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Saturday, 7 December 2013
Brethren lift the veil on their exclusive lifestyle
Brethren lift veil on their exclusive lifestyle
DANIEL Hales says talking to his neighbours would help dispel negative perceptions about the Exclusive Brethren straight away.
"If you went up and down our street," Hales says, "they would say, 'oh yeah, they've got some funny beliefs, but gee, they're nice people, they're good people'."
From the modest comfort of his home in Epping, a quiet, conservative, leafy suburb in Sydney's north, a senior elder from a very private fundamentalist Christian sect has taken an extraordinary step.
Despite the Brethren doctrine of separation from the outside world, Hales has granted access to The Weekend Australian. In public relations terms, it's called damage control.
The Brethren, which has 15,000 members in Australia and 43,000 worldwide, has even engaged a well-connected public relations firm, Jackson Wells Morris, to provide advice as it battles public vilification after a torrent of allegations about cruelty to members and undue political influence.
For the past two years, the Brethren has been savaged by stories of families torn apart after members who left or were "ex-communicated" were prevented from seeing wives, husbands, children or parents.
During the federal election campaign, Kevin Rudd branded the Brethren "an extremist cult" that broke up families.
The group's reputation has been sullied further by claims it has spent hundreds of thousands of election campaign dollars backing conservative candidates and attacking the Greens -- without proper disclosure -- even though Brethren members do not vote. The Brethren shuns political involvement as part of its Bible-based charter to "withdraw from iniquity".
Another charge that feeds resentment against the Brethren is that it receives government grants for its special schools that are out of proportion to the small number of students who attend.
According to Hales, the assault on his sect will culminate next week with the publication of Behind the Exclusive Brethren, a book by journalist Michael Bachelard that explores the Australian offshoot of the church started almost 200 years ago by Irishman John Nelson Darby.
Hales, brother of the sect's world leader Bruce Hales and owner of a family-run shop-fitting business in Sydney, says many lies are told about the Brethren. He claims the vilification has become so bad it is "open season to kill us".
He blames most allegations made against the Brethren on a small number of "sad" disaffected people.
Two years ago Hales hired Jackson Wells Morris, after a recommendation that he talk to its plain-speaking media guru Keith Jackson. The PR firm is best known for its Liberal links, chiefly through former company partner and John Howard chief of staff Grahame Morris.
"We're happy to live our lives in anonymity, just quietly in our neighbourhoods in our low-key way," Hales says.
"We're quite happy to have our beliefs questioned, ethically debated, and points of religion looked at. That's not a problem. We don't mind being criticised. We don't even mind being despised because of it.
"But once it starts to be charged that we're acting criminally, we're acting illegally, we're acting immorally, we're acting against society, then we felt that we really had to put our point of view. We felt that it wasn't fair to our members."
Hales admits that, although the Brethren's members are scattered among the community, they are not allowed to eat, drink or have friends outside the group.
Members are not permitted to join non-Brethren clubs nor attend popular sporting events. They drive cars and use telephones, but do not have televisions or radios.
Hales learns about the outside world by reading newspapers. Occasionally he is handed videotaped copies of news programs attacking the Brethren.
Computers, Hales says, are permitted for Brethren businesses, but adapted with special filters to deny internet access.
Children go to Brethren schools. They are not permitted a university education afterwards, which excludes them from careers such as medicine, the law and teaching.
Asked why Brethren children could not attend university, Hales says they would inevitably move away if exposed to campus life.
Similarly, all Brethren members are expected to marry within the group. Hales dismisses as lies that the sect endorses arranged or forced marriages, but says those who marry outside leave. Asked why, he says: "They would find it wouldn't work."
Hales dismisses claims that women are treated as inferior, citing their role in carrying the chalice of wine during Sunday services at the Brethren's small windowless churches.
Bachelard writes in Behind the Exclusive Brethren that wives are always treated as second-class citizens and women progress no further than reception or administration jobs at Brethren businesses.
Hales denies Brethren members are brutally cut off from family if they leave the group, but he does admit they remain outside.
According to Hales, the Brethren has been vindicated over allegations of forced family separations, after suspended jail sentences given to three members by a judge last year for denying a father access to his children later overturned on appeal.
He says the Brethren has been cleared over alleged breaches of federal election funding laws after a police investigation found no wrongdoing.