For a shadowy group that prefers to keep its activities secret, the Exclusive Brethren have been attracting a whole lot of uninvited publicity over the last few weeks — the latest revelation that a private detective was hired by the Brethren to try to dig up dirt on New Zealand’s Labour party is just another entry in a long list of weird headlines on both sides of the Tasman.

Today The Oz boasts the intriguing twin headlines Brethren “funnelled cash, hid child abuse” and Brethren school kids “brainwashed”. And tonight the ABC’s Four Corners program is dissecting the sect with “insiders turned outcasts” speaking “candidly and emotionally” about the “Exclusive Brethren practice of family separation”.  

The Brethren may be squirming in the glare of the media spotlight, but a former member has told Crikey that the media hasn’t quite cracked the real story behind the sect yet. “I am not able to tell you what their political strategy is but my instincts would tell me that if you want the truth — don’t ask the Brethren.”

The member, who belonged to the UK branch of the Brethren until 1984, told Crikey that he remembers well “the shadowy way they operate.” And he believes their motives extend way beyond exercising political influence in the name of their beliefs. “Their mentions of abortion and gay marriage is likely to be a smokescreen and the real issues are more likely to be business tax breaks, sympathy for rate-free private worship or private school funding (their private schools may well be a smokescreen for money laundering).”

Much as I love many of the Exclusive Brethren, he says, “I also feel deeply sorry for them. The lower tiers of the hierarchy pay a massive price; broken families, lost jobs, lost homes, suicides, etc. to prop up the higher elite”.

Traditionally members of the Brethren do not read newspapers, watch television or use the internet, but the former member told Crikey that the longer the media holds the sect under the microscope, the sooner they’ll spill their secrets.  “My hope is that in this age of communication that the leadership may be more exposed to the point where the lower ranks become aware of the corruption causing a horizontal split. Traumatic as this would be for many, I believe that it would over time unite many families that are currently divided.”