© Janie Barrett
"The One" ... Serge Benhayon.
His followers call him The One. They say he's the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci. He claims massaging women's breasts can prevent cancer. And his growing business empire, built on spiritual healing, is being funded in part by Medicare.
Serge Benhayon, a former tennis coach from Maroubra, has up to 1000, mainly female, devotees to his movement, Universal Medicine, based in the hills outside Lismore on the north coast of NSW.
Mr Benhayon told The Sun-Herald
he had no medical qualifications but stood by the effectiveness of his treatments, including ''esoteric breast massage'' - administered only by women - and ''chakra-puncture''. His daughter, Natalie, 22, claims to be able to talk to women's ovaries - for $70 an hour.
Mr Benhayon defended himself against claims a personality cult had built up around him, with dozens of relationships from Brisbane to Byron Bay and Bangalow breaking down as a result. The Sun-Herald
spoke to nine men who blame Mr Benhayon for their break-ups.
But Mr Benhayon said his female students had merely discovered the ''livingness of love'' from his ''esoteric way of life''. There is concern in the medical fraternity that certain treatments provided at Universal Medicine's Lismore headquarters are being subsidised by Medicare.
A physiotherapist, Kate Greenaway, and a psychologist, Caroline Raphael - both decade-long followers of Mr Benhayon who work at Universal Medicine - encourage patients to seek GP referrals for treatment. Medicare will reimburse two-thirds of the cost for long-term injuries.
Ms Greenaway offers ''esoteric connective tissue therapy'', a technique created by Mr Benhayon. It promises to improve energy flow by ''allowing the pulse of the lymphatic system to symbiotically correspond with the body's own ensheathing web''.
© Janie Barrett
Bitter fallout … Universal Medicine critic Pippa Vickery with four men who claim the alternative group's founder and former tennis coach, Serge Benhayon ruined their marriages.
She said about 20 per cent of her clients were funded by Medicare and hundreds had experienced reduced pain as a result. Her work, which includes ''craniosacral massage'', has no evidence-based scientific backing although a study of 50 students of Universal Medicine, conducted by Ms Greenaway, found it to be effective.
John Dwyer, the former head of medicine at University of NSW, described the claim that a lymphatic pulse exists as ''utter nonsense''.
''GPs might be sending a person off in good faith to get a legitimate therapy but what this person is getting is esoteric nonsense,'' he said.
The Australian Medical Association said the federal government's pledge to reduce public money going to unproven alternative treatments needed greater focus.
In a statement, Medicare said: ''A Medicare benefit can only be paid where the service is rendered by an appropriate health practitioner and is 'clinically relevant' ... It is up to the practitioner to determine whether a service they provide meets the criteria in the Medicare Benefits Schedule.''
Mr Benhayon insisted his movement, which has expanded to Brisbane and Britain, is not a cult but ''a matter of choice and we don't encourage the abuse of Medicare''.
The 48-year-old father of four, whose second wife Miranda is 18 years his junior, said he was being targeted by a small group of detractors.
One of the nine men who spoke to The Sun-Herald
said: ''It felt like I was in a three-way marriage with Serge.'' Another added: ''And I was the minor part.'' Bangalow local Pippa Vickery said: ''Serge has a god complex.''
Critics claim Mr Benhayon is exerting control over his students by modifying their eating, sleeping, exercise and even lovemaking behaviour.
After women have received esoteric breast massage - and used Mr Benhayon's protective cream to keep bad energy at bay - they are told not to allow their partners to touch them without permission.
© Sydney Morning Herald
Reincarnation ... da Vinci.
Mr Benhayon said his detractors had ''created momentum on a website'' - the Rick Ross anti-cult forum.
''A handful of people say what we have here is a cult. What if I can bring 2000 people to say it's not?''
Anne Malatt, an eye surgeon in Bangalow, wrote: ''Whilst some elements of Serge's teachings may seem unconventional at first, they certainly make more sense than many things we are taught, and when put into practice on a daily basis, they work.''
Mr Benhayon, who describes himself as ''pro-mainstream medicine'', rejected claims that he tells students he can cure cancer.
A former patient of Ms Greenaway, who did not wish to be identified, said she had discovered through her GP she had cancer halfway through a program of treatment at Universal Medicine.
''I went there because I felt so sick I could hardly walk,'' she said. ''After three sessions I was told my craniosacral pulse was getting better and my health was improving. On the same day my doctor told me I had cancer. I'm angry that really sick people might not be getting the treatment they need if they are believing what Serge tells them.''
Universal Medicine is subject to three complaints to the Health Care Complaints Commission.