Australian survivors of child sexual abuse have been dealt a major blow after three organisations – including one labelled cult-like – refused to participate in a compensation program.
The National Redress Scheme for victims of child sexual abuse was established in 2018 in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.
It helps people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse access counselling, a direct personal response from the institution in question, and a payment of up to $150,000.
However, three organisations failed to meet the December 31, 2020 deadline to join the scheme, Fairbridge Restored Limited, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Kenja Communication, which means survivors will be locked out of compensation.
Of the three, Kenja – a communications training group consistently described as a “cult” by ex-members and critics – is the only one to deny sexual abuse occurred within its ranks.
“Kenja has decided not to join the National Redress Scheme because we are firmly of the belief that no child sexual abuse has ever taken place at Kenja,” co-founder Jan Hamilton told news.com.au in a statement.
“Whilst we agree with the objectives of compensating child sex abuse victims, it is not appropriate in our view where genuine claims do not exist.
“One of the co-founders, Ken Dyers, fought false allegations of child sexual abuse over many years and was exonerated by the courts.”
Ms Hamilton has also repeatedly denied that Kenja is a cult.
While the decision has sparked public anger, it’s just the latest in a series of high-profile scandals to hit the secretive organisation over the years.
WHAT IS KENJA COMMUNICATIONS?
Described as a “training facility for people who want to develop their ability to be more effective or ‘cause’ over their lives”, Kenja was founded in Australia in 1982 by Ken Dyers and his partner Jan Hamilton.
There are centres in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, and the group’s website emphatically denies it is a religious group or cult, instead insisting “Kenja training views self-determinism as an imperative for personal growth”.
Among Kenja’s most controversial practices are “energy conversion meditation” and “Kenja klowning”, with the former described online as “the spirit in action” which involves “viewing the physical world with spiritual detachment and experiencing energy in its various forms”.
But a number of former members have claimed the sessions with Ken Dyers were one-on-one, with participants – including women and children – fully naked.
“Sometimes we’d be processed naked in one-on-one sessions – Ken said it helped energy flow freely through the body. Once, when I woke from the fog of a naked processing session, Ken was lying on top of me with his trousers and underpants around his ankles. But my Kenjan mind-training kicked in and I immediately dismissed the idea he’d acted inappropriately, reasoning I could trust Ken and, if he’d touched me, I’d remember it,” former member Annette Stephens wrote in a 2012 article published by news.com.au.
According to Kenja, in a Klowning class, “exercises provide an opportunity for each person, through the non-threatening avenue of laughter and humour, to locate and let go of behaviours which are self-destructive and often unconscious”.
The co-founder faced a string of child sexual abuse charges over the years, although he was only convicted of one charge, which was then overturned after appeal.
In 1992 Liberal MP Stephen Mutch described Dyers in Parliament as “a seedy conman selling mumbo-jumbo garbage” and in 1993, Dyers was charged with 11 counts of sexual assault against four girls before being acquitted.
In 2005 Dyers was charged with another 22 counts, but the case was deferred after the NSW District Court ordered a mental health assessment.
Dyers took his own life in 2007 at the age of 85 after being informed by police that new allegations had been made against him.
Ms Hamilton then attempted to sue the state of NSW for damages, alleging a letter sent to her husband by police amounted to “misfeasance in public office”.
However, her claim failed in June 2020, with the NSW Supreme Court declaring it was not satisfied that the sending of the letter was “conducted with an intention to cause harm.”
In 2005, Kenja was in the spotlight again after mentally ill former member Cornelia Rau was detained by the Australian government for 10 months due to a bizarre misunderstanding.
Authorities assumed the German-born Australian resident was an illegal immigrant and did not realise her mental health struggles, which led to her detention.
Ms Rau was eventually released in 2005, and in the same year her sister Christine told The Age she blamed Kenja for her sibling’s decline.
“It was while she was with them that she started getting sick,” she told the publication, adding Kenja “seemed very secretive” and “wouldn’t talk” to her about her sister.
Sydney schoolteacher Richard Leape is another mentally ill Kenja member who vanished and sadly, has not been seen since 1993.
Mr Leape was being treated for schizophrenia during his involvement in the organisation, and his family also shared concerns about its methods.
In a 2005 Daily Telegraph article, Mr Leape’s sister Annette said her brother’s case was reminiscent of Ms Rau’s.
“I’m appalled to read this organisation is still in existence and have grave concerns that there may be many other persons who have had contact and so-called therapies with this organisation, and developed very serious mental illnesses,” she said at the time.
Yet another tragedy linked to Kenja involves Michael Beaver, who was a member for two years and who was also diagnosed with schizophrenia.
He later took his own life, alleging in a suicide note that Kenja was “partly to blame”.
In a statement sent to news.com.au, Jan Hamilton insisted Cornelia Rau, Richard Leape and Michael Beaver had “participated with great joy and happiness in the Kenja activities”.
“Due to personal circumstances they left Kenja,” she said in a statement.
“However there was no animosity at the time of their departure. In no way was Kenja responsible for the personal difficulties which they encountered, years after they left Kenja.
“It is reprehensible that people are blaming Kenja for these individuals’ personal difficulties to further their hostile agendas against Kenja.”
Ms Hamilton also denied that Kenja was a cult.
“Over many years Kenja has been subjected to attack by some people who have referred to it as a ‘cult’ and ‘dangerous’. These attacks began with a hostile Liberal Member of parliament, Mr Stephen Mutch, in 1992 who described Kenja as a ‘dangerous cult’,” she said.
“Mr Mutch now operates a business called Cult Consulting Australia. Since that time a handful of disgruntled people, along with so-called anti-cult organisations, have attempted to discredit and disparage Kenja, Ken Dyers and myself.
“Many thousands of people however have participated in Kenja and speak highly of its benefits and contributions to the improvement of their lives. These people come from many walks of life and we would be happy for you to meet with some of them to talk to them about their experiences in Kenja over decades.”
Ms Hamilton claimed that Kenja had spent decades helping people.
“A particular focus of Kenja’s activities over 40 years has been the positive development and fulfilment of the lives of young people,” she wrote.
“Kenja fosters an environment of caring and humanity, which many people who spent their childhoods participating in Kenja can testify to.
“Regrettably, over the years we have had a small number of disgruntled people who have sought to vent their hostility towards our organisation, which has given rise to false sex abuse allegations. Those allegations which were contested in rigorous legal proceedings were thrown out by the Courts.
‘ALL ABOUT CONTROL’
Tore Klevjer, a registered counsellor specialising in religious abuse, extremism and control who assists former cult members, told news.com.au cults were typically defined by the power they exercise over members rather than a particular belief system.
“Cults are all about control,” he explained, adding there was not a particular personality type that was more susceptible.
He said people were more vulnerable to cults at particularly needy points in their lives, such as when they faced a “crossroads”, and said when a person was initially drawn to a cult, they were usually “love bombed” at first.
“They are treated like they are very special, which is very welcome if you’ve spent your life not feeling very special,” he said.
“It’s a big drawcard, and from here control slowly starts to take place.
“People are asked to renounce certain things, to disengage from their family and friends, they often give excessive amounts of money to the group and their time is (managed) so they have less time to spend with other people.”
Mr Klevjer said cults tend to alienate people from their loved ones, and said those who left cults often experienced symptoms such as post traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and phobias and had difficulty readjusting to normal life.
He urged those affected by cults to seek professional support and recommended Cult Information and Family Support Inc (CIFS) as a valuable resource.