Reporter: Karl Stefanovic
She's the embodiment of evil. A woman who's terrible deeds have destroyed many lives.
For years, Anne Hamilton-Byrne ran a bizarre cult known as The Family. But, this was no ordinary family. Children stolen at birth ... brainwashed ... beaten …even given mind-altering drugs like LSD.
The list of abuses at her isolated retreat outside Melbourne goes on. It was a true house of horrors.
Throughout it all, Hamilton-Byrne was helped by a group of unquestioning followers, including a sinister inner-circle of women known as the Aunties.
To these disciples she was the re-incarnation of Jesus Christ. Her word gospel.
Hamilton-Byrne has spent years dodging the truth about what went on inside The Family but, this week, for the first time, she talks to Karl Stefanovic.
Sarah Moore (formerly Sarah Hamilton-Byrne) has set up an organisation called Barefoot Basics to provide health assistance for indigenous and displaced people.Full transcript below:
STORY - KARL STEFANOVIC: For more than 30 years, this is the only glimpse the world has had of Australia's most secretive cult leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne.
KARL STEFANOVIC: To her followers, she is the reincarnation of Christ. To the children she beat and abused, a monster. Now, for the first time, Anne Hamilton-Byrne has agreed to talk. Were the children ever hit?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Course they weren't.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Because...?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: They were not beaten.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Never?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Never. You would have to be pretty good to see through that bullshit. It's absolute bullshit. It's lies.
KARL STEFANOVIC: But this is to be no ordinary interview. It didn't happen?
MICHAEL STEVENSON: No, no, but what about if they...
KARL STEFANOVIC: Well that's crucial, isn't it? That's crucial. I don't abuse my children. Some of the sect members aren't happy about our presence.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: Well as far as I'm concerned, you're living a lie.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Your entire life is a network of lies.
KARL STEFANOVIC: And less happy still that children of the sect are fighting back, demanding that the truth finally be told about their brutal treatment at the hands of Anne Hamilton-Byrne.
LEX DE MAN: Of all the crimes that I investigated, she is the most evil person that I've ever met.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Lex de Man was the Victorian detective who, for years, pursued the cult.
LEX DE MAN: These people truly believe that she is Jesus Christ.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Anne's followers included dozens of respected, middle-class professionals - doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers - all willing to do the bidding of their master.
EX CULT MEMBER: I was told to leave my first wife and go up to the hills. I did. I was told that I would have a baby with another woman, and I did.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Anne began collecting children at her hideaway at Lake Eilden, near Melbourne. Her devoted followers able to convince unsuspecting teenage mothers to hand over the babies. One of them was Sarah Hamilton-Byrne.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: My mother was a 15-year-old girl whose doctor was a member of the sect, and the doctor organised the adoption, drugged my mother and took me away from her at birth.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Sarah would grow up believing that Anne Hamilton-Byrne was her natural mother, that all the other children were her real brothers and sisters. And to convince outsiders they were all related, Anne dyed their hair blonde.
LEX DE MAN: Bleached blond hair, singing like the von Trapp family, living out Anne's fantasy of, in her thoughts, I'm sure it was, something like an Aryan race. Horrific.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Even Anne claims she doesn't know how many children she acquired this way. So how many?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: I can't tell. I don't know.
KARL STEFANOVIC: You don't know? Dozens?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: No. I only know mine.
KARL STEFANOVIC: How many of them were yours?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Altogether I had nine children.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Even that is a lie. What we do know is that eventually, Anne would have up to 28 youngsters under her control, guarded by a sinister group of her disciples known as the 'Aunties'. The children's very existence, a secret. So how on earth do you hide 28 children from the world in the middle of Victoria? Well the answer is right here. A barbed wire fence surrounds this property, the kids were never allowed out. But not 300 metres away, is a lake. Thousands of Australians came here for holidays during the course of two decades. No-one saw anything. No-one raised the alarm. When the alarm was eventually raised, and the police came knocking the Aunties had already swung into action - and the children just disappeared.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: I'll show you where we were hidden.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Sarah showed me the house at Lake Eildon and the secret tunnel where they were forced to hide when visitors called.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: And under here there's a little hole that was blocked off, and there was a picture-thing which covered it - it's got a bit of cloth now - and we'd all pile through here.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Through that hole? 28 of you in there?
