Religious Freedom Review,
Hon Philip Ruddock (chair)
Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC
Frank Brennan SJ AO
of religion is essential to any modern democratic society. It must
always be upheld in Australia. Yet Freedom from
religion, excesses and prohibitions
that limit the ability of followers to engage freely as citizens
must also be upheld.
uphold the right of people to believe what they will, but society
must monitor and moderate behaviours that come from those beliefs.
Excessive behaviours from cult-like groups or extreme religious
beliefs can on the one hand cause emotional and psychological harm
to individuals and families. At the very extreme end they can
produce people prepared to kill innocent children and families
because of their beliefs. It can be a pathway to terrorism.
of Religion should never be a carte blanche right for groups to
behave in ways that harm followers and their families by creating a
different kind of citizenship of Australia. We should not
permit harmful restrictions of the freedom of individuals to seek
medical intervention nor limit education opportunities for children.
is a vast difference between the theory and practice of religion.
Put simply, just like individuals in our society, some practices are
good and some not so.
In this submission we will argue that current
Freedom of Religion provisions and a lack of accountability,
financial and behavioural, for organisations and individuals who
claim religious freedom must be addressed to prevent further victim
abuse. The overall standard by which we should operate as a
society is our commitment to law and our beliefs in the freedom
of human rights of individuals.
successive governments have not had the stomach to address issues of
Freedom of Religion that have allowed excesses and abuses to occur
by not clearly defining what we in Australia accept as “Religion”
and how behaviours need to equate to the standards expected of those
who call Australia home.
more than two decades now, CIFS (Cult Information and Family
Support) has supported individuals and families severely traumatised
by spiritual and physical abuses within religious and other high
demand authoritarian organisations. CIFS remains the primary
volunteer organisation in Australia supporting victims and their
families and whilst calculating the numbers of emails and calls over
that period is difficult, it is estimated that since 2007 alone 50
to 100 emails seeking support have been received every month. Phone
calls from families and individuals average around 10 per week.
This is a huge workload for a small volunteer organisation
working in a difficult area where often the abuse is horrendous
leaving people damaged for many many years.
of the claims of victims and their families have included:
A culture of bullying
and undue coercion that eventually cowers followers to the demands
of the leader(s)
Fraudulent accessing of “donations”,
“inheritances”, “properties” with
leaders benefiting whilst followers live in penury
Occupational Health and Safety violations in
workplaces run by the “Cult” or it’s subsidiary
where fear of retribution prevents people reporting.
Setting up of false “charities”
to channel funds to benefit the leaders and not with clear outcomes
for the purposes of the charity
Isolations from their careers, career
choices, educations, families and friends
Racist, White Supremacist activities and
Beliefs that the Government of the day will
always be the enemy because it belongs to the devil etc
is not alone in the task of supporting victims throughout the world.
It partners with organisations in the USA, UK and Europe where the
number of abuse victims goes into the many many thousands.
is estimated that there are some 3,000 cult like groups operating in
Australia at any one time. This
includes high demand fundamentalist
churches, mosques, synagogues and temples that operate in a similar
manner - demanding obedience, commitment and financial resources
from their followers. Many
Pentecostal churches operate in this
way where the Pastor is recognised as God’s appointed leader
for followers and therefore should not be questioned.
provide tax benefits and legal protection for many religious groups,
including support for their schools and whilst many see this is as
appropriate we argue that through a lack of public accountability as
to how the beliefs of the groups impact and
control the lives of their followers,
it is not. Do those schools funded by Government grants teach
students to become good, moral citizens, who contribute to society
and take part in the processes of that society such as the right to
vote in elections? Do those schools prepare the students for a role
in society, giving them the opportunity to further educations and
career choices suitable to their gifts, talents and abilities?
this is not always the case and a lack of public accountability as
to finances, activities and behaviours of the group means that
students are in effect abused by a system that does not empower them
to achieve their own dreams for their future.
one example. The Exclusive Brethren claims to be a church, and no
doubt is under current guidelines. The church continues to receive
very large financial support from the Government for its schools –
set up to comply with the law of educating children, yet to
segregate children from the rest of society. (One of their beliefs
is that Brethren should not eat and drink with non-believers -
making participation as equals in the world around them very
difficult for children and adults alike). Those children educated in
Brethren schools to High School level will however be prevented from
going on to tertiary studies. None can aspire to be doctors, lawyers
or even`` teachers because of the religious beliefs accepted by
their parents and proclaimed by their leaders, particularly the
current “supreme leader, the Man of God” Bruce Hales.
