The Sydney Morning Herald - July 11, 2009
The Exclusion Brethren
Victory . . . Brethren elders Daniel Hales, left, and Athol Greene. "You're probably not in a position to realise the happy lives our children have." Photo: Kate Geraghty
A father's price for quitting his marriage was to lose contact with eight children left behind in the Exclusive Brethren. David Marr caught up with sect defenders.
The Exclusive Brethren has enjoyed sweet victories in the Family Court before, but none sweeter than this. Despite all that is now known about the methods of the Brethren, the court has denied a father in Tasmania any access to his children for reasons that boil down, essentially, to this: he left the sect.
Six years of litigation in the case of Peter and Elspeth had won the father about six weeks' access to the youngest of his eight children. Now the court has ordered he is to have no contact at all. The tough rule that holds the Brethren together - cross the sect and you will lose your children - has been given the imprimatur of the Family Court.
Brethren prayed and paid for this outcome. Members of this prosperous sect believe in separating themselves from the "iniquity" of the world. They live, eat and socialise only with each other. Computers and television are regarded as instruments of evil. Ruling the church of about 40,000 souls worldwide is a Ryde businessman, Bruce D. Hales, known as the Elect Vessel.
"The way of life among the Brethren is very, very close," says Athol Greene, one of the sect's most senior elders, the spiritual adviser and father-in-law of Hales. He intersects his bony fingers: "The thing is close knit. Dovetail joints."
Greene paints an idyllic picture of life among the Brethren. But when followers fall out with their leader or break from the sect, things can turn nasty. The principal weapon the sect has used to maintain its discipline over the last 50-years is to separate the troublesome from their children.
It happened to Greene. When he was expelled for 18 months years ago he lost all contact with his children. "I was unfit for fellowship," he explains. This teaching hasn't changed. "It's the truth. It's the truth. That's the basic foundation of assembly discipline." Greene insists his treatment was neither brutal nor cruel. How did he get back to his children? "The Brethren felt I was repentant and they restored me."
Children are a particularly handy weapon because of Brethren rules on faith and marriage. The "guilty party" in any divorce must leave the sect. Two Brethren can't divorce and remain Brethren. Nor can one parent turn their back on the Brethren and expect the marriage to survive. "It's dreamboat stuff to imagine you could leave the faith and not leave your marriage," Greene explains. "My wife couldn't go on with me as if nothing was the matter if I quit the Brethren."
Peter left Elspeth and the Brethren in 2003, aged 46. Three of his vast brood were still children. After a three-year battle in the Family Court, he was granted limited access to the two youngest. In a 100-page judgment, Justice Robert Benjamin declared the steps taken by the Brethren to discourage the children from seeing their father "psychologically cruel, unacceptable and abusive".
That finding still stands. "A review of the authorities shows that these difficulties have been going on for 30 years under the Family Law Act," Benjamin told elders of the sect. "It must surely not be beyond your intellect and wit to find a dimension in your beliefs so that they may reconcile with the law of this country and the need for children to know both of their parents."
He threatened the mother, one of the children and one of her children-in-law with prison for failing to facilitate access. The children were brought to the father for three weekends and one week of the school holidays in early 2007.
Deeply troubled, they wrote heartbreaking letters objecting to the visits. One wrote of the horror of staying in the father's "itchy, bitchy, witchy, fitchy house overnight".
Meanwhile, as emerged in court, the Brethren had deposited $50,000 in the account of the mother to help her fight the orders. One source told the Herald that Elspeth's battle was a big issue at the highest levels of the Brethren. The mother visited the world leader in Sydney and he flew to see her in Tasmania. She was prayed for and money poured into a fighting fund.
"I can't say it was funded by the church," says Daniel Hales. "It was funded by individuals." Individual members of the church? "Well, I suppose it's not going to be funded by members of some other church."
The Brethren detachment from the world doesn't stand in the way of robust engagement in business and litigation. They pride themselves on being law-abiding in all their affairs. "It's part of your tenet of fellowship," says the younger Hales. But the Brethren also pride themselves on fighting to the death. They never give up.
The Peter and Elspeth case saw the Brethren mobilising both QCs and prayer. "We would always just pray that God's will would be achieved," Hales says. And what might God's will be in this case? "That the little children should be preserved from the world," Greene answers.
The Brethren see themselves fighting for the best outcome for the children: to remain as far as possible sequestered within the fellowship of the Brethren. "You're probably not in a position to realise the happy lives our children have," Greene says. "And if there is any break in upon it, they feel it intensely. And some of them resent a father who is trying to take them away from a happy life."
The child's wishes are "the end of the story", Hales says. He acknowledges that the law says otherwise. But Brethren don't hold to the idea of divorced parents sharing 50:50 in the upbringing of their children.
"It might be quite good to have some contact," he says. But not the secular view of equal contact? "No," Greene says. And Hales adds, "We respect right and wrong."
Despite Benjamin's finding of obstruction, they insist the Brethren do nothing to block court orders. They deny familiar allegations that the Brethren coach children to write letters of protest. They have good news for the very few estranged parents who do have access to Brethren children: they are now allowed to eat together.
But Greene and Hales see access visits as a "particular ordeal" for these children who are dispatched into the world of iniquity with instructions to hold to their faith and welcomed back into fellowship "with TLC". No wonder the kids are begrudging, Greene says: "How would you see it if you were a kid pushed into a situation like that?"
Their predicament puts Greene in mind of Daniel's ordeal to keep his faith at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. "He was taken away and had to get through where he was and God was obviously in it. Daniel was a great man."
The Peter and Elspeth story is complicated by a terrible tragedy. Shortly after Peter had those few and difficult days of access in early 2007, Elspeth was found to have advanced breast cancer. When the case came back for yet another round in the Family Court, evidence was given that the mother's illness had set in stone the hostility of the children to their father. They blamed him for the cancer.
Peter was broke and representing himself. Five years of litigation had chewed up $100,000. Elspeth had the leading family law silk Noel Ackman plus a supporting legal team. Peter wanted new access orders plus custody of his youngest child, who had turned 10.
Elspeth wanted the court to prevent him having custody of any of the children even in the event of her death.
Justice Sally Brown declared the faith of the children the "crucial factor" in the case and sided with the mother and the church. She took no account of the sect's long history of trouble with the Family Court and did not address the role the Brethren had played - and may still be playing - in the extreme hostility of the children to visiting their father. The hostility was to be honoured: "It is not realistic to expect them to go against the … teaching of their church."
Though she found Peter was a loving father with a comfortable home in which children could live, she birched him for his attitude to the sect; for embarrassing his children by putting birthday greetings in newspapers; for seeking custody of only one child and not two; and for claiming the Brethren had robbed his children of autonomy. Wasn't his own departure, she asked, proof the sect allowed debate and dissent? But he was 46 when he left and his children are 15 and 10.
In a remarkable finding by a Family Court judge, Peter was even castigated for seeking to enforce the earlier orders of the court. A door that had been ajar was shut, said the judge. "The continuation of the litigation after [the mother's] diagnosis in May 2007 has driven both children from their father. In their best interests, the litigation must end."
On June 25, Peter was refused custody and all access. Even a plan to allow him an hour or two with his youngest child each year was rejected by the judge. "Nothing in the evidence satisfies me that there would be any benefit to her in such an arrangement." All he is allowed are "current photos of the children and [to] follow their educational progress".
It may be that viewing this terrible and tangled situation, Justice Brown found a fair and secular outcome just too hard - too hard on the children, too hard on their dying mother, too hard in the face of the implacable hostility of the Brethren.
But her decision has reward the sect's intransigence. Once again the Family Court has flinched.
Athol Greene insists these cases are rare and that the church will submit to the law while continuing to argue that the best outcome for these children is to remain solely within the Brethren.
