Read the program transcript of Quentin McDerott’s ABC Radio report “Separate Lives”.
Reporter: Quentin McDermott
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Daily around Australia, members of a small religious sect gather for prayer, Bible readings, or Holy Communion. They’re a Christian congregation of simple, god-fearing folk.
ADRIAN VAN LEEN, DIRECTOR, CONCERNED CHRISTIAN GROWTH MINISTRIES: Very nice people and very, very sincere. People who I think are very genuine in what they believe, and what they want to do.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: These are the Exclusive Brethren. They believe they are chosen by God, and they long for The Rapture – when the saints on earth will be separated from the rest.
GARY BOUMA, ANGLICAN PRIEST, PROF OF SOCIOLOGY, MONASH UNIVERSITY: The Rapture is a teaching that there will be a time when all of those who are Christian and alive at a particular time will be swept up into the next life, and left behind will be those who are not pure.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Members of this sect are forbidden to vote or to socialise with those outside the fellowship. But quietly, Brethren have campaigned hard in elections, supporting conservative parties and family values. Tonight, Four Corners opens the doors on the Brethren, revealing the burden placed on those inside the sect, and the price extracted from those who leave.
You still keep those letters?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I do…I just love to see their handwriting.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Folded away from the public’s gaze in Australia, the Exclusive Brethren live their daily lives by the scriptures. They say the Bible tells them to separate themselves from evil. Separation, they say, “is as old as time itself. “The scriptures from beginning to end teach separation.”
GARY BOUMA, ANGLICAN PRIEST, PROF OF SOCIOLOGY, MONASH UNIVERSITY: They’re a group that take very seriously the need to withdraw from the world and to keep from being tainted with the world.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The Brethren claim 40,000 members worldwide – around half of whom live in Australia and New Zealand. The world leader is a Sydney accountant called Bruce Hales. He’s known as the Man of God, or the Elect Vessel.
GARY BOUMA, ANGLICAN PRIEST, PROF OF SOCIOLOGY, MONASH UNIVERSITY: The Man of God is very much a figure of substantial power, because he…is the ultimate authority on the interpretation of scripture within the group, and plays that role.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brethren families take their lead from the Man of God. They won’t send their children to university, and television, radio, personal computers and mobile phones are forbidden. In common with other fundamentalist Christian groups, the Brethren practise excommunication. Anyone who defies the universal leader risks being excommunicated.
GARY BOUMA, ANGLICAN PRIEST, PROF OF SOCIOLOGY, MONASH UNIVERSITY: By disagreeing with the Man of God you may indeed be…engaging in a kind of…deviance within the group that the group can’t tolerate. And that’s what excommunication is about.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brethren are banned from voting by their leaders. That, though, hasn’t stopped the church from campaigning in elections in several different countries, focusing on family values and a conservative agenda.
ADRIAN VAN LEEN, DIRECTOR, CONCERNED CHRISTIAN GROWTH MINISTRIES: They’ve claimed that it’s only been individual members, but the material that these individual members have produced in the political arena has been very similar in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, even in the USA.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As the Brethren have become politically more visible, Four Corners has been approached by former members, concerned that the real story of the sect’s family values isn’t being told.
YOUTH 1: Get out of here, or I’ll boot the whole thing over.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Four Corners set out to uncover that story – but it wasn’t easy. The Brethren wouldn’t be interviewed, and their attitude to being filmed is hostile, as we discovered when we were quietly filming in a public Perth street.
YOUTH 2: We just realised that you’re a camera crew, so we’re just giving you crap.
YOUTH 1: So, who called you up here, who called you up here – opposers?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Are you supporters?
YOUTH 1: Supporters of what?
YOUTH 2: Mate, just by the way, I’ll just warn you, in five minutes, if you don’t get off, you’ll be very, you’ll be…
YOUTH 1: Have you got a fear of the government of God?
YOUTH 2: Are you believers?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: You’re threatening us?
YOUTH 2: No, we’re not threatening you.
YOUTH 1: Are you believers?
YOUTH 2: We are not threatening you – you are threatening us.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: No, we’re not threatening you.
YOUTH 2: Yes, you are.
YOUTH 1: What are you doing here?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In what way?
YOUTH 2: Yes, you are.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In what way are we threatening you?
