In the public interest.
Behind the Exclusive Brethren was written in 2007, when the Exclusive Brethren’s political activities were attracting the attention of the mainstream media. The ABC’s Four Corners aired a story that year about the Brethren’s dealings with the Liberal Party, revealing that senior sect members had met with John Howard and Peter Costello and provided the party with financial support. The program also revealed a long history of the sect making significant financial contributions to conservative political parties around the world.
The revelation caused a minor political controversy during the 2007 election campaign. Labor Leader Kevin Rudd was critical of the Liberal Party’s dealings with the sect, labelling it an “extremist cult [that] breaks up families”. Greens Leader Bob Brown added the organisation was, “so heartless in excommunicating forever from their families, people who leave it.”
Howard defended the meeting on the basis that the Brethren were a “lawful organisation, and as Prime Minister [you meet] an enormous number of organisations.” Likewise, Costello defended himself adding, “[it would be a crime] if a Member of Parliament refused to meet somebody on the basis of their religious convictions”.
Although it had a history spanning well beyond 100 years, there was very little documented on the Exclusive Brethren at the time Michael Bachelard wrote the book. This was largely due to the Brethren’s secrecy and litigious nature.
For Bachelard, this was enough to make him want to investigate further. “When I tried myself to contact them… I just met this stone wall… journalists are paid to be curious and this piqued my curiosity,” he says.
He says in the text that his interest in the sect was initially sparked by, “an innocent enough question from [his] editor: would the Exclusive Brethren be participating in the Victorian State Election?”
“The answer, I quickly discovered, was ‘yes’,” he wrote. His subsequent news article prompted a ‘blizzard’ of responses from people whose lives had been affected by the Brethren.
“I felt that there was a really interesting conjunction between the terrible personal stories I was hearing about how badly people were being treated by this group and the fact that they seemed to be so politically well connected,” he says.
Behind the Exclusive Brethren covers a great deal of information about the sect and their place within Australian society. Whilst the catalyst for Bachelard’s investigation was the sect’s political connections, the text goes well beyond that one aspect.
It discusses all the interconnected aspects of Brethren life, including its past, theology, leadership and business practices.
A reccurring theme through the text is the doctrine of separation, the theological position of the Brethren which states that its members should stay separate from the ‘impurities of the world’. In practice, this means followers cannot access mainstream media (such as the internet or television), eat with ‘worldly’ people or have membership with any ‘worldly’ groups, such as insurance agencies or trade unions.
The worst effect of the doctrine is that ex-members (whether they are excommunicated or leave themselves) are cut off from family and friends still in the sect. Children are told their ex-Brethren parents are ‘wicked’ and efforts of ex members to reunite with loved ones are met with slammed doors.
The text also deals with the business savvy nature of the sect’s current leader Bruce Hales. Within the Brethren is a sophisticated network of corporations. These companies provide each other with financial support (at no interest) and are centralised by a Brethren organisation which leases its equipment to the businesses.
Built into this network are Brethren schools (who also receive significant contributions from the Federal government), logistics companies and even healthcare funds.
Their political campaigning is covered extensively in the text, quoting documents sent between the sect and politicians as well as noting where special policy changes have been made for them.
The Brethren’s litigious nature is discussed towards the end of the text, detailing how the sect has used the legal system to get their way in defamation actions and child custody proceedings. Bachelard notes that the Brethren have a large fund set up to bankroll legal proceedings, which was significant for him given the potential outcome of their reaction to his book.
For the average reader, the entirety of Behind the Exclusive Brethren is revelatory. The fundamental aspects of Brethren life, its structure and theology are unfamiliar to most Australians; details of such are likely to shock them.
The more significant revelations however revolve around the ‘conjunction’ between how people were treated in the sect and their political connections.
The text tells of several stories where families have been broken by the Brethren’s doctrine. The most significant is in the Albury chapter of the book, where a church elder sexually abused a girl. The mother of the child was subsequently shunned from the sect when she decided to take the story to police. This story alone gives a chilling? impression of what life is like inside the Brethren.
Another significant revelation is the strange anti-intellectual pedagogy that exists within the Brethren schooling system. The schools strongly discourage students from going on to university, where the lifestyle is regarded as sinful. Instead students are encouraged to go onto apprenticeships and gain technical qualifications. Topics required to be taught in State curricula such as evolution or sex education are merely glossed over.
The text goes into detail about how these schools are able to exploit legal loopholes to get maximum funding from the Federal Government.
Correspondence with Federal members of Parliament is also put under a microscope. Documents detailed how the Brethren successfully lobbied the Howard Government on topics such as school funding. In a letter to then Attorney General, Phillip Ruddock, the Brethren tried to persuade him to include a provision for what was in effect an entrenched pre-nuptial custody agreement in his ‘Parenting Plans’ legislation.
Throughout the text, Michael Bachelard adopts a simple, straightforward method of writing. The book as a whole benefits from this decision, as the writing style is easily adapted to the changing mood. It provides consistency in a book that regularly jumps between emotional topics such as family breakdown and academic ones such as politics and theology.
In the more emotional parts of the book, Bachelard’s writing style has the effect of letting the stories speak for themselves. There is the feeling that he does very little on his own behalf to evoke emotion from the reader, which is the point. The text presents itself as a balanced, dispassionate and authoritative work and the writing style supports this.