"You won't change us," he says, fixing me with his old eyes. "You. Won't. Change. Us."
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Note from Perry Bulwer - July 10, 2009
The Sydney Morning Herald - July 1, 2006
You don't know these three Sydney suburban businessmen, but their sect has influenced politics in four countries. David Marr reports.
WITH an iron hand, West Ryde businessman Bruce D. Hales rules his world church. To his 40,000 followers in the Exclusive Brethren, this prosperous supplier of office equipment in the Sydney suburbs is known as the Elect Vessel, the Lord's Representative on Earth, the Great Man, the Paul of Our Day, Minister of the Lord in Recovery and Mr Bruce.
For 175 years the sect has counted among its strange proscriptions - no public entertainment, no novels, no eating with outsiders, no university, no membership of other organisations of any kind, no shorts ("God has no pleasure in the legs of a man"), no party walls shared with non-Brethren, no films, no radio, no television and no mobile phones - an absolute ban on worldly politics.
Brethren members have never voted. Since they came together in Dublin in 1829 to live their pure life, they have believed it is God's prerogative and His alone to choose governments, as laid down in Romans chapter 13 verse 1: "The powers that be are ordained of God." That rule held until the 2004 re-election campaign of John Howard where Brethren - never acknowledging their sect - advertised, leafleted and campaigned on behalf of the Prime Minister.
The Brethren fear God, honour the Elect Vessel and love Howard. "I am very thankful for the current Government we have in Australia," Brethren representative Richard Garrett told the Greens' leader Bob Brown a few weeks ago in Canberra. "I mean, in my lifetime we haven't had a better government. We haven't had a better government economically. Whatever way you look at it we have an excellent government in Australia."
Within weeks of campaigning for Howard, Brethren were offering covert but well-funded support for George Bush. Intervention in Canada and New Zealand followed. Earlier this year, Brethren campaigned hard against the Greens in Tasmania. The strategy involved billboards attacking the Greens, towed through Hobart's streets by men wearing party masks of freaks and ghouls. The message on the billboards was: "Dangerous Extreme."
They cover their tracks. The name of the sect is never mentioned. Their political demands are a seamless mix of business breaks and hard-line Christian morality. Under Hales, the Exclusive Brethren have become a new player in the right-wing politics of the world. And they have lots and lots and lots of money.
A FEISTY night of heckling in the 2004 Australian elections was the first - but neglected - clue that the sect had plunged into politics. Greens candidate and intelligence whistleblower Andrew Wilkie was at the Gladesville RSL campaigning when a dull night turned nasty. "They had such a threatening presence about them," Wilkie recalled. "They weren't violent but they were very aggressive."
Voices from the back taunted the candidate about his own marriage and about party leader Bob Brown's homosexuality. "I completely enraged them by endorsing Bob and his sexuality. It got them really wound up." All in all, it was an ugly experience. "I'm pretty streetwise," said Wilkie. "But I was rattled."
Brethren are scattered all over NSW - Windsor, Tamworth, Molong, Ermington - but Howard's electorate of Bennelong on Sydney's lower North Shore is the home ground of Brethren leaders. Mat Henderson-Hau, one of Wilkie's support team that night, knew the hecklers. "I recognised them all as Brethrens. I went to school with a dozen of the guys who came up to cause trouble. I picked Gareth Hales straight off as he used to be in my roll call at Marsden High."
Gareth is the son of Bruce Hales, who lives in nearby Eastwood. Henderson-Hau says Gareth had come with several of his brothers and his Uncle Stephen. He counted seven or eight Hales plus some Kennards and Chesterfields. "They're heavy Brethren families."
Their presence meant nothing to Wilkie or Brown. They didn't connect this rough night in Bennelong with mysterious Liberal Party look-alike ads popping up in newspapers in Sydney and South Australia, nor with leaflets distributed across Tasmania attacking the Greens. Wilkie said: "The Greens weren't aware of a broader campaign being waged." There was no time in the last days of the campaign to track down the names and addresses. The scale of the Brethren operation in Australia went undetected for nearly a year.