YOUTH 2: Do you believe in God?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Do you believe in God?
YOUTH 1: Get a real job, earn a wage, mate.
YOUTH 2: Yes, I do. I do believe in God.
YOUTH 1: Waste your film, mate. Poor cunts.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The Brethren’s leaders wouldn’t appear on this program. Nor would they allow any families within the church to be filmed or interviewed. Former Brethren say you need to know the history of the movement in order to understand it now. The Exclusive Brethren sect has its roots in 19th-century Dublin, where a new fundamentalist Protestant movement was born. Its leader was an aristocratic clergyman, J. N. Darby.
ADRIAN VAN LEEN, DIRECTOR, CONCERNED CHRISTIAN GROWTH MINISTRIES: It came about in Ireland, in the 1800s, with John Darby particularly, who decided that they wanted to study the Bible, and take things more seriously, with an emphasis on the evil of the world and separating from the world to live…with a greater dedication for God.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Its members were known, early on, as the Plymouth Brethren, but soon there were two distinct breakaway groups – the Open Brethren, and the more hardline Exclusives. Joy Nason grew up in a Brethren household in postwar England.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: In the early days I didn’t think it was anything very abnormal.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Was it good? Was it a loving, close community?
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Yes.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When she was 10, her father decided they should emigrate to Australia. But, like many girls growing up in a society that was becoming freer, she felt hemmed in.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: We were much better off and we had a much more comfortable family life, but things started to change. Things started to get more strict, and I started to feel…embarrassed about belonging to this group of Brethren.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Embarrassed for what reason?
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Because I wasn’t allowed to go to the pictures, for instance. We didn’t have radio and I felt… I started to feel different.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Then, as now, women and girls in the church were expected to be subservient to their husbands and fathers.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I’ll never forget the time, later on, when I was a young married woman, the Brethren coming to me and suggesting that I should only speak one-tenth of what my husband did. (Laughs)
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In New Zealand, Ngaire Thomas also grew up in a Brethren family.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: It wasn’t really until we start…I started school that I realised I was different. And even then, way back over 60 years ago, it wasn’t probably so much different to a basic fundamentalist Christian family.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The end of the 1950s proved a turning point in Brethren history. American ‘Big’ Jim Taylor, who had taken over the leadership from his father James Taylor Senior, told his fellow Brethren that they had to separate completely from the outside world. From then on, Brethren families weren’t allowed to socialise, or even eat with anyone outside the movement. That included close relatives.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Prior to the ’60s, we were able to see grandparents and uncles and aunties who were on the outside and we used to really cherish those times when we could see those members of the family, but after the early ’60s when what they call the “eating issue” came along, when we weren’t allowed to eat or drink or socialise with other people, that became very, very hard on our relatives.
RUSSELL DENT, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: It meant that we as a family had to sever our links with relations who weren’t amongst the Brethren, because my father wasn’t born amongst the Brethren. He was a Baptist. So that was traumatic.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Huge heartbreak. I mean, wives directed in meetings not to go back to their spouse, who was not with the Brethren. It was just a time of complete devastation for families. Just ripped apart.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The 1960s brought other changes. The Man of God was fond of a drop of whisky and expected his fellow Brethren to drink it too.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Even though the Brethren would not admit this, he was an alcoholic. I can remember being instructed to provide whisky at meal times when we had visitors, and we had visitors very often. I can remember being forced to drink whisky because if I didn’t I was hiding something.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Other eccentric rules were introduced.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: There’s a line in the Bible that says, “Without are the dogs”. So someone decided no pets.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: That sounds just crazy.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Well, no-one questioned it, that’s the point. If they said you had to get rid of your pets, you got rid of your pets.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: It was also a decade of multiple accusations and mass confessions. Children were shamed in public, as Ngaire Thomas discovered when she was challenged about her behaviour in front of hundreds of Brethren.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: They came to me because they’d heard that there was something between me and my cousin and when they asked me if I had committed fornication, I says, “Oh, yeah, I suppose so”, because I knew I had kissed and cuddled my cousin down in the bushes down behind his house. I was put in my room on my own for several days and just sort of fed through the door and told it was my turn to go up in front of the church of about probably 500 or 600 people and nobody bothered to come and ask me if I knew what they were talking about. Well, I can laugh about it now but it wasn’t very funny at the time.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: How old were you then?
