Dad spends thousands trying to ‘save’ children from rigid religious sect
A Port Elizabeth father believes the rigid religious sect he grew up in is trying to move his children – who have been cut off from him – to the US to join other fundamentalists.
For the past two years, court orders and phone calls have been ignored and door bells go unanswered as the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren steadfastly refuse the man, who grew up in Walmer, parental rights.
Called a cult by one of the many judges who has presided over the custody battles between the 35-year-old father and his estranged wife, the Exclusive Brethren have dozens of rules members must follow – with extreme segregation seen as a “divine principle”.
The father of two – an 11-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter – who is not being named to protect his minor children, said he had spent upwards of R300 000 on legal bills after he was “withdrawn from”.
In the Exclusive Brethren religion, people are “withdrawn from” when they do not toe the religious line.
The man raised serious misgivings about the many rules imposed on members – children must be home-schooled, voting and attending university are prohibited, and no one is allowed to socialise with “worldly people”.
“That is not the best life for me or my kids. I could not carry on going to meetings to listen to continual rants about the brethren who left in 1970. I felt like I was dying inside,” the father said.
The meetings he refers to are a daily occurrence, either at 6am or 7pm, and four times on Sundays. Worldly people are any who are not Exclusive Brethren.
The leader of the South African chapter of the Exclusive Brethren, Deryck Noakes, refused to comment, saying only: “I will give no details. I do not give details.”
But court documents and e-mails show the Exclusive Brethren will fight tooth and nail to stop the father seeing his children.
In a bizarre instance, Noakes sent an e-mail to court officials asking them to ensure Judge Glenn Goosen received it. In the e-mail he quoted a Bible verse and then wrote: “We believe in the infallible Word of God and are beseeching the Holy Spirit for [the man’s name] to be taken out”.
His estranged wife hung up the phone when called for comment.
The father’s greatest fear for his children, aside from social isolation, is the dwindling gene pool within the sect – just 300 Exclusive Brethren live in South Africa with about 120 in Port Elizabeth.
“I thought I was just talking to two friends I grew up playing cricket in the garden with,” he said of the men who were reporting his conversations to the elders.
“I Googled what makes a cult and told them we ticked almost every box. Everyone needs freedom of choice. You are born into it and are trapped. I want more for my children.
“If they decide when they are older that they are happy, that’s their choice – but I want them to know I love them and if they are unhappy or the Brethren lifestyle is not for them, I will always be there for them.”
He added that he had asked his wife six times to leave with him, but she had refused.
“They [the Brethren] were putting pressure on her.”
His doubts and questions, as well as visiting his uncle and cousin who had previously been “withdrawn from”, caused the group to “withdraw” from him.
They “withdrew” in September 2014 and “I was given two weeks to leave my home which was owned by my mother. I was 33 and had to start from scratch,” he said.
Adding to the father’s concerns is his past experience trying to see his children. Members of the Exclusive Brethren would attend the visits.
“On one occasion at the beach, I wanted to run with my son and Jared [a member of the Brethren] ran along with us. I asked him just to give us some space, but he said: ‘No, I want to hear every word you say’.
“After that, they didn’t want to come with me. In the last year I have spoken to [his son] once on the phone,” he said.
The father believes the Exclusive Brethren are telling his children that he is wicked and “worldly” and that is why they are afraid to go with him.
Fears that the Exclusive Brethren are trying to take his kids overseas may be well founded as it seems the sect is planning on leaving the country en masse.
Port Elizabeth estate agents have confirmed several homes, owned by Brethren, have been sold or are on the market and the group is, according to an agent, considering selling its hall in Villiers Road, Walmer.
Gavin Eales, mentioned in court papers as one of the two men who would accompany the children to visitations, no longer appears to live in Port Elizabeth, with his cousin Matthew Eales saying, “He is not around. I don’t know where he is.”
Another member, Michael Stewart, would not confirm or deny the move. He said: “We all have concerns about the way the country is going. I wouldn’t like to say we are or aren’t leaving. You should ask someone more senior.”
When asked who that would be, Stewart said: “I would not like to say.”
Last year the father’s wife, who is in the process of divorcing him, tried, via the courts, to compel him to sign visas for the children – for the US and Barbados. He objected on the basis that he did not believe they would return.
Judge Dayalin Chetty, who agreed, wrote in a judgment: “The pending contempt litigation bears testimony not only to the applicant’s [wife’s] fervid stance denying him any parental role, but her wanton disregard for previous court orders.”
But, says the father, he does not believe this is the end of the Brethren’s attempts to move his children.
“They believe all children born to Brethren parents belong to them.”