Bachelard himself said the style of the book was adopted with the possibility of defamation action in mind. “I felt that the tone of the book needed to be as dispassionate and as fair as I could make it… I needed to not unnecessarily inflame anger in the Brethren,” he said.
“Even though it was something that I was angry about, I tried not to let that come through and instead just report the facts as they were because that would minimise the chance of them having a cause to sue me,” he said.
Michael Bachelard was able to draw information on a wide range of sources, even though there was very little secondary literature on the Brethren at the time.
His initial contacts were through the correspondence he’d received in response to his articles in The Age.
“I was contacted by a former member of the Brethren who had broad contacts with the wider ex-Brethren community and led me into those contacts,” he said.
He’d also discovered a website (which is mentioned throughout the text) which was run by ex-Brethren members for ex-Brethren members. It included transcripts of Brethren sermons, correspondence between church elders and other church documentation.
However, most important for Bachelard was the website’s forum, which was set up for ex-members to discuss the damage the church had done to their lives. The forum was another significant source of contacts for him.
When interviewing ex-members, Bachelard had to be mindful of strong emotional impact the Brethren had had on their lives. “I had to be aware of the level of psychological sensitivity that many of them had, particularly those who’d lost family members, had children they hadn’t seen for twenty years and such,” he said.
“I tried to treat those people with a great deal of respect and integrity… without exception I ran by everything I was going to write about them,” he said.
The author also needed to protect his sources in a few circumstances. “The reasons for people not wanting to be identified varied from not wanting to reopen the psychological can of worms that they’d lived with to not wanting their own families who are still within the Brethren to be punished for having them speak out,” he said.
Where this would normally impede journalistic work, it doesn’t here. It is sufficiently explained in the text why people wish to remain unidentified and it furthers the notion that the Brethren exercise such a stranglehold on peoples’ lives, even after they’ve left.
Other sources range from official church documents and ministry to publicly available material such as Hansard records, case law and previous reporting on the sect.
Michael Bachelard always kept the threat of defamation action in mind while writing the book. It was well documented in the text that the Brethren were litigious and had a substantial funds set aside to bankroll legal actions.
“They made threats that I was defaming them, they made a threat claiming I was in breach of a New South Wales court case, which was inaccurate, but they made the threat nonetheless,” he said.
“I was aware of the strong possibility of defamation action if I was to overstep the mark in terms of accuracy or fairness; in defamation law you are able to defend yourself on the grounds of truth,” he continued.
He therefore considered whether each allegation he made would be sufficiently provable in court. “There were a few things that I thought to be true, in fact that I was convinced were true, but that I couldn’t put in the book because I couldn’t prove they were true,” he said.
The sexual abuse outlined in the Albury chapter also presented some legal concerns. “There was a legal question about to what extent I could identify the perpetrator of the child sexual abuse… that morphed into the legal consideration about whether or not I was identifying the victims of that abuse, which is illegal under State law,” he said.
Ethically, Bachelard says he was grounded in two fundamental journalistic concepts which were, “telling the truth as far as you could establish it” and “treating interview subjects with respect”. The latter was especially significant when he interviewed members of the Brethren, knowing the way the church would be portrayed in the book.
“I had an interview with [a senior member of the church] and I’d done an on the record interview with him… I sent him a list of quotes that I’d be using as a matter of courtesy and to see if there were any corrections he wanted to make, but he didn’t,” he said.
The fact that the Exclusive Brethren didn’t (or rather, couldn’t) pursue any formal action against the author is a testament to his rigorous adherence to the journalistic method. The constant checking of facts and his fair, dispassionate reporting resulted in a piece Bachelard could stand behind and few could stand against.
Behind the Exclusive Brethren is a prime example of the journalistic process. It set out to cover a topic which was obscure and largely undocumented but still of interest to the wider Australian community. The Brethren lifestyle revolves around an interconnected web of businesses, theology, bureaucracy, politics and psychological intimidation. The text covers all bases sufficiently, giving a comprehensive view of the sect.
Michael Bachelard gathered sources logically; gathering contacts from those in the know and from places populated by people who were most likely to want to speak out (like the internet forum). The circumstances of his interview subjects often required him to exercise a greater degree of sensitivity and not reveal their identities.
As a whole, Behind the Exclusive Brethren accomplishes what it sets out to do: reveal what life is like in the secretive, mysterious sect.
Bachelard, M. 2008, Behind the Exclusive Brethren, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Victoria.
Interview with M Bachelard, author of Behind the Exclusive Brethren, 25 May 2010.
Howard defends meeting the Exclusive Brethren 2007 [radio program], PM, ABC Radio National, 22 August.
Peebs.net: The Truth Will Set You Free, Peebs.net, viewed 20 May 2010, .
The Exclusive Brethren Christian Fellowship: An Open Documentary of Their Life and Faith, The Exclusive Brethren, viewed 20 May 2010, < http://www.theexclusivebrethren.com/>.
The Brethren Express: Four Corners 2007, television program, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney, 15 October.
Exclusive Brethren: A Current Affair 2008, television program, Nine Network, Sydney, 30 September.