I have been writing about and thinking about cults since the morning in late 2006 when my editor came to me and asked me to write a story about the Exclusive Brethren.
‘Who are they?’ I asked.
It was a fateful question, both for me and, I suspect, for the Exclusive Brethren.
It turns out that, for a former political reporter recently promoted to The Age’s investigative unit, the process of finding out about the Exclusive Brethren was very interesting indeed.
At that time, in New Zealand, this separatist little offshoot from nineteenth century dispensationalism was busy hiring private detectives to tail the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, and helping spread rumours that her husband was gay.
They had previously undertaken a shady, undisclosed attempt to manipulate the result of the 2005 New Zealand election, and instal a Prime Minister who would have owed them big time.
Thanks largely to the work of a New Zealand journalist, their interference was uncovered, and the intended beneficiary of their assistance, National Party leader Don Brasch, unexpectedly lost the election and then his leadership.
And in Australia, it turned out, they had mounted a similar, though more successful, attempt to swing an election in favour of their candidate. In 2004, John Howard had received significant advertising support, as well as boots on the ground in his own electorate at least, to help him win that year’s Federal election.
But it was not until two years later, in around 2006 that this involvement started to be revealed.
That’s where I joined the story. Others had done much of the heavy lifting to identify the Exclusive Brethren’s secretive hand in Australian and New Zealand politics to that point, and I was simply asked to find out if they would be intervening in Victorian state politics at the 2006 election.
Very quickly I was able to find out that they had already taken steps to help candidates at that election. They had met with at least one state MP on the conservative side of politics to test his views on certain issues.
I wrote the story; it was printed on page 1 – an early indication of the rewards one could expect when writing about such a strange and compelling group.
There’s nothing an investigative reporter likes more than a secret, and exposing them clearly had its rewards when all their efforts were being expended to fly ‘under the radar’.
Further potential rewards were immediately revealed to me. I was literally flooded with correspondence from former Exclusive Brethren members urging me to investigate further. Warren McAlpin, who was to become my guide through the convoluted world of Brethrenism, was important among those early calls.
It was at Warren’s suggestion that I visited the Brethren’s main compound, in a bleak part of suburban Melbourne, one night in that first week, and tried to make the case as to why they should let me in to view their church service.
"It’s a public place of worship," I argued, "It’s got a rate exemption hasn’t it?"
My arguments fell on stubborn ears. The keepers of the locked gates refused me entrance, saying, "You might be the most corrupt man in Melbourne". But even if I’d been George Pell they would not have let me in. They’re not called "exclusive" for nothing!
When I tried to ignore these gatekeepers and assert my rights by walking down the driveway, I was confronted by four burly men, who emerged from the shadows to block my way. They threatened me with trespass, so I withdrew to watch from across the road.
Awaiting me the following day was a legal letter accusing me of all sorts of things, and threatening various kinds of legal action, from trespass to defamation suits.
It was to be the first of many legal letters I have received from the Exclusive Brethren. Punishment, or the threat of it, turned out to be swift.
But that threat, like all the rest, simply served to encourage me. My two day excursion into their world turned into a month, then six months, then a year. I wrote dozens of stories about them – their cruelty towards their own flock, the financial trickery that goes to enrich them, and to fund their separatist schools; their hidden manipulation of the political system to their own ends, and even their mistreatment of child sexual abuse victims in Albury.
Ultimately I ended up writing a book about them, Behind the Exclusive Brethren, which drew all of this together in one handy compendium.
It must have become clear even to the Brethren at some point that the legal threats were not working. It didn’t stop the threats arriving, but they added another weapon to their armoury: they hired a very expensive public relations firm, to try to spin their side of the story more effectively.
Jackson Wells, the team that also looks after the Church of Scientology, has taken on the Exclusive Brethren as a client.
And as my book was being published, suddenly they were opening up the doors of Brethren schools to my competitors to tell the world at large how nice it all was, what a wonderful place it was to grow up. They also put out a blizzard press releases to tell the world – before it was even released -- that my book was a "work of fiction".
I accept all this. Journalists are involved in a robust public debate, often throwing barbs at other people, and we should accept that some will come back our way.
I do not believe that all speech, no matter how inaccurate, should be free. I accept there are limits on it. I am happy to operate within those limits because, I believe, my own credibility and that of the stories I tell, will suffer if I stray outside them.
Both the defamation law and the operation of public relations professionals calling my work into question, are two ways in which those limits on free speech are enforced, and I believe they are a part of legitimate public debate.
And so to the representative of the Exclusive Brethren’s law firm who is listening to this speech, and presumably taking very careful notes, I say welcome to Canberra. I hope you’re staying somewhere nice.
The Exclusive Brethren is just one cult. There are many. But they all share common characteristics.
I know this because my work on the Brethren has broadened out into an interest in other such groups, religious or otherwise.
My writing in The Age and Sunday Age has also touched on the activities of various cults, including the Jesus People, Kenja, Scientology, one other which, for legal reasons I will not mention today. I regard it as a privilege that I have been able to attain some expertise in this area.
A very small number of Australians are caught up in cults at any given time, but the damage that can be wrought on them and their children is deep. The damage can be financial, psychological, physical. But in most cases it lasts a lifetime, and longer.
I’ll never forget the woman who approached me after my book launch in Melbourne in 2008 and said that her family had left the Exclusive Brethren when she was three years old, but the shadow of it had hung over her childhood – the missing aunts and uncles, the black holes in the life of her parents that they would not speak about.
This woman had never within her own memory belonged to that group, but still it had damaged her life to the point where, 35 years later, she was motivated to come to the launch of a book on the subject.
One of the things that all cults share is that, through their leader or leaders, they can control the lives of their members. They even seek to control the lives of their former members, and in that context, I would like to pass my very best wishes to our friend Warren McAlpin who cannot be here today for very complex reasons.
Cults and their leaders are control freaks. They set the rules that all must follow then they use the pressure of the group, and the threat of various punishments, to enforce those rules.
This means that the thing they hate most in the world is someone from outside, who is not subject to their rules or vulnerable to their techniques of manipulation, looking at them and exposing their beliefs and practices to the outside world.
When this happens the cult and its practices become part of the chaotic public conversation, subject of free speech and the cleansing power of daylight. It’s totally outside their control, which is precisely where they don’t like it.
That is why it’s crucial that journalists continue to do this work, and why politicians continue to take notice of it.
Cults dress themselves in all the protections they can to mask their activities – religious freedom and its legal protections being a favourite.
But exposing Kenja as the controlling cult that it is, and not a simple counselling and circus arts group was crucial.
Undressing the religious pretensions of Scientology and revealing that at its heart lay Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy was an incredibly powerful act. It has not cured the world of Scientology, far from it, but it’s certainly improved the weapons that can be used against it.
And showing the politicians in Canberra what these quietly spoken men in brown trousers and short sleeved shirts from the Exclusive Brethren really do behind their locked gates will hopefully mean that Bruce Hales and his "priests" have much less political power in future.
To make sure the power of cults is undercut takes two things: brave former members or families of members who are prepared to stand up and tell their stories; and a place where those stories can come out.
And so to the real rewards I have enjoyed for reporting on cults. Those rewards are in the people I have met and worked with. People like Warren McAlpin and Alison Alderton and her daughters, who revealed to me the horror of their life stories, and through them, the barbarism inherent in the doctrine of separation as practiced by the Exclusive Brethren.
Madeline Hardess, once of the Jesus People, Adrian Norman, who escaped from Kenja, and many others I cannot name have trusted me with their stories in a way that I hope has made some difference to them, and to the world at large.
To feel trusted with these stories is its own reward. And with luck, telling them will resonate with others who have suffered similarly.
And perhaps then the children, husbands and wives, partners, relatives of those who have left a cult can see that story and say "Yes, that’s why you’re like you are".
I have spoken to other journalists who have covered cults: Quentin McDermott from Four Corners, Rohan Wenn formerly of Channel Seven, and Brian Seymour of Today Tonight, and they agree: if our reporting brings just a few more people to their senses, draws some out of their high demand organisation, that would be the ultimate justification for our work.
But ultimately the biggest difference will be made if the criminal activities of cults, the psychological assaults they commit, can be identified, revealed and stopped.
That change will take more than a journalist’s skill. That will take political will.
And if we can achieve that, it really would be worth all those legal threats and the spindoctors sneering at us and questioning our motives and professionalism.
That would be the biggest reward of all.