Friday, June 24, 2022

In Conversation with Richard Marsh

After writing about the Klondike Papers originally, my little blog got a ridiculous number of hits very briefly but just long enough for Richard Marsh to notice and fact-check my post. He's the ex-member of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC) that "fixer" David Wallace was tasked with hunting down, creating a paper trail in the process that was given the now-iconic name. Richard and I started chatting, and here's his further explanation about the elusive documents and the nefarious nature of the Brethren. I left the 2-hour video unedited and in full in part because Richard is a very fluid speaker, so there's not a lot of pauses to delete, and in part so it's clearly authentic and untouched. I've time-stamped and summarized sections below to make it easier to jump to a specific segment. Note, once again, I'm just making this information available, and I don't have further evidence to support or disprove any claims made, but we are getting it directly from the horse's mouth, and Richard is very careful with words like allegedly, so I imagine it's pretty accurate!

Listen to some further clarification about what's actually in the Klondike Papers, how the Brethren is a profit-making empire, ways it controls instead of ministering to members, and why Richard finally left. 

2 min: Klondike Clarification

The casual commentary in podcasts can sometimes blur the line between opinion and facts supported with evidence. The Klondike Papers are five years worth of David Wallace's records. There's lots about Russian money trying to be invested in Canada that it's difficult to find a decent legit explanation for, but nothing clearly illegal. This includes conservative operatives trying to buy a bank in Turks and Caicos (rather than just hide money there as is typically done by elites). But there's nothing directly showing Russian influence in Canadian politics. There's no reference to the convoy as the documents end before the convoy existed, but there is some circumstantial evidence of similar activity being provoked, such as a high-up member of the UCP directing anti-vax protesters to set up outside the homes of Liberal politicians. 

Brad Mitchell is the most influential member of the PBCC in Canada. He's the guy who commissioned investigators to find Richard, and who was able to access and send Richard's wife's phone log to David Wallace. He's also deeply involved in government contracts for PPE. The Times had a spread about it showing 57 Brethren business in the UK were awarded £2.3 billion of PPE contracts non-competitively. Since the PBCC is highly centralized, what's happening in one country is likely to be happening everywhere. When deals don't work out for Mitchell, he's not above calling in Vinny Paz (an ex-boxer) and Chuck Zito (former head of the Hell's Angels) to help. 

Gerald Chipeur was called the most dangerous man in Canada in a couple of the podcasts I watched, but he's not actually part of the PBCC. Members haven't been allowed to attend university since 1965, so any lawyers would be in their 80s. Chipeur is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and he helps to defend religious freedoms, for instance, for pastors who refuse to marry a same-sex couple. He's been used since 2008 to hunt down ex-members who are critical of the church, convincing at least one person to delete a website, as he effectively "legally cut his tongue out." The fact that Nathan Jacobson says he's dangerous without any caveats speaks volumes because he could be sued for it. Jacobson says Chipeur channels funds from christian donors to right-wing party leaders that endorse religious freedoms over human rights like Pierre Poilievre, but there's nothing in the Klondike Papers about this.

25 min: Follow the Money

The Brethren don't vote because their "kingdom is not of this world," so it's odd for them to promote a political party from a religious stance. Most churches that support a party do so for religious reasons and sincerely have those beliefs (typically around abortion and same-sex marriage). The Brethren does it in hopes to have enough sway to keep their tax-free charitable status and to get lucrative government business contracts. These contracts create huge amounts of money for the church leaders who are building mansions on top of mansions in their family compounds. 

I suggested that it sounds like they operate like WalMart, but Richard pointed out that at least WalMart has to pay taxes (so maybe more like Amazon then). John Oliver captured this type of scam that's easily available to any group designated as a church and went so far as trying it out himself to illustrate how simple it is - and completely legal - to promise untold riches for just a few dollars. 

The Brethren takes care of its members, and people are wealthier than they were ten years ago, but there's a much larger wealth gap between the leaders and the congregation. People have to work for a Brethren company and are essentially "owned." They can't travel or marry or make major life decisions without permission, but they're taken care of well enough to keep working. The story reminded me of Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, about Mormon Fundamentalist communities. Richard said the control held by Bruce Hales is similar to that of Warren Jeffs in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (documented in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, currently on Netflix) apart from the polygamy, which was only briefly considered in the Brethren. Having just watched the series, there are so many more questions I would ask about how much men controlled women sexually, and to what extent they trafficked in workers by getting boys to provide free labour to cut construction costs and increase their profits. And then there's this sexual assault charge against James Taylor Jr. 