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Up to 28, yeah.
KARL STEFANOVIC: That is disgusting. That is abhorrent abuse.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: We'd just be absolutely still. We were very well disciplined, anyway. We were used to not moving a muscle on pain of punishment. Plus we were scared. Scared of the police, scared of the outside world. Because they said that if they found us, we'd get the blame and we'd be taken away and beaten in sacks.
KARL STEFANOVIC: It was the Aunties' job to hide the children at any cost.
REPORTER MARIE MOHR: You keep a lot of children in the commune here, is that right
CULT AUNTIE: No, that's not right at all.
KARL STEFANOVIC: In 1985, Channel Nine journalist Marie Mohr decided to investigate rumours that children were being held on the property.
MARIE MOHR: There's no children here?
CULT AUNTIE: No, no.
KARL STEFANOVIC: But Marie Mohr's suspicions were ignored and the abuse continued. Crimes like bed-wetting met with brutal punishment.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Anyone who'd wet their bed would get a beating, so we'd hear the screams first thing in the morning. And there was one kid who wet his bed virtually every night - we called him zebra stripes, because he had the beating every day and he had the stripes all on his legs.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Were the children ever hit?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Well, I could never say we went out to hit the children, never.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Never went out to hit them, but were they ever hit?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Never hit them, no.
KARL STEFANOVIC: You never hit your child?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: No.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Let me read you something here, this is from Sarah's book. "Anne had a stiletto-heeled shoe in her hand and she started hitting me. A stiletto-heeled shoe. "On my bare backside with the shoe. "After about 20 or 30 hits she got tired and Bill took over. "He hit me with his hands. "My head kept hitting the wall and I saw tears." Is she making that up? ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: You know quite well they can.
KARL STEFANOVIC: They can what - make things up?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Kids can make things up. We've all been kids. KARL STEFANOVIC: You were a monster at times.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: I have nothing to say, because I don't feel like one.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Are you a monster?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: I'm not conscious of what you're saying, I should be conscious of.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Are you a monster?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Certainly not.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Are you evil?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Well, what do you call evil?
KARL STEFANOVIC: The systematic abuse of children is evil.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: No.
KARL STEFANOVIC: And then there was the most terrifying ordeal of all.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: They would put a bucket here, and then one of the Aunties would help, you'd have to kneel down, and then they'd push your head into the bucket and hold it there for 20 seconds, 30 seconds, then bring it out and say, 'Did you do it? Did you do it? And if you'd say 'No,' back in again.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Water torture?
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Yeah, because Anne had said, 'Better to be drowned than be a liar.'
KARL STEFANOVIC: Better to be drowned...?
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Than be a liar.
KARL STEFANOVIC: By the time children were 14, they were being forced to take LSD, just as the adult members did.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: You were locked in a room, completely dark, for days, and just fed this drug over and over again and people come in, Anne and other of her sect members coming in, telling you to work on yourself and to confess that I was thinking of sex, that I wanted to be raped, that I was evil.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Anne, do you remember giving her LSD at the age of 14?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: No, no, no.
KARL STEFANOVIC: It never happened?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: You're asking me and then telling me.
KARL STEFANOVIC: I'm asking you, did it happen?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: I have no memory of that.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Somehow, the children survived their time in this house of horrors. Though in the years since, some have committed suicide and many have suffered psychological and emotional problems. Sarah was able to escape the sect, but has not been able to escape her tortured past. After a failed bid to take her own life, her leg became infected and had to be amputated. Does it hurt you that that she has tried to take her own life because of the way she was brought up?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Of course it does. It was not the way she was brought up, it's the way it was handled, the way it went out. We didn't have everything that we needed. We had most things. I bought the bigger house because of the likes of little Sarah.
KARL STEFANOVIC: You thought a house would make everything right? ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Well, I just thought it would give them more room.
KARL STEFANOVIC: People don't try and take their life because their house is too small.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: You're not smart enough.
