff. The CAI flock is expected to donate regardless of their means and to undertake a large amount of unpaid work maintaining the organization’s properties. A complaint to the ATO in 2006 that the charity does not operate for charitable purposes was not acted upon.
Benhayon collected anonymous donations without a fundraising licence until the College of Universal Medicine was registered in Australia and the Sound Foundation was adopted in the UK in 2011. Donations were used to acquire and renovate properties. Followers perform volunteer work at events and maintaining the properties, and are known to pay for workshops and make donations beyond their means, including via direct debit. The Sound Foundation was investigated by the UK Charity Commission in 2013 and issued with a compliance plan. An investigation is currently underway into breaches of the College of UM’s Charitable Fundraising Authority in NSW. The College was also reported to the ACNC in 2013 but the status of that investigation is unknown. Commissioner Susan Pascoe stated in the 4 Corners report that the ACNC has powers to deregister charities that are harming members of the public and not operating with charitable purposes. Our question to the ACNC is what is the status of the investigation and why have they not acted to deregister the College of UM that operates to benefit the UM commercial enterprise?
The assembly members are given limited information on the CAI’s financial activities and the destination of charitable funds. Gates to the Cedar Creek compound are kept locked and the group and Williams avoid questions and refused to be interviewed by Four Corners.
UM followers are given no information on UM’s financial structure and the destination of donated funds. The windows of the Lennox Head Community centre are covered in black plastic for events and the group’s sites and communications are closed or have stratified access depending on levels of investment. Benhayon and UM serial company director Serryn O’Regan refuse media interviews and avoid answering questions. The cult’s standard response to questions is to accuse those questioning or criticizing of conspiracy, an agenda, media bias or of being cyber-bullies.
Violence was carried out on CAI followers at Williams’ command, including beating children, which was a specialty of David Koresh, and public beatings of women – a practice which also took place in Jonestown. While we have not heard of such overt violence from UM, we know of former followers who’ve been threatened with violence, and threats of violence directed at Lance and Richard, as well as eggs thrown at Miranda’s mother’s car. Benhayon’s teachings condone violence against children.
The extent of violence, corruption and abuse within CAI is extreme, possibly more extreme than UM. However, CAI had nearly 20 years head start on Benhayon. The group operated almost 20 years before receiving negative press in 1998, and another eight before victims organized and brought in NSW police.
Given the level of bullying, intimidation and secrecy within UM it’s difficult to know the extent of abuses. With the numerous disturbing similarities to the heinous CAI cult it’s essential we continue to scrutinize, question and expose Universal Medicine, and to compel our governments to provide better public protections from cults.
ABC Four Corners report on Christian Assemblies International – includes video with extended interviews, and links to background information
Warning signs of harmful groups – Rick Ross Cult Education