Talk by Nigel Sinnott to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 13 November 2007
My talks over the years have tended to fall into the propagandist "Heroes of Freethought" category. For example, I have spoken about the lives and work of Joseph Symes a hundred years ago and of my old friend Harry Hastings Pearce in more recent times.
Tonight my talk will have a less-than-heroic tone. I will be talking mainly about the timidity bordering on crass cowardice, combined at times with bizarre and authoritarian heavy-handedness, of a few people, abetted by several pompous supporters, all of whom purported to be rationalists and humanists, and how they tried to stop - repeat stop - publication of a review that was highly sympathetic to a book exposing a snobby religious cult that went in for vicious and prolonged child abuse. Yes, I know: you would expect atheists and freethinkers to be promoting such a book. We tend to associate religious bureaucracies with things like cover-ups of child abuse. But not always, it seems!
Well, just to be different I would like to start by quoting some poetry, written by the Catholic priest who gave the last rites to Jack Riley, allegedly "The man from Snowy River":
It is also ironic that I should be giving tonight's talk in this building. In November 2005, after a Sunday morning public seminar (on the intelligent design controversy) here at the Unitarian Church in East Melbourne, I got talking to David Miller, who had also come along. During the course of conversation, David suddenly asked me - though I'm not sure what prompted him - if I knew about attempts to stop a book review being published some years earlier. I said that I had been the writer of the review. As a result of this conversation I decided to get down to something I had been considering for a few years, writing an account of the extraordinary troubles I had had with this review. And you will not be surprised to know I also agreed with David to give a talk on this matter to the Atheist Society which, back in 2005, was still meeting in the Trades Hall.
Fewer things push up a person's coefficient of smugness than, after sustained opposition and derision, being proved right by time and events. I have rarely been the forgiving type, but I am familiar with the wise old adage that "Revenge is a dish best tasted cold." For these and other reasons it gives me great satisfaction to be sitting before you this evening! As the Atheist Society now has the chutzpah to meet in a Unitarian church, I might have the temerity to mention to my fellow atheists the motto of the nineteenth-century Tractarian movement, taken from the Collect for the second Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer: "Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest." And I might adapt it for this occasion as: Listen, note, learn and inwardly digest. At any rate, I hope you will find some of what I have to say interesting food for thought.
I will have plenty of opportunity this evening for humour, as I will be describing several people who, by pomposity and buffoonery, made fools of themselves. If you find the jokes funny, by all means enjoy them; but at the same time please do not lose track of the origin or background of this ridiculous yet disgraceful story: the appalling suffering of numerous children at the hands of stupid and criminally brutal adults.
As some of you know, I have since 1963 been actively involved in humanist, rationalist and secular organisations in England and, since 1976, in Australia. But just over ten years ago something happened that disgusted me and made me consider, for a short while at any rate, severing all my links with organised freethought.
From 1992 until mid-2001 the Sinnotts lived in Alexandra, rural Victoria. On hearing that we were going to live there, a friend of ours near Eildon told me I ought to join the Friends of the Alexandra Library. I heard and obeyed. Almost as soon as I walked into the library building, I spotted programmes pinned on the wall for the Atheist Society and the Existentialist Society (back in Melbourne). David Miller had - and no doubt still has - very long arms!
In early October 1995 we had a visit from my friend Ron Marke, who had been secretary of the Rationalist Association of New South Wales and editor for 23 years of its journal, the Rationalist News.
While he was with us, Ron bought at the Alexandra newsagent's a copy of Sarah Hamilton-Byrne's book, Unseen Unheard Unknown, which had been published a few months earlier. It was an exposé of Anne Hamilton-Byrne's cult, The Family. The book interested Ron because many of the events described had taken place near Alexandra at Kai Lama, the cult's property at Taylor's Bay on Lake Eildon.