KARL STEFANOVIC: For what?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: In your heart. What's in your heart is not the same.
KARL STEFANOVIC: I don't know what you mean by that.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: No, of course you don't.
KARL STEFANOVIC: They're saying that they were systematically abused and beaten. Why would the children say it if it wasn't true?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: I don't believe they did.
KARL STEFANOVIC: They've said it.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: You're getting your point over that you're looking for trouble. It doesn't matter that you are.
KARL STEFANOVIC: I'm not looking for trouble - I'm not looking for trouble, I'm looking for the answers.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: One day your children will betray you, and then you'll know how hard it is to not...to just be yourself.
KARL STEFANOVIC: This is Michael Stevenson, one of Anne Hamilton-Byrnes' most devoted followers, and likely to take over as leader of the cult when she dies. So all the children made all of this up, did they?
MICHAEL STEVENSON: Could be. And they were paid for it, they were paid for it.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Well, I'm asking you.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: You were paid a lot of money.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: We weren't paid any money, Michael.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: You were certainly paid.
KARL STEFANOVIC: I'm asking.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: We weren't paid.
KARL STEFANOVIC: So it didn't happen in your eyes either?
MICHAEL STEVENSON: I had a son there.
KARL STEFANOVIC: And how did he go?
MICHAEL STEVENSON: Fine.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Was he abused?
MICHAEL STEVENSON: Of course not.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Was he beaten, was he disciplined?
MICHAEL STEVENSON: There's part of natural discipline in families.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: He was beaten.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: No, he was never beaten. He never, has never said, that he was beaten.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: No wonder he fell by the wayside.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: He didn't. No he didn't fall in a heap. You lot did.
CULT GIRL: We want to get on with our lives, we want to forget the past.
KARL STEFANOVIC: The truth is, the children from the sect have been speaking about what happened to them for more than two decades, ever since they were freed in a police raid on the Eildon house. Two have sued the cult over their barbaric treatment - and won compensation. All Sarah has ever asked is for the truth to be told.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: For someone like Michael, to tell me that I'm a liar, I'm not living a lie, Michael.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: As far as I'm concerned, you're living a lie.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Your entire life is a network of lies.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: You're suffering for it.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: I'm suffering...
MICHAEL STEVENSON: We all live lies, we all are living a lie.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: What I've suffered in my life is because of what happened up there.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Ive had a lot of pain.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: As long as you blame others, you're nowhere. You're nowhere.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Anne Hamilton-Byrne has managed to escape justice all her life. She and her husband Bill were extradited from the US where they'd been living in one of her New York mansions, but Anne was convicted of only one offence - falsely registering the birth of three of the adopted children, including Sarah. Even the simple truth of Sarah's birth seems beyond these pathological liars. Did you carry Sarah? Were you her biological mother?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Well, I naturally believe I was. Of course I was.
KARL STEFANOVIC: She has a biological mother?
MICHAEL STEVENSON: Do you have DNA to prove it?
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: The police do, yeah.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: Police - no. Do you? See, you always put it on other people, but do you?
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Michael, you're living in a fantasy.
MICHAEL STEVENSON: No I'm not. You're living in a fantasy of pain and deprivation.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: (LAUGHS)
KARL STEFANOVIC: Sarah has met her natural mother and sees her often. What she had wanted was some kind of understanding from the woman who, for so many years, pretended to be her mother. But in the end, this now-tragic figure squandered what could have been her last opportunity to make amends. Why don't you apologise then? It's so easy.
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Because I don't believe in you.
KARL STEFANOVIC: Will you apologise to her?
ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: Of course I will. At the right time, if I have to. 'Course I will.
KARL STEFANOVIC: It's hard to believe, but Sarah has already forgiven Anne. She became a doctor and now helps children in India. This gutsy woman is determined to make something of her life. You're an amazing person.
SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Maybe. I'm also very troubled at times. I try and contribute, I do. If I can do something that'll make things worthwhile. Sometimes I feel it's not worthwhile, but I give it a go when I can.
Producers: Stephen Rice, Hugh Nailon