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Leader of Australian Cult the ‘Ideal Human Environment’ Has Been Jailed for Sexual Abuse

James "Taipan" Salerno founded the cult in the early 80s. Yesterday, he was found guilty of repeatedly sexually abusing a young member.

by Gavin Butler
31 July 2019, 10:48am

The group's Arbury Park mansion on the left, and James "Taipan" Salerno on the right. Images via Flickr user Sydney Oats, CC licence 2.0 (L) and YouTube/Matteo Salerno (R)

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

The leader of a cult dubbed the “Ideal Human Environment” (IHE) has been locked up for 10 years after being found guilty of eight counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with one of his teenage followers. James Gino Salerno, 72, appeared via video link in the South Australian District Court yesterday on allegations that he had sexually abused a young girl who fled the group several years ago—grooming her for sex from the age of 13. He allegedly told the victim it was his role to teach her “how to be a lady”, The Australian reports.

He has now been sentenced to 10 years in prison with a non-parole period of eight.

James Salerno, or “Taipan”, as he insisted his followers call him, formed IHE in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills during the early 80s, after returning from the Vietnam War. “I came back from Vietnam and I realised that war is the worst human environment,” he told The Weekend Australian in 2015. “So I dreamt up, I imagined, the opposite of that.”

Between 2001 and 2008, Salerno ran daily meetings at the group’s Arbury Park mansion, where much of the sexual abuse in question allegedly took place. As the cult grew in size, he and his devotees were forced to relocate to Beaudesert, in south-east Queensland, before finally moving to a compound in Western Australia's Kimberley region.

Between these three states, and over the course of some 40 years, Salerno conducted social experiments in an attempt to find a system of living he described as the “Ideal Human Environment”. These included giving a chronic gambler $100,000 so the group could witness and understand addiction, and buying three luxury cars so they could experiment with the idea of luxury car use on the Gold Coast. These “research projects” were funded by the cult members, who handed over most of their assets and income to the group as a joining fee.

Other details surrounding the peculiar goings on within IHE emerged over the past 12 months, as Salerno stood trial on the multiple charges of abuse for which he was charged this week. Among those details were claims that “Taipan” convinced his followers that he was an omnipotent god; that he made them dress in all white garb; and that he insisted they salute him like Russell Crowe’s character from Gladiator.

The complainant explained to the court in October that after a group viewing of Gladiator Salerno decided to introduce a new form of salutation, as inspired by Russell Crowe’s character in the film. Every time he entered a room the group’s members were expected to stand to attention, place their right arm over their shoulder and say “Strength and honour”.

"This was decided after the group had watched the movie Gladiator as a sign of respect and power," the complainant said.

"Taipan was a person that we were made to believe to be feared… he was God, he was someone that would bring down hell upon you. It was a lot of talking about how great Taipan was and how he was put on this Earth as God's gift and how we should all honour that. We would often wear white clothes because that was like a pure energy and we were often told we were there to serve Taipan.”

The complainant also claimed that Salerno selected a group of females to perform “healings” and massages on him, and that she was taught how to cut his nails, run his baths, and pick fruit for him.

When handing down the sentence yesterday, District Court Judge Paul Slattery said that Salerno’s offending—which took place in Salerno­’s bedroom in the Adelaide Hills house, as well as in the back of his car during a camping trip—was “very serious­”.

“You have been found guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse that occurred over a two-and-a-half-year ­period, against a young girl between­ the ages of 13 and 16 years,” Justice Slattery said. “You abused your primacy position within the group to not only groom and sexually abuse the complainant but to ensure that she was fearful of speaking out about your actions, and instille­d in her thoughts that no one would believe her even if she did speak out. Your offending has had a profoun­d effect on the complainant as she is still suffering ongoing physical, mental and emotional issues.

“To this day, you maintain your innocence and you’ve shown no contrition for your actions,” he added. Salerno is appealing against the guilty verdicts.

After the sentence was handed down, the victim told the ABC that she felt "justice has been served".

"The girls can sleep easy now, the ones that are still left in there," she said. "That's all I wanted from the start, to help the other girls."

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This article originally appeared on VICE AU.