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I was 15 going on 16.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So what was it like for a 15-year-old girl being hauled in front of a meeting of several hundred older men and women and…
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Yeah.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Grilled, essentially.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Very, very, very frightening. Very frightening and it’s something that I will never forget.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In the frenzy of confessions, adults too confessed to sins of many kinds.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I have heard people confess to molesting children.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And were those acts reported to the Police?
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Definitely not. No, they were forgiven. If the person was sorry, if the person showed enough contrition, the Brethren forgave them.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In 1968, Joy Nason left the church of her own accord. She worked as a secretary in the city and wanted to live her life in the world outside the Brethren. The decision had a devastating effect on her mother, as she discovered when she returned home to collect the rest of her belongings.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: She opened the door and I could barely recognise her. I just said, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “I’ve been fasting to get you back.” That was typical of my mother. She was a very strong believer in God, very strong believer in the religion. She thought if she fasted I’d come back. She thought God would bring me back and so no food or water had passed her mouth for three weeks. She was… It was a terrible sight.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Did that make you feel guilty?
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Oh, yes.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And how long did this guilt last?
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: You carry the guilt with you forever.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Once it was clear that she never would return, the Brethren excommunicated Joy Nason. She was, to use their term, ‘withdrawn from’.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: They brought in what they called ‘dead separation’, so therefore if anyone left, you had to view them as dead. Now, I do know other religions do that also. I’m not saying they’re the only ones, but if you’re unfortunate enough to be brought up in them and if you escape, then you know that you are treated as dead.
JIM TAYLOR ON AUDIO TAPE: You bastard! You bastard! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! Scott! Bum! You never had it like this, you nut, you.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In 1970, Jim Taylor, who had been the subject of increasing press and public criticism, cemented his reputation as a Man of God who had supped too much on whisky. A meeting in Aberdeen, Scotland, descended into chaos as he ranted drunkenly at his fellow Brethren.
RUSSELL DENT, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: He took meetings in Aberdeen about the middle of the year and it just became a farce basically. It wasn’t ministry.
JIM TAYLOR ON AUDIO TAPE: You stinking bum! You stink! Why didn’t ya bring some toilet paper with ya? To a very fine meeting.
MAN ON AUDIO TAPE: Yeah, it’s a classic!
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Even ungodlier was the Man of God’s behaviour at night-time.
ADRIAN VAN LEEN, DIRECTOR, CONCERNED CHRISTIAN GROWTH MINISTRIES: For a number of nights he had a lady come into his room, who was someone else’s wife and she would stay there for a long, long time. They actually walked in and the lady was naked.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I find it so hard to believe that the Brethren in there are so gullible that they can actually believe the story that they were told.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What were they told?
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Well, they were told that nothing happened, that she was in there ministering to him by washing his feet and drying his feet with her hair and this sort of… And I think that’s just garbage.
ADRIAN VAN LEEN, DIRECTOR, CONCERNED CHRISTIAN GROWTH MINISTRIES: Obviously what the man was doing was committing adultery. The evidence was very, very clear and obvious.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The moral hypocrisy exposed by the Aberdeen incident shook the church to its foundations and as a result some 8,000 Brethren left the fellowship. Jim Taylor died the same year and the mantle of Man of God passed to a North Dakota pig farmer called James Symington. Ron Fawkes, himself a former leader of the Exclusive Brethren in Australia, remembers Symington well.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: In his earlier life he’d been a quiet, unassuming person and once he got control and had this total power over 50,000 people, I mean, he just became a monster. It’s almost as if the power he had just corrupted him.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As overall leader of the Brethren, James Symington received huge donations of cash from his faithful followers around the world.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: The vast amounts of money handed over are referred to as gifts to… Particularly to the leading men. Now that money amounts in the course of the year to millions, all going untaxed.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Ron Fawkes alleges that when James Symington was leader, he sidestepped customs regulations by transporting large sums of cash across international borders.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: The amount of money that was transferred through interstate and international borders was just absolutely horrific and I myself was given wads of money to carry for this person across British, Canadian, American things. I hate to think of what would have happened if I’d been, you know, arrested or caught.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Was that lawful?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: It was totally illegal, totally illegal.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: How much money are you talking about?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Tens and tens and tens of thousands of dollars in cash.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And this was at his request?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Absolutely.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brethren believe in the duty to provide for their families, and networks of small family businesses thrive, ensuring that there is virtually no unemployment in the fellowship.
