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.
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.