Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.
Blaise Pascal French mathematician, physicist (1623 – 1662)
For it is humility – the complete abasement of our own assessments and thought processes – that opens the way to freedom.
Tim Maurice, Highlands Christian Fellowship – June 2008
You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.
William Wilberforce, 1789
Helen Pomery is a typical, upper-middle class woman – the absolute epitome of a well-to-do doctor’s wife. Tonight, well-dressed, immaculately made-up and hair carefully coiffed she stands in front of an audience of seventy people in the meeting room of a slightly shabby Brisbane pub.
“I was married for 30 years,” she explains. “My husband was a doctor – a gynaecologist and an obstetrician. I was his practice manager. I can’t prove it to you, but we had a normal, happy marriage. We had three children. We had a close and loving family. My husband was a good man.”
Helen’s nightmare began after they moved from South Australia to Maryborough in the 1990s and began attending a normal looking church, full of normal looking, middle-class people. Some time after, the couple moved to Brisbane after Helen’s husband expressed a wish to become more involved in his leadership work with the church – which is based at Samford, in Brisbane, but has satellite churches throughout the country.
“There were no alarm bells,” says Helen. “The church presents so well – it doesn’t look like a cult. No-one knowingly joins a cult.”
What Helen wasn’t told when she innocently joined the Brisbane Christian Fellowship (BCF) was that her husband would be persuaded to transfer his loyalty from his family to the church hierarchy and that she would be required to submit, unquestioningly, to him. If this chain of command was not honoured, they were told, their entire family would suffer eternal damnation. The responsibility of keeping his family under the submission of the Church falls to the husband. Helen was not to know when she joined the BCF, beguiled by smiling, welcoming people and ‘wonderful music’, that the Church leaders would later subject her family to an ‘acid test’, setting husband against wife and parent against child, to ensure that their loyalty lay, not with each other, but with the Church and its supreme leader, Vic Hall.
“The dynamic wears you down,” Helen explains. “They screw with your mind. They practice poisoning in small doses.”
During her 15 years with the BCF, Helen was forced to submit, without question, to her husband and the male elders of the church and she was punished arbitrarily when they deemed that she was not ‘on board’. She was routinely instructed to produce written confessions to trumped up charges of disloyalty and threatened with various forms of exclusion if she did not comply. She was told that she must not think for herself. The Church, she says, calls for the ‘complete abasement of thought processes’. Her role in the ‘divinely appointed’ order was to act only under the instructions of her husband, and his, to act only under the instructions of Vic Hall and the other church elders.
The BCF teaches that ‘an unsubmitted woman walks into insanity and then she walks into death’. Worn down, psychologically abused, and on the brink of suicide, Helen wrote in her journal, “The men want me to come to an end of myself – do they want me dead?”
“My life at that time was sheer survival,” she says. But what was the price of self-preservation? To fail to submit, she was told, was to condemn her entire family to eternal damnation. Meekly invalidating herself, giving up her free will, her intelligence, her autonomy was, she was led to believe, the ultimate act of selfless love.
Cruelly, her misery was exacerbated by the fact that, “The more I was victimised, the more my husband was esteemed.”
Helen’s second daughter was the first to be excommunicated from the BCF and estranged from the family. At 26 years old she wanted to date a man from outside the church. Her father, in concert with Hall and the church elders, refused his permission. She insisted on being free to make her own decision, and was evicted. Helen was told she was to have no further contact with her daughter – ever.
“It’s not like coping with a loved-one’s death,” says Helen, who lost her father at around the same time. “Death is normal.”
“To be asked to treat my daughter ‘as if’ she were dead, but knowing that she wasn’t, was torture – nobody understands the horror of being trapped inside a cult.”
Now Helen’s marriage is over. She was evicted from her family home and left destitute and alone for the ‘sin’ of phoning her daughter to tell her she loved her. When Helen confessed to her ‘crime’, she was given seven days to leave the house, excommunicated from her church, and prevented from seeing, or having contact with her two children and three grandchildren still trapped inside the cult.
As her husband informed her of this decision, he assured her, “I have never loved you more than I love you now.”
“He meant it,” Helen explains. “He was convinced that the only way to save his family was to force us to submit.” The church rules by fear. Fear is the ultimate tool of control.
It has taken nine years, a stint in a USA deprogramming centre and long-term, on-going psychological counselling for Helen to reach the point where she is tonight – standing up and telling her story to a room full of strangers.