THE UNITED STATES 2004
A FORTNIGHT after Howard's re-election, a group called the "Thanksgiving 2004 Committee" registered with the US Internal Revenue Service and placed ads in Florida newspapers supporting the Senate campaign of Cuban-American Mel Martinez, a passionate campaigner against gay marriage. Newspapers reported the committee had registered too late for voters to be able to determine the source of the money. Press inquiries got nowhere.
A Knoxville map-store owner told the St Petersburg Times his committee was "working with a larger group" but refused to identify it. "We like to fly beneath the radar," he said. On election day, the committee placed a hugely expensive full-page ad supporting Bush in The New York Times under the banner headline: "America Is In Safe Hands."
The US has tougher rules than Australia for tracking campaign donations. When the financial returns of the Thanksgiving 2004 Committee were published by the Federal Elections Commission in January last year, they revealed that $US377,262 (almost $517,000) of more than $US600,000 raised by the committee came from a Londoner called Bruce Hazell. Press calls to Hazell established little except that he was Exclusive Brethren.
That the Brethren were last-minute, large-scale backers of Bush interested the Federal Elections Commission. A spokesman told the St Petersburg Times that "any money contributed by a foreign national and used to purchase advertising so close to an election violates a 1966 law designed to limit foreign intervention in US elections". The commission now tells the Herald it cannot comment on whether it is investigating the sect's role.
A POLITICAL conflagration was soon blazing as the Canadian Parliament debated same-sex marriage. In March last year, households in the electorate of every member supporting the bill received a greeting card raging against the legislation: "The suicidal rush to fundamentally change a 6000-year-old institution is the canker that will destroy the roots of Canada's 'living tree'."
The card was carefully worded to avoid contravening Canada's hate propaganda law and - there being no election campaign then - it was no offence against Canadian electoral law that the card was signed by "Concerned Canadian parents" who gave as their address a post-office box in a 7-Eleven store in Toronto. Some time in April or May, the concerned Canadians stopped paying for the post box and after that all letters were returned to sender.
"What I do not respect is tens of thousands of dollars being spent anonymously with absolutely no way to contact this organisation," said a Canadian Liberal MP, Mark Holland. "My office has been contacted by hundreds of residents who are extremely upset. Maybe this is acceptable to the Opposition but I would like to know who is behind it. We do not know who is behind it. Is there foreign money? Is there a political party behind it?"
His questions were answered by advertising agent Ron Heggie a few days before the Civil Marriage Act was passed last July. Questioned by journalists after placing a newspaper ad attacking the legislation, Heggie said he and the "Concerned Canadian parents" were Exclusive Brethren. He told the Vancouver Sun: "Those who think the Brethren are being unethical and deceptive don't understand their approach to the outside world. It's not that we're hiding anything. It's just that we're not interested in grandstanding."
NEW ZEALAND 2005
THE polite world of New Zealand politics had never seen attack advertising on the scale of the anti-Greens campaign in the elections of September last year. Every letter box seemed to receive a mysterious pamphlet denouncing "The Green Delusion." But as the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, said: "New Zealand is a small country - sooner or later the truth comes out."
Someone recognised the name on the pamphlet - Stephen Win, of Favona Road, Mangere - and called the Greens to say he was Brethren. The media co-ordinator of the Greens, Fran Tyler, had an ace: she knew a party member who had brought with him a directory of members when he fled the sect. She checked with him the names on the ads - there were half a dozen or more attacking Labour and the Greens - and he confirmed they were all Brethren.
When news of the Brethren's role broke 10 days before polling day, the leader of the Opposition National Party, Don Brash - who seemed to be heading for victory - claimed not to know who was behind the pamphlets: "We were not aware they were coming out and had nothing to do with it." But a few days later he had to make the humiliating admission that he'd known all along. "The Exclusive Brethren have told me some time back that they were thoroughly fed up with the Government and they would be distributing some pamphlets."
