Parliamentarians gather evidence of alleged 'harm' from former Plymouth Brethren

By David Ainsworth, Third Sector Online, 29 January 2013

Baroness O'Loan

Baroness O'Loan

Baroness O'Loan says she is not yet sure what she will do with the information collected about the Brethren, which are the subject of a forthcoming charity tribunal case

A group of parliamentarians has set up an informal committee to take evidence from former members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church of alleged emotional harm done to them.

Baroness Nuala O’Loan, a crossbench peer, told Third Sector that she and a small group of peers and MPs, including the Conservative peer Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, had taken evidence from former members of the Brethren because they wanted to know more about alleged harm done to current and former members by the lifestyle of the Plymouth Brethren, which adheres to a doctrine of separation.

The Preston Down Trust, a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Devon, was refused charitable status by the Charity Commission because the regulator was not satisfied that it had been established for the advancement of religion for public benefit.

The trust has appealed the decision to the charity tribunal and the case is due to be heard in March. The tribunal has said that parties to the case would be able request that witnesses at the hearing give evidence anonymously, after the Charity Commission was approached by people who wanted to give evidence about alleged harm done by the religious group.

O’Loan said she had not yet decided what she might do with evidence given to her but that she was concerned about the restrictions of the Brethren way of life, and its effect on children.

"At the moment we are just gathering evidence," she said. "We have not decided what we would do next.

"But we need to know more. If this organisation is being funded by us because it’s a charity, we need to be sure that its charitable status is justified."

She said she was concerned about the fact young people were not allowed to go to university or join groups outside their own community.

O'Loan said she was also keen to find out whether the disciplinary process of "shutting up", where members of the congregation stopped speaking to a particular individual, was practised on children.

A spokesman for the Brethren said that members of his community were extremely protective of their children and that suggestions to the contrary had caused "deep hurt" among the Brethren.

"Shutting up is very rare," he said. "We don’t deal with children that way. To say we do is an untruth."

He said that his community encouraged education but disliked the lifestyle that accompanied much tertiary education.

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