GARY BOUMA, ANGLICAN PRIEST, PROF OF SOCIOLOGY, MONASH UNIVERSITY: They are economically engaged so that they tend to be comfortably middle class in their economic situation. They would also be ready to a assist each other should need arise so that they would have an internal form of welfare that one could rely on, and depend on for cradle to grave kind of support.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But many ex-Brethren believe the church has lost sight of its basic founding Christian principles.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: The church would be very wealthy because of the property that it owns. How much, I don’t know, but it runs into hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.
RUSSELL DENT, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: It’s grown rich, need of nothing, don’t even need Christ anymore… They’ve got their leader. All they have to do really is do what they’re told, conform and try to be as successful as possible, materially.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Jesus told someone to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. You don’t see that sort of thing happening in there. I mean, we don’t need to be materialistic. As a Quaker now I’m probably the least materialist than I’ve ever been in my life.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Ngaire Thomas married her husband Denis when they were both in the Exclusive Brethren. It turned into a lifelong love affair, which survived the trauma of them both being excommunicated in 1974. Then, as now, the use of contraception was forbidden. Ngaire at the time had four children and had recently suffered a slight stroke. On her doctor’s advice she took the pill to avoid falling pregnant again. And because of this, she says, they were disciplined.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: We were what they call ‘shut up’ or put into solitary confinement, closed up in our house. They brought in this rule of no sex while you were shut up and they tested us out for a week and there’s no way my husband wanted to obey that rule. I mean, when you’re told you can’t do something, those are the very things you want to do. And so when they came around the following week and asked you, “Have you? Have you?” He says, “No.” But, of course, as soon as they were gone I said to him, “You weren’t very truthful there, “you should have just come out with it and said, yes, we did,” because we had every right to. So he rang them up and said, “Look, I’m sorry. I actually told you a lie.” And that was on the Monday night, by the Tuesday night we were withdrawn from.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What do you feel now in retrospect about this enormous interrogation you endured and the fact that a lot of it was about your sex life, your…
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Oh, I think, I think…
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Very private life.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I think it’s abuse. I think it’s psychological abuse.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Hi, Ngaire. How are you?
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Good, thank you.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I recognised you straight away.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Ngaire Thomas wrote a book about her experience called ‘Behind Closed Doors’. Joy Nason is sharing her story for the first time. The two women met during the filming of this program. They belong to a growing band of ex-Brethren who support each other in a fellowship outside the fellowship. This support helps many ex-Brethren deal with the terror they feel at stepping away from the church. It’s known to those who leave as the three ‘F’s.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Everyone knows the three ‘F’s that’s been in the Brethren. And that’s fear, families and finances. And it’s my belief that more people would leave, more people would have left if they weren’t ruled by fear – fear of the consequences of leaving, fear of divine retribution. Finances because they’re very good to their members. They’re very, you know, they’re very generous and help people with money. And, of course, the families. Of course you’re more likely to stay in if you’ve, if you’re faced with not ever seeing your family again.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Ngaire Thomas’s family did it tough on the outside. Her two older children went to prison, and one of her boys became a father at the age of 15. Her daughter had terrifying nightmares.
NGAIRE THOMAS, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: She thought she was going to hell. She’d wake up crying at night-time because she was going into the lake of fire and get burned up. She was eight at the time.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Joy Nason’s father was excommunicated late in life after years of disagreements with the Brethren leadership. His wife stayed in the church. When he tried repeatedly to contact her, he was sent a solicitor’s letter telling him to stay away. He was 82 years old.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Till the day of his death, he never gave up asking about my mother. Every time I would visit, he said, “Have you heard from her?” He had a stroke. And I rang them and told them. One of them said that he wasn’t a Christian, so they didn’t have anything to say, and hung up. But as a matter of fact, when he lay there after he’d had the stroke, he was very agitated. He couldn’t speak. But the nurses realised he was pointing to his Bible. And they put his Bible in his hand, and he became very peaceful. Whatever his faults, I don’t think that he should have been treated like that. And as I walked in the door, after he’d had his stroke, he immediately looked beyond me, to the door. I knew he thought that my mother would come and see him. But she didn’t. And he died a week later, with no reconciliation.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The Exclusive Brethren told Four Corners, “No one is compelled to be in the Brethren fellowship. Children are nurtured, protected and instructed, but finally every individual has to arrive at their own conviction. The believer can not be other than living in fidelity to his Lord and Master. That some for their own reasons have left and become embittered and faithless to the relationship they have entered into shows their supposed conviction was never true.” The Brethren strategy of separation is extreme, isn’t it?