More was at stake than the embarrassing sight of a politician contradicting himself. Under New Zealand law there are strict caps on campaign spending. If National had endorsed or approved the pamphlets, their considerable cost would count under the party's cap. Brash also had to admit Brethren were canvassing for the party and helping place party ads in the streets.
With political disaster facing National, seven members of the Brethren held a press conference to claim the church had no role in the campaign. The ads and pamphlets were the work of individual believers only. "It is not an Exclusive Brethren initiative," said Neville Simmons, an office equipment supplier from Auckland. The claim was dismissed by ex-Brethren member Doug Field, who told the Sunday Star Times: "Nothing happens in the Brethren without Hales's say-so."
Brash lost his chance, but Labour and the Greens lost a swag of seats. The police investigated the role of the Brethren in the campaign - there were also questions about dodgy or incomplete addresses on pamphlets and ads - but no prosecutions were laid. The investigation revealed the Brethren's budget for the campaign was $NZ1.2 million ($900,000).
LIGHT DAWNS IN AUSTRALIA
WHILE the New Zealand elections were being fought, the Greens sent Brown a copy of the "Green Delusion" pamphlet. It seemed terribly familiar. The Tasmanian senator Christine Milne took one look and thought, "That's exactly the same pamphlet used against me." A few details were different but "the layout was the same, the language was the same".
Nearly a year after the 2004 elections, the Greens began methodically checking the names and addresses on ads and pamphlets - some attacking the party, some mimicking Liberal Party ads - that had appeared in NSW, South Australia and Tasmania. Several addresses were bodgie. A few were for Brethren schools. All the people involved turned out to be Brethren. Milne said: "We found there was a systematic exercise all over Australia."
If true, that would require the Exclusive Brethren to reveal what they spent to mount their attack the Greens. Under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, the church or its leader would have to file an electoral return "setting out details of all electoral expenditure in relation to the election incurred by or with the authority of members of the group". The Brethren have never done this.
When the story of the sect's involvement in the 2004 elections broke in the Herald in September last year, the church issued the same denials issued when the Brethren were sprung in New Zealand, Canada and the US. A spokesman, Warwick John, claimed the ads and pamphlets were the work of individual businessmen. "The Brethren church has had no involvement whatsoever with the advertisements in New Zealand or any other country."
For ex-Brethren around the world, this claim makes no sense. Here is a church where authority over the tiniest details of believers' lives is maintained by brutal expulsion. For challenging the authority of the Elect Vessel, for watching television, for having a beer with a non-believer, members are expelled from their faith and their family. The emotional carnage is appalling. For these people, the idea that individual Brethren could of their own accord take the revolutionary step of entering worldly politics doesn't compute.
A recent - and fearful - refugee from the sect told the Herald: "No one would have countenanced doing this without the complete sanction of the leader universally."
AN HOUR WITH THE ELDERS
In the absence of the Elect Vessel - all but invisible to the outside world - the Brethren delegation sitting in the splendour of Sydney's Observatory Hotel was as heavy as it gets. Accountant Phillip McNaughton arranged the meeting. He had grown up in the sect after his father's expulsion.
The oldest of the elders present was Athol Greene, father-in-law and spiritual adviser to the Elect Vessel. Regarded as a decent man even by critics of the church, Greene was expelled for a while and lived in his garage. Both deferred to quick-tongued, tubby Daniel Hales, the leader's brother.
The Hales excite strong passion among the ex-Brethren. The exiles say the shift into politics - plus a fresh emphasis on business prosperity and greater demands for cash contributions to the church - began in 2002 when Bruce Hales inherited the leadership from his father.
Daniel blamed changing times for Brethren intervening in politics. "I think what you've got to see is that there's been a tremendous shift in the whole world. Go back 50 years when I was a boy, homosexuals went to jail. The Judeo-Christian principles, that are biblical, were taken for granted, weren't they? Sacrosanct. Everybody saluted the flag. Everybody said the Lord's Prayer. In the world that we are now finding ourselves, those things are all up for debate."
