News

Melbourne’s notorious cult The Family – the subject of a Supreme Court class action by survivors – has bequeathed the site of its former headquarters to Victoria’s Tibetans.

By Chris Johnston.

Santiniketan Lodge and The Family

Leeanne Creese as a child with The Family cult leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne.
Credit: Label Distribution

The headquarters of the infamous Australian cult The Family has been gifted to Victoria’s Tibetans in an unexpected move that has angered many in the Tibetan community, the policeman who investigated the cult’s crimes, and its survivors, who have been fighting in the courts for compensation.

Santiniketan Lodge, as the low-lying red-brick building is known, was for three decades The Family’s temple, hidden among the trees on three hectares in the Dandenong Ranges on Melbourne’s outer fringe.

Here, from the late 1960s, members of the cult would gather twice a week to hear sermons from their leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, either in person, from her purple chair under a large crucifix, or on cassette tape when she was overseas, which was often.

The Family was a cruel organisation with the motto “Unseen, Unheard, Unknown”. The cult imprisoned 14 adoptive children in a house beside Lake Eildon, about two hours north of the lodge, subjecting them to horrific assaults, drug regimes, change of identity and deprivation of liberty. Fourteen more children – the kids of embedded cult members – were kept in houses in the Dandenongs, dotted around Santiniketan Lodge in Ferny Creek and Hamilton-Byrne’s home in Olinda. As teenagers many were brainwashed with liquid LSD, acquired legally from Switzerland by psychiatrists who were also cult members.

The children were freed in 1987, and Hamilton-Byrne became an international fugitive. She was finally arrested by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation near New York in 1993, after a joint operation run with Victoria Police and Interpol. However, Hamilton-Byrne escaped significant charges, and never served jail time before she died two years ago, aged 98. She left behind a large estate, although it was significantly reduced due to her long stint in aged and palliative care.

What remains of that estate was the subject of a recent class action brought by a group of The Family’s survivors who sought compensation for “cruel and inhumane treatment” by her or her “servants or agents” between 1968 and 1987. The class action in the Victorian Supreme Court examined assaults, physical or sexual abuse, physical injuries and psychiatric injuries.

As The Family is not part of the National Redress Scheme, the class action may be the last opportunity for survivors of the cult to be compensated. Several other members were given large amounts in out-of-court settlements in 2009.

The class action names three defendants: accountant Roger Butcher and Geoffrey Dawes, who are the executors of Hamilton-Byrne’s estate, and Life For All Creatures, a charity. Court documents note that the plaintiff alleges that in 2010, Anne Hamilton-Byrne transferred two properties on Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Olinda to Life For All Creatures Ltd.

The survivors wanted the court to set aside those transfers.

Santiniketan Lodge and the land it sits on – next to the Dandenong Ranges National Park – is estimated to be worth $2 million, despite being run down. The lodge was not owned by Hamilton-Byrne. Instead, before its gifting to the Tibetan community, it was held by the Santiniketan Park Association (SPA),

The SPA’s secretary Tim Mackay, who now lives at Hamilton-Byrne’s former residence Crowther House, is also registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission as the president of Life For All Creatures Ltd.

Through its spokesman Geoffrey Dawes, who was raised in The Family by his parents Helen and Leon Dawes, the SPA declined to comment. “Our legal advice is to avoid comment to the media,” Dawes said.

Asked about the transfer of Santiniketan Lodge, Michael Stevenson-Helmer – the nephew of former Australian governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen, who remains a devotee of The Family – said Hamilton-Byrne had a strong affinity with Tibetan Buddhism. He claimed she had personally helped the Dalai Lama escape to India, to avoid Chinese persecution, in 1959.

The Saturday Paper has established the Santiniketan Park Association approached Tibetan community leaders in Canberra in December last year with the offer, which they accepted. The property is now held by the Tibetan Cultural Centre in Canberra, an entity within Canberra’s Tibetan Information Office (TIO). They have decreed the property is for use by the Victorian Tibetan community for Buddhist teaching and events such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday.

The TIO referred inquiries about the gift to its conveyancer, Andrew Curtis.

Curtis said the Dalai Lama has “no idea” about the property because since 2011 he has played no part in political or administrative work for Tibet, handing over these duties to the elected president, Lobsang Sangay, of the Central Tibetan Administration. The TIO told the Tibetan cabinet, or Kashag, of the deal, Curtis said, but “we [the TIO] strongly believe this decision is absolutely in compliance with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s wish to benefit others”.

The TIO, Curtis said, initially had “no link or idea of Anne Hamilton-Byrne or SPA at all … subsequently we googled and learnt a little bit about their past history”. He says the TIO then went to the Australian Federal Police in Canberra and were “advised informally that there seemed no ongoing controversy or problem with them”.

Which is, for the most part, accurate. The Family doesn’t exist anymore beyond the SPA and the Life For All Creatures charity, the finances of which were of much interest to the recent class action. Neither of these organisations recruits new members, nor do they engage in the damaging criminal behaviours that made Hamilton-Byrne’s cult so infamous. Indeed, with the gifting of Santiniketan Lodge, one of their last significant properties has gone.

But cult survivor Leeanne Creese, who initiated the class action, says the lodge should be given back to her fellow survivors to boost the meagre compensation offered by the Victorian Supreme Court. A proposed settlement handed to the survivors in December 2020 offered $600,000 to be shared between the eight survivors, inclusive of legal fees.

“I think it’s very bad karma for the Tibetans to be using this building,” Creese says of Santiniketan Lodge. “They should give it back so we can sell it. We are not happy about this, after everything we have been through.”

To former Victoria Police detective Lex de Man, who led Victoria Police’s taskforce to secure Hamilton-Byrne’s extradition to Australia in the 1990s, the property is a symbol of violence and horror. “There is a dark history to this chapel,” he said.

Many in the Victorian Tibetan community were blindsided by the gift. A community leader in Melbourne, who asked not to be named, said: “Accepting such a donation goes against the very teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I think His Holiness would be pained for Anne’s survivors and most likely be very disappointed. Accepting such a donation from a person or group that committed such atrocities goes against the core of His Holiness’s teachings.

“I think he would ask to return this asset to the survivors.”

Another Tibetan community leader in Melbourne pointed out the irony of Tibetans occupying a building with violent, torturous links when Tibet itself had been subjected to often violent colonialism by China. The president of the Australian Tibetan Community Association, Mr Kalsang Tipnak, meanwhile, said he wasn’t told of the donation.

Andrew Curtis says the TIO did not know about the class action, and the Santiniketan Park Association had “no caveats or other encumbrances which would indicate legal proceedings”.

A Tibetan media report from January this year shows a delegation of Tibetan leaders from Canberra, including the Dalai Lama’s representative in Australia, Lhakpa Tshoko, in a ceremony at Santiniketan Lodge. Also present were members of the SPA, who were adorned with Tibetan scarves.

The news report states SPA is a “Christian” group. A translation reads: “…this land/hall is big and the area is a tourist attraction, and conditions for further improvement is good. The hall accommodates roughly 200 people and it is run down. It has a toilet, kitchen and a library, air conditioning…”

The class action is almost complete, with cult survivors understood to have accepted the settlement deal, pending approval by the court.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Family ties".

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Chris Johnston is a Melbourne writer.