The future of Gloriavale

Last week’s TVNZ three-part documentary on Gloriavale, Escaping Utopia, was compelling and shocking.

Its revelations might not have been news to those who closely followed the reports over the years about the West Coast religious community, but it brought many of the issues to the fore.

Gloriavale is under siege on several fronts, and rightly so. While the state needs to be cautious in interfering in private matters, Gloriavale’s faults have been such that state institutions needed to act.

In fact, proceedings have been filed against Oranga Tamariki, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Social Development and the Labour Inspectorate. The Education Review Office and Charities Services have been rightly criticised for being too accommodating. The role of Inland Revenue is also being questioned.

There is no doubt that the cult is grossly misogynistic, ruled by controlling men largely for their own power and glory. Its private school has been inadequate and its labour practices are akin to slavery. Its people have few rights and few choices.

Their lives are as constricted as their uniforms.

Witnesses to an employment hearing told of working 90 hours a week, being threatened with corporal punishment, eternal damnation, and being shamed or excluded.

Other witnesses proclaimed their hard work was a labour of love, for God. No doubt, Gloriavale for all its faults, provides a purpose and security for many members, even for the downtrodden women consigned to hard labour and breeding babies.

They have been brainwashed into believing the outside world is drenched in sin. Salvation and heaven lie in being prepared for the second coming of Jesus.

Gloriavale, home of the Cooperite religious sect. PHOTO: TVNZ/Sunday
Gloriavale, home of the Cooperite religious sect. PHOTO: TVNZ/Sunday
What stands out, nonetheless, is the history of sexual and physical abuse. It has been widespread. Community claims of reform and apology must be treated sceptically.

Charismatic leader Hopeful Christian was found guilty of sexual assault in 1995. He returned to the community on parole after serving only 11 months, to a hero’s welcome. The forces of the devil had unjustly convicted him.

Current Overseeing Shepherd Howard Temple is facing 27 charges of sexual offending against 10 girls, over more than 20 years. He has pleaded not guilty.

Last month a child sex offender was sentenced to nearly 12 years in jail for 26 charges against nine victims over 30 years.

Police investigations in 2020 and 2021 found 138 potential victims of crime over decades. Police are, at present, looking into allegations of slavery and forced labour arising from the employment case.

There is so much going on and the liabilities under the employment decision are so vast that the pressure on Gloriavale is massive and mounting. Its days could be numbered, no bad thing.

This would create its own difficulties. Most of the community of 600, half of whom are young, have no idea how to cope outside their strict confines.

The experiences of those leavers strong enough to escape the psychological and physical barriers were vivid. They had no idea about money, bank accounts, bus stops or who Taylor Swift might be.

It would be cruel to throw on the streets the majority of the "remainers", brainwashed into believing theirs is the right and righteous way. They not only could not cope but also would not want to. Their trauma would be stark.

At the same time, how can a community steeped in its malfeasant ways with the same leaders be sufficiently reformed?

Perhaps, the best outcome is the slow collapse of the community alongside multi-agency support and that of The Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust.

In this context, it is short-sighted that the government’s multi-agency response to help co-ordinate responses to issues has stopped since the end of last year. It should be reinstated forthwith.

Horrifying, too, is the Gloriavale offshoot in India, also highlighted in the TVNZ documentary. It raises another set of serious matters that will need to be worked through for the sake of the women and their children trapped there.