Exclusive Brethren: Sect's secretive leader tells followers to drink rat poison
The secretive Exclusive Brethren is a sect run more like a corporation than a religious group, according to its critics. Members control a network of secret trusts, their 8000 members earn discounts for the church which is led by a secretive Sydney accountant who told a mentally unstable Kiwi follower he should drink rat poison.
A late model black SUV drives up to the foyer entrance, and a greying man in his 60s hops out. Stephen Hales is in town and he's here to preach.
Preach about cash flow, liquidity, and financial forecasting to the 200 businessmen, and a handful of women, who have paid $1800 to attend the Universal Business Team Business Growth Conference, Vodafone Events Centre in south Auckland.
Stephen Hales' brother is Bruce Hales, the world leader of the 45,000-strong Exclusive Brethren, a man who flies by private jet, and is known as the Elect Vessel, the Great Man, Minister in the Lord in Recovery and the Paul of our Day.
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The first family of the publicity-shy religious sect is not known for giving interviews, and today will be no different. Our requests for an audience with Hales are met with denials he is there by two burly yet friendly conference organisers.
They say the conference has nothing to do with the church. At least a third of those in attendance are 'non-community', Christians of other denominations who work for Brethren-owned businesses.
Gatherings such as the UBT conference help Brethren-controlled businesses combine resources, skills and know how and turnover hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
"We are very pleased with the success of the businesses we run and the employment we generate for thousands of people who live in New Zealand from all walks of life with many different faiths and beliefs," he said.
The church's 8000 strong congregation gather to pray at 191 meeting halls in 39 cities and towns around New Zealand every day, and four times on Sunday beginning at 6am. They believe the rest of the world is evil, Christmas is a pagan festival, and trappings of modern life such as TV and Google are 'pipelines of filth'.
But its most controversial practice sees members ostracised for even minor transgressions.
CORPORATION OR RELIGION?
"It's a blurry line," says Peter Lineham.
The Massey University professor has studied the financial structure of the Exclusive Brethren and says their emphasis on making a buck has increased since 2002 under Hales' leadership.
The web of businesses and charitable trusts run by church members, which give money back to the Australian leadership, have been "very cunningly devised" to reduce its tax bill.
"My understanding is that this business organisation is owned and directed by the "man of God", and that thus Bruce Hales is immensely rich from his share in Exclusive business as well as monitoring all their telephone calls. Of course this is not part of the charity, but it is essential to the organisational side of the Brethren."
In a sermon in 2002, Bruce Hales advised followers to "Spoil the Egyptians", a slogan derived from the bible, meaning "get your hands on worldly people's money".
Hales said: "The world is there to take what we want from it, and leave everything we don't want, spoil the Egyptians as quick and as fast as you can, and leave them alone."
Craig Hoyle was excommunicated from the Exclusive Brethren church.
Growing up in the church, Craig Hoyle says his family would always buy their gas at BP, do their shopping at Countdown, and buy flights from Air NZ, with the church business creaming the savings.
"Given the sake of holding to their teachings or making a buck, money will always win. When push comes to shove, money will always win out," says Hoyle, who was kicked out of the church as a teenager after telling his family he was gay.
Hoyle says telephones and computers had to be purchased from the Brethren-controlled UBT, and users were charged inflated prices for their use. Previous teachings by Bruce Hales, where computers were called "instruments of the devil", had been removed.
But the church denies it operates like a business, and says its business and religious entities are kept separate.
Spokesman Doug Watt says UBT has commercial relationships with numerous major companies, including the bulk discount purchase of products and services, which are then made available to UBT customers.
He points to the church's Rapid Relief Team as an example of its charitable pursuits. It provides food and drinks to emergency services personnel, helps out at homeless missions and supports work for other charities.
But some uncomfortable truths have emerged about the church in the past year.
An investigation by The Times newspaper found the church had been granted $27 million in charitable tax relief in one year. The 17,000 strong British sect members made cash payments to Bruce Hales of $724,000 a year, although there was no suggestion that this was in any way unlawful.
