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.
Athol Greene, one of the sect's most senior elders, is the spiritual adviser and father-in-law of Hales. He intersects his bony fingers:
Athol Greene, one of the sect's most senior elders saidThe way of life among the Brethren is very, very close
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.
Greene saidThe thing is close knit… Dovetail joints.
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.
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".In a 100-page judgement, 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.
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.
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.
Daniel Hales from the Bretehern saidI can't say it was funded by the church. 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 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."
Reference source: SMH - The Exclusion Brethren
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