I knew only too well of the book's existence, but had deferred reading it as I was sure the contents would be very distressing. (After all, I had two young children.) I had read about the cruel and scandalous activities of The Family in a number of reports and features in The Age (Melbourne), mainly in the late 1980s, and I had sent newspaper cuttings on the subject to the (then) editor of The Freethinker, Bill McIlroy, in England.
Ron Marke returned to Sydney and bought another copy of Sarah Hamilton-Byrne's book. He posted it to me as a gift, and I received it on 19 October 1995. I realised the time had come for me to "bite the bullet" and read the book. Yes, it was as distressing as I had feared, but I also found it moving and most impressive.
The book was a damning indictment of the depths of cruelty to which gullibility, authoritarianism and blind loyalty will lead. As I knew the area with which much of it was concerned, I decided I would try to contribute my mite to making the book better known. I wrote an article-length review, entitled "The Cruel Cult of Anne Hamilton-Byrne".
The Freethinkeraccepts but does not publish
I suspected that, by this time, freethought magazines in Australia might already have reviews of this book in hand, so I submitted my typescript to Peter Brearey, who had succeeded Bill McIlroy as editor of The Freethinker. In response, I received a letter (dated 8 November) thanking me for my "excellent piece on Hamilton-Byrne". Brearey added:
Brearey's letter and proofs arrived on the morning of 17 November 1995. I rang Penguin Books Australia and was assured that the book had not been found libellous by a court and that there was no legal action against it in process. (The Family's leaders were almost certainly keeping their heads well down!) I checked the proofs and returned them in the afternoon post with a letter saying I had 'phoned the publishers and was happy about the legal angles.
My review-article did not appear in the December 1995 Freethinker or, to my puzzlement, in any subsequent issue. I wrote to Brearey on several occasions (for instance 8 February and 30 May 1996) asking if my text was still going to be published. The letters were ignored, and I never heard from Brearey again.
I assumed that Brearey lacked the manners and courage to tell me he was not, after all, going to use my copy. Later I informed Keith Porteous Wood, general secretary (now executive director) of the National Secular Society and also secretary of G. W. Foote & Company, publishers of The Freethinker, about the matter in a letter, dated 22 June 1997, and I added: "When I was Freethinker editor, I would never have treated someone in such a shabby way. Any contributor of an accepted article who asked me why it had not yet appeared got a return-of-post reply."
In December 2005 I received a letter from Barbara Smoker, a former president of the N.S.S. and regular contributor to The Freethinker who had known the late Peter Brearey. She agreed that I should have been notified of any decision not to publish my review, "but at that date I think Peter was already terminally ill" and "I well remember how gaunt and sallow he was looking in his last year." In a later letter Barbara suggested that the Board of G. W. Foote & Co. was probably dilatory in delegating Brearey's responsibilities.
It is just possible, therefore, that someone else took over Peter Brearey's duties, and decided to "kill" the review and not answer any correspondence about this. On the other hand, Brearey accepted the review two and a half years before his death on 9 May 1998. And in his letter of 8 November 1995 he wrote:
When I was satisfied that my review-article was not, in fact, going to appear in The Freethinker, I informed Ron Marke and authorised him, probably in late 1996, to offer a copy of the typescript to his successor as editor of the Rationalist News, Peter Hanna.
In due course, Hanna asked me if there were any legal problems with the book. I again rang Penguin Australia, then wrote back saying all was well. I gave Hanna the Melbourne telephone number of the publishers in case he wanted to check for himself.
Hanna still dithered and prevaricated. After discussing the book and my review with Ron Marke, Hanna decided not to publish. The man who was daring enough to describe himself on his rubber stamps as "peter tofeah hanna / 666 / antichrist" did not have the courage to publish a favourable review of an indictment of a child-abusing religious cult. Hanna also told me Ron Marke had called him "gutless"!
