The Woman Who Escaped The Charbelite Cult

Claire moves from abusive priest’s sect to a new life

When Claire Ashman was 15, her mother brought a man to live in her house. His name was Tony, and she intended him to be Claire’s husband.

“He came just before I was 16 and he was 28,” Claire explains. So it was a massive age difference. I did not know any better, my mum never told me it was weird, strange, wrong for a guy that age to be interested in a teenaged girl.”

Claire was raised in the ultra-conservative Catholic sect The Society of St Pius the 10th. It was a sheltered existence.

“Our day started with prayer, there was catechism we had to learn... we were able to learn how to milk cows and goats... we learnt to fix fences and churn butter.”

When she turned 18, Claire and Tony were wed, and they went on to have eight children together. In 1997, after their first five were born, Tony moved the family to live within a tight-knit religious community based outside Wooloongong: the Order of Saint Charbel.

The Charbalites were founded by William Kamm, who also goes by the name “The Little Pebble”. He claimed to be a prophet who is destined to be the last Pope.

Kamm said he received a visitation from the Virgin Mary telling him he should take 84 wives – 12 queens and 72 princesses. He also says that priestly rules such as celibacy do not apply to him – just one reason why the Catholic Church doesn’t accept the legitimacy of the Order, and excommunicated Kamm and his church’s bishop.

Claire suspected that Kamm was up to no good, especially when teenage girls started turning up pregnant. She started keeping an even closer eye on her own children, and when she read a book about a cult, she realised that she was trapped in one – and determined to make her escape.

She made a plan to divorce Tony, taking all eight children with her. But fitting in with the outside world had a lot of challenges for someone who had lived her entire life in strict religious orders.

“Open up my own bank account, use an ATM… it might sound so simple to people but to me, I was nearly 37 when I was learning all of this. It was hard. And when I started dating again, I found that really hard too.”

More than a decade later, she’s remarried, and is now an established public speaker, with 3 TEDx speeches under her belt. She’s also published her own memoir, Lessons From A Cult Survivor.

Lessons From A Cult Survivor
Lessons From A Cult Survivor

Meanwhile, Kamm was found guilty of a string of sexual assault charges, including two aggravated assaults in relation to 15-year-old girls. But after serving nine years in prison, he was released on bail in 2014. Although he didn’t return to live with the Charbelites, he is believed to be still heavily involved with the order.

Claire looks back on that time as building her character and relilience. Now she wants to help other people escape cults like the Order of Saint Charbel.

“I think there are still some good people living there now. And they’re just living there because they have no other choice or they have no money.”