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Allegedly Domineering Religious Leader Denies Accusations

Religious leaders by definition have influence over their congregations. However, as a High Court ruling showed, where that influence is alleged to have been abused, the law will not turn away those who claim to have suffered.

The case concerned the former head priest, or guru, of a charitable religious organisation. Seven ex-members of his congregation launched proceedings against him, alleging that he had claimed to be divine and to have a direct link to and ability to speak with God or manifestations of God. They said they had been encouraged to believe that he could perform miracles.

They asserted that he had subjected them to psychological domination. They said they were in thrall to him and became accustomed to obeying his commands without question. Their multifaced case against him included claims for recompense in respect of alleged unpaid labour and substantial financial contributions that they were said to have donated for his benefit. Four of them also claimed that he had subjected them to sexual abuse and harassment.

He vehemently denied all of those allegations or that he had stepped outside his proper role as a religious leader. He contended that the claimants were embittered by their estrangement from the organisation and motivated by revenge. Unpaid labour and money donations were, he said, freely advanced for the benefit of the organisation and he had not coerced, suborned, sexually abused or harassed anyone. In those circumstances, he applied to strike out the claims against him or for summary judgment in his favour.

Ruling on the matter, the Court had serious reservations about certain aspects of the claimants' cases, their presentation and their chances of success. The claimants also faced arguments that some of their claims had been brought too late. In rejecting the guru's application, however, the Court found that their claims were intelligible and legally recognisable and were not bound to fail. They had a real prospect of success. The ruling entitled the claimants to proceed with their cases.

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