Peter Hanna wrote to me on 1 January 1997 about his decision, saying that "As editor I don't think members want me to expose the Assoc[iation] or its committee to litigation, regardless of being remote - unless over a critically important issue. My position is that I do the job as a favor for the R.A., not to have myself in a position to be exposed to possible litigation."
I replied on 30 January 1997 as follows:
plausible grounds for not reviewing or publicising Sarah Hamilton-Byrne's
book would, in my opinion, be:
• if legal action was sub judice;
• if action had finished, and the author or publishers or both had been found guilty of libel; or -
• if you had serious grounds for doubting the allegations in the book.
Sarah Hamilton-Byrne's book, and Kate Davies's When Innocence
Trembles, are exactly the sort of publications the freethought movement
should be publicising and selling. . . .
I concluded my letter with:
Once Hanna had made up his mind, Ron Marke suggested I offer the typescript to James Gerrand, editor of the Australian Humanist (published then, as now, by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies). I knew James Gerrand rather well, as we were both members of the Humanist Society of Victoria, so I gladly complied.
A few weeks later Ron had the satisfaction of telling Peter Hanna that my review-article had been accepted and was about to be published in the May 1997 Australian Humanist. Sydney's self-proclaimed "666 Antichrist" was not too pleased about this!
However, in addition to holding various positions in the Rationalist Association of N.S.W., Hanna was also a vice-president of the Humanist Society of N.S.W. So he then uttered dire warnings to the Humanist Society's committee about the risk of libel action, and demanded that distribution to the Society's members of the May Australian Humanist be stopped.
The Australian Humanist was, and still is, edited and published in Melbourne. Copies are sent to Sydney in bulk, and are then distributed to members of the Humanist Society of New South Wales with the Society's state journal or newsletter, Viewpoints.
In response to constant pressure from Hanna, the committee of the Humanist Society of N.S.W. decided to delay distribution of the May Australian Humanist until an A.G.M. in August. Ron Marke regarded this as a disgraceful form of censorship, as the issue had been distributed in other states, and he decided to do something about it. He wrote to Humanist Society president, Molly Campbell, and demanded his member's copy of the May Australian Humanist: he received one. Ron also asked James Gerrand for an extra supply of the magazine. On receipt, Ron posted about twelve copies of the May issue to various people in New South Wales with a covering circular letter:
You may or may not be aware that your Committee of the Humanist Society of N.S.W. has censored the attached latest edition of the Australian Humanist because James Gerrand, editor, has published Nigel Sinnott's well-written review article on "The cruel cult of Anne Hamilton-Byrne" . . . I understand from Molly Campbell, president of the Humanist Society of N.S.W., that the Committee decided not to send its members this particular edition of the Australian Humanist on the grounds that Nigel's article is libellous and that something was wrong with the present format of the journal.
. . .
I would like to know whether you think Nigel Sinnott's review article is libellous or not. I regard your Committee's action as censorship - presumably from paranoia. I understand that all other members of the state societies have received their copies without any interference from their committees. . . .
In my long
working association in the freethought movement in New South Wales, both
as an organiser, editor and printer, I have never seen such cowardly behaviour
as this. . . .
Ron Marke's circular to members of the Humanist Society of N.S.W. attracted a letter from a lady to whom I will refer as W.X.:
Anne [Hamilton-Byrne] had "plastic surgery and liposuction". Can he prove this?
I . . . suspect that Nigel knows nothing except what he has read about it. I suspect the article is merely a badly written book review: that all the above claims should have been in quotes. If I were editor of AH, I would have asked Nigel to rewrite it properly.
I agree with Peter [Hanna] that sending out the article in our name would be very risky.
It would also be pointless, unless Nigel can substantiate all his claims. If the article turns out to be just a badly written book review we would have put ourselves in financial jeopardy to support someone's right to make unsubstantiated insults.
If it turns
out that Nigel really has something important to contribute, that would
be different - that would be freedom of speech. . . .