Helen now works with the Queensland Cult Information and Family Support network. Since meeting with other cult survivors she has realized that her story is not unique.
“We have all lived through the same nightmare,” she says. “The names of the victims, the institutions and their ideologies may differ but they all operate the same way.”
And there are thousands of victims here in Australia. At the recent Cult Information and Family Support (CIFS) conference, survivors from more than twenty different cults were represented. Not all cults are religious, but many are. And what should outrage ordinary Australians is that our government supports this abuse through tax exemptions and grants.
Indeed, the BCF is widely known as an abusive cult. It has long since been exposed by its victims, on television, in a book, and on an internet forum where survivors tell their stories. According to Helen, the BCF offers no charitable or welfare services or any other kind of community benefit. And yet, their multi-million dollar income and property holdings are untaxed, simply because they are a ‘religious institution’ and, in accordance with a four hundred year old law, the state deems that the ‘advancement of religion’ is a charitable act in, and of, itself. Further, our government supplies the BCF with grants to operate a ‘Bible School’ which reportedly runs only four ‘classes’ a year – has any government officer asked what is taught at this ‘institution’ or do they just blithely hand the money over, no questions asked?
And, what is the response of our esteemed politicians to this blatant abuse of tax-payer’s largesse, not to mention the psychological abuse of women and children within the cult? They tell Helen they can’t get involved because they have to honour the ‘separation of church and state’ and people’s ‘freedom of religion’.
As Helen says, “Nobody chooses to join a cult.” It is not a free choice. The people who join such organizations are the victims of a ‘bait and switch’. They may enter the ‘shop front’ of their own free will, but they don’t know that, ultimately, their ‘free will’ is the price of admission. Being drawn into a cult and being kept there by coercive persuasion and mind-control techniques has nothing to do with ‘freedom of religion’ – it is state-sponsored slavery, abuse and imprisonment.
The fact that our politicians turn a blind-eye to this abuse and pretend that there is nothing they can do is both despicable and inexcusable.
The French Government, does not subsidise any religion, either with grants or exemptions, so that they are not implicated in allowing religious cults to fleece their members, tax-free. The British Government has recently introduced a ‘public benefit’ test for religious institutions seeking tax exemptions. Why is this not being done in Australia?
Further, in 2001, the French Government instituted laws to guard against cultic abuse. The French anti-cult law established the new crime of mental manipulation, defined as any activity or activities undertaken with the goal or the effect to create or to exploit the state of mental or physical dependence of people who are participating in the group’s activities and to infringe upon their human rights and fundamental liberties; to exert repeated pressures in order to create or exploit this state of dependence and to drive the person, against their will or not, to act (or abstain from acting) in a way which is heavily prejudicial to them. Importantly, the French law allows for the criminal culpability and dissolution of a corporation or association whose members or leaders have been found engaging in such activities.
If such laws and protections can be enacted in other Western countries, they can be enacted here. The defence that the state must allow ‘freedom of religion’ is a smokescreen for cowardice. These religious institutions are about money and power – not religion – and religious institutions which actively seek to deny freedom of will and action to their adherents should not be protected by laws enacted to safeguard such freedoms.
Currently, the Australian federal and state governments not only fail to protect the interests of cult victims, they negligently enable cults like the BCF, the Exclusive Brethren and Scientology through tax-exemptions and grants.
In her quest to have the BCF’s abuses stopped, Helen Pomery has written letters to all politicians – state, federal and senators – three or four times, with minimal response. Not only are they not interested in taking action, they seem intent on preventing action from being taken! Just last month, Senator Nick Xenophon’s request for a Senate inquiry into the tax status of the Church of Scientology, following numerous claims of cultic abuse, was defeated by both major parties. Xenophon has since vowed to continue his campaign and return to the Senate with a re-worded motion which may include a push for police to take criminal action against cults and allow for the prosecution of cult leaders whose actions cause psychological harm to their adherents.
Recently, a small glimmer of hope has been offered by Queensland Senator Sue Boyce, who would not support a ‘public benefit’ test for religious organizations but has forwarded a letter to the Federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, asking him to consider introducing legislation against psychological abuse. CIFS Queensland has drafted a petition [downloadable here as a word document] aiming to persuade the Attorney-General that such legislation would receive popular support.
