Sunday, February 25, 2024

‘You’ve Got No Idea Of The Harm That’s Going On In There. Because Gloriavale Breaks People’

A new documentary, Gloriavale, follows a family from the secretive religious community: siblings John and Virginia, who have both left Gloriavale, and their mother Sharon, who remains. It covers the serious allegations against the Gloriavale leaders, which include sexual abuse, neglect and slavery. Capsule speaks to Liz Gregory, Manager of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Trust, about her involvement in the documentary and what it’s like for those who leave the Gloriavale community.

“There are always two or three ‘waking up moments,’” says Liz Gregory, Manager of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Trust, of those who decide to leave the Gloriavale community. “One is when you realise you’ve been lied to – either by a leader or about Gloriavale itself. Another is when there are cover-ups. And a third one is abuse, either of themselves, or of a family member. Seeing someone you love be treated badly is a huge moment.”

For the past four years, Liz has been working full-time to help people leave the Gloriavale community. When she speaks to those who have left, or people who are still inside but are working on leaving, she says they will often have a handful of moments that have punctured the Gloriavale myth.

Gloriavale is many things to many people. The ‘Gloriavale Christian Community’ started in 1969 as the kind of idyllic, back-to-nature, back-to-values community thinking that can appeal to many idealistic youths. Started by an Australian called Neville Cooper – also known as “Hopeful Christian” – it had around 500 people in the community at its peak.

‘This is a typical cult; these groups always have the same hallmarks: power, control, sex abuse, physical abuse, exploitation of labour.’

In the early days, it was based near Christchurch but moved to the West Coast in the 1990s as numbers grew. It was isolated and secretive but mostly seemed like a harmless faction of rural New Zealand. But in 1995, the cracks in the façade started showing when Neville was jailed for sex abuse and allegations of abuse and sexual assault have continued. A devastating new documentary, which premiers this weekend, tells the very human story of what happens when the home you are raised in becomes a trap that costs you everything.

Gloriavale, which has its world premiere in Christchurch on August 6, shows behind the scenes of the landmark legal battle that saw a group of Gloriavale leavers take the community’s leaders to court in 2020. It focuses mainly on one set of siblings, John Ready and Virginia Courage, both of whom have left the community for different reasons, and their mother, Sharon Ready, who remains inside. The documentary contains discussions of alleged abuse, assault, bullying, slavery… all going on in our very modern country, in 2022. None of this is news to Liz, who features in the documentary, and has been well-aware for years of just how bad life is inside the secretive sect.

“I do recall saying to one government agency: ‘You have got no idea what you’re dealing with – the depth of what you’re dealing with,’” Liz says. “This is a typical cult; these groups always have the same hallmarks: power, control, sex abuse, physical abuse, exploitation of labour. So this shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise. It certainly didn’t take any of us by surprise.”

The Start Of The Gloriavale Leavers’ Trust

Liz and her husband first encountered ‘leavers’, as those who have left Gloriavale are known, after the pair moved to South Canterbury to start a retail business. A family came out of Gloriavale and joined the local church and the community took them under their wing. When people leave Gloriavale, they usually leave with nothing – no money, no home, no clothes, no furniture. “Then more of their family members started coming out and a lot of people got involved in helping them resettle,” Liz says. “We found it was something we were particularly drawn to and helping leavers became a large part of our lives. The Trust formed out of that – there was a need to have a more credible organisation that could attract funding to help resettle leavers.”

The closest analogy, Liz says, is that the Trust is a specialist refugee resettlement group. “Leavers have stories of things that have happened in there, or of injuries, and we have assisted them in having a voice.”

Not only does the Trust help those who have left, but they also work in secret with people who are still inside the community. It is challenging, high stakes work made all the more difficult by the controlling circumstances inside Gloriavale. There is no cellphone coverage and limited internet service that members have to apply for – only for business reasons. Communication with the outside world is limited, as is news access.

“Newspapers come into the businesses to be used in packaging and I know people used to rifle through them, to see what they could find – but any articles about Gloriavale were always removed first,” Liz says. “Newspapers are read out by the leaders; they would cherry-pick articles about mass shootings or murders, and say, ‘See? This is what is happening out there in the world!’”

On top of the fact that Gloriavale members are also taught the outside world is wicked and evil, they are also told that they cannot survive out there. And because the community is run with the very worst of communist values – no-one owns anything or makes any money – it makes getting out a logistically and financially complicated scenario.

But the work of the folk in Timaru receives the best kind of PR they could hope for, she says. “Every morning and night, for a year or two, Timaru people were maligned and criticised inside the community,” she says. “So we got some advertising there, because people inside suddenly knew we existed. The reality is, people had been having secret meetings and establishing contact on the inside and the leaders were trying to clamp down on it, but all they did was let on that there was a group on the outside that was willing to assist people if they did leave.”

“The leaders see us as a destructive force, they think we’re persecuting them, that we’re rubbing our hands together with glee when bad things come for Gloriavale,” Liz says. “And actually, we’re quite devastated. It’s upsetting. We believe that they can do better – I don’t think they can do it without help from the outside – but there are better ways of living and doing that are Christian, and you don’t have to be bound by your old ideology.”

“But will there ever be a safe mentality of all the people in there? I can’t say that that would be the case, no.”

What It’s Like To Leave Gloriavale

For the leavers, Liz says there is an extremely complex mix of challenges they have to work through upon exiting the Gloriavale community. “There are the initial practical challenges: renting a house, getting a vehicle, gathering furniture and clothing, opening bank accounts, getting a form of identification – and within a few weeks, those practical problems are generally sorted out.”

But the more insidious damage can be slower to shift, she says. “The longer-term issues include the trauma people have experienced from living in there and then coming out and realising they’re not really sure who they are. Some of them struggle to make decisions and some don’t feel equipped to come into the workforce or partake in further study out here.”

It’s particularly hard for women, who are often married and become mothers at a young age, as birth control is not permitted and a high birth rate per family is expected. Because of this, they were offered less educational opportunities and work experience, and even decision-making experience, because their roles in Gloriavale are so restricted. Liz describes one of the leavers – now a close friend – who had a panic attack every time she went to the supermarket because there were so many options. The impact of a cloistered life is very large when all those structures are not only gone, but are eventually seen for how destructive they were.

‘All the baggage of the ideology they believed in Gloriavale spills out in those early days.’

“There is the emotional and spiritual baggage,” Liz says. “They have been spiritually abused by a church claiming to be Christian, so they are grappling with issues of faith. ‘Do I throw everything out? Do I believe anything, in a spiritual sense, anymore? How do I know what I’m now hearing is right, or that I can trust this person?’ All the baggage of the ideology they believed in Gloriavale spills out in those early days. So, they are grappling with all of that, on top of daily life, on top of separation from their loved ones who are still inside Gloriavale.”

leavers of the Gloriavale community talk to the press
Left to right: Liz Gregory, Virginia Courage & John Ready

In the documentary, this plays out with the two siblings. John is immediately cast out from the community for the most innocuous of offences – reading other Christian material – but his family remain on the inside, with him unable to contact them or vice versa. “To those who have been cast out, it’s as if a wall has gone up and to your loved ones still inside, it’s as if you are dead,” Liz says. “There is so much grief and loss, as well as anxiety as to what is happening to those who remain.”

All of this is very different to the last high-profile portrayal of Gloriavale – the 2016 and 2018 TVNZ documentary series which set up the community as a kind of ‘kooky Christians next door’ – a little bit folksy, a little bit cringe… something to snigger at, rather than something to fear.

But Liz says the series may have been the church’s downfall. “They had become so proud of themselves that they actually thought that if they got involved in this doco series, it would be good advertising for them,” Liz says. “But it started a media storm – after that, there were leavers going to the news, saying ‘that is not the community I left, this is what they want you to think.’ I think that show was their greatest mistake. They believed in their deluded utopia, and thought they should advertise it to the world.”

“They believed in their deluded utopia, and thought they should advertise it to the world.”

The show also helped solve one of the biggest problems – that no-one in government or the agencies would believe what was going on in the community. “The public mission had to move from ‘Oh it’s bunch of crazy Christians but they don’t look like they’re doing anyone any harm’ to ‘actually, you’ve got no idea of the harm that’s going on in there.’ Because Gloriavale breaks people. And it’s not just the people who leave, who are broken. They are broken in there. And then they come out, and the great hope story is that they get to, piece by piece, put their lives back together. But it’s not a quick fix, and boy, you need some courage.”

Liz is a Christian, as are other members of the Trust team, and it’s one of the aspects they find the hardest to deal with – the twisting of something they hold so dear into a tool of oppression. “We find it abhorrent. We’re embarrassed that they’ve got the name Christian in their title, because it’s a terrible reflection of Christianity – and Christianity doesn’t need more stones thrown at it; in our day and age, it’s not popular to hold Christian beliefs,” Liz says. “And Gloriavale is not helping!”

‘They’re not New Zealand’s national joke. They are people with real struggles and real needs.’

“But I think it probably drives us to do what we’re doing, to show that no, Christians aren’t unkind, uncaring people. They should be the best employers; Christians should be people who hold themselves to a higher standard. But there is a lot of embarrassment that Gloriavale is the face of Christianity in New Zealand. We want to fight against hat and disown their interpretation.”

For people who watch the Gloriavale documentary, out in cinemas as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival later this month, Liz hopes that they view the leavers involved with the compassion they deserve. “They are emotional human beings; they’re not a laughing stock. They’re not New Zealand’s national joke. They are people with real struggles and real needs. We want people to have a compassionate response to the people leaving, and also the people still living there.”

“There are far more victims than there are perpetrators inside Gloriavale. So, they are people that need support and care and they need outside agencies to rescue them. They need others to speak on their behalf.”

The documentary Gloriavale has its World Premiere August 6 in Christchurch and will screen in Wellington and Dunedin as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, before opening in cinemas nationwide from Aug 18

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