A self-help guru groomed women for sex, subjecting them to “shame and humiliation” and threatening to expose their “deepest, darkest secrets” if they didn’t comply with his wishes, a federal prosecutor said on Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar presented opening statements at the sex-trafficking trial of Keith Raniere, the former leader of an upstate New York group called NXIVM  that’s been likened to a cult.

The prosecutor alleged that Raniere had sex with a 15-year-old girl and took nude photos of her; she also described how some female followers were branded with Raniere’s initials.

“The defendant took advantage of them emotionally and sexually,”  Hajjar said in U.S.District Court in Brooklyn. “He sold himself as the smartest, most ethical person in the world.… He compared himself to Einstein and to Gandhi.”

Authorities have said the branding was done using a cautery pen without anesthesia by a doctor who is now under investigation by state health officials. Eight “Jane Does” in that case have refused to answer questions, saying through their lawyers “the branding was a voluntary free expression of personal beliefs.”

But the trial is expected to feature testimony from women who claim they were forced to have sex with Raniere. Five of Raniere’s co-defendants, including Smallville actress Allison Mack and and Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, have pleaded guilty.

Free-thinking women, defence may say

Raniere, 58, not guilty to charges of sex trafficking, child pornography and other crimes. His lawyers say his relationships were consensual.

In court papers, defence lawyers have said the alleged victims were never abused. The women were instead described as “independent, smart, curious adults” in search of “happiness, fulfillment and meaning.”

Former actress Allison Mack leaves Brooklyn federal court in New York after pleading guilty to racketeering charges on April 8, one of several charges individuals faced in the NXIVM investigation. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

But legions of NXIVM defectors and detractors have called the self-help rhetoric a brainwashing device that has destroyed lives.

Promotional material for the now-disbanded NXIVM once hailed Raniere as a “scientist, mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur, educator, inventor and author” who has “devoted his life to developing new tools for human empowerment, expression and ethics.”

“The defendant pretended to be a guru,” Hajjar said, “but he was a criminal.”

The 15-year-old was one of three Mexican sisters the prosecution alleges Raniere victimized. The government plans to introduce explicit photographs of the youngest sister seized from Raniere’s computer as evidence. Another sister was confined to a room for two years, Najjar said.

The trial, which could last six weeks, caps a bizarre saga for Raniere, who was arrested in March 2018 after fleeing to Mexico with Bronfman.

NXIVM, which started under another name in 1998 and is pronounced “Nexium,” was based in Albany, N.Y., and at one time operated numerous self-improvement centre across North and Central America.

In 2015, prosecutors say, Raniere established a sorority within NXIVM known as DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly means “master of the obedient female companions.”

For almost two decades, NXIVM promised to help its members find self-fulfillment and personal success through courses and workshops. On Tuesday, its leader Keith Raniere will stand trial for his alleged role in the subjugation and abuse of women through the group, which the FBI has dubbed a cult. We speak to the host of the podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM about what to expect from the court proceedings, and hear from a woman who escaped a cult herself. 19:43

The subgroup included “slaves” who were expected to obey “masters” in a pyramid-like structure, with Raniere standing alone at the top.

The slaves were required to submit “collateral” to win acceptance that could then be used as blackmail material: Nude photos, rights to their financial assets or damaging information about friends and relatives, prosecutors said.

Raniere’s checkered past predates the formation of NXIVM. In the early 1990s he led a company, Consumers’ Byline, that was shut down by regulators after it was revealed to be a pyramid scheme.

The defence is expected to give its opening statement later Tuesday.