Former Exclusive Brethren members hit with dawn raids, legal suits after speaking out against the secretive Christian sect
9 August, 2020
Braden Simmons awoke to a knock at the door. Outside were lawyers and investigators with a court order to search his home.
A former Exclusive Brethren who was once told to drink rat poison by the church’s Supreme Leader is one of several former members fighting legal action after speaking out against the church. Bevan Hurley reports.
On June 30 this year, Braden Simmons attended an informal session with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.
no choice but to allow the investigators into his home
He would later tell friends he was there to share his story about his mental struggles during his time as an Exclusive Brethren, and in particular an incident involving the church’s Supreme Leader Bruce Hales, a man who is looked on by members as the embodiment of the Holy Spirit on earth.
Eleven days later, two lawyers, a private investigator and a forensic expert showed up at Simmons’ Mangere Bridge home just before dawn. They had a court order to search every electronic device in his home. The order was made ‘without notice’ – meaning Simmons had no clue what was coming.
Footage shows them going room by room, asking everyone present to hand over laptops, mobile phones for inspection.
An independent, court-appointed solicitor was on hand to explain to Simmons that his former boss Peter Bishop, understood to be one of the church’s top elders in New Zealand, and employer Rock Solid Holdings were making a series of serious claims against him in a civil action before the Auckland High Court.
Doug Watt, a spokesperson for the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC), which the Exclusive Brethren now refer to themselves as, said yesterday the church knew nothing about Simmons’ appearance at the inquiry.
“The first the PBCC heard that Mr Simmons took part in a Royal Commission is from you, today. That said, since then we have asked around and understand Mr Simmons had told a few church members about his intention to do this.”
‘He'd be better to take arsenic or go and get some rat poison’
Braden Simmons was in the midst of a ‘mental torment’. It was 2015, and the then 25-year-old Exclusive Brethren had only known life inside the closed confines of the church.
From home to school to work, social life to religious instruction, every aspect of his life was based around the church.
As a member he was not allowed to eat, form friendships or communicate with outsiders, except to do business with them.
And next to God is the Supreme Leader, also known as the Elect Vessel, or Man of God, Bruce Hales, who’s every utterance is treated as absolute gospel.
Simmons had quit his job with commercial property developers Euroclass and travelled to Europe and on to the United Kingdom. While staying with a Brethren family, word reached his hosts that he was in contact with an ‘Opposer’, the name given to former members who have left the Brethren.
Bruce Hales was asked about this at a Brethren gathering in Sutton, south London, on June 9, 2015.
During a lengthy ministry, which was published in one of the church’s booklets, or white papers, and distributed to Brethren around the world, Hales said it would be better for those who were in contact with ‘Opposers’ to drink rat poison, or arsenic.
“The trouble with your fellow is he's got poisoned. He might as well get a shot of - what's the best thing to kill you quickly? What's the stuff? Cyanide. No, not cyanide. Arsenic. How do you get arsenic into you?
“I was going to say he'd be better to take arsenic or go and get some rat poison or something, take a bottle of it. Now I'm not advocating him doing that, but you might as – that would be better to finish yourself off that way than having to do with the opponents of the truth.”
Hales later says his wife is going to be worried what he might say next. “But listen, I haven't even had half a drink, not even a quarter... probably an ounce maximum.”
He goes on to appear to make fun of Simmons’ initials, saying: “Well I think we've hit the nail on the head. This... is a lot of BS.”
The incident was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Times of London, and Stuff. Simmons was not identified. But inside the church, it was widely known who Hales was referring to.
When asked about the rat poison comments in 2016, the church said Hales’ words as a metaphor and not to be taken literally.
“Mr Hales did not say any person should drink rat poison. Mr Hales was using a metaphor to illustrate... the effect on a person coming into contact with another person whose beliefs and values are different from their own and potentially damaging.
“It is hardly unusual for a preacher or minister in any religion to warn a congregation to avoid people who extol certain beliefs and that those beliefs are ‘poison’.”
Asked whether there was any concern about the imbalance of power, spokesperson, Doug Watt, said yesterday the church had not changed its position.
Friends of Simmons have told Stuff he was ex-communicated after objecting to the ‘rat poison ministry’, and felt that a man who would say such things could not be the Man of God.
