James Gino Salerno outside court. Picture: Greg Higgs.
James Gino Salerno outside court. Picture: Greg Higgs.

‘Cult leader’ faces court over child sex abuse

THE leader of a cult-like group - known to his disciples as "Taipan" - had a girl, 12, trained to act as his personal groomer and servant before sexually abusing her, a court has heard.

The District Court has been told the girl, now a grown woman, was too frightened of James Gino Salerno to disobey him, due to the cruelly regimented ways of his group.

Prosecutor Patrick Hill said her terror, and resultant willingness to submit to Salerno's sexual whims, was best exemplified by an incident that occurred when she was 11.

He said the girl's father - a "low-ranking" member of the group - had disciplined her brother in a way that displeased Salerno, and so was to himself be punished.

"A high-ranking member produced a large stick known, to the girl, as the 'punishment stick', which was about 1.2m long with a large ball or wooden knot at the end," he said.

"Her father was told to kneel down, and the girl was made to strike her father across the head … she didn't want to do it but she knew she had to, or she would be in trouble.

"This shows the almost complete destruction of her family unit, before the abuse, and its replacement with the ranking structure - at the top of which sat Salerno."

Salerno and a supporter leave the Adelaide Magistrates Court after he was ordered to stand trial. Picture: Greg Higgs.
Salerno and a supporter leave the Adelaide Magistrates Court after he was ordered to stand trial. Picture: Greg Higgs.

Salerno, 71, has pleaded not guilty to nine counts of unlawful sexual intercourse, spanning from just before the girl's 13th birthday until she was 15 ½.

Opening the trial, Mr Hill said those offences were representative of Salerno's ongoing crimes against the girl who, he said, was abused more than 50 times in one six-month period.

He said Salerno had total control over his devotees, each of whom had pledged their lives - and all of their finances - to his quest for "the ideal human environment".

Members lived in barracks-style accommodation on an Adelaide Hills property, while Salerno lived in the second-floor bedroom of a two-storey stone mansion.

"These offences are alleged to have occurred within an environment that can only be described as something like a cult," Mr Hill said.

Mr Hill said the group operated for a time in SA, then moved to Beaudesert in southeast Queensland, and finally to Kununurra in north-eastern WA.

He said the group's 51-page "bible", authored by Salerno, established a strict ranking system whereby members wielded authority based on their "emotional quotient".

Adults were expected to obey higher-ranking adults, while children were to defer to their higher-ranked peers, and risked punishment for disobedience.

"Punishments included being struck in the head, being made to sleep outside and being given no food for the day," he said.

Salerno sought to find "a way that human beings can live together in harmony by an advanced understanding of human understanding".

His teaching included terms like "natural human nature" and "perceived human nature", and he also ran a charitable group called Study and Prevention of Psychological Diseases.

Prosecutors allege Salerno led a cult-like group and was referred to as “Taipan” by its members. Picture: Greg Higgs.
Prosecutors allege Salerno led a cult-like group and was referred to as “Taipan” by its members. Picture: Greg Higgs.

Salerno sat atop the group's hierarchy, followed by members of his family, and then the "numerous women" who catered to his needs.

"He was referred to by the group's members, including the girl, as 'Taipan' … it was customary, at meetings, for people to stand around and (say) 'praise Taipan'," Mr Hill said.

"They would give him massages, manicures and pedicures, run his bath and towel him dry, do his laundry and generally ensure all his needs were met.

"When the girl was 12, it was decided she was old enough to become one of those women (and) she was taught how to do (the tasks) by another woman in the group."

Mr Hill said that, prior to the girl's 13th birthday, Salerno told her it was his "duty" to "teach her how to look after a man" and asked if she "wanted to become a lady".

He said the girl agreed, "not knowing what it meant", and the abuse began.

Salerno, he said, would tell the girl "you will get used to it" and would ask her to "come give me a healing".

"Salerno apparently believed in spiritual healing and thought the girl could heal him in some way," he said.

He said the girl managed to escape the group in 2009, at which time she was disowned by her family - however, her mother had since agreed to give evidence against Salerno.

The trial, before Judge Paul Slattery and in the absence of a jury, resumes in October.