By Nicky Hager, investigative reporter, RNZ
The Exclusive Brethren church has been using the controversial private investigators Thompson and Clark to spy on former members of the church.
Over the past two years, Thompson and Clark has conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance on former members who have criticised the cult-like church.
The private investigators have watched ex-Brethren from cars and parked surveillance vans and have taken photographs of people entering and leaving their homes.
Thompson and Clark made headlines after spying on Greenpeace and Christchurch earthquake insurance claimants. A State Services Commission (SSC) inquiry was later launched into government agencies' use of security consultants.
SSC head Peter Hughes condemned government organisations paying Thompson and Clark for "surveillance of a person just because they are lawfully exercising their democratic rights – including their right to freedom of expression, association and right to protest". Government agencies were forbidden to use the private investigators.
But Thompson and Clark has continued the same operations for private clients, including the Exclusive Brethren. It has built dossiers on at least 20 ex-members, known or believed to be critics of the church. They contain information from monitoring social media, public records and information gathered from street surveillance – combined with information supplied by the church leadership.
Information about the Exclusive Brethren spying operations has been pieced together from confidential past and present Exclusive Brethren sources, information from industry sources and fieldwork.
The Exclusive Brethren is headed by Sydney businessman Bruce Hales, known as the Elect Vessel or Man of God. He must give his permission before members are allowed to marry, requires all members' internet access to be controlled on devices leased from a Brethren company and, most of all, does not tolerate any doubting or questioning of his authority.
Members who express doubts or question the leadership face a particularly cruel form of punishment: being "withdrawn from" (expelled from the church without right of defence) and cut off from ever seeing or communicating with the Brethren members of their family again. Many ex-members around New Zealand have been separated in this way from their parents, spouses and children. The threat of severed families hangs over the membership. But ex-members say the church leaders still fear them, seeing them as a threat to their control.
Surveillance teams have kept watch on ex-members' homes– sometimes from early in the morning until very late at night. They have also followed their cars and tracked them on public transport. The surveillance started in mid-2019 against a visiting British ex-member and branched out through the local ex-Brethren.
Some of that surveillance has led to protracted legal and other retaliation against ex-Brethren from the church hierarchy.
The main allegations in this story were put to Thompson and Clark director Gavin Clark and he was asked "do you dispute this?" He did not respond to the allegations. Instead he responded, by email, that it was "important to emphasise that [the 2018 SSC inquiry] report does not suggest surveillance can never occur".
The company "provides services to protect individuals, operations and assets from being impacted by unlawful activity," he wrote. Thompson & Clark "always strived to operate within the law and the rules and regulations of our industry."
Plymouth Brethren Christian Church spokesperson Doug Watt said "While we cannot comment on the actions of every individual within our Church, it is certainly true to say that the Church leadership has absolutely no knowledge or involvement in the matters you have described."
He said "Just like any church, we are sad if someone leaves us, but wish them all of the best in their lives ... We strive to live a community-minded life, following the teachings of the Holy Bible and centred around values of care, charity and compassion."
RNZ stands by the story.
One ex-Brethren on the Thompson and Clark target list told RNZ: "People who don't know the Exclusive Brethren, I tell them it's like North Korea: a dictatorship where one man has total control, the Internet is controlled, members live in fear and if anyone threatens the leadership they're punished and cut off from their families."
Another said "I'm not involved in anything except commenting on Facebook," referring to an ex-members Facebook page. But when the known UK critic visited him in late 2019, "we had vehicles outside the house. They followed me as well."
How did he know? "In a humble street at the far end of Papakura, you notice a big four-wheel drive sitting outside watching you." He saw different vehicles three or four times. "They weren't very good at it." RNZ has independently confirmed that he was a Thompson and Clark target.
The UK critic of the church leadership who visited his home is a man named Lance Christie. He is a former Exclusive Brethren member from Leeds, England, who was "withdrawn from" in 2017 after voicing concerns about the church.
It was three visits to New Zealand by Christie, starting in July 2019, that began the intense surveillance operations. He was tracked and watched. Any ex-Brethren he might have had contact with were monitored as well, which meant all outspoken ex members, sources say.
All these ex-members had been severed from their families after having doubts or asking questions. Some have given evidence to the current Royal Commission on abuse in faith-based institutions. They have already suffered from the Exclusive Brethren's methods of maintaining control and now they've found they are being monitored and intimidated as well.