When the UK Charities Commission tightened the definition of a religious charity and refused a Brethren trust charitable status, Bruce Hales ordered church elders to put "extreme pressure" on its boss.
In New Zealand, none of the the church's charitable trusts are registered with the Charities Commission, meaning they are not required to say how much money they receive, or where the money goes.
Instead, they have 'donee status' with the IRD, which means they pay no tax on donations.
Given the lack of transparency around the charitable trusts controlled by the church in New Zealand, no one is able to say how much they receive in tax breaks, but a conservative estimate would be in the millions per annum.
The church spokesman said there was no requirement for the church to be registered as a charity as it is not an incorporated entity in New Zealand.
Among the charitable trusts that enjoy tax exemption is the "Hughes Travel Trust", which manages travel for Brethren members. Its stated charitable aim is to help "promote the understanding and practice of the Faith of the Brethren".
'GET SOME RAT POISON'
In September 2015, Bruce Hales was asked about a mentally unwell New Zealand Brethren member man who had been in contact with "opposers" – people who have left the Brethren - should be dealt with.
Bruce Hales, Sydney-based global leader of the Exclusive Brethren, pictured with his wife Jennifer.
The "opposers" in question are understood to be members of the man's own family who have already left the Brethren.
Hales said "having links" with them was "rotten poison", and that the poison had got into the young man, who is from New Zealand.
Despite having been told that the man was "in what would appear to be torment at times," Hales told the meeting it would be better for him to kill himself.
"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," Hales says.
"Arsenic. How do you get arsenic into you? ... He'd be better to take arsenic, or go and get some rat poison or something, take a bottle of it."
Hales then appears to contradict himself: "Now I'm not advocating him doing that but ... that would be better, to finish yourself off that way [rather] than having to do with the opponents of the truth."
Hales tells them to "send the bastard back [to New Zealand]".
The young man in question is a 26-year-old man from Auckland. We have agreed not to name him.
A church spokesman said the comments should not be given a "literal interpretation", and had been taken out of context.
"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'."
Claims that Hales was drunk have been denied.
But according to former members, heavy drinking is a way of life within the church.
BOOZE WITHIN THE BRETHREN
Jill Moxham knew if she didn't leave the church, she would drink herself to death. But the decision to leave the Exclusive Brethren church meant she has barely seen her six children or ten grandchildren in the past 14 years.
Moxham was in the church for 46 years in Whangarei and started drinking when she was 15.
"We were all encouraged to. Everyone drank."
Jill Moxham became an alcoholic while living as an Exclusive Brethren.
Over the years wine and beer became whiskey neat. Moxham used to wait until after 5pm, but when the church introduced homeschooling, she found taking care of four kids all day too much.
"I just said I couldn't do it and they said 'you have to'."
Moxham, 61, says she overdosed on whiskey one day, and was discovered by her second youngest daughter.
"If it had been another couple of minutes they thought I would have died. I was on life support for three days. I couldn't breath for myself. My kidneys shut down."
She was sent to a rehab clinic on Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
"I knew that once I got over there it was life changing. The environment for an alcoholic, it's suicide."
Leaving the church meant saying goodbye to her family, and learning how to handle the outside world.
"I didn't even know how to turn a mobile phone on when I left. My partner called me Mork from Ork (from the TV show Mork & Mindy)."
In response, a church spokesman said drinking alcohol was never encouraged.
Anyone with drinking issues were treated with "great compassion" and Brethren members with addiction issues were free to choose what assistance best suits their needs.
"While Jill left the Church many years ago, Brethren members hope she is able to find the help and support she requires."
Moxham says she has managed to survive 14 years without a drink or the church through remaining positive.
"Most people that come out are really bitter. I want to come from a compassionate side. I'm not too sure about God now."
She is the administrator for White Dove Refuge, a cult survivor support group which has just been registered with the Charities Commission.
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- Sunday Star Times