‘Are you Mr Simmons’?
At around 7am on July 11, Rob McLean was woken by a loud knock at the door.
McLean was staying in a spare room at Simmons’ Mangere Bridge.
“I poked my nose out the window and there was a whole crowd of people looking outside. Quite serious looking people in trenchcoats and umbrellas. This is the middle of winter and it’s dark. I couldn’t believe my ears or my eyes. One asked 'Are you Mr Simmons?"
Outside was senior counsel Zane Kennedy, an experienced litigator and former partner at MinterEllisonRuddWatts, his junior solicitor, Hannah Jaques, court-appointed independent solicitor Mihai Pascariu, a private detective and another specialist forensic investigator.
McLean began filming, capturing the intensely awkward, and at-times confrontational scene.
Pascariu, appointed by the court as an impartial adjudicator, asks to come inside to explain what was happening.
The court appointed solicitor explains the nature of the search order, while Simmons phones his lawyer, seeking advice.
He’s told if he refuses to comply with the order, he’ll be in contempt of court.
Simmons just has enough time to take a shower before the search begins.
The other lawyers and investigators are eventually let inside. McLean filmed as they went room-to-room, threatening to call the police on them.
“It was like something out of a crime movie. It’s out of this world. And this is New Zealand in 2020. People can’t get their head around the fact that there is such a law that allows individuals to do a dawn raid without any notice.”
McLean was ex-communicated by the church about 10 years ago. He's also been caught up in an increasingly rancorous legal dispute and is not allowed to see his family.
He says it seems like it’s a common tactic of the Brethren’s to use their enormous wealth to entangle former members in endless litigation.
Stuff made legal representations through counsel Robert Stewart to publish details of the civil case.
After a hearing at Auckland High Court on July 22, Justice Tracey Walker allowed the parties to be named, but said the allegations and other details cannot be published.
Watt, the PBCC spokesman, said yesterday: “The proceedings you mentioned have been brought by an independent company, Rock Solid Holdings and associated parties, not the church.
“Yes, the owner of Rock Solid Holdings is a member of our church, but his religious affiliation is entirely beside the point as will be obvious from the nature and details of the claim.
“I’m also curious to know if he was Catholic or Jewish, would you be asking those churches about this legal issue?”
Watt said the church had never discouraged former members either explicitly or through legal channels not to take part in the Royal Commission.
In another case, an 83-year-old Palmerston North man is fighting an application to the High Court by the Exclusive Brethren’s commercial arm Universal Business Team, or UBT, seeking access to his records and emails.
His alleged wrongdoing? Unauthorised use of an Exclusive Brethren directory.
Peter Harrison was kicked out of the church in 1982 and immediately estranged from his wife, four sons and church members.
Over the years of continued forced estrangement from family members, Harrison occasionally attempted to call the Brethren's extreme practices to account by writing to senior elders, but to no effect.
On March 9 this year, Harrison received legal documents from the UBT alleging a ‘breach of confidence’, alleging he had used a church directory to send letters to members of the church in Australia.
The case is due before the High Court in Palmerston North later this month.
His barrister Steven Price, said: “It will be for the court to decide, but we'll be arguing that this application is heavy-handed and unnecessary.”
Price said Harrison had tried to explain to the Brethren that the letters were sent out by another person, and he hasn’t ever had a copy of the 2015 address book in question in his possession.
“He's stressed and feels bullied. He can't quite understand how he can be said to have done anything wrong here. He feels like they're punishing him for speaking out against him.”
The Brethren have also pursued litigation against former members, media companies and academics in Australia and the United Kingdom in recent years.
Watt, the PBCC spokesman, said the church doesn't pursue legal actions lightly nor unless they have advice that they have a proper basis to do so.
“UBT is using normal legal processes to request information to determine if our intellectual property has been compromised.
“We have a perfectly reasonable right to protect our property from infringement or theft, regardless of the age of the people who might be involved.”
The true word of God
On its website, the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church says its beliefs are that the “Holy Bible is the true Word of God and we believe we are each called upon to live a life in accordance with its instructions”.
“We hold the same faith as every true Christian and as such we believe spiritual growth arises when the teachings of the Bible are applied to daily life.”
