- School investigated over allegations of child cruelty and failure to teach the National Curriculum
- Alleged abuse includes the confinement of six pupils who set up a Facebook page
- Under the rules, liasons between pupils and rugby are also banned
By Mark Nicol 20 January 2013
A fundamentalist Christian church at the centre of a multi-million-pound dispute over charitable status is being investigated about claims of child cruelty.
The Exclusive Brethren, which has 16,000 UK followers, has gained the support of more than 50 MPs in its bid to retain its charitable status – and the entitlement to tax relief on donations.
But this newspaper has uncovered allegations of a shocking regime inside Exclusive Brethren schools – including pupils being confined at home for using the internet, elders tearing pages from textbooks to remove material about gay rights or sexually transmitted diseases, and teenage boys and girls being banned from talking to each other.
Yesterday a local education authority confirmed it was investigating allegations of child cruelty and failures to teach the National Curriculum at an Exclusive Brethren school in Wiltshire. Wilton Park School, near Salisbury, opened in September 2011 as an independent day school for boys and girls aged from 11 to 18.
The probe, by Wiltshire County Council, local police officers and the Department for Education’s Due Diligence Team was triggered by a teacher at Wilton Park handing over a dossier describing alleged abuses.
These claims include the punishments imposed upon six pupils for setting up a Facebook page.
Elders from the church are said to have responded so harshly because of the Exclusive Brethren’s teachings on modern technology – laptops are considered instruments of evil and internet access is tightly controlled to protect followers from defiling material.
Pupils are also banned from emailing each other because, according to a school memo, ‘such communications promote special friendships and are beneath the dignity of our calling’.
The dossier states that, on the elders’ instruction, six pupils were withdrawn, confined to their homes and forbidden to have any communication with anyone outside their close families. Inside the Exclusive Brethren community these punishments are called ‘shutting up’.
The teacher, who is not a member of the Exclusive Brethren, wrote: ‘As an employee I have known of families that have been “shut up’’ for different lengths of time. I have never witnessed pupils being shut up before.
‘The pupils were shut up between the months of May and July 2012. The only girl was shut up for the longest number of days and was recorded to have had 37 days off out of a possible 70 [school] days between May 4th and July 22nd [when the school term ended]. All of her absences were recorded as authorised absences.
‘She was not allowed to have any communication with anyone apart from immediate family members, i.e. those who she shared a house with. She suffered both mentally and physically from this controlled withdrawal from her friends; she lost weight and was emotionally distressed.
‘When it was decided that she would be allowed back to school, it was controlled by the EB [Exclusive Brethren] elders. She was dropped off and escorted into a classroom.
‘She remained there with work to do all day. She was not allowed to have contact with anyone apart from one or two teachers. They were not allowed to have any form of conversation with her unless it was study related.
‘At the end of the day she was picked up by a parent and taken home. She remained in her home until the following school day.’
A Brethren spokesman said: ‘Shutting up is not intended as a punishment but is meant to encourage people to consider the consequences of their actions. Where young persons are involved this decision is taken ultimately by their parents, though the advice of elders may be sought.
‘The trustees – all Brethren – decide what is best for the school based on their religious and moral beliefs.’
The six pupils were in Wilton Park’s sixth form. These boys and girls, aged 16 to 18, are subjected to gender segregation at all times – to reflect the school’s commitment to biblical values. Liaisons and relationships between pupils are prohibited and monitored using CCTV.
Other stipulations include teenagers being forbidden to attend university or public events such as Premiership football matches.
Pupils seldom play any competitive sport and have been banned from playing rugby by the church’s Australian leadership.
As the dossier compiled by the Wilton Park teacher reads: ‘The sixth-form boys at the school are a very athletic group and they wanted to start playing full-contact rugby. They put forward a very articulate and well-thought-through presentation as to why they felt this was necessary. The trustees told them they would come back with an answer within 24 hours.
‘Their answer, as dictated to them by “Australia”, was clear that full-contact rugby should not be played as it promotes savagery. So for Exclusive Brethren schools in the UK, decisions are no longer made locally or even nationally.’
Teaching staff at Wilton Park must also abide by strict codes of conduct and dress, as set out by the school: ‘Female staff must wear dresses or skirts (at least knee-length) and clothing must be modest and not revealing or low-cut.’ Male teachers must have short hair and shave.
The launch of the investigation comes just weeks before the Exclusive Brethren’s appeal against the Charity Commission is heard by a legal tribunal. The Commission recently decided the church did not qualify for charitable status.
Unless the verdict is overturned, the Exclusive Brethren stands to lose its entitlement to tax relief. As a charity, the church currently claims 25p from the Inland Revenue for every £1 received in donations under the Gift Aid scheme.
The case is worth so much to the church that it has spent £1.5 million on a legal campaign.
THE five-day tribunal in March will hear evidence about the church’s charitable works. But other witnesses, including former members of the Exclusive Brethren, may gave their testimonies from behind screens – such is their fear of the potential consequences.
An Education Department spokeswoman confirmed she was aware of the dossier and added: ‘We are working with police and local council to take any action necessary.’
A spokesman for Wiltshire Council said: ‘An allegation has been received in relation to this school.
‘The council is committed to protecting and safeguarding every child in Wiltshire. We take all allegations of child abuse seriously.’
AS part of our investigation, The Mail on Sunday was given unprecedented access to another Exclusive Brethren school.
All 192 pupils at Linton Park School, near Maidstone, Kent, come from Exclusive Brethren families – in keeping with the church’s stance of separation from the community, including other Christian groups. The pupils are aged from seven to 18.
Deputy head teacher John Welch admitted that his staff – who don’t belong to the controversial church – censor books to remove content that the school’s trustees consider incompatible with their faith.
He also admitted the Exclusive Brethren’s stance on issues such as gay rights and abortion made teaching ‘delicate’.
Mr Welch, a former policeman, said: ‘I’ve been working in Brethren schools since 2001 so by now I know the areas that are sensitive.
But today I still have to get approval for resources such as DVDs. Blasphemy is another area so we blank out any swear words.
‘Recently I was teaching post-1945 British history and the legalisation by Harold Wilson’s government of abortion and homosexuality. Many communities would say these were advances in society, the Brethren would not. It is delicate.’
According to pupil Nathan Woodcock, 15, his community is being unfairly targeted.
He said: ‘We do a lot of work for the public benefit and I really enjoy helping the less fortunate. For instance, we put on “Pie Days”, when the homeless come to our meeting hall and we feed them.
‘The public don’t understand we only eat and drink with people with whom we share the Lord’s Supper.’
The Exclusive Brethren, which has 16,000 followers in the UK and 46,000 worldwide, formed in 1848.
In that year they broke off from the much larger Plymouth Brethren – an evangelical Christian church founded in 1832.
The church’s worldwide leader Bruce Hales, based in Sydney, Australia, assumed the leadership after the death of his father.
Hales preaches that the world is ‘evil’ and that separation from it is the ‘greatest thing that the Lord has provided’.
Fonte: Mail Online
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