My knowledge of The Family does not, however, come entirely from Sarah Hamilton-Byrne's book. The Melbourne Age reported the [police] raid on Kai Lama (1987) and there were various follow-up stories on it. The trials and sentencing of the "Aunties" were also reported in the same paper. I read as many of these reports as possible, and sent copies or cuttings to the Freethinker (London) and, I suspect, other magazines. . . .
In my review-article I said that a disappointment the children had to bear (after rescue) was "being told that the authorities were unable to prosecute members of The Family for cruelty, as more than twelve months had elapsed from the last date of abuse". It is quite clear that the Victoria Police believed Sarah and the children's accounts of cruelty, and would have laid charges if they could. This loophole in the law has now been closed. . . .
not even in the seedier reaches of Sydney, has so far tried to tell me
that Sarah Hamilton-Byrne is a liar or that her claims are grossly exaggerated.
I regarded her book as brave and honest, and of particular interest to
humanists, rationalists and freethinkers of all persuasions. My object
was to publicise the book and encourage people to read it. If I had written
a dismissive or scathing review of the book, then I could understand criticism
from humanists. . . .
But if there are any solicitors here tonight who wish to serve libel or slander writs on me, well, now's you chance - and please form an orderly queue!
The legal gravitas of Mr Z's letter from Sydney deflated very rapidly when I read on:
While I take pains to write controversial material (since the non-controversial is boring), I am also at pains to avoid libel. Had I written a review of this book, I most certainly would not have written it the way Nigel has. Not only is it libellous, it is plagiaristic and in breach of copyright. Nigel writes as though this is all his personal experience and barely mentions the book in question and does so only scathingly.
When I write a review, I am careful to first give an account of the book and to keep my personal views of the quality of the book and my personal opinion of the subject matter, all separately identifiable. While I cannot be sure, I assume that Nigel is using the book as his primary source. But he does not make this clear and makes many apparently personal disparaging statements about the founder of the cult, which are clearly libellous.
Mr Marke also accuses the HS of cowardly behaviour and claims that the act of holding up the delivery of this AH is censorship. However, I do not regard this as censorship since the object [is] to protect the HS from terminal damages - not to deprive the readers of a view about a controversial subject. . . .
since we are faced with a critical legal problem I will give my views on
consequences: As to what would happen if we were sued is simple. We would
be wiped out - whether we won (most unlikely) or lost. But the real question
is What is the likelihood of us being sued. That I would say is vanishingly
remote. The libelled party has a lot more important considerations and
is most unlikely to even learn of this very tiny publication. What would
I think be a greater risk would be a breach of copyright action by the
author of the book, which this is supposed to be a review of. However,
from my knowledge of her personality, I think that also pretty unlikely.
. . .
The Skeptic enters the fray
A few days later I received a letter from a half-amused, half-bemused Barry Williams, who commented:
I have managed to edit the Skeptic for the past seven years without even a threatening lawyer's letter, let alone a law suit, so I can hardly be called reckless. As well, I have known James Gerrand as a friend for a goodly number of years, and I must say he has never struck me as posing a threat to western civilisation as we know it. I think I have a pretty good instinct for what is legal and what is not (as I am sure James does), but I don't rely on that entirely. My daughter, Pita, is a very competent commercial lawyer and I usually run anything borderline past her for comment - I didn't even think of doing that with this item. . . .
As for Rex's claim that there was the possibility of plagiarism being involved, I doubt if I have ever heard a more risible suggestion (though understandably so, considering the source). Copyright law specifically allows for reasonable quotation for the purpose of criticism, and your article certainly did not transgress that. Further, can you imagine the recipient of a positive review arguing that the amount of quotation used was unreasonably large? They would have to be certifiable. . . .
the Humanists manage to sort out their internal problems, but rest assured,
the Skeptics will only be taking legal advice from people who understand
the law. Apart from anything else, I thought your article was both good
and performed a useful service and an editor can ask for nothing more than
Unseen Unheard Unknown was, and is, well worth reading as a detailed description of the horrors inflicted on children by a brutal, morally stunted religious sect. Ron Marke and I still think that the book was well worth reviewing. Efforts to suppress the review led to me stopping my subscription to The Freethinker until a new editor was appointed, and to Ron Marke's resignation from both the Rationalist Association of New South Wales (in which he had been continuously active for 26 years) and the Humanist Society of N.S.W.