Denying access to education is against the UN
Declaration of the Rights of the Child, of which Australia is
signatory. Clause 28 of the Declaration specifically obligates
states to make higher education accessible to all and education and
vocation information and guidance available and accessible to all.
Currently, we expect that Freedom of Religion provisions would be
used by Brethren to exclude them from any need to comply with
businesses created by the Exclusive Brethren, of which there are
many, operate with a very tight control that means workplaces abuses
will not be reported for fear of retribution. As much as possible
all disciplinary actions are kept within the church and its
leadership which means that Government authorities do not hear of
abuses. Is that the way Freedom of Religion should operate?
Allowing one organisation to gain tax benefits and lack of
public scrutiny of their behaviours and finances whilst at the same
time violating core beliefs held by Australian citizens? Such
denial of children’s and employees rights is in itself also
abuse. Perpetrators are guilty but then so is general society
when Governments do not ensure that protection of rights is given to
religious supporters argue that religious schools should be able to
exempt staff or students on the basis of faith or sexuality? This
is a vexed area and we would argue that to do so opens a Pandora’s
box whereby religious organisations exist within our borders
accepting different laws and different lawmakers as their authority.
It is a small step to extend this discrimination to medical
professionals who choose to deny medical care to others because of
effective inquiry into Freedom of Religion must examine a failure of
law to protect the innocent that allows organisations to fly under
the radar of public accountability and the expectations of
membership in Australian society. Membership that should
require commitment to our laws and to human rights and values.
addition to this, we note that many religious,
spiritual or ideological organisations
claim tax benefits as not for profit or religions and that their
financial dealings remain hidden from public and even the Australian
Taxation Office review.
of the failure of current Freedom of Religion provisions does not
stop at Cults.
from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to
Child Sexual Abuse should provide a wake up call that is not limited
to the period of the Commission or the time of the release of its
findings. It should be a marker that determines how we deal
with those who abuse, whose silence permits abuse, and whose actions
permit abusers to remain free.
the report of the Royal Commission brought down in December last
year, The Commission reported it had dealt with 1,200 witness
accounts and more than 8,000 private sessions with survivors. The
majority of these complaints related to abuses within established
and respected religious organisations.
light of this, we find it conflicting that some conservative
politicians and religious leaders argue so strongly not only for the
preservation of existing Freedom of Religion provisions but
extensions of these, when it can be argued that it is current
provisions that allowed this horrendous abuse of many decades to
thrive causing heartbreak, suicide and ruined lives to many of our
citizens. Again, this is a failure of law and lawmakers where
one of the reasons for laws is meant to protect citizens from harm.
of this abuse was enabled to occur and for the perpetrators to
escape justice simply because those organisations claimed “Freedom
of Religion”, that in some way they operated separate from
wider society and its expectations.
continuance of the Royal Commission or the establishment of a new
one to examine the psychological, spiritual and financial abuse of
people within religious, spiritual or ideological groups would we
believe reveal the extent of harm done not only to individuals and
families but to the whole of society with the added costs of medical
and psychological care and social welfare for people highly
traumatised by abuse that is not necessarily sexual.
author recently heard of the plight of many families in a small
Australian town whose lives had been controlled to the point of who
they should marry, how finances should be managed, where employment
should be sought and even parenting of children. This is not
unfortunately an isolated occurrence. CIFS has a number of examples
of church and cult groups that have controlled followers lives all
through the fear of a kind of eternal punishment and an authority
vested in the leaders from “God” that puts the leader
conclude we can only hope that this Inquiry will provide
recommendation to Government that our commitment to Freedom of
Religion remain, but that some form of monitoring and accountability
be introduced at a Federal Government level for all groups that
claim benefits as Religious organisations. This could be by
extending the powers of the Charities Commission to cover all not
for profit groups including religious organisations, schools and
business run on their behalf
Senator Nick Xenophon who assisted CIFS in setting up a Conference
in the Old Parliament House Canberra in 2011 said at that time:
“There are no limits on what you
can believe, but there are limits on how you behave, it is called
the Law and no one is above it.”
Ayliffe, CIFS Member, Melbourne 0425733361
Hodgkins, President CIFS 0423 332 766