But those words ring hollow for Braden Simmons’ sister Lindy Jacomb.
Growing up in the Brethren, Jacomb had always been spiritually curious.
And as she grew older, Jacomb found it more and more difficult to reconcile the teachings of the Brethren with what she read about in the bible.
She didn’t understand why she couldn’t become a teacher or a nurse, professions expressly forbidden by the Brethren. She had questions, and eventually could no longer keep hiding her doubts about the group. She also wrote down several pages of questions and sent them to Bruce Hales.
Jacomb says this was seen as ‘challenging’ the Man of God.
She began to receive visits from church elders, two men, who would take her into a room and apply extended pressure to change her thinking.
“It's you with two older men alone in a room, I look back in horror at it now, it's just what we thought was normal. My parents eventually came to me and said ‘there's no place for you under our roof’.”
At the age of 20, Jacomb found herself completely alone. Then, in 2008, the Brethren were banned from using computers or the internet. She recalled someone mentioning the name of a relative who’d been kicked out of the church before she was born, and used the 018 national directory system to find them.
“A wonderful couple took me in even though I was a stranger, and have become like real parents to me.”
Jacomb’s adopted parents walked her down the aisle when she got married, and are loving grandparents to her son.
She says: “You have to start again figuring out what you believe, trying to figure out what is truth. I have decided that I do believe in Christianity but it looks very different from the Brethren's version of Christianity.”
She studied a Bachelor of Theology and is now a pastor at the Karori Baptist Church, her continuing faith is something of a rarity among former Brethren.
“A lot of people come out of the Brethren very broken and vulnerable, so traumatised by what's been done to them in the name of religion that they don't want to touch it with a 40-foot pole.”
Jacomb is supporting her brother Braden and Peter Harrison through their litigation.
She says it appears the Brethren engage in legal action and threats to quieten down former members from speaking out about their experiences.
“How on earth have they got to where they’ve got to where they think it's right to sever children from families, husbands from wives, and grandparents to grandchildren.”
When asked about the traumatising impact of separation, and whether the church regretted any of its actions, PBCC spokesperson Watt said: “The fact is, sometimes people leave churches and that certainly isn’t unique to us. Just like other religious communities, if one member leaves the group, the dynamic changes and people and their families can react in different ways.
“It is up to individual families as to how they manage and respond to these situations. I will say very strongly that the church will always support its own members, and the church would never stand in the way of families communicating with each other.
“At the end of the day, we are Christian, and it’s our desire to live alongside our local communities and to act with kindness and compassion.
“So no, while I cannot guarantee that every Brethren member has done everything right over our 100 years or more of history, I know from experience that the vast majority of Brethren are very good people trying to do very good things.”
Rebranding as the PBCC
The shift to being known as the PBCC is an attempt at a rebranding exercise, say former members of the church.
The church engages in some community outreach through efforts such as the Rapid Relief Team, which hands out food and essential supplies at the scenes of natural disasters and emergencies.
The Rapid Relief Team has also actively sought media attention for its efforts delivering food to parcels to south Auckland.
A global organisation, its New Zealand branch received $908,000 in donations last year.
That’s dwarfed by the tens of millions in annual donations to the National Assistance Fund, one of the richest charities in New Zealand, whose trustees are Brethren elders.
Filings with the Charity Register show it’s received $353 million in donations since 2010. In its best year, ending 20 June 2019, it received more $60m.
The National Assistance Fund’s stated purpose is to “source and apply resources for the benefit and wellbeing of persons in NZ through promoting the understanding and practice of the Christian faith”.
“We contribute to the well-being of NZ society by supporting the provision of… Educational facilities operated on principles consistent with the Christian faith.”
Yet, as one former member points out, non-Brethren are not allowed to attend their churches, prayer meetings or enrol in their schools.
The charity shares its address in the Hamilton suburb of Te Rapa with UBT Accountants, which is part of the sprawling group of companies under the UBT umbrella. UBT being the company that is suing Peter Harrison for misuse of its directory.
Peter Bishop, who is suing Braden Simmons, is a director of NAF Trustee, a corporate trust which manages the National Assistance Fund charity.
When approached for comment, Simmons said: “The actions that have been taken have impacted many people, whom I care about beyond words. For this reason I have no comment to the media.”
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