39 min: Closer to Mennonites or Scientology?

The Brethren is a closed community, but they live in separate homes instead of one compound like Mennonites do. But a more important difference is that there's no central global authoritarian leader in the Mennonite church. The Brethren is highly controlled by one man. Bruce Hales says what goes, so the rules can change all the time based on his mood. It's crazy-making, and there's lots of alcohol to help cope with it. There isn't the same type of religious basis as Scientology, but it's common in that it's confession based. They get you to tell them everything, and they save that information to use against you later. Once you speak out against the church, it's fair game for anyone in the church to do anything to destroy you. They put trackers on cars like the cartel in Breaking Bad. They keep track of all their members. Members don't see themselves as part of society, so they don't believe laws apply to them and will perjure themselves comfortably to defend one another in court. 

50 min: Born into the Brethren

Members are willing to give all their money to the leaders despite any possible access to the news through their next door neighbours because they believe what they've been taught since birth. It's not like the stereotype of brainwashing in a cult where people prey on isolated converts who need to have their existing worldview wiped away; there's no prior life or ideas to undo. Many are 4th or 5th generation members, so they've never known anything different besides that they're special and that outsiders are to be pitied. It's hard to argue with that type of a foundational belief system. Part of the teaching is that the outside world is evil, and you'll have nothing out there. It's like a typical abuser's claim: You're nothing without me. Here's one of Richard's photos:

55 min: Inside the Church and Homes 

The Brethren was radicalized in the 1960s when they hijacked christians into believing in the messianic status of the leaders. There are daily meetings of about an hour, with five meetings on Sundays, with men sitting at the front and women at the back with head coverings. Homes feature portraits of all the great leaders: John Nelson Darby (1830-82, UK) who was the co-founder, Frederick Raven (1882-1905, UK), then James Taylor (1905-53, New York) who imposed a stricter hierarchy and business ownership. His son, James Taylor Jr. (1953-70) was an unsavoury, sexually harassing, alcoholic who banned beards and higher education and once suddenly decreed no pets allowed, so members immediately had their cats and dogs put down. He died suddenly after scandalously having an affair with a married woman. James Symington was a pig farmer before becoming leader (1953-87). Then John Hales took over from Sydney, Australia (1987-2002), and established Brethren-only high schools. He was followed by his son, Bruce Hales, who encouraged the church to support conservative politicians, starting with donations to George W. Bush and John Howard (some of this was flushed out with information from here). Hales currently controls everything and directed Brad Mitchell to hunt down Richard. Succession seems to be determined by who, of the top elites, argues their case better. Any pictures of Jesus would be seen as blasphemous idolatry; Hales prefers all the attention on himself. Another of Richard's photos with the leaders in order:

Every home also has a collection of ministry books, the complete sermons and writings of each leader bound within colour-coded covers. Members are expected to read and know them, which helped to convince them that "an overweight alcoholic businessman from Australia is actually the manifestation of God on earth, and you should really give him your money." No other books were on the shelves, and only children's books were allowed to be read at all. "Our parents didn't like us doing it, but we were very avid readers."

Eventually Hales gave in to technology, but members can only use Brethren made computers and phones, which appear to also be controlled by the Brethren. A password change notification from Facebook gave Richard the IP address he needed to narrow down the hacking of his computer to a Brethren-owned business. Tech became another means of surveillance. There isn't records of any violence in the church with the exception of Bruce's oldest son, Gareth Hales, assaulting an ex-member who was filming his appeal to get back in Brethren outside Bruce's house. Perhaps the constant reminders of the leader watching your every move makes violence unnecessary, except possibly for those who rebel. We've got Atwood's book used as a guide in the Supreme Court today and Orwell's book predicted this church.

1:30 min: Learning Through Repetition

The message of being true to the church was constantly fed to members through daily church services and readings the older sermons. All the books had to be bought by each member, so it's another money making scheme. On top of the written books were books of pictures with names and the family lineages of each of the over 50,000 members around the world, kind of like a high school yearbook but going back decades. For anyone who left the church, they were no longer in the books, and any older pictures of them were covered in white stickers to erase them from history. 

I once dated a guy for two years, broke up for a couple months, then got back together for another eight years, but in his mom's photo album, I was deleted for those first two years (likely completely wiped out of there by now). It's unnerving to be erased like that. That revisionist photo album struck me as so much work to maintain a warped version of perfection in the family instead of the authenticity available from accepting the past, warts and all. 

