The Exclusive Brethren Church is being rocked by accusations that it has covered up a "plague" of sexual abuse in its ranks.
Last week a former member of the church, 74-year-old Clive Allen Petrie, was found guilty in Nelson of nine counts of indecently assaulting girls under 12 and one of inducing a girl under 12 to do an indecent act on him. The case involved four girls, three in the 1950s and 60s, and the fourth in the 1980s.
Former church member Neville McCallum, who last week sent a letter to all 1900 Brethren households in New Zealand about alleged crimes and cover-ups within the church, says the Nelson case "is only the tip of the iceberg".
And one of the four women assaulted by Petrie told the Sunday Star-Times there were many other cases of sexual abuse in the church.
The reclusive sect, which has about 7000 members in New Zealand, hit the headlines in the 2005 election when it was revealed that it had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars covertly backing the campaign of the National Party under Don Brash. The Brethren shun contact with the outside world and do not normally vote.
McCallum, of Blenheim, who helped the women in the Petrie case, said he was aware of at least two other cases of sexual abuse and one of physical abuse of a wife by a husband.
In one case, which dated back to the early 1960s, a church member repeatedly raped a young woman after plying her with alcohol.
"The man who dealt to her sexually molested all his children," McCallum said. "One of his children has spoken to me recently and said, 'If you find anybody else who was raped or damaged by my father, I will stand and support them'."
He had spoken to the woman and now expected a complaint to be made to police.
McCallum said he was also aware of a case where a man had abused his daughter up until about three years ago, when his wife had taken the children and left the church. The church had supported the husband and "verbally persecuted her so badly she had to go and ask for police protection".
He was also aware of another woman who had been physically abused by her husband and had left the church.
The general pattern was for church leadership to take the man's side and either do nothing or cover up the offence, McCallum said. This had happened in the Petrie case.
He and two other former members of the church sent a letter to Brethren households saying there was a "plague" of sexual abuse and other crimes.
"We resent the attitude of your leaders both toward us and towards you," the letter says. "Both you and our concerns are jilted. We have shown respect but they have responded with contempt, arrogance and insincerity. Your leaders direct your attention away from the abusive, ungodly and criminal excesses of your privileged priestly hierarchy. We appeal to you to act."
One of the women in the Petrie case told the Star-Times she had been molested repeatedly between the ages of five and eight by Petrie. When she complained to her mother and other Brethren women that she "didn't like what he was doing to her", they replied that he was "just playing, and I was to quieten down".
The church accepted Petrie's word and didn't even bother to ask for her testimony – "being a female, I was nothing. My word didn't count for anything, and that's how it's been all along", the woman said.
She had never told anyone about it until 18 months ago, when she and her sister revealed the fact that he had molested them both. By then she was in her 60s. However, the sisters were unable to discuss what actually happened, and had still not done so.
"We were brought up to believe you don't talk about those things," she said. As a child, she felt guilty and ashamed about what he had done. "I always wondered what I'd done to make him do those things to me."
She met other girls in the church, which she left when she was 16, who had been abused and, since the Petrie case, has also become aware of another case of abuse in the church.
There were many more such cases and the people responsible had to be held to account, she said. "The Catholic Church has had to, the Salvation Army has had to. I mean, who do the Brethren think they are, that they don't have to be accountable?"
The Nelson police officer in charge of the Petrie case, Detective Constable Sally McBride, said she was not aware of any other cases of sexual abuse by the Brethren.
A statement issued by the Brethren in Sydney said the church "considers sexual abuse, whether against a child or an adult, abhorrent. Any attempt to cover up such abuse is equally abhorrent".
The church taught the importance of upholding the law, and respected the judicial process and supported its decisions. "Sympathy is extended to those affected by Mr Petrie's actions," the statement said.
- Sunday Star Times