When Darshan’s daughter Belle was young, she told her parents she didn’t want to live with them anymore.
The whole family had spent a lot of time at an alternative community in rural New South Wales. Darshan’s wife had become a follower of the teachings there, and Darshan and Belle had regularly visited the community centre for classes and camps. Now Belle wanted to live there permanently.
‘There’s no way I wanted it to happen’, Darshan said. He was happy for Belle to stay at the centre during weekends, but full-time was altogether different. He sought advice from Belle’s school, the local priest and others.
‘They all said the same thing, which we all believed: there was no drugs, no alcohol, no sex and not even smoking cigarettes … I could not find a single good reason to say [to my wife] “Okay, she stays at home and just goes there part-time”’, he explained. ‘So I gave in and said “Yeah, okay”, because we could visit every day – we were not far from there – and I thought, “It’s not so bad”.’
Belle moved to the centre. Because Darshan lived nearby, he was able to call in to see her at different times of day and share meals with her there. At first all seemed well but over time a distance grew up between Belle and her family. More and more often Darshan found that when he and his wife visited Belle she didn’t want anything to do with them. She’d accept whatever gift they’d brought and then would disappear.
Darshan later understood this estrangement was the result of a deliberate strategy on the part of the leader of the centre, Lon Newman, and his assistant, Suzanne. It was ‘one of the tricks’, Darshan said.
‘There was one time when we found that she wasn’t wearing any underwear – we could tell because she was sitting cross-legged opposite us. We were disgusted, you know – “Where is your underwear?”’ Belle said it was dirty, Darshan recalled. ‘[My wife] said, “Well, give them to us and we’ll wash them and give them back to you clean”.’ But Belle refused.
‘Apparently the way it was, it was okay to come to your parents and get your lollies and your goodies, but it’s not cool to be close to them, and [Suzanne] would separate them’, Darshan explained.
‘Newman would say, “I’m their spiritual father and Suzanne is their spiritual mother - we’ll look after them”.’
Years later Belle explained to him that being dependent on your family just wasn’t part of the community culture. ‘They really went out of their way – you can call it brainwashing or whatever you want to call it – to separate kids from their parents, and that’s what happened.’
Eventually, under pressure from Belle and his wife, Darshan agreed to sign papers that made the community Belle’s guardian. ‘I absolutely hated that, there’s no way I wanted to do that.’ This meant that the community could collect Belle’s child endowment payments from the government. ‘I was told that if I didn’t do that, they couldn’t get the child welfare and they wouldn’t pay for their clothing and their education and whatever else they needed’, Darshan said.
Belle moved back in with her family in her late teens. She and her mother had a fractious relationship and argued a lot. After one argument, she threatened to send Belle back to the centre. Belle said she couldn’t go back because ‘he’s been having sex with me’.
‘He’ was the community leader, Newman. He had sexually abused Belle for years.
With Darshan’s support, Belle decided to get involved in legal action against Newman.
‘My wife said “No, don’t do anything, you’re not going to push your daughter through court”.’ But Belle felt they should go ahead. Darshan asked if she was prepared for how difficult that might be. ‘She said yes, that he should be answerable.’
The police weren’t exactly encouraging. ‘They said “Stiff shit”, you know. “You lie with dogs, you get fleas”, you know, that type of attitude. I pestered.’
Some of the other parents were also unhelpful. ‘[They] told me no way, they’re not getting involved, they’re not allowing their children to be interviewed, da da da da, and I was even getting the stories: “Who else would be better to educate the children into adult and sexual things than such a wonderful man?”’
Eventually several girls came forward and the matter went to court. Newman was convicted on one of the charges and served several years of a jail sentence. The verdict was eventually overturned on appeal. Newman was released but died not long afterwards. Darshan believes many questions relating to Newman’s paedophilia, Suzanne’s role and other matters both within the community and beyond it, remain both unasked and unanswered. He is not holding his breath.