A wealthy NSW spiritual healer has suffered a significant defeat in his defamation case against a blogger after a jury found many of her posts were true, including that he’s the leader of a socially harmful cult.
Former tennis coach Serge Benhayon, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci, sued ex-acupuncturist Esther Mary Rockett in the NSW Supreme Court over her 2014 blog and tweets.
But the four-person jury on Monday completed answers to 58 pages of questions, primarily in Ms Rockett’s favour and against Mr Benhayon, the founder of Universal Medicine (UM), based near Lismore in northern NSW.
The “substantially true” findings included that he “has an indecent interest in young girls as young as 10 whom he causes to stay at his house unaccompanied”, preys on cancer patients and “is a charlatan who makes fraudulent medical claims”.
Other truth findings were he intentionally indecently touched Ms Rockett during a consultation, “engages in bizarre sexual manipulation to make money for his business”, vilified people with disabilities, is dishonest and guilty of exploitative behaviour.
A jubilant Ms Rockett, who had run the defences of truth and honest opinion, flashed the peace sign as she left the court complex with her junior barrister Louise Goodchild.
But 54-year-old Mr Benhayon and his many supporters, who regularly attended the hearing that began on September 4, were not present for the outcome.
He told the jury about the “modalities” or healing practices used at UM’s seminars, healing courses and retreats that included “esoteric healing” and came from a tradition of “ageless wisdom” going back to Hermes, Plato and Pythagoras.
“Everything is energy and therefore everything is because of energy,” he testified when describing his gentle touching of fully clothed clients.
His barrister Kieran Snark SC said the treatment was set up to restore their energy, “not for the improper purpose of groping people”, and his client could be seen as a person of sincere religious beliefs rather than a fraud or crazy.
But Ms Rockett told the jury he had subjected her to a “sleazy ovarian reading” at his clinic during a February 2005 healing session.
Her blog flowed from seeing a newspaper article titled “The Da Vinci mode”, referring to 15,000 people having attended his retreats and presentations in the past decade.
Under cross-examination from her lawyer Tom Molomby SC, Mr Benhayon had referred to spirits – which he could sense rather than see – being in the courtroom as he gave his evidence.
However, he refused the barrister’s repeated requests for him to count the spirits, saying he could not break the rule of his soul.
The jury also found substantially true that Mr Benhayon had exploited children by having them vouch for UM’s dishonest healing practices and “exploits cancer patients by targeting them to leave him bequests in their wills”.