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(AUSTRALIA) Wellness Cult Report: A dad who went to court to save his daughter from the clutches of a cult has told BBC’s File on 4 programme the groups have been ripping families apart #AceNewsDesk report

#AceNewsReport – Nov.24: The programme has spoken to experts who claimed there were as many as 2,000 suspected cults active in the UK, with some recruiting university students.

#AceDailyNews BBC Australia File On 4 Programme Report: Father’s court battle to save daughter from cult’s clutches………..I think the thing that was most soul destroying was seeing my own daughter slowly disappearing from who she was,” Graham said.

You can listen to File on 4: Am I in a cult? on Radio 4 on Tuesday 23 November at 20:00 GMT, and later on BBC Sounds

By Rachel Stonehouse & Michael Cowan
File on 4 Programme

The Lighthouse, Somerset
Universal Medicine has used a base called the Lighthouse in Frome, Somerset

He went through a five-year Family Court battle and spent more than £60,000 to rescue his daughter from the influence of Universal Medicine.

Universal Medicine’s UK base was at The Lighthouse, in Somerset and the BBC has previously reported on family members who have lost loved ones to the cult. 

The Australian wellness cult was founded in 1984, by Serge Benhayon – a bankrupt tennis coach who believes he is the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci. It was ruled a “dangerous” and “socially harmful” cult by a Civil Court in New South Wales in December 2018.

Graham said his daughter Lara was, from a young age, taken to Universal Medicine meetings by her mother – his ex-partner – and came to learn its teachings. The BBC is not using their real names, to protect their identity.

“She’d say I needed to stir (pancakes) anti-clockwise… and if I don’t I could die a miserable death,” he said.

“Even more shocking, she’d say that eating gluten and soya yoghurt, even, would make a hole in her tummy and she couldn’t have babies.”

Graham said his relationship with Lara became very strained. “The bombshell for me was when she said I’m not love and Serge (Benhayon) is love.

“I started realising that she was seeing Serge as the father figure and not me… that was just cutting and it went straight to my heart,” he said.

Graham eventually felt he had no choice but to go to court, because he believed Lara was being harmed by Universal Medicine.

The court initially ruled Lara’s mum needed to distance herself from the cult for the sake of her daughter, or lose care of her. 

But she was unable to do so and in July 2020 the court ordered Lara live with Graham and have limited contact with her mother.

On the surface Universal Medicine is a belief system focused around healing and wellness – specifically getting rid of bad or – as the organisation calls it – “pranic” energy from the body, which it says can be done through burping, not eating certain foods such as cinnamon, and stirring dishes anticlockwise. It also teaches that it can be done through so-called “esoteric” breast massage, which some former followers have said is exploitative. 

Serge Benhayon has previously claimed his daughter Simone is Winston Churchill reincarnated

The Australian court summarised that Serge Benhayon had an indecent interest in children, sexually manipulated cult followers, made fraudulent medical claims and persuaded members to shun loved ones who would not join Universal Medicine.

Nearly 18 months on, Graham said things with Lara have slowly started to improve. 

“It’s a heck of a lot better than it was but it saddens me to know there’s so many families being ripped apart in the UK,” he said. “I’m hoping something good will come out of what I’ve done for Lara.”

The BBC asked Universal Medicine for a statement but did not get a response. Serge Benhayon has previously denied running a cult.

Recruited on campus

Graham Baldwin who runs Catalyst, a counselling service for former cult members and their families, estimated there were up to 2,000 suspected cults active in the UK, and said he was hearing about new ones every week.

“This is the busiest we’ve ever been… with more groups we’ve never heard of,” he said, putting the rise down to the pandemic and the ease with which people could be recruited online and through social media.

‘Am I in a cult?’ – Jess was recruited into the Shincheonji Church of Jesus while she was a student

File on 4 has also been made aware of concerns about a number of groups which former members have accused of actively recruiting on UK university campuses. One of those groups was Shincheonji, founded in South Korea by 81-year-old Lee Man-Hee, who in January was found guilty of embezzling 5.6 billion won (£3.5m).

It is said to believe the end of the world is coming and its role is to save as many souls as possible by bringing them into the church. 

Shincheonji Church

Shincheonji has been accused of using deceptive recruitment tactics to entice new members into the church. Multiple former members who have spoken to File on 4 alleged they were invited to bible study groups on fake social media accounts only to be told months later the group was Shincheonji.

Shincheonji said its role was to “spread the gospel of Christ so everyone can come to know God and be saved”

Elizabeth, 22, a university student from London, said she was messaged via a Christian Instagram page and did not realise until three months in she had been recruited by Shincheonji.

She said she was told to keep her membership a secret and church leaders told followers not to google Shincheonji or they would “go to hell”. Elizabeth did search online, later admitting this to senior leaders, and said she was heavily rebuked and “told to write a letter apologising to God for what I had read on the internet”.

Elizabeth told File on 4 her experience inside Shincheonji had left lasting damage.

“I had plenty of panic attacks, I couldn’t leave my house,” she said. “When I did it was only at night. It’s only been a few months since I’ve been able to take public transport, comfortably anyway. 

“Since leaving I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and I’m on medication.”

A statement for Shincheonji said it was not a harmful cult and denied brainwashing, controlling or manipulating members. It also said Shincheonji did not groom, target, or recruit people but instead “spread the gospel of Christ so everyone can come to know God and be saved”.

It denied telling members to lie to family and friends and said it was not secretive about its beliefs – which could be found online, and was up-front about who it is to members. 

There is no legal definition of a cult but File on 4 has spoken to experts who said expanding coercive control law to include groups, rather than just individuals, would help.

Kathleen Hallisey, a lawyer, said she agreed removing the intimate relationship aspect of the current coercive control law or adding to that law would make action possible where there was evidence.

#AceNewsDesk report ………..Published: Nov.24: 2021:

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