Generally, however, our politicians remain apathetic to and disinterested in the fate of Australians innocently entrapped in abusive cults. Helen despairs that despite the personal testimonies of hundreds of people, the CIFS is still only achieving small, incremental changes. But she will keep fighting – for herself, her family, and for the many others who have suffered as she has. As Helen says, “I bear witness to the reality and the power of coercive persuasion and mind control, because I live with its impact every day of my life.”
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For an account of what cult survivors go through, please read Helen and David’s stories on this blog or on the campaign website – David’s Story;Helen’s Story.
Support for Victims and Survivors of the BCF & Similar Cults
2023 update: There is a new group, the Olive Leaf Network – https://oliveleaf.network/ – to support people leaving closed cults like BCF. You can read more about them in this article – https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/486996/former-exclusive-brethren-church-member-sets-up-support-network-to-help-other-leavers
Streetcar Forum – a place for people who have left or are looking to leave EB or RFI type organisations and need support. With nearly 100 families from CF Groups around the Country, what is being said can no longer be ignored. If you chose to leave a CF you will have a voice and support here.
Cult Information and Family Support – a network for families, friends, former members and concerned individuals working together towards a common goal, to provide support and develop awareness for those affected by high demand groups or cultic relationships
Please read David Lowe’s moving story about his experience with the BCF. Here is a short extract:
…I really can’t believe how BCF has changed and affected my life. I lived under these controlling abusive men for 35 years of my married life and suffered irreparable damage to my home, my family, my heart and my whole being. Often I wake up in the night crying and I have been dreaming of my children. I am sick of having pain in my heart all the time. I have often felt like there’s a black hole that’s going to suck me in. In the aftermath of BCF they are still trying to kill me. I oscillate from feeling frustrated to being exhausted by the unbearable pain in my heart and mind. There is no time or place where you are free of the pain because our children are part of our very being. I have phoned my children on their birthdays and at Christmas and they will not talk to me.
I hold the elders accountable for violating the sanctity of our home and for poisoning my close, loving family relationships in an evil and perverted manner without any qualms or conscience. I spoke up on the ‘Four Corners’ programme last year because I have recovered enough to know that my story and my voice is important in this struggle against this evil dictatorship that holds so many innocent people captive by it’s corrupt doctrine and obsessive control.
How can a church do this to people and get away with it?
The God of Broken Hearts – Four Corners, 2008
You can view investigative journalist, Chris Masters’, Four Corners report on the Brisbane Christian Fellowship, featuring stories from several victims of the BCF. Or you can read a transcript of the program. Helen tells her story to Chris Masters here.
1. Send a link to this story to your local, state and federal political representatives and ask if they have taken any action whatsoever to support people in Helen’s situation and, if not, why not?
2. Disseminate Helen’s and David’s stories as widely as possible – either by writing about them yourself or linking to this page. If you are writing about this subject, please link to the Streetcar forum and CIFS so that people within the BCF (or similar organizations), or planning to join it, can read the truth and seek support.
3. Write to Nick Xenophon and support his efforts to make cults legally accountable for their actions.
Senator Nick Xenophon, Level 2, 31 Ebenezer Place, Adelaide 5000
4. If you are willing to collect signatures for the petition to the Attorney-General, please download this petition form and return the signed form/s to: CIFS, PO Box 4002, St Lucia South Q 4067.
You may also wish to print up Senator Sue Boyce’s letter to the Attorney General as supporting information for your signatories. (Please note, the letter has two pages, click the thumbnail under the first page for page two, or see here.)
5. Write to your political representatives (state, federal and senate) asking them to:
a) support any future motions regarding an inquiry into organizations like Scientology, the Exclusive Brethren and the BCF
b) support a ‘public benefit’ test for religious exemptions or, ideally
c) call for the removal of all ‘as of right’ exemptions for religious institutions.
Gladly’s Book Recommendations
Gladly gets madder than a bear with a sore head at injustice and political cowardice. If you feel the same way, you might like to read these books:
Apostles of Fear: A Church Cult Exposed by Morag Zwartz (includes Helen’s story) – available soon from Embiggen Books
Behind the Exclusive Brethren by Michael Bachelard
People In Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story Of Life In and Out Of Hillsong by Tanya Levin
The Cult Files: The inside stories of the world’s most intriguing cults and alternative new religions by Chris Mikul
God Under Howard: The rise of the religious right in Australian politics by Marion Maddox
Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness On the Evangelical Edge by John Lattin
The Purple Economy by Max Wallace
Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer