The blank, almost ghostly stare that Graham’s six-year-old daughter gave him was quite troubling enough. But what came next sent a sliver of ice through his heart. ‘You are not love, Daddy,’ she told him, quietly. ‘Serge is love.’
By themselves, the words made little sense. But to Graham, they were the realisation of his worst fears: his only daughter, Lara, was lost to the clutches of an international cult called Universal Medicine.
And cult leader Serge Benhayon, a man once described by a court as having an ‘indecent interest in young girls’, had become more important to Lara than her own father.
It is only today, following an extraordinary five-year legal battle, that Graham has finally been able to win back custody of his daughter from his former partner and the sinister organisation that controlled her.
Universal Medicine, known among its 2,000 devotees worldwide as UM, has already drawn criticism for its repertoire of bizarre doctrines and rituals. These include sessions where women massage each other’s breasts – to help them ‘connect’ with their bodies – and a prescriptive diet that bans carrots, red apples and potatoes to help followers ‘burp out’ evil spirits.
Following an extraordinary five-year legal battle, Graham has finally been able to win back custody of his daughter from his former partner and the sinister organisation that controlled her – Universal Medicine (stock image)
Uruguayan-born Benhayon, 55, a bankrupt former tennis coach, came to believe he was the reincarnation of Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci after having a spiritual epiphany while sitting on the toilet. His daughter Simone, he insisted, was none other than Winston Churchill.
UM’s ‘philosophies’ are a curious blend of New Age thought, religious theory and quack science. But the central idea – that the soul’s positive energy conflicts with the negative energy of the body – has resonated with many who, like Graham’s former partner Frances, seek solace in an uncertain world.
It can call on as many as 200 British followers, some of whom gather for conferences at its UK headquarters, a smartly restored 17th Century listed building. The Lighthouse, in the picturesque countryside outside Frome, Somerset, is run as an upmarket guesthouse.
Among UM’s wealthy student patrons are scions of industry, the son of a viscount, and Old Etonian accountant Simon Williams, 48, the owner of The Lighthouse.
Despite such outward respectability, however, the accusations facing the cult are serious. And this month Graham’s concerns were vindicated when he was given full custody of Lara following a High Court battle.
In a judgment seen by The Mail on Sunday, Mr Justice David Williams ruled that UM was ‘a cult with some potentially harmful and sinister elements’ and that the previously loving relationship between father and daughter had ‘crumbled as a result of exposure’ to it.
The ruling has temporarily banned Frances, Lara’s mother, from seeing her daughter. And it blamed her for ‘failing to truly get to grips with… the pernicious effect of her adherence to… Universal Medicine and their impact on her much-loved daughter’.
I knew that if I didn’t fight for her, no one would and she’d be destroyed
As is common in the family courts, the hearing was not open to the public and the central figures in the case must remain anonymous. The names in the documents and in this report have been changed.
Today Lara is still only nine and has barely known anything other than life in the sect’s tight grip.
‘When the judge delivered his verdict, I just broke down in court and cried,’ Graham says. ‘This has been a five-year nightmare but the one thing that has kept me going has been Lara.
‘I knew that if I didn’t fight for her, no one would. The courts, social services and children’s services couldn’t get a handle on it until it was too late – and Lara had already been destroyed. It has been emotional torture.’
Lara’s journey had been difficult from the outset. Graham and Frances met on a dating site in 2010 and found themselves expecting a baby after just three months together.
Within months of Lara’s birth in March 2011, the relationship had broken down, although the pair remained amicable and lived just minutes apart to share responsibility for Lara.
What Graham didn’t know, however, was that at some point Frances had been drawn under the influence of Universal Medicine. To this day he does not know when or how.
By the following year, Frances’s behaviour had become increasingly odd. ‘It was strange,’ Graham recalls. ‘I would ask normal questions about, say, coming over a bit earlier to pick up Lara, day-to-day life stuff, and Frances would give me this ghostly stare and wouldn’t answer. It was disconcerting.’
ACCUSED: Serge Benhayon, with second wife Miranda – she started living with the former tennis coach when she was aged just 14 and he was 31
It was in 2014, when Graham was asked to collect Lara, then three, from a location described as a ‘health and wellbeing clinic’ that he became concerned for his daughter’s safety. ‘When I walked in, I found Lara under a blanket crying her eyes out,’ he said. ‘Her mother was there with this other woman who was just looking at Lara, but not reaching out to comfort her.’
So troubled was Graham by the encounter that he discussed it with his mother, who Googled the clinic and found it was run by UM, a sect which had originated in Australia.
‘I started to look myself and came across an Australian blog run by a woman called Esther Rockett. It detailed her own shocking experience.’ Rockett claimed Benhayon had indecently touched her during a ‘healing’ session and had performed the same rituals on others – claims the country’s Supreme Court found were ‘substantially true’ when Benhayon tried to sue for defamation.
The court also found that Benhayon, whose second wife Miranda started living with him when she was 14 and he was her 31-year-old tennis coach, ‘makes fraudulent medical claims’, ‘preys on cancer patients’ and has an ‘indecent interest in girls as young as ten’. It described the cult as ‘socially harmful’ and Benhayon as ‘a charlatan’.
Some of Benhayon’s theories are harmless – followers are instructed to rise at 3am and go to bed by 9pm. Certain actions can be performed only anti-clockwise.
But many of its beliefs are deeply troubling, including the idea that disabled children are being punished for evil in a former life.
Graham remembers Lara once turning to him before the High Court case and asking: ‘Daddy, is apple juice made from red or green apples?’ ‘I was baffled,’ he recalls.
‘Only later did I realise that red apples are not approved by UM.
‘Then Lara started drawing UM symbols – always a triangle or a heart shape with a triangle in it – and I found her wearing a red wrist braid with the symbol on it. She even began using UM phrases.
‘If I had an accident, Lara would say, “It’s your choice, Daddy. Accidents are your choice.” It was becoming very, very strange.’
The restrictive diet and Lara’s constant exhaustion eventually persuaded Graham to approach social services in 2015.
By this stage, Lara was aged four and attending nursery. But the local authority failed to act. Undeterred, Graham decided to take legal action and, having gathered evidence of the cult’s damaging demands over a two-year period, was eventually granted 50-50 access to Lara in June 2017.
Before, Graham and Frances had muddled through informally. This, at least, meant he could protect Lara half of the time.
Under a separate order, Frances also had to promise not to indoctrinate Lara with UM ideas.
But the rulings seemed to be having little effect. Lara became convinced that her father would die of a heart attack because he was not ‘love’ – a phrase used by the cult to describe those who avidly follow its teachings. He remembers: ‘I asked why I would die and she was crying her eyes out. She said, “Because you are not love.” ’
He recalls one day at the start of Lent when Lara was seven and he was mixing pancake batter. To his bemusement, she became agitated as he whisked, before she finally blurted out that he was doing it wrong. He was whisking clockwise instead of anti-clockwise, as she’d been taught by the cult.
‘Lara was in tears and said it would stop us from being reincarnated,’ he said.
Reading her a bedtime story one night, he was surprised to find her completely ignoring him. ‘I am listening to the astral,’ she told him. ‘You will understand some day and you will listen to me, not the spirit that you are looking to right now.’
RESPECTABLE FACADE: Universal Medicine’s British base, The Lighthouse, is an upmarket B&B in Somerset
But it was when Lara told him that Serge ‘was love’ that the devastating effects of the cult finally crystallised in his mind.
Graham moved to apply for a court order seeking sole custody, a move that intensified the struggle with his former partner who, seeking to defend the case, levelled horrifying allegations that he was guilty of sexual abuse against Lara. The courts declared the claims to be false.
Lara’s behaviour, meanwhile, became increasingly erratic and hostile. She started hitting her father and trying to run away while in his care. A court hearing last November concluded Lara was indeed ‘at risk of further harm’ but it was only this month that, to his overwhelming relief, the High Court finally granted full custody to Graham and banned Frances from seeing Lara until after the summer, when the situation will be reviewed.
It is a battle which has cost him £60,000 and left him significantly in debt.
He said: ‘My lawyers, Clare Kirby, Will Tyler and Kate Grieve, worked for free from last year. Without that and the support of work, I might have given up and lost Lara for good.’
But his battle is far from over. Indeed, the hardest part – winning back his daughter’s affections – is yet to come. The past few years have left Lara deeply troubled.
‘Last week Lara had a complete meltdown,’ he explained. ‘She said to me, “I’m a mess, Daddy! I don’t want to be like this, I don’t want to be angry with you. I don’t know what’s going on.” ’
For now, Graham has taken Lara to live with him at his mother’s home on the coast. It’s as much about a fresh start for them as an attempt to keep physical distance between Lara and her mother.
‘Frances scares me now,’ Graham admits. ‘My opinion has moved from worry and mixed feelings of love to one of horror, at the damage she and UM have caused Lara. I have been left to pick up the pieces. Lara has been offered a chance now – and with it I hope that we can build a new relationship over time.
‘When Lara and I were in the sea together yesterday, she was so happy, she forgot everything and was jumping off my shoulders. It gave me real hope for the future.’
The Mail on Sunday contacted Serge Benhayon and Simon Williams but received no response. Benhayon has previously insisted that UM is not a cult.
During the Australian court case, his lawyer said that UM treatment was ‘not for the improper purpose of groping people’ – and that Benhayon is a person of sincere religious beliefs.