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Australian prime minister John Howard announced publicly Tuesday that he "did not have a problem" with the rabidly antigay sect the Exclusive Brethren, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. The prime minister confirmed that he had met with leaders of the Exclusive Brethren, who have been substantial donors to his political party in Australia since the federal election in 2004. "Yes, I've met with people from the Exclusive Brethren," Howard said. "It's a free country. They are not breaking the law, [and] like any other group, they are entitled to put their views to the government." The prime minister's comments oppose almost every story filed about the Exclusive Brethren in the Australian media and follow a scathing investigative report that aired this week on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s Four Corners program. The hour-long report, titled "Separate Lives," depicted "life inside the secretive and puritanical Brethren Sect and the heartrending price extracted from those who leave." Despite widespread anecdotal evidence of inappropriate methods practiced by the sect, including hiring two private investigators who claim the Brethren paid them to "dig up dirt" on New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and her husband's sex life (which led to allegations being published in a right-wing publication), Howard said he did not have a problem with the group. "We don't [run] a police state in this country, and unless people are an unlawful organization, they are entitled to meet with the government," the prime minister said.
Despite believing themselves to be the flag-bearers of family values, Exclusive Brethren members refuse to socialize with anyone outside the sect, including close relatives, purposefully separating themselves from a world they see as morally corrupt. Disobedience of internal rules, even unsubstantiated, can lead to excommunication, or being "withdrawn from," and complete, permanent isolation from loved ones. "You cannot understand the horrific mistreatment of people," a former member said of life inside the sect.
Ex-members also alleged on the Four Corners program that large sums of cash have been transported by members across international borders and accused the group of hushing up child abuse.
While the exact figures of the sect's spending to prevent same-sex marriage and civil unions while promoting conservative policies in Australia is still unknown, the Brethren spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during the U.S. elections in 2004, buying ads backing President Bush and U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez, who is opposed to same-sex marriage and who won his Florida race.
The sect also spent almost another million in an attempt to quash candidates supporting gay rights in the last New Zealand election (namely the Greens). Following that election, they then spent a considerable amount of money equating a vote for the Greens with a vote for same-sex marriage in March elections in the Australian state of Tasmania.
This summer, Australia's federal government--on Howard's strong urging--overturned a law passed in Australia's Capital Territory to legalize same-sex unions.
When asked about the cult's activities, Howard told reporters, "I've met a lot more fanatical people in my life than the Exclusive Brethren." (Cath Pope, Gay.com/U.K.)