The Family: Breaking free from a sinister cult

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Handed over as a baby, Ben Shenton offers a glimpse at life inside Australia's notorious cult - The Family.

Looking at Ben Shenton today and you would never guess he was one of the children with bleached blonde hair raised in the notorious Australian cult known as The Family.

Shenton was just 18 months old when his single mother handed him over to cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

The insidious cult was founded in the 1960s by Hamilton-Byrne who told followers she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Along with her husband, Bill, they were able to collect numerous children - some through adoption scams, some born to cult members and others handed over by single mothers - to raise as their own.

Forced to wear identical outfits, the children were told by Hamilton-Byrne that they were  going to help save the world after an apocalypse. 

“I believe she was producing an idyllic group of children … I got very used to the smell of protein once a month or so,” Shenton tells Insight.

Looking back at photos of the boy he once was, Shenton’s childhood memories are not fond ones.

“Remembering some of the abuse and the effect it’s had on people is probably the most disturbing thing for me,” the now 45-year-old says.

The abuse ranged from beatings, starvation, water dunking, and drugs, including LSD, being forcibly given to the children.

In total Hamilton-Byrne had 28 children in her care that lived at a property on the picturesque Lake Eildon, around 240km north east of Melbourne. But those children, including Ben, were kept hidden from the outside world.

“Unseen, unheard, unknown, it was enforced, very much so. You did not make yourself noticed, you were not seen and you didn't say anything,” Shenton says.

Freedom

Despite their isolation two registered teachers were allowed on to the property to teach the children twice a week Shenton explains. Yet suspicions about the group’s activities were never raised until one of the children managed to escape as a teenager and eventually raise the alarm with the help of others.

It was August the 14th 1987 when police raided the property and rescued Shenton and the other children.

Ben
Ben, front right, pictured as a boy in The Family cult. Photo: Supplied
Supplied

“I saw the police, or these strangers turning up saying 'we're here to rescue you', as a serious imposition, ruining the future I had,” Shenton says.

But he quickly realised the police were his ticket out of the depraved sect and he embraced his second chance – but after years of abuse it was not an easy task.

“I mean life was extremely, extremely difficult but I made a decision, I'm determined to find out what the answers are, I'm not going to sink, I'm going to swim no matter what the cost.”

A new life

After years of struggling to find his place in his new world Shenton eventually joined a Christian Pentecostal church at the age of 18, finding meaning and hope in God.

“I don't think I would have made it past the age of 19 ... I was spiralling in deep depression, I had no skill set for relationships.”

While some of the other rescued children have struggled in life Shenton, who has been married for nearly 26 years and raised two children, considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“If it hadn't been for Jesus stepping into my life and God stepping in, I don't think I'd be here. I was one very messed up individual.”

Source SBS Insight