Most concern Leo, the 52-year-old former coffee shop proprietor also known as Brother Roc who is presumed to be somewhere in the Pacific, most likely Fiji or Vanuatu, and who may still be looking to buy the island paradise he has promised a core group of 60 to 70 followers.
Here, according to the comical story Leo concocted in Adelaide, the Agape faithful will be able to escape an evil force that is micro-chipping the world’s population in the lead-up to 2012, when all humanity will be programmed for extinction.
But nobody has seen Leo for a month and the SA police haven’t issued a warrant for his arrest. So it raises the question: is Leo really a dangerous fugitive?
It certainly seemed that way after 90 police last month raided the Agape Ministries’ fortress-like compound in the Adelaide Hills, its $5 million headquarters and several other cult-connected properties in and around the city.
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The police seized about 20 illegal guns, assault batons, detonators, fuses for explosives and more than 35,000 rounds of ammunition.
Follow-up raids during the next two days uncovered more weapons and a further 30,000 rounds of ammunition, though not a number of high-powered automatic and semi-automatic firearms police know exist and are anxious to locate.
According to one former cult member, the purpose of stockpiling all this firepower was to protect the cult from its enemies, who could, Leo had explained to his followers, include the police.
Not surprisingly, this has seen Leo and the Agape Ministries portrayed as a Waco-in-waiting, a reference to the infamous 1993 Texas shootout that killed four FBI agents and 75 Branch Davidian followers of David Koresh, 21 of them children.
The Waco siege lasted 51 days and the Davidian arsenal included a 50-calibre cannon, machineguns and more than a million rounds of ammunition, but Detective Superintendent Jim Jeffery, head of the SA police commercial and electronic crime branch who is in charge of the Agape Ministries investigation, doesn’t dismiss the comparison.
For independent senator Nick Xenophon, who has twice failed to convince the Senate to inquire into some allegedly abusive practices of Scientology (the last vote in March was 33-6 against with only the Greens in support), the weapons are a chilling reminder that decisive action must be taken to prevent cults getting footholds in Australian society.
“Ninety police, 13 premises raided, thousands of rounds of ammunition — what more do we need to say that we need a national debate about whether people are being protected,” says Xenophon. “I mean, if this isn’t a wake-up call, what is? Do we have to wait until someone is hurt or killed as a result of some of these cults before we do anything?”
Xenophon has long believed the best way to weaken the influence of cults is to limit their access to money. He says existing laws on deceit and false and misleading conduct are inadequate and fail to give full protection to cult members who are at financial risk from predators such as Leo.
However, Xenophon’s previous efforts to push this agenda have floundered. Mainstream churches have been worried that their fundraising activities may be affected by any new legislation. Politicians, fearful that any action will be seen in the community as anti-religion, have steered clear.
Xenophon also has faced vigorous lobbying by the Scientologists who feel (with some justification) they are the primary target.
Finally, there is the legal question of how much reform can be achieved given the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom.
Xenophon’s response is that churches doing the right thing have nothing to fear; politicians should have greater courage and the Scientologists should be resisted. On the legal problems, he says: “Just because it’s a difficult area of law reform doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix the problem. You can have freedom of religion as well as protect people being hurt.”