1 Nov 2010

Just a sect, Exclusive Brethren is not above the law

The Age - Australia July 12, 2009


THE Exclusive Brethren and sects like it present enormous difficulties for secular authorities. They keep their members under tight control using psychological and spiritual tactics many might find offensive and which sometimes come into conflict with tenets of the law. They combine in their members feelings of superiority over the rest of the population and preference in the eyes of God with a fear of wider society. At the heart of it is their doctrine of separation, under which they withdraw spiritually and socially from the "iniquity" of the world.

But when things go wrong, they can become nastybecause a member who considers leaving the church must also confront the prospect of leaving his or her family and children. "It's dreamboat stuff to imagine you could leave the faith and not leave your marriage," says Athol Greene, father-in-law of and spiritual adviser to the sect's Sydney-based world leader, "Elect Vessel" Bruce D. Hales.

In most cases, leaving means never seeing your loved ones again. It means having gifts and letters returned, phones slammed down and doors shut in your face. Meanwhile, your children may be told hair-raising stories about you. Alastair Nicholson, former Family Court chief justice, is quoted in Michael Bachelard's book Behind the Exclusive Brethren as saying these tactics are "abusive … psychologically it's very damaging to the child".

In Australia, though, the law is meant to be able to override these sectarian preferences. The over-arching principle in family law cases is to act in the best interests of the child and, normally, this presumes significant contact with both parents. That aspect of the law is, of course, anathema to the Exclusive Brethren.

The result can be, as The Sunday Age recently reported, bruising court battles. The recent Tasmanian case Peter v Elspeth went on for five years, costing the father, who had left the Brethren, all his money, $100,000, and the Brethren "fighting fund" a large but undisclosed sum. The father won access to the children in the first instance but the orders were mostly not complied with. He won a case to try to force the Brethren mother and her family to comply. Still, visits were occasional and grudging. More legal action and appeals followed. He finally lost the case entirely, and with it any contact with his children.

Not all judgments in these cases have the same outcome, but in each case the trauma that surrounds the Family Court even in ordinary circumstances is multiplied by the intervention of such strong religion and its black-and-white, good-and-evil thinking.

One can have some sympathy with the judges. In practice, what can they do when the children have been schooled to hate and fear their father? When the prospect of ruling for the father seemed to suggest more, and yet more, litigation? Other areas of law also struggle with religious extremism. Tax law is full of loopholes for religious and charitable groups that are ripe for rorting by some groups; our tolerance of religious approaches to schooling diverts federal funding to schools, like the Brethren's, which teach their children to fear the world; and copyright and defamation laws have been used by all sorts of religions, from Jehovah's Witnesses to Scientology, to shut down critics.

All the secular authorities can do is apply the law with rigour and consistency and without flinching from what kind of organisation they are confronting when they hear special religious pleading.

In many cases, that's easier said than done.

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