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Free to believe, but not above the law

Harmful cults are in our news. Hardly a week goes by without abuse being exposed in a faith-based organisation, whether sexual, physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or financial. For decades the media has exposed evidence of the range of abuses happening to children, women, men and LGBTQI+ members in various religions. Yet there has been little accountability. Whether in homegrown faiths like Gloriavale, Centrepoint, Destiny and Arise, international imports like Shincheonji, or established mainstream Catholic and Protestant Churches, blatant breaches of human and employment rights, criminal and trust laws, have had a pass.

Rather than being held accountable, abusive organisations thrive and become wealthy. Along with tax-exemptions, they also receive millions from government grants and they save on staffing costs using coerced ‘volunteers’. The combination of financial advantage, with the lack of regulation, inevitably lures opportunists and predators to the sector. How do abusive faiths retain their wealth-gathering advantage in the face of shocking media exposés? Because successive governments and their agencies have been constrained by the same dilemmas:

  1. Historically there has been an automatic assumption that religions contribute benefit to their followers and to society.

  2. Human rights laws protect the freedom of religion and belief.

  3. While some religions now accept mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, the entire sector seems unable to agree on a code of ethics and self-regulation, in order to protect consumers from rogue operators, as the professions, trades, manufacturers and retail sectors have done.

  4. While religious membership is declining in New Zealand and worldwide, it still constitutes a significant voting-block.

While aberrant individuals can occur in any organisation, if they’re dealt with lawfully, they don’t make the whole organisation abusive. The cultic iniquity happens when (a) the leadership protects perpetrators, and ignores or blames victims, and/or (b) when abusive practices are actively advocated by the leadership and enforced with undue influence. Systemic harm is the crucial factor for assessing whether a faith is healthy and beneficial, or an abusive and harmful cult. In 1994 when a group approached the Crown Law Office concerning Centrepoint they found that there was no oversight of religious trusts. The group was told that the Crown Law’s job was to protect charitable trusts. It took a 2-year inquiry and a 5-year civil court case to reveal that Centrepoint Community had flourished for 22 years while breaching multiple laws. Years later, in 2005, the Charities Commission was established. In 2012 it was disestablished and its core functions transferred to the Department of Internal Affairs. While some guidelines for charities were gradually formulated, legal teeth have been lacking.

At last boundaries are being set in place. In addition to the requirement for mandatory reporting of sexual abuse and the ‘anti-smacking’ law to protect children, in 2022 the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Act was passed to protect the LGBTQI+ community from that traumatising practice. Also, in 2022 charities were warned of new requirements to justify any significant, unexplained, accumulated funds. In addition, a redefinition of the assumption of benefit has appeared on the Charities page of the Department of Internal Affairs website, under the heading: Public benefit and religion:

Where an organisation advances religion in a charitable manner, it is assumed that it provides a public benefit. However, if the organisation promotes conduct that is inconsistent with prevailing public policy, or it is focussed too narrowly on its adherents, that presumption may be rebutted.

On evidence exposed in 2022, via the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Faith-based Care; the Gloriavale Court cases; David Farrier’s reporting about abuse in the Arise Church; the convictions for Destiny leaders; plus the thorough exposé of Shincheonji on Stuff, current practices have been revealed which are not just ‘inconsistent with prevailing public policy’: they are unlawful and offensive to ethical, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. Consequences are needed for abusive individuals in religious organisations, and also for the abusive religious organisations themselves: consequences which can be graduated from loss of tax benefits and government grants, up to closure and redistribution of assets to assist victims.

Next, the new laws and regulations need to be tested with group actions in the civil courts where breaches of Trust, Employment, Consumer and Human Rights Laws, etc. are heard. That’s an expensive and daunting hurdle for cult-leavers who are likely to have been financially exploited by their cult.

The Centrepoint group mentioned above set a legal precedent 20+ years ago in legally challenging and closing Centrepoint Community. Gloriavale leavers are building on that precedent with their Employment Law cases.

It wasn’t the intention of the Declaration of Human Rights that one freedom could over-ride the others. The principle needs to be established: We are free to believe, but in practice, no person or organisation in Aotearoa NZ is above the Law.

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