But he assured the Herald Brethren plunging into that public debate are not doing so with the endorsement of the church. "We do it as individuals." He conceded his brother has never disciplined anyone for campaigning and denies similar ads with similar messages placed by members of a tightly knit organisation in countries all round the world are evidence of a corporate effort. "It isn't. It's got no church involvement. It's got no school involvement." He added: "You've got to allow for spontaneity."
Despite Brethren putting their names to ads with messages like "Keep Howard in Bennelong" and "Thank You, President Bush!", Hales insists Brethren are not endorsing people or parties: "We don't support the political party per se. We support a principle. If somebody is promoting the right principle - that homosexuality is a sin - we'll support that person."
Homosexuality is hot topic No.1 with the Brethren, but respect for the US is also high on the list. In 2004 Brethren ran an ad campaign in New Zealand supporting the US alliance and nuclear ships. Greene explained: "We believe America is for the general good. They get slandered and God knows what. But if Indonesia gets busy, or Iran or North Korea - then I think they might be glad of a couple of nuclear powered ships."
The tricky part of this meeting - conducted with gusto by these elders - was following the logic that says Brethren are forbidden by God to vote but it's fine for them to urge others to vote. How so? "For exactly this reason," said Hales. "I see it as a sin and you don't. So I'm very happy for you to vote because to you it's your obligation to the community. But to me, it's my conscience that doesn't allow me to vote."
They said the church insists on total honesty and lawfulness. But did it show candour to fight Canada's Civil Marriage Act via a post box in a 7-Eleven? "That's just a sensible move to avoid persecution and anything unfair," said Hales. "It avoids the Mad Hatter attack, isn't that fair?"
These men are all businessmen. They apologised for being strapped for time at the end of the financial year. The source of the sect's great prosperity are little businesses - office fit-outs, carpets, roofing, small manufacturing, farming - that succeed for the best reason: the work is good and they're known to be honest. Brethren families are forbidden to buy boats and holiday houses, go skiing, or spend anything on public entertainment. Booze is allowed but the stern obligation to lead simple lives leaves lots of cash to spare.
Hales gives God credit for this material success. "We don't have a lot of other business interests. We tend to take one small business and just run with it. Our efforts are very much governed by biblical principles." Greene added the text - or the "touch" as they say in the sect: "Whatever you do, labour at it heartily."
And business has brought a certain relaxation to the rules: emails and computers are allowed where necessary for business. "We won't alter a divinely held Biblical principle we believe in," said Hales. "But we're not Luddites."
BOB Brown admits his party was "almost culpably naive" going into the Tasmanian elections earlier this year. Mysterious pamphlets appeared smearing the Greens' lax attitudes to drugs and attacking the party's tax policies. But the focus was on sex: homosexuals, gay marriage, sex-change operations funded by Medicare and the foul idea that "persons [may] choose their own gender regardless of their sex at birth".
Late in the campaign, the Greens candidate Peter Cover noticed this material was authorised by men in the island's north-east Bible belt. Someone in the party knew someone living down the road from them in Scottsdale. Calls were made. The pig farmer and the carpet merchant on the pamphlets turned out to be Brethren.
Brown called for a Senate inquiry into the sect - into its tax breaks, government funding for its schools, the impact on families of excommunications and the role the church was playing in "Australian politics and political activities".
The Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz flew to the Brethren's defence, comparing Brown's action to Nazi persecution of the Jews: "When a leader of a political party in Australia starts scapegoating a lawful religious minority the warning bells of history should be ringing loud … once you remove the Green overcoat, there is a Brown shirt lurking underneath."
Brown's call for an inquiry will be debated in August. The Australian Electoral Commission has confirmed it is still "considering whether the Exclusive Brethren have a disclosure obligation related to the 2004 federal election". And from the ranks of the Brethren comes the faintest, faintest whisper that some brave souls are thinking of moving against the Hales.
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