Despite criminal investigations, these groups continue unfettered.
The recent evidence of the psychological harm caused by religious cults could not be more graphic.
On ABC TV’s Four Corners, Liz and James Anderson told how their indoctrination in Scientology saw them part with hundreds of thousands of dollars buying the outpourings of guru L. Ron Hubbard. Eventually they also lost one of their daughters, signing guardianship to a Scientologist slave labour camp called Sea Org.
Today Tonight then revealed how a NSW-based Exclusive Brethren doctor, Mark Craddock, had chemically castrated a young man to suppress his sex drive because he was gay.
When Today Tonight dared to film him with victim Craig Hoyle outside the Brethren headquarters, they were pursued around Sydney by cars full of young thugs who are facing criminal charges.
Despite this latest evidence, the Senate rejected Nick Xenophon’s request for an inquiry into Scientology when both major parties voted against it. We’ve been down this road before. Through much of 2006 and 2007, the Greens tried to get a Senate inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren, and the major parties vetoed it. The Liberal Party’s serial cult apologist, Eric Abetz, dismissed the victims of these damaging organisations as people ”voluntarily allowing themselves to be brainwashed”.
This means that, in Australia, cults are thriving under the protection of politicians, the police and the courts.
When it comes to notions of religious freedom, our thinking is dangerously woolly. The only cult indoctrination we take seriously is by Islamic terror groups. The recent counter-terrorism white paper recognised the process of radicalisation that young Muslim men undergo before committing acts of violence.
But the same techniques of coercive persuasion make Scientologists sign away guardianship of their children; have abortions at someone else’s demand; or make Exclusive Brethren members teach their children that their estranged father is ”of the devil”.
All this causes damage that is lifelong and debilitating. And yet politicians are petrified of being seen to infringe the right of an apparently religious group to do whatever it wants. We need to ruthlessly tighten up our understanding in this area.
We could use the International Charter of Human Rights as our model of appropriate behaviour. And we should have a commissioner of religions to enforce the law. Religious freedom should not be granted unconditionally. And by their practices we should know them.
Michael Bachelard is a senior Sunday Age journalist and author of Behind the Exclusive Brethren.