Steven Tari boasted that he had sex with more than 400 young "flower girls" who joined his notorious Papua New Guinea sect. Yesterday the self-styled "Black Jesus" was convicted of raping four of those girls, who had been told that he was their bridge to heaven.
Tari, 39, was arrested in 2007 amid claims he had performed sacrificial killings and feasted on the flesh of his victims. In the event, he was tried only for rape, but rumours of murder and cannibalism continue to dog him.
A Bible school drop-out who promised his followers eternal life and prosperity, he claimed that his beliefs entitled him to have sex with female recruits as young as eight, known as flower girls. In an interview in prison in 2008, he told Australian Associated Press: "I got plenty, 430 [girls]. What I did ... is under and in line with my religion. It was religious and not wrong."
In a country where superstition and sorcery remain powerful forces, Tari attracted thousands of devotees. Arrested in 2005, he absconded and went on the run, hiding in remote mountain villages, guarded by a loyal core of armed disciples. He was eventually captured by villagers, and carried out of the jungle on a bamboo stretcher, hands and feet bound, wearing only a loincloth.
Like much of Melanesia, nominally Christian Papua New Guinea is home to numerous sects and cults. Last year, the Post Courier newspaper reported that police were hunting a cult leader who was coercing followers to take part in public sex with promises of a bumper banana harvest.
The South Pacific's first native Anglican bishop, Sir George Ambo, was excommunicated after running off with a nun, Sister Cora, with whom he set up a visionary cult. Sir George, a Papua New Guinean whose grandfather was a cannibal, was forgiven by the church on his deathbed.
Tari's alleged behaviour was more sinister. Police investigated reports that one girl, Rita Herman, was offered to him by her mother, Barmarhal, who forced her to have sex with Tari and then stabbed her to death. Afterwards the pair allegedly collected her warm blood and drank it from a cup, before slicing flesh off her body and eating it. Barmarhal denied the allegations.
Tari, who preached that young girls were to be "married" to him because it was God's prophecy, was charged with raping five girls in the village of Gal, in Madang province. The court heard they all submitted because he said they would go to heaven. According to Tari, they were brought to him by their parents and relatives, which meant that their consent was given.
Tari studied to become a Lutheran minister at a Bible college in Madang, but quit after rejecting the Bible's teachings, leaving behind his clothes and possessions. Retreating to the mountains, he founded his personality cult, calling himself Son of Yali and claiming he had been sent by his father. Yali, who was unrelated to Tari, was a much revered cult leader in Madang.
During his reign, Tari – whose "spiritual assistant" was a Lutheran pastor who helped him evade police – closed down village churches and schools. Many homes, along with crops, were torched by his followers.