Cults in the Court of Appeal: Re S

In a guest post, Elijah Z Granet discusses an interesting case on cults and child welfare.

In Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult) [2020] EWCA Civ 568, the Court of Appeal (McCombe, King, and Peter Jackson LJJ) has held that the imperative of removing a child from the reach of a destructive cult is sufficiently important to outweigh other competing interests in relation to the child’s welfare.

The facts

‘Lara’ (the pseudonym used by the CA) is a 9-year-old girl living with her mother, an adherent of Universal Medicine – a sect founded by the Australian Serge Benhayon, with its European headquarters in Somerset. The organisation’s bizarre beliefs include the importance of moving in an anti-clockwise direction [19], that consuming gluten will prevent reincarnation [35], and a cult of personality around Mr Benhayon [16].

Both the CA and the HHJ Meston QC at first instance relied on the persuasive authority of the Australian libel case of Benhayon v Rocket (№8) [2019] NSWSC 169, which found inter alia that a defence of truth applied to the statement that Universal Medicine was a ‘socially harmful cult’, and that Mr Benhayon had ‘exploited children’. The evidence given in that trial by The Revd Dr David Millikan, the Australian cult expert, as well as the reports of Cafcass officers and social workers about Lara, were sufficient to convince HHJ Meston QC that Universal Medicine was a harmful cult whose teachings, particularly on diet, were dangerous to the welfare of children. Indeed, the judge went so far as to say that, after the Australian ruling, ‘no reasonable parent in the mother’s position could disregard’ the criticisms made of Universal Medicine and Mr Benhayon [56]. The CA said that this ‘conclusion cannot be faulted’, and ‘unhesitatingly reject[ed]’ the mother’s attempt to appeal this judicial finding [86].

However, despite this finding (and influenced by the ultimately unfulfilled promises of undertakings from the mother), HHJ Meston QC found that the harm and distress of removing Lara from her mother’s care were not immediately outweighed by the harm caused by the beliefs of Universal Medicine.

The decision

The CA’s starting point was, as one would expect, the right to freedom of religion and belief under Article 9 ECHR. Both Strasbourg (eg Moscow Branch of the Salvation Army v Russia (2007) 44 EHRR 46) and domestic authorities (eg Re G (Education: Religious Upbringing) [2012] EWCA Civ 1233) make clear that it is not for the State to determine the validity or respectability of particular religious beliefs. However, Art 9 only applies to those beliefs which are worthy of respect in a democratic society and are compatible with human dignity (Campbell and Cosans v United Kingdom (No 2) (1982) 4 EHRR 293 at [36]). Therefore, only the teachings of Universal Medicine which meet this test are protected by Art 9; the CA did not specify which, if, any specific teachings of the sect might be so protected [6]. Furthermore, the CA approved of Munby LJ’s findings in Re G (at [43]) that, in accordance with Art 9(2), the right to manifest religious belief was subordinated to the paramount consideration of the interests of the child. The mother’s Art 9 rights ‘do not confer upon her the right to harm others’, not least her daughter [85].

Therefore, the relevant question was whether or not HHJ Meston QC had correctly balanced the competing risks to Lara’s welfare. The CA took note of evidence given to the judge that the mother was sufficiently committed to the cult so that ‘it was unlikely that she could extricate herself without significant therapeutic support and a true commitment to do so.’ Neither of those factors was present, and the mother, by disregarding the damning Australian judgment, had shown an unwillingness to acknowledge or mitigate the serious risk posed by Universal Medicine’s teachings [90–91].

These teachings were ‘a pervasive source of ongoing harm to Lara’, which risked both growing alienation from the father and serious physical and psychological harm (such as the development of an eating disorder due to the harmful diet promoted by the cult).   Unless ‘decisive counter-measures’ were taken, Lara would be separated from her father and committed to Universal Medicine, because ‘[t]hat is how cults work.’ [101]. Therefore, ‘Lara must be distanced entirely from Universal Medicine’, and the mother could only share custody if she ‘makes an immediate and definitive break with the organisation.’ [103]. The father’s appeal was therefore allowed (although HHJ Meston QC’s findings about the harmful and cultic practices of Universal Medicine were left intact).

Comment

The CA and the first-instance judge (and, indeed, the Supreme Court of New South Wales) were all agreed that the teachings Universal Medicine were harmful. However, the CA rightly placed special emphasis on the unique nature of cults: by promoting all-encompassing belief systems, they make it very difficult for members to leave without fundamental changes in worldview. Thus, the CA, unlike HHJ Meston QC, was unwilling to put much credence in the likelihood of the mother leaving Universal Medicine. While the first-instance judge thought that the clear evidence of the Australian judgment would be sufficient to cause any rational parent to question the safety of Universal Medicine, the CA emphasised that cult members are, almost axiomatically, unable to change their behaviour in response to rational evidence. Furthermore, the CA recognised that the longer Lara remained exposed to Universal Medicine, the greater the danger that she would become entirely immersed in the cult’s harmful and incoherent teachings. This, in turn, risked permanent alienation from her father and isolation from society.

This case shows the importance of the analytical distinctions between cults and ‘ordinary’ religions. Although most scholars of religion tend to avoid the word ‘cult’, because of its lack of definition and pejorative connotations, the concept is useful in distinguishing new religious movements characterised by evident harm to their members and society (often rendering them outside the protections of Art 9 ECHR). These movements persist despite this evident harm by a psychological hold over their members. The CA was right to highlight the need for aggressive countermeasures to prevent Lara from becoming hostage to this hold, and right to point out that only intensive therapy would allow the mother to extricate herself from Mr Benhoyan’s cult of personality.

Elijah Z Granet

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