GARY BOUMA, ANGLICAN PRIEST, PROFESSIONAL OF SOCIOLOGY, MONASH UNIVERSITY: In a spectrum of separation amongst Christian groups, it is…it is extreme, yes.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As the most senior leader in the church in Australia from 1976 to 1984, Ron Fawkes enacted this doctrine. You were involved in excommunicating people, weren’t you?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Sadly.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tell me about that.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: There weren’t a lot of cases… thankfully. But there were cases where I was involved, and I… make no…excuse. Indeed, I’m ashamed, totally ashamed of activity that I was engaged in, particularly in the area of…custody and access cases, of which I was involved in several.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What was your aim in those cases? What were you trying to achieve?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: The aim… the aim was to forbid the person who was excommunicated, or not with the Brethren, to have nothing to do with his own family.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tragically for Ron Fawkes, the worm turned, and in 1984 he himself was excommunicated, he says, for speaking out against the Man of God, James Symington.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I had a knock on the door saying that, “We’ve excommunicated you. You’re not to sleep with your wife tonight.” I asked the reason for the excommunication, they said, “You better find that out, work that out for yourself.” I mean, I had a hunch. But that was what I was told.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What kind of organisation tells a husband that he can’t sleep with his wife?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: An evil one.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Did you agree to it? Did you obey it?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Yeah, I did. I did.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Why?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Because I was just so devastated, so brainwashed, so…just so immersed in Brethren teaching and theology that I knew if ever I was going to get back I had to do exactly what I was told.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But he didn’t get back, and Ron Fawkes had to leave his home, his wife and his six children behind. In a court settlement, he was promised adequate access to his children.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: One of the elders, who now is passed on, he said that that was there to satisfy the court and that I knew the score. And, of course, I did know the score.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But you knew that it was a sham.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Knew it was a sham. Total sham.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Because you yourself had participated…
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Absolutely.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: ..in similar shams.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Exactly.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The access never happened. It’s this aspect of Brethren behaviour that former church members find hardest to reconcile with the fellowship’s professed support for family values.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I’ve never seen any of my children for 22 years, except when I knocked on one of the doors of my children and was ordered off the property.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: How many grandchildren have you got?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I don’t really know. I think at least 14.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Have you ever seen them?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: No.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Like many other Brethren fathers who’ve been excommunicated, Ron Fawkes received letters from his children – but not the letters he was hoping for.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I don’t blame them for the letters they wrote. They were doing the bidding of others. But… (Reads)
“To Dad, I do not want to have anything to do at all with you. This is because you’re under discipline and I stand by ‘2 Timothy 2’, which states ‘Everyone who names the name of the Lord withdraw from inequity.'” Well, this is very sad, this one, because this is from my eldest son, who is autistic and…no real ability to rationalise. I mean, we were very, very close. He loved me so much, and I loved him. (Reads) “To Dad, I don’t want to see you because “you’re not right and withdrawn from and out of fellowship.” Yeah. (Clears throat)
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: You still keep those letters.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I do. I just love to see their handwriting.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: This book was produced by the Brethren, wasn’t it?
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Yeah, I received it some years ago. I was very grateful for it, because for the first time in many, many years, I was able to have a look at my children. The thing that upset me, actually, at the time, was the fact that there’s no reference to me whatever.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Ron Fawkes was soon written out of Brethren history. So too was his brother, Phil, who says he was expelled from the church on the day he shared a drink and a snack with another person who’d been excommunicated.
PHIL FAWKES, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: They came around later that night and said I’d been withdrawn from and I wasn’t to live with, or wasn’t to sleep with my wife. We lived like that for a period of about three months. I knew that all the time they were seeing my wife during the day, the priests would come while I was at work and would see her and were working on her. The children used to let me know.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: This picture here is of his family. His wife, former wife, and no reference to Philip.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When Phil Fawkes went away on a business trip to Sydney, the Brethren came and moved his wife and family out of their home in Perth. He returned in the middle of the night to find them gone.