1:38 min: Universal Business Team (UBT)

One final set of books line the shelves: the UBT books about running a business from the financial wing of the church. They teach members how to make more money and pay less taxes. Richard knew for years that the church had hired investigators, but in the past they could only tie that to a member, not the church as a whole, but David Wallace's documents directly connect the financing of the church to the whole effort to hunt down Richard.

1:41 min: Campus & Co.

The Brethren kept their own economic system by having everyone use private member's supermarkets, Campus & Co. It reminds me of a depression-era movie - the name escapes me - in which an uncle tries to save enough money to get his nephew to university and out of the mining town, but the boy's mom had used all the money to buy all the kids new shoes from the company store. The money never left the company. 

It also reminds me of how a commissary works in a privately run prison, where inmates' income is tracked and money subtracted from it any time they needed anything from toothpaste to a phone call with their lawyer. The technically earn money, but they don't actually get any of it.

The leaders have extraordinary amounts of money and no concept of enough. It's an addiction to making the money and the power it gives you, like alcoholism; you just want more and more and more.

1:44: Leaving the Brethren

In Breaking Brethren, Richard explained that a car accident was pivotal to his leaving. (More about people's experience leaving the UK chapter here.) He says there are two reasons people leave: first, as teens, that they weren't successfully indoctrinated because they were just more cynical or reasonable or otherwise less susceptible to it. There's pressure to get married in their early 20s to make it harder to leave. The second reason people leave is because they got into some trouble with the church, rebelling against local leadership, and the church made their lives hellishly miserable. "Credulity is like a rubber band. You can only stretch it so far before it snaps." For Richard, it was the cruel way he was treated after the accident that was the last straw. There was no compassion. You're praised when you're up and kicked when you're down. They use a "constructive dismissal" method where they don't actually kick people out, but they restrict their rights to travel or see people, and add in extra lectures from the priest. They controlled every aspect of member's lives, so they can make things very difficult. And then they turn your family against you. 

When you leave, it's not a choice between your family or your freedom, but between one hell and another. When abuse within the Brethren gets to a breaking point, you have to get out to save your mental health, and you don't anticipate any benefits of leaving. You leave to escape the hell inside. "You can't act like everything's fine when you know if your head it's a lie. Mentally, I don't think it's possible; once you see through it, the whole thing becomes a torment to you." It takes until a few years later to realize how much better it is on the outside. He hopes to see his kids again one day: "My kids are smart and cynical and will be one of the first to see through it when it all goes sideways."

Maybe I'm a bad interviewer because I don't like to pry into people's lives too much, but I did want to ask how his wife and kids were able to stay after seeing how he was treated. But maybe they didn't actually see any of that. Or maybe they were convinced it was a necessary torment. For now.

Richard seems hopeful that the church might collapse if it loses its charitable status, and the economic disparity and other scandals within may lead to a schism with a more moderate group forming without such ludicrous restrictions on seeing family members on the other side. I think we're teetering on the edge of some action with the church, but I'm less confident it will land squarely on the side of compassion. 


40 years free said...

Well summarised Marie Snyder. Your comment: <> accurately and comprehensively describes the driving motivation of the leadership. It is a global business, masquerading as a church.
We too have been blotted from the records but very thankfully escaped intact as a family of 6 in our mid-30s, having finally become disillusioned with the hypocrisy. Thank you, and to Richard Marsh for his courage and integrity.

Marie Snyder said...

I'm glad you made it out okay!

Deb Prothero said...

Thanks Marie for interviewing Richard Marsh and putting a human touch on the story of the Klondike Papers. The Brethren seems a very dangerous organization and hopefully someone in the Canadian government takes notice of these people. Their destruction and manipulation into slavery of families is beyond the pale. I do look forward to the publication of the Klondike Papers to understand further the dangers attacking our democracy.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Deb. I worry that our religious protections here will keep the church running despite its obvious and incompatible financial stakes. It seems like the only thing that is powerful enough to take down organizations like this - or the only scenario that has affected any change that I've seen - is sexual abuse of children, and I don't see any evidence of that here, which is good but also means it could go on indefinitely until (or unless), as Richard suggested, there's an internal split.

Peter said...

A very good, comprehensive analysis.

However, there's ample evidence of child abuse, over many years; I suspect this is becoming more clear as you continue your research and the latest revelations are aired. Just googling the topic will unearth local press court reports. However, PBCC lawyers are often able to keep names and the affiliation out of the reports.

Marie Snyder said...

That doesn't surprise me at all, Peter. I was wary of approaching such a potentially personal topic with Richard. I'm no Oprah!