Victoria University privacy specialist Nicole Moreham told Radio New Zealand that research says once they become aware of it, this kind of surveillance has a significant impact on the wellbeing of its targets. "Research participants use words like 'violated', 'hounded' or 'preyed upon' to explain the effect that being watched has had upon them," she said. They also frequently talk about fear. "Being watched by an unknown observer has serious impacts on an individual's sense of safety and security in some cases."
Parliament has recognised these impacts, Moreham says, in harassment legislation. "The Harassment Act 1997 specifies that 'loitering near' a person's house, business or place of work, watching them or following them around can be conduct which contributes to a harassing pattern of behaviour which can in turn be the grounds for a civil claim or, in serious cases, criminal prosecution".
Justice minister Kris Faafoi, who oversees the private investigator legislation and code, said the Government does not currently have plans to change the law.
Insiders, who RNZ has agreed not to identify, say that Thompson and Clark has worked for the Exclusive Brethren now and then over many years. But the relationship has never been as intensive as in the past two years.
The recent surveillance operations have been run from Thompson and Clark's "intelligence fusion centre" in Auckland, overseen by company head Gavin Clark.
Some ex-members spoken to for this article claim that the Exclusive Brethren leadership conducts other forms of surveillance of its members as well. They say all members are required to use computers and phones supplied by a Brethren company that are able to be remotely monitored. The ex-members provided documents about a purpose-built programme called Streamline 3 installed on all Brethren members' devices. Members must sign an agreement giving the Brethren company full administration rights and access to all messages and Internet searches. "I have personally seen screen shots taken remotely of Brethren computers using this programme while the user was unaware," one ex-member said.
The system also controls which websites they can access on the Internet, he said. A 5 October 2019 letter sent by the Brethren leadership to "Brethren Universally" about the use of "Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Streaming Platforms such as Netflix" called them a "scourge" and said "The use of these platforms by Brethren constitutes a link with the world."
Surveillance and dawn raid at Mangere Bridge
On Brethren critic Lance Christie's second visit to New Zealand (December 2019-January 2020), Thompson and Clark renewed the daily surveillance against him but also started intensely targeting local ex-Brethren who Christie might meet or who had been critical of the church. One of them was Braden Simmons, a relative of the Exclusive Brethren elder who was overseeing the campaign of surveillance.
Braden Simmons had only been out of the Brethren for about two years. He told Radio New Zealand, about his Mangere Bridge home, "I live in the midst of the most densely populated Exclusive Brethren suburb in the world. David Lange's old house is up the road and he said there were two things about Mangere he didn't like – the sewerage plant and the Exclusive Brethren."
His home in Sullivan Avenue was monitored day after day by Thompson and Clark. One day around New Year's Day 2020, he drove down to buy beers from Liquorland Mangere Bridge. As he drove off, he saw a Mazda station wagon pull out after him. It followed him as he took a circuitous route around the streets and then parked, with a watcher wearing a baseball cap and earpiece, while he went to the shop.
The car followed him back as well, but when he walked towards it the driver drove away. It was Thompson and Clark, sources confirmed. Surveillance like this sowed anxiety and suspicion in a community of people who were already dealing with being expelled from the church and cut off from their families.
But Simmons' problems were only just beginning. At the same time as the street surveillance, another former Brethren began turning up at his house. He now believes this man was an informer, collecting information for the church leaders. The man also offered to accompany Christie on a journey to Palmerston North where he was to be interviewed by Radio New Zealand.
The man believed to be an informer invited Christie to stay at his place north of Auckland, where papers in Christie's luggage were copied, the ex-members believe. These and emails Christie had been sent to the man turned up later in Exclusive Brethren court documents against Braden Simmons.
After months of the surveillance, including the widening set of local ex-Brethren, the Exclusive Brethren leadership moved on to the next phase of its operation against key ex-Brethren members.
At 7am on Saturday 11 July 2020, Braden Simmons' house was raided in an unusual operation: a search not by police but by Exclusive Brethren lawyers with an order supplied by the court. They brought with them a large affidavit including the documents Simmons believes were supplied by the informer. Stuff reported that the dawn raid included the Brethren's lawyers Zane Kennedy and Hannah Jaques, court-appointed solicitor Mihai Pascariu, a private detective and a specialist forensic investigator.
Another ex-Brethren who was staying with Simmons that morning, Rob McLean, told Stuff "This is New Zealand in 2020. People can't get their head around the fact that there is such a law that allows individuals to do a dawn raid without any notice." The lawyers ordered that Simmons hand over his passwords and then copied his phone and computer, including his emails.
