A former senior member of Gloriavale Christian Community has been convicted of child sex abuse, the Herald can finally reveal following a long legal battle against court suppression orders.

The man, who has permanent name suppression, pleaded guilty earlier this year to representative charges that he indecently assaulted and had unlawful sexual connection with a young person under the age of 16.

He sobbed in the dock at Christchurch District Court on May 16 as he was sentenced to six months home detention.

Published in NZ Herald

His lawyer told how he was “deeply ashamed” by his actions. The defendant had himself been subjected to abuse in the past, and knew his victim faced a long healing process.

The sex offender is now out of Gloriavale – living in a small community in the South Island.

In a harrowing court statement, the victim, who also cannot be named for legal reasons, wondered how she would ever be close to someone in the future.

She feels lonely and suspects she is not experiencing life in a full and positive way. She suffers flashbacks, nightmares, and a “deep shame”.

The court heard how she was never encouraged to have their own thoughts while growing up, and now requires counselling to “try and talk about the abuse”.

The perpetrator too needs psychological help, Judge Jane Farish noted, especially now that he’s living outside Gloriavale. He was referred to a sex offenders’ treatment programme but was not placed on the Child Sex Offenders’ register.

The offending happened more than seven years ago, while the isolated religious commune at Haupiri, some 45km inland from Greymouth, was still being led by group founder, Neville Cooper aka Hopeful Christian the “Overseeing Shepherd”, himself a convicted sex offender.

“They don’t believe in going to the police,” one former Gloriavale member told the Herald.

“They think it all has to be handled in-house… the Gloriavale leadership will protect their perceived image in the world at large at all cost. The senior leadership goes to a lot of effort to cover things up so they can appear to be different and hold the moral ground.”

It’s not the first sex scandal to hit the community.

Its founder, Hopeful Christian, the Australian-born evangelical preacher who founded Gloriavale in 1969 and died last year aged 92, spent 11 months in prison on sexual abuse charges in the mid-1990s.

He was convicted on the testimony of his son Phil Cooper – who would write an explosive book on the commune called Sins of the Father after escaping in 1989 – and some young women who had fled the compound.

Christian’s victim applied to have her name suppression lifted by the courts. In 2015, Yvette Olsen went on national TV to say that Christian sexually assaulted her on three occasions in 1984 when she was 19. She called him a man of “unbridled lust”, “lies” and “absolute power”, and a “dirty old man”.

Olsen said Christian had tried to break her spirit, forcing her to call herself a “harlot” after she became involved, aged 16, with a 14-year-old boy at Gloriavale.

A former member said most of the families living in Gloriavale were unaware of Christian’s sex abuse conviction and believe he was jailed for preaching the gospel.

Elijah Overcomer was evicted from Gloriavale after questioning leader Christian over his conviction for indecent assault on young women.

“Most people in there believe that it’s because he was preaching the gospel,” he told NZME in 2015.

“Most people would not have any idea, and if you told them why he went to jail [they’d say], ‘you’re a liar, you’re just accusing our leader’.”

There have been other episodes of concern in recent history too.

Two years ago, it was revealed that convicted sex offender Brent John Carpenter moved to Gloriavale and changed his name to Courageous Sojourner after being imprisoned for sexually assaulting a Levin teenage boy in 2010.

In June 2015, 14-year-old Prayer Ready choked to death in an isolation room at the commune. Prayer, who had Down syndrome, died in what a coroner ruled was a tragic accident after choking on her dinner inside the room, which had its door handles disabled to prevent people getting in and out.

And last year, it was revealed that Prayer Ready’s father Clem Ready was convicted of assaulting Prayer, and another daughter Connie, over a period of 13 years.

Ready was sentenced to 12 months supervision after Greymouth District Court heard how he meted out physical discipline by painfully striking the girls on their lower back and buttocks throughout their childhoods.

Christian’s granddaughter Lilia Tarawa, who with her parents Perry and Miracle Tarawa, fled Gloriavale more than 10 years ago, wrote Daughter of Gloriavale – My life in a Religious Cult.

In her book, she wrote of her 18 years in the commune, her relationship with her maternal grandfather “Grandad Hopeful”, and the day her family eventually fled the community.

Tarawa revealed the level of power her charismatic and controlling grandfather had. Even when Christian was found guilty of three charges of sexual assault in 1995 and served a jail sentence he was held in high regard and gave religious instruction from his prison cell.

One of 10 children, Tarawa said she was “brainwashed” but at the same time constantly struggled with the restrictions placed on her.

Women were expected to serve and “submit to men” and anything else was seen as “ungodly”, she said.

Tarawa claims arranged marriages were decided by Christian who also believed girls were ready for marriage, and sex, as soon as they began their menstrual cycle.

It was only the New Zealand law that stopped marriages before the age of 16.

Her grandfather, Tarawa said, “would have happily married off children of 10 or 12 years” of age if the law had permitted it.

West Coast Area Commander Inspector Mel Aitken earlier said police had an “ongoing positive relationship and commitment” with the Gloriavale Christian Community and visited then regularly.

“A multi-agency approach to safety within the community has been adopted at Gloriavale, and regular visits are made to the community by police, and also in a multi-agency led approach which includes Oranga Tamariki, District Health Board and the Ministry of Education,” she said.

They continued to work with the Gloriavale leadership to assist in providing advice and support, she said.

Oranga Tamariki’s Greymouth site has a “working relationship” with Gloriavale, it confirmed in a recent Official Information Act response, adding that its local site manager meets with the community’s Shepherds approximately four times a year “as part of a multi-agency approach to offer support around community education and engagement”.

Former US Navy engineer Howard Temple took over from Hopeful Christian when he died. Formerly called Howard Smitherman, he visited New Zealand during his naval service, prompting a move here and a marriage to a Kiwi. Temple heads a group of senior shepherds that includes Hopeful Christian’s son Mark Christian, Samuel Valor and Enoch Upright.

Over the last year, more than 30 people have left Gloriavale which has around 500 members made up from about 90 families.

By Kurt Bayer
Published in NZ Herald
1 August 2019