Speak no evil

As child sex abuse cases on both sides of the Tas­man were un­cov­ered among the Ex­clu­sive Brethren, they tried to thwart the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by brib­ing an in­for­mant.

Sunday Star-Times - - Focus - Michael Bachelard October 29, 2017 ❚ Michael Bachelard, the au­thor of Be­hind the Ex­clu­sive Brethren , is the for­eign ed­i­tor of Fair­fax Me­dia Aus­tralia, and the in­ves­ti­ga­tions ed­i­tor for The Age .

The Ex­clu­sive

Brethren church has been cov­er­ing up child sex abuse for decades, and last year,

I wrote about it. The story told of chil­dren who were bul­lied or bought off by the re­li­gious sect to keep the abuse se­cret.

The main source for the story was the Brethren’s for­mer spokesman, Tony McCorkell.

When he was em­ployed by the church, McCorkell spent time in

New Zealand man­ag­ing the fall­out from sev­eral con­tro­ver­sies, in­clud­ing a smear cam­paign or­ches­trated by se­nior Ex­clu­sive Brethren lead­ers against the Labour and Green par­ties dur­ing the 2005 elec­tion cam­paign.

A tow­er­ing, flawed, moun­tain of a man, McCorkell went ner­vously on the record with me, break­ing ranks a decade af­ter leav­ing the church and con­fess­ing to the role he had played in the his­tory of coverups. It was a role that ate at his con­science.

What was not clear at the time, to ei­ther McCorkell or me, was how far the Ex­clu­sive Brethren would go to con­tinue to re­sist the truth be­ing told.

The Ex­clu­sive Brethren is a Chris­tian­based re­li­gious sect that for­mer mem­bers say is a cult. Led by mul­ti­mil­lion­aire Syd­ney busi­ness­man Bruce Hales, it hides from pub­lic scru­tiny. Its mem­bers will not form friend­ships or com­mu­ni­cate with out­siders, ex­cept to do busi­ness with them or to lobby con­ser­va­tive politi­cians.

It do­nates freely, but se­cretly, to Aus­tralia’s Lib­eral Party, even though church mem­bers do not vote. It splits fam­i­lies, de­nies chil­dren the op­por­tu­nity to go to univer­sity and min­imises its tax pay­ments. Hales re­cently rec­om­mended one mem­ber take ar­senic or rat poi­son rather than com­mu­ni­cate with his own fam­ily mem­bers.

The church’s re­sponse to my sex­u­al­abuse story was swift and com­pre­hen­sive.

Be­fore it was even pub­lished last June, they warned me I was in dan­ger of breach­ing the Racial and Re­li­gious Tol­er­ance Act and the defama­tion law. A Mel­bourne-based church func­tionary, Lloyd Grimshaw, wrote to Fair­fax Me­dia chair­man Nick Fal­loon seek­ing ‘‘man­age­ment over­sight’’ of my jour­nal­ism.

A month af­ter the story was pub­lished, a Brethren com­pany reg­is­tered as a char­ity, the Ply­mouth Brethren (Ex­clu­sive Brethren) Chris­tian Church Ltd, briefed Syd­ney lawyer Mark O’Brien and sued Fair­fax Me­dia and me per­son­ally in the Supreme Court for defama­tion.

A sec­ond le­gal ac­tion over the same story was taken against me by a church mem­ber de­scribed as ‘‘Jane Doe’’, who al­leges my re­port­ing il­le­gally iden­ti­fied her as a child vic­tim of sex abuse. That case con­tin­ues in a dif­fer­ent Syd­ney court.

In sub­ur­ban meet­ing halls in Aus­tralian cities, the Brethren held prayer gath­er­ings in which they ap­pealed to God for the death or ‘‘re­moval’’ of me and McCorkell over ‘‘the le­gal pro­ceed­ings in Syd­ney’’. When McCorkell did ac­tu­ally die of nat­u­ral causes this year at the age of 37, they called it an ‘‘an­swer to prayer’’, and ‘‘God’s work com­pleted’’.

But for this wealthy, closed Chris­tian group, leav­ing it to the courts and to prayer was not enough. They also talked with their wal­lets. They re­sorted to bribery.

As we pre­pared our de­fence, be­hind the scenes McCorkell was ne­go­ti­at­ing the fi­nan­cial terms of his si­lence.