The raid was conducted under a rarely used "Search Order", authorised by a judge, that allows lawyers to search private premises and seize evidence without giving any prior warning.
Brethren spokesperson Doug Watt told Stuff that the proceedings had not been brought by the church but by an "independent company", Rock Solid Holdings Limited. The shareholders and directors of Rock Solid Holdings are Peter Bishop, a senior brethren elder in Auckland, and his wife Julie Bishop.
The raid on Simmons' home has been followed by court action against him. The nature of the law suit is not public, but the court proceedings are ongoing.
Lance Christie returned to Sydney in 2020 to try to speak to the Brethren leader. On 11 January he went to the Bruce Hales' gate, but Hales' son Gareth Hales came out and allegedly assaulted him and another ex-Brethren who was with him. A headline in the Sydney Morning Herald read "Exclusive Brethren cult leader's millionaire son accused of assault".
The newspaper said "A video of the incident allegedly shows Mr Hales junior holding another man by the back of the neck, pushing his head down and grabbing him by the wrist in an aggressive attempt to wrest a mobile phone from him." Gareth Hales can allegedly be heard on the video saying "Put that down, sunshine," referring to the phone.
A Sydney court hearing on the alleged assault is due in the next two months.
Christie then tried another approach. He sent letters individually to the members of the Sydney Brethren, with handwritten notes to the ones he knew personally. He posted 231 envelopes on 13 and 14 January 2020 each containing his letter and letters written by a Palmerston North ex-Brethren.
"We see a movement which was founded on high ideals, now described with such words as 'cult'" he wrote. "Surely, to any upright and God-fearing person, this situation is crying out for redress." For himself, he "humbly request[ed]" only two things: that he be allowed to attend his youngest daughter's wedding and regularly visit his grandchildren.
These circulated letters appear to have been the trigger for further action by the Exclusive Brethren leadership.
This man is seen as a major threat by the Exclusive Brethren leadership: someone who tries to have discussion, sends letters appealing to scriptural principles and asks to be allowed to see his daughter and grandchildren.
When Christie returned to New Zealand later in 2020, Thompson and Clark renewed the surveillance.
Peter Harrison, 'elder' to the ex-Brethren
Another person caught up in the Thompson and Clark surveillance is an 84-year-old ex-Brethren man in Palmerston North named Peter Harrison. For decades he has written letters to the Brethren leadership urging them to cease the practice of severing families. He himself had been severed from his wife, four children and home in 1982 at the decree of the leadership.
"Their fragile beliefs require a militant attitude toward criticism," Harrison said later last year.
During 40 years on the "outside", Harrison has served as de facto elder and support to a stream of people leaving or ejected from the Exclusive Brethren. He got caught up in the Thompson and Clark surveillance of Lance Christie, who had contacted him for support – including surveillance on his home – and then caught up again in the Brethren leadership's retaliation against Christie's criticism.
When Christie wrote to the 231 Sydney Brethren in January 2020, he enclosed copies of several past letters written to the Brethren leadership by Harrison. It is not illegal to try to communicate with past colleagues by letter, but the Brethren leadership hired lawyers against them. The claimed wrongdoing: using a Brethren directory of members to get the names and addresses for the mail-out.
The Brethren lawyers applied to court to ask a judge to order Harrison to turn over any documents or correspondence he might have that they needed to file a lawsuit against him and others for misusing the address book. They claimed the address books were confidential. The process went on for months.
His lawyer Steven Price said in December he would be arguing that the claim was tenuous, especially since Harrison had told the Brethren that he never had the address book and didn't send the letters himself. He said Harrison felt bullied, and believed the case is designed to shut down criticisms of the Brethren. Subsequently Harrison and the Brethren settled the case in January this year.
Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman, whose organisation uncovered Thompson and Clark spying on its staff and helped spark the 2018 SSC inquiry into the company, said he was appalled that the same types of surveillance operations were happening again. "Thompson and Clark and the Exclusive Brethren. What a great team," he said.
"The SCC Inquiry revealed what in my opinion was unethical and anti-democratic activity by Thompson and Clark," he said. "If that wasn't sufficient to have their licence revoked then the law or code governing private investigators needs to be modified so that efforts to suppress democratic rights are a breach. This should have happened after the SSC report and the latest revelations add to the case for that."