PHIL FAWKES, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Finally I located them, and then turned up at 8:00, on the doorstep to see what’d gone wrong. And that’s when my daughters, they got to me at the side window of a bedroom. They followed down, followed me down and out the side window. They said, “This is not what we wanted. It was done against our will.” And…yeah, they were physically dragged.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Looking back on that now, is that acceptable behaviour to drag your daughters physically out of their home?
PHIL FAWKES, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Oh, it’s totally unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. There’s certain things that… I just, I have to live with. And I accept, because I’ve never pursued anything that is gonna cause more hurt to my children. They’ve been through enough.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So you haven’t gone to court, for example?
PHIL FAWKES, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: No. No.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Deliberately?
PHIL FAWKES, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I could’ve, you know, I’ve paid the maintenance and done all that sort of thing, but… I could not bear to see my children suffer anymore.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Phil Fawkes isn’t the only man to have his wife and children removed from him by church elders. This home video was made in 1992. Selwyn Wallace and his wife Julienne had both been excommunicated. She was torn between staying with him and remaining in the church, and her fellow Brethren in New Zealand encouraged and helped her to move out of their home. Selwyn Wallace hired a private investigator to film the scene, and help him tape phone calls between an elder and his wife.
MAN ON PHONE: No connection with the truth of the Brethren. If some rift in your thinking between good and bad, right and wrong comes up, and there is no resolution to the problem, it will be inevitable that there will be a separation.
JULIENNE (WIFE): Yeah.
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: What I heard almost immediately was the elders of the church encouraging my wife to separate from me, offering to pay her legal fees, take her to see a lawyer, arrange the meetings, which they did, and telling her that the separation of the marriage was inevitable. After listening to a few tapes, I just decided to keep recording but not to listen to them, I was getting too angry.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Selwyn Wallace faced a tough battle to persuade his wife Julienne to leave the Brethren with him. He succeeded, but even now, Julienne is still too fragile to talk about it. So when three church elders came to visit him at work, his anger nearly boiled over.
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: They wanted my wife to have custody, but they wanted to refuse me access to my children. And one of them had the audacity to say to me, “We’re giving you the house and the business, now we want the children.” So I got my lawyer to send them a letter to tell them that my children weren’t for sale.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So this is the gravestone here?
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Yeah, that’s right. I knew his mother and his brothers in the church. And…he was the man that they found hanging from the tree in the grounds of the Exclusive Brethren church in Perth.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The human cost to those who are disciplined and separated is impossible to quantify, but anecdotally, the toll of suicides is alarming.
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: My wife’s grandfather committed suicide in the church, and my sister’s father-in-law, my great uncle, a first cousin of my mother’s, and I know of two or three others. About five years ago, I was asked to carry the coffin of an ex-member that took his own life here in Perth. He was found hanging from a tree in the grounds of the church, the headquarters here in Perth.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Selwyn Wallace won his battle against the church elders. He left the fellowship and took his family with him, but not before his wife Julienne had been first rewarded for her loyalty to the Brethren, and then threatened by an elder when she departed.
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: When she was back in the church, she was she was getting monetary cash gifts thrown at her left, right and centre, and there was even a secret… there was a bank account opened up in somebody else’s name because she was accepting welfare payments.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But when Julienne told the Brethren she couldn’t separate from her husband, she received a dire warning.
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: The church in Auckland said to her if you don’t return to the church, one of your children might die. It’ll be God’s punishment, or it’ll be God speaking to you. He’ll speak to you through one of your children. And then, yeah, just about 4.5 years ago that we did lose our eldest son, James. He died at the age of 17 in his sleep, and we believe it was cardiac arrhythmia.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Did your wife believe that that threat had been carried out?
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Yeah, at first she didn’t, but then, as parents going through the loss of a child, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, I guess, it weakens your mind, and it certainly played on her mind. I guess it played on mine, too, for a while. And I ended up having to seek medical assistance for her.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Like Selwyn Wallace, Warren McAlpin comes from a family that has had its share of heartbreak. His brother Tim, he says, was excommunicated for underage drinking, and died in a motorcycle accident when he was 18.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I think the comments were made at the time that Tim was leading a worldly life outside of the Brethren, and this was as a result of that.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In other words, it was if Tim hadn’t left the fellowship, he wouldn’t have died?