Just three days af­ter the defama­tion writ was lodged, Grimshaw, a di­rec­tor of the com­pany su­ing me, signed an agree­ment with McCorkell. Ti­tled ‘‘Ser­vices and Con­fi­den­tial­ity Deed’’, the agree­ment pro­posed to pay McCorkell A$920,000 (NZ$1 mil­lion) over 10 years; part up­front, the rest in monthly pay­ments of A$6000, along with a A$75,000 ‘‘hold­ing’’ ac­count, to keep his mouth shut.

McCorkell, though, did not want to wait 10 years for his cash.

On October 21 last year, he flew from his Queens­land home to Syd­ney to rene­go­ti­ate. Grimshaw’s name might have been on the agree­ment, but it was not him talk­ing turkey. That was left to Dean Hales, the son of the Brethren’s Elect Ves­sel, the Man of God, Bruce Hales.

Dean Hales did not re­turn calls, and Grimshaw said it was ‘‘not con­ve­nient’’ to talk when I spoke to him at home last week. But the ev­i­dence is clear: McCorkell got what he wanted – cash up­front.

On October 25 last year, McCorkell sent a text to a friend, say­ing: ‘‘Dean’s been tex­ting me to­day and so it will hap­pen this morn­ing, I be­lieve. I’m tired and ner­vous but ex­cited.’’

At 3.18pm that day he texted his friend again: ‘‘They just con­firmed it’s paid.’’

Bank records of McCorkell’s com­pany, Auserv, show that A$137,500 hit his busi­ness ac­count the same day – the first half of the bribe, plus GST.

The fol­low­ing month, McCorkell was af­ter his sec­ond tranche. On Novem­ber 16, he texted his mate, say­ing: ‘‘Dean Hales is go­ing to tell Lloyd to re­lease.’’

Six days later there was none of the ner­vous ex­cite­ment of October: ‘‘I’m not flash so home hav­ing a nap and a vomit,’’ he texted. ‘‘Brethren con­firmed pay­ment.’’

Once again, his busi­ness bank ac­count records the trans­fer – an­other A$137,500. What did this money buy?

The Ser­vices and Con­fi­den­tial­ity Deed bound McCorkell not to di­vulge any in­for­ma­tion ‘‘re­lat­ing to the past, present or fu­ture op­er­a­tions or af­fairs’’ of the Ex­clu­sive Brethren church, its mem­bers ‘‘in­clud­ing Mr Bruce Hales’’, their fam­ily mem­bers, com­pa­nies, trusts or em­ploy­ees.

Any such in­for­ma­tion must be held ‘‘in strict con­fi­dence’’. McCorkell was par­tic­u­larly pre­vented from giv­ing any in­for­ma­tion to ‘‘any of the per­sons or their associates listed in Sched­ule 3’’.

One name only ap­pears in Sched­ule 3: mine.

In ad­di­tion, McCorkell was pur­port­edly barred from giv­ing ev­i­dence in a court case, pro­vided he had come by any such ev­i­dence through his work with the Brethren.

Asked if the deed was an at­tempt to cor­rupt a wit­ness, which is a crim­i­nal of­fence, bar­ris­ter Nick Pa­pas, QC, said: ‘‘It ap­pears to be an in­trigu­ing at­tempt to sug­gest to a wit­ness that he can wrig­gle out of his obli­ga­tion to the court. Legally, though, it could never have that ef­fect.’’

The Ex­clu­sive Brethren’s spokesman, Ben Haslem, did not an­swer ques­tions about the pay­ments, say­ing the ‘‘di­rec­tors and staff’’ of his PR firm, Wells Haslem May­hew, ‘‘are un­aware of any of the pay­ments to Tony McCorkell’’.

‘‘Wells Haslem May­hew has never pro­vided ad­vice to the Ply­mouth Brethren [Ex­clu­sive Brethren] Chris­tian Church on pay­ments to Tony McCorkell or any other per­son iden­ti­fied in your email,’’ he wrote.

The deed was not the first time the Ex­clu­sive Brethren had tried to pay money to stop my re­port­ing.

Be­fore he signed the con­fi­den­tial­ity deed in July last year, McCorkell was keen to expose how the Brethren had three times pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered pay­ing a bribe to shut me up.

The first was a decade ago when, through him, they of­fered me and my fam­ily an all-ex­penses paid trip to Noumea on the un­der­stand­ing that I stop writ­ing about the Brethren’s links to then­prime min­is­ter John Howard and its se­cret dona­tions to Lib­eral and Na­tional Party cam­paigns.

I turned that of­fer down.

The sec­ond sug­gested bribe was in Septem­ber 2015, when the Brethren ap­proached McCorkell again af­ter I pub­lished ex­cerpts from Bruce Hales’ church ‘‘min­istry’’, in which he preached that a men­tally ill young man should ‘‘fin­ish your­self off’’ with poi­son.