After 1997 the fortunes of the Rationalist Association of N.S.W. declined to a level where, in 2000, the Rationalist News ceased publication, and in 2003 a member, alarmed by the Association's financial state, called in the police; but no charges were laid. In October 2005 a general meeting decided to seek amalgamation with the Humanist Society of N.S.W. Only Peter Hanna, who was no longer active in the Association, objected. On 11 March 2006 the members voted for a merger to create the Humanist and Rationalist Association of N.S.W. Inc.
As 2006 progressed, however, the amalgamation stalled because the Rationalist Association's remaining members feared that a small far-right cabal was trying to take over the Humanist Society of N.S.W. And at the end of the year the Rationalist Association's new secretary, Stephen Maxwell, put out feelers to Ron and myself about rejoining. We were a little unsure what to do, so we consulted Ron's partner, Danielle Babb.
On 27 January 2007 I filled in an application to rejoin. Before posting it, I typed at the bottom of the form the words I had addressed to Peter Hanna almost exactly ten years earlier: "If I ever rejoin the Association it will be only when I am satisfied that you are no longer in a position of influence in it."
More recently the Association called a special general meeting on 20 October. Its business was to consider a motion formally rescinding the amalgamation motion passed on 11 March 2006. So, for the time being, the Rationalist Association of N.S.W. is continuing on its own.
Before I finish I would like to express my deep and heartfelt thanks to James Gerrand, Ron Marke and Barry Williams. Their unwavering support was critical in maintaining my morale throughout this sorry and farcical business - though, as I am sure you will have guessed by now, I did not need assistance in maintaining my rage. I am not sure where that courageous whistle-blower Dr Sarah Moore is today but, wherever she is, I wish her and other survivors of The Family every happiness.
Finally, of course, I must thank that earnest and perennial promoter of Melbourne meetings, David Miller. His curiosity and retentive memory prompted me to draw all the strings in this sad saga together. And thank you all for hearing me out.
Davies, Kate. When Innocence Trembles Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994 (cover subtitle: The Christian Brothers orphanage tragedy).
Hamilton-Byrne, Sarah. Unseen Unheard Unknown. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books Australia, 1995 (cover subtitle: My life inside The Family of Anne Hamilton Byrne).
O'Connor, Angela. "Survivor of The Family cult spared conviction"; The Age (Melbourne), 5 July 2005.
Sinnott, Nigel H., "The cruel cult of Anne Hamilton-Byrne" (review of Unseen Unheard Unknown]; Australian Humanist (Melbourne), n.s. no. 46, May 1997: 9 – 11. Reprinted as "Anatomy of a cruel cult"; The Skeptic (Sydney) 17 (2), Winter [June] 1997: 45 – 46, 48. Reprinted in Frightened Freethinkers (booklet).
Sinnott, Nigel H., "Frightened Freethinkers: A Case of Attempted Censorship." The Skeptic (Sydney) 26 (3), Spring [Sept.]: 42 – 46. Reprinted in Frightened Freethinkers (booklet).
Nigel H., Frightened Freethinkers and Timid Rationalists: a case of
attempted censorship; . . . with a foreword by Barry Williams. Melbourne:
Proxima Thule Press, [Oct.] 2006 (booklet; 16 pp.; reprints "Frightened
Freethinkers" and "The cruel cult of Anne Hamilton-Byrne").
N. H. Sinnott,
1/2 Davey Street, Sunshine West, Vic. 3020
13 November 2007
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