A Tasmanian judge has given suspended jail terms to three members of the Exclusive Brethren sect after the “emotional abuse” of two children kept from their father.
The judgement was a comprehensive rebuke to one of the three – the children’s mother – and an emphatic statement by the Family Court that it will not tolerate the Exclusive Brethren continuing to flout its orders in pursuit of its policy of strict separation of its members from those who have left the church.
“What happened in this case is that the court said to these people, ‘Do not breach these orders’, in circumstances where the finding was clear that the separation of the children and their father was at the higher end of emotional abuse,” Justice Robert Benjamin said. “I made it absolutely clear. Yet some two or three weeks later a breach occurred. In this case a term of imprisonment is entirely appropriate.”
Justice Benjamin said the woman, her son and her son-in-law had put pressure on the children not to go on an access visit with their father. “These children are entitled to have a relationship with their father, and the steps that the respondents have taken to prevent the relationship are extraordinary and appalling.”
The mother, who lives with her family in Launceston, admitted speaking to the Exclusive Brethren world leader, Bruce Hales, on January 24, 10 days after the failed access visit. She described him as a “family friend” and denied he had influenced her on the case.
The son and son-in-law were found to have aided and abetted the mother, and were given the same sentences. Justice Benjamin suspended the sentences because of the good record of the mother, her son and son-in-law, and because of the age of the two men.
However, they would go to jail if they did not comply with the orders for access in the next 12 months, or if the two men went to the place where the children, aged eight and 13, were handed over.
The mother was ordered to pay all costs, including those of the father and the independent children’s lawyer. The case arose from a judgement on December 21 that the father be given regular access to the two youngest of the couple’s eight children, aged eight and 13.
But when he went to pick them up at the mother’s house for a week-long visit on January 14 he found his son and son-in-law there, even though they were supposed to be at church.
The young children, a boy and a girl, told the father they did not want to go with him. “I knocked on the door, the children came to the door and said, without emotion, that ‘I’m not coming with you’. ”
The mother gave evidence that the children were presented for the father to take, their bags were packed and on the veranda, and she had told them they were allowed to go. But during a two-hour stand-off a police officer was called but could not deliver the children to the father.
The mother admitted under cross-examination that members of the Exclusive Brethren had deposited more than $50,000 into a bank account for her legal costs.
The mother said the money was a loan. She denied that it was part of a “fighting fund,” amassed by the Exclusive Brethren to fight Family Court cases.
“It’s a system of society of love that you probably don’t understand,” the mother told the father’s counsel, Terry McGuire.