On that oc­ca­sion, ac­cord­ing to McCorkell, Hales’ right-hand man, Phillip McNaughton, a rel­a­tive by mar­riage, sug­gested pay­ing me a ‘‘six-fig­ure sum’’ to stop writ­ing about the Brethren. McCorkell would re­ceive a sim­i­lar sum if he could con­vince me to ac­cept the money.

The of­fer was made, McCorkell said later, ‘‘be­cause Jenny, Bruce Hales’ wife, was feel­ing the st­ing of the bar­rage of sto­ries, and Bruce was try­ing any­thing pos­si­ble to stop the flow of the neg­a­tive press’’.

McCorkell never put the of­fer to me. In­stead, in an email in October 2015 to McNaughton, he ad­vised the Brethren lead­ers against it.

‘‘I must sound the strong­est of warn­ing bells as to the hid­den dan­gers of go­ing down this path,’’ he wrote, say­ing the ‘‘other party’’ (me) would ‘‘take such a strat­egy as an af­front to their pro­fes­sion­al­ism in their field and to their in­tegrity pro­fes­sion­ally’’.

An at­tempted bribe would likely ‘‘achieve the ex­act op­po­site’’ of what was in­tended, he wrote. It went no fur­ther.

Then, about a month be­fore pub­li­ca­tion of the sex abuse cover-up story – af­ter I had in­formed the Brethren it was com­ing – the re­li­gious group’s lead­ers flew McCorkell to a Syd­ney ho­tel, where McNaughton ini­tially of­fered him A$15,000 to deny the story.

They later upped the of­fer to A$65,000 in to­tal. In re­turn, they wanted him to sign a statu­tory dec­la­ra­tion say­ing I had co­erced him to give his in­ter­view, and that he had been quoted out of con­text.

‘‘No prob­lem of­fer­ing at­ten­dance fees,’’ McNaughton told McCorkell via text. ‘‘We will cover costs, stat dec is to tell the truth about mb’s [Michael Bachelard’s] call to you as dis­cussed.’’

Asked about this ex­change last week, McNaughton said: ‘‘No, I do not re­call that what­so­ever.’’ Then the line went dead.

McCorkell re­sponded to McNaughton’s June text re­ject­ing the money, ‘‘de­spite my con­stant need for it’’. He then signed a statu­tory dec­la­ra­tion out­lin­ing the above de­tails, which he sent to me. At the time, he wanted me to tell the story.

Af­ter July 15 last year, though, he sud­denly went cold on the idea. Only later did I find out that was the same day he signed the ‘‘Ser­vices and Con­fi­den­tial­ity Deed’’.

McCorkell started say­ing he would not give ev­i­dence in the defama­tion case.

‘‘Mum and dad would ba­si­cally dis­own me and im not minded to blow my fam­ily up over it even more so i don’t want to do it at this stage . . . I just want to walk away from any­thing to do with it be­cause they will pub­licly make me out to be a liar and I’m not ready for that,’’ he wrote to me in a se­ries of texts.

Two things then hap­pened. First, the Ply­mouth Brethren (Ex­clu­sive Brethren) Chris­tian Church Ltd dis­puted the au­then­tic­ity of the con­fi­den­tial­ity deed in a court ac­tion.

Sec­ond, McCorkell ad­mit­ted the doc­u­ment was au­then­tic, though su­per­seded. In a tape-recorded phone con­ver­sa­tion, he said: ‘‘I mean, they gave it. They did it as a busi­ness deal.’’

Did you get money? I asked.

‘‘I got just a lit­tle bit to keep me go­ing.’’ It did not keep him go­ing for long. In March, McCorkell’s busi­ness went into liq­ui­da­tion ow­ing cred­i­tors more than A$1m. He died of com­pli­ca­tions of di­a­betes a few months later.

On October 3, the Brethren lost its defama­tion case against Fair­fax and me.

Supreme Court Jus­tice Lucy Mc­Cal­lum ruled that we could not have de­famed a com­pany that did not ex­ist when the events de­scribed in the story took place. The Brethren were or­dered to pay Fair­fax’s costs.

Fair­fax has been ad­vised that the Brethren is ap­peal­ing against that de­ci­sion.

A fort­night later, they still had not in­formed their flock about los­ing a case they all prayed so fer­vently to win.

Leader of the Ex­clu­sive Brethren church Bruce Hales. For­mer Ex­clu­sive Brethren spokesper­son Tony McCorkell.

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