In a somewhat unusual turn of events, a member of a highly secretive Christian sect in Australia has turned himself in to police in order to serve a sentence for sexual abuse of minors. In the middle of a debate about whether or not the country should have a sex offenders registry like the United States does, 56-year-old Chris Chandler turned himself in to a Melbourne court after having been convicted of eight different charges. The country is familiar with religious-themed sexual abuse cases and currently has a federal commission investigating cases, including those involving the Roman Catholic Church. At this time, some are campaigning for a sex offender registry that would allow for the naming of sex offenders and a registry for public access. The Chandler story out of a small, anonymous religious sect highlights the current quandary in Australia on how to handle those who have been convicted of sex offenses.
Chandler is a member of a little known sect of Christianity known as the Two by Twos. It is an extremely strict sect, requiring total devotion to the religion as taught by its leaders, which is called “The Truth.” Women have to wear dresses and cutting their hair is strictly forbidden. Men are also forbidden from wearing their hair long. It was founded in the late 1800s by a Scotsman named William Irvine, which sect members believe is the “Alphabet Prophet” as delineated in the Bible. Irvine taught that after 1914, no one would be able to be spiritually saved and that members of the sect could travel to other planets in order to convert extraterrestrial civilizations. Irvine was eventually excommunicated from the church, which has since been led by “overseers.”
There are about 2000 members of the sect in the Australian state of Victoria and it is to this set that Chandler belonged. He was one of the “workers” which function as full-time ministers and missionaries for the sect. During his time as a worker, he is accused of having been sexually indecent with underage girls. Sexual abuse in religious sects and cults is a common tale, but Chandler’s case is unusual for two reasons. First, he set himself up as an advocate for the abused and as a counselor. As a worker, he would often live with member families for extended periods of time, which gave him great access to children. At one point after the local police had launched an investigation into abuse claims, he was present at an overnight convention at which there were children present. It is not so much the fact that he abused children that is unusual, but that he as an acknowledged resource for those struggling with abuse and was respected by members of the sect for such work.
The second thing that is unusual about Chandler and the Two by Twos’ case is the response of some within the sect to news of his guilt. He at first refused to serve the sentence, which is a year’s prison time with a mandatory three-month non-parole period. According to him he was not guilty to the extent that would require such a sentence, though he did not completely deny his guilt. Members of the Two by Twos sect have claimed that had the overseers known about his misconduct, he would not have been allowed to remain in his position. One member denied that any cover-up of sexual abuse in Chandler’s case or otherwise would ever happen in the sect. He said, “You might have seen it in the Catholic Church,” referring to the alleged cover-up of paedophile priests by the Vatican, “but we would not tolerate any such stupidity.”
The sect’s unequivocal treatment of sexual offenders, if it can be believed, is in stark contrast to the ongoing battle Australia is waging against sex offenses and highlights the role of religious organizations in the issue. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has had the Roman Catholic Church in Australia under scrutiny, calling victims, witnesses and ranking clergy members to testify. In July of this year, the commission requested that the Vatican turn over every document it has relating to sex abuse cases, including those related to specific priests in Australia. The request was declined by the Vatican, which sighted the confidentiality of its deliberations as necessary to maintain effective judicial processes. Some critics are crying that this represents a cover up by the Church. The commission itself has found that in more than two-thirds of the religious institutions where sex abuse occurred were Catholic.
Australia is no stranger to religious sex abuse cases, but it has had a hard time figuring out how to treat convicted offenders. Unlike the United States, the country has no registry of sex offenders and they are not known to the public. In the U.S. the database tracks the location and movements of those who have been convicted of sexual offenses against minors. This information is not widely available to the public and is considered as for law enforcement use, but in some cases it is deemed appropriate to notify certain members of the public on the whereabouts of certain sex offenders. The registry and database was brought into effect by the Lychner Act and has been in effect since October 1997. It is this kind of registration system that some Aussies want enacted in their own country.
One outspoken advocate of a sex offender registry is broadcaster Derryn Hinch. His idea is that if the people do not know where such offenders are, then they cannot protect their children. It is this kind of thinking that has led him to publicly name sex offenders, which has led to jail time. He believes that the privacy they enjoy after their release from prison allows them to offend again and he has stated that he does not believe they can be rehabilitated. The laws regarding sex offenders in the state of Queensland are currently under review and Hinch is going to take that opportunity to speak with the state attorney general about implementing a U.S.-style registry in that state. The goal is to ultimately have a nationwide registry of sex offenders.
There are some opponents who believe that such a registry could lead to acts of vigilantism on the part of citizens, therefore doing more harm than good. Others are taking a somewhat more severe view of the problem. Hetty Johnston is the founder of Bravehearts, a child protection group, and she does not believe sex offenders should ever be released from prison. “If these guys are dangerous,” she say, “they shouldn’t be released.” Since Australia does not have the death penalty, that would mean life imprisonment for anyone convicted of sexual abuse of a minor.
If Hinch’s registry idea is truly a system based on the current United States model, instances of vigilantism would be relatively few. The American database is not open to the public and notifications are made on a case-by-case basis. Only certain offenders are listed publicly. But the debate over the idea of a registry is complicated for Australians and may take some time to catch on at governmental levels, if it ever fully does. According to some polls, however, the idea has widespread public support. While governments like that in Queensland try to figure out how to structure their sex offense laws, Chandler seems to be an excellent example of why the country needs a sex offender registry. People may disagree on what exactly the implications are, but at the very least the case of sex offenses against minors in the religious sect highlights the problem as it exists in Australia today.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury