Universal Medicine (UM) cancelled all its future bookings at the Lennox Head Community Centre, citing ‘disgraceful and utterly disrespectful treatment shown towards us by the Ballina Shire Council.’ Bookings cancelled included the Girl to Women Festival that was scheduled for early 2019.
The cancellation came ahead of a motion by councillors Keith Williams and Nathan Willis giving Council the power to refuse bookings at Council facilities ‘where the Council believed that provision of the service would pose a potential for child abuse.’
The controversy follows the result of a defamation case that the UM leader and founder, Serge Benhayon, ran against local critic Esther Rocket that resulted in UM being identified as a ‘socially harmful cult’ in the Supreme Court. The jury also found it was ‘substantially true’ that UM leader Serge Benhayon ‘has an indecent interest in young girls as young as 10 whom he causes to stay at his house unaccompanied’, preys on cancer patients and ‘is a charlatan who makes fraudulent medical claims’.
A UM spokesperson wrote to Ballina council saying that they were withdrawing their bookings ‘due to the farce that is currently occurring in the Ballina Council towards Universal Medicine.
‘The recent disgraceful and utterly disrespectful treatment shown towards us by the Ballina Shire Council and the disregard of our confirmed bookings (that have been in the system for well over 12 months) is simply unacceptable… In order to best serve our clients and offer the level of reassurance they deserve, we must move in light of the fact that fabricated reasons prevent us from hiring any facility that is in the control of the Ballina Council.’
Rebecca Asquith opposed the motion on behalf of the Girls to Women Festival saying that it ‘sets a precedent that bigotry and discrimination of others differences as an acceptable community standard. We reject this motion as being against the core ethos of our festival.’
Ms Asquith highlighted that the Girls to Women Festival had received no complaints of misconduct or harm during its four years of operation.
An amendment put forward by councillor Phillip Meehan to remove the point referring councils right to refuse hire to an organisation if it ‘believes’ there is potential for child abuse was based on his belief that it left the door open for ‘moralistic’ judgements.
‘Because of connections to a court case involving a defamation… I understand there are some concerns based on some of the statements that came out of that case, but I can’t convert that to a moralistic judgemental approach to any organisation,’ said councillor Phillip Meehan.
Cr Meehan indicated that working with children checks (WWCC) were adequate to ensure that people utilising council resources for events involving children were safe to work with children.
Councillor Jeff Johnson questioned how the motion would be carried out asking ‘where does this start and stop? We currently have a royal commission into institutional child abuse going on with significant findings against religious organisations. So does this now mean that volunteers and associates of religious groups who hire our facilities will then be tarred with the same brush because that organisation has other members who have been found guilty?’
Speaking in support of the original motion Councillor Williams highlighted that the council needed to make sure children are protected as much as possible.
‘This is about a Supreme Court finding about a group that is socially active our community that is a socially harmful cult… To suggest that the only way to protect our community is to rely on WWCC checks is, I think, a very limited view of the world.
‘The motion that was originally moved was entirely written by councils lawyers and was based on what was the clearest pathway forward to provide direction to staff on how it should act in instances like this.’
The amendment was lost and the original motion was carried with Cr David Wright, Cr Stephen McCarthy, Cr Nathan Willis, Cr Keith Williams and Cr Sharon Cadwallader voting in favour, Cr Phillip Meehan, Cr Jeff Johnson and Cr Eoin Johnston against.
Labor calls for UM inquiry
Federal Labor Candidate for Page Patrick Deegan and NSW Labor Candidate for Lismore Janelle Saffin today said an inquiry was warranted following recent revelations in the media, and the finding of a jury that Universal Medicine could truthfully be described as a ‘socially harmful cult’.
Deegan and Saffin said an inquiry should ensure that no state or federal governments direct resources towards any organisation that could be regarded as a ‘cult’, and that government departments and agencies do not endorse, encourage or support the involvement of children and young people in any such organisation.
‘It has taken the courage of whistle-blowers and the determination of journalists to expose the predatory practices of Universal Medicine,’ said Ms Saffin
‘The media revelations have caused a significant amount of stress and anxiety in our community.
‘An Inquiry would be opportunity to clear the air and to restore faith in our local institutions.’