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: That’s right.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Warren McAlpin was still inside the church. But in the late 1980s, he fell out with the Man of God, a Sydney accountant called John Hales, whose son Bruce Hales – also an accountant – is the current universal leader.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: He insisted on having a look at the business accounts of every businessman involved in the Exclusive Brethren in Albury. I refused, I said, “I’ve got an accountant to look after my books. I don’t need John Hales going through my accounts.”
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: Warren McAlpin saw the demand to look through his books as part of a continuing campaign by the Hales family to control the Brethren businesses. But his refusal to comply had him branded a troublemaker.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: If you question something, you’re really an opposer, and that’s what I’ve been labelled as since that period of time, but nothing could be further from the truth. I love these people, but the leadership, under the Hales family, has resulted in so much trouble and so much family breakdown and so much heartache, and it has got to stop.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Warren McAlpin was excommunicated, he believes, for speaking out against John Hales. It cost him his first family, and any meaningful access to his children. Warren McAlpin says the Brethren went to court repeatedly to stop him seeing his children. And that even when he won in court, the Brethren refused to comply.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: “We are a higher court” is what they believe, and they refuse to obey the courts and refuse to obey the orders that were set down that I should have access.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When he did see his children, there were signs they had been indoctrinated against him.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: One of my boys, earlier on, when he was about five or six, came to the door and spat at me and called me the devil. I now know that that was not what he was thinking, as far as hatred towards his dad.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Later, like Ron Fawkes before him, his sons wrote to him.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: It was two registered letters from Jeremy and Richard, and I think they were eight and seven at the time.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Just read me a few sentences from one of those letters.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: “I never want to come with you again. I am eight and a half now, and I am standing on my own two feet before Jesus.”
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Warren McAlpin is still estranged from his sons, but he did see them one more time.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: They were in their 20s, some 15 years later, but the love of a Dad for his kids… and the love of kids for their Dad never ceases. It’s there as strong as the day when they took the children away. Both boys hugged me…and said, “Dad, you don’t have any bad feelings against us, do you?” I said, “No, I don’t have any feelings, in fact I don’t…I don’t hate the Brethren for what they’ve done, but certainly don’t… I don’t hold any hard feelings towards you two boys whatsoever.”
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Most of those who have left the fellowship have continued to maintain their strong Christian beliefs. For Warren McAlpin, it involved a fresh conversion to a different kind of Christianity.
WARREN MCALPIN, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: It didn’t involve any accountant from Sydney, or a pig farmer from America, or a whiskey drinking alcoholic from New York. It involved a transaction personally with Christ, and that’s what I took up.
RON FAWKES, FORMER LEADER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: I have a very strong faith, indeed my faith was strengthened as a result of what I went through, which I thank God for, but I don’t obey now because the Brethren say it or anyone else says it, I obey it because God says it.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Renewed faith, though, doesn’t dull the memories or the pain. After her father was excommunicated, Joy Nason took her son to see her mother, to check that she was OK, and was where she wanted to be.
JOY NASON, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: She was behind a closed door. I just couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear that I was so close… and couldn’t see her, and I suddenly remembered they always have a scripture to go by, they always have something, and it’s the door, the closed door. You weren’t allowed to let an ex-member through an open door. And I suddenly saw there was a flyscreen and the door, and I said, “Mum, if you open the door, there’ll still be a closed door.” And she took the bait and opened the door, and all the words of condemnation of the Brethren that I was going to hurl at her just went. I just looked and I said, “I love you, Mum.” And to my amazement she mouthed… she mouthed “I know” silently, and then said, “Go and get right with God” out loud… so that the people in the house would not know. I’ve never forgotten it, and I turned and went and took my son.
SELWYN WALLACE, EX-MEMBER, EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN: These people claim to represent Christianity in its purest form, but you look at the history stretching back 30 or 40 years, and it’s just carnage – broken families, broken lives. Children that don’t know their parents. Brothers and sisters that haven’t seen each other for 20, 30 years, and it’s all over the world. And that’s one reason why I’m speaking today. The carnage must stop. And if we don’t speak out, the wheels of pain will just keep turning.
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License.