Gloriavale leader Hopeful Christian dies

Author
NZ Herald Staff,
Section
National,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 15 May 2018, 5:16p.m.
Gloriavale founder Hopeful Christian has died. (Photo/ Supplied)
Gloriavale founder Hopeful Christian has died. (Photo/ Supplied)

Gloriavale founder Hopeful Christian has died at the secluded religious community after a battle with cancer - leaving behind a trail of controversy, a sexual abuse charge, and questions over the future of the sect.

Christian, who was formerly known as Neville Cooper, died on Tuesday afternoon. He was aged in his 90s.

It is understood Christian had been suffering from prostate cancer and that he nearly died in February after being admitted to Grey Base Hospital following a heart attack.

A source told the Herald Christian surprised people by hanging on for several months.

A family member, who is estranged from Gloriavale and has not had contact with the community for over 20 years, said he had heard about the death but was yet to process how he felt about it.

The Herald contacted Gloriavale Christian Community but they refused to comment.

Gloriavale is a reclusive religious community on the West Coast. Photo / File
Gloriavale is a reclusive religious community on the West Coast. Photo / File

Christian, who founded the isolated community in 1969, was its leader for more than 40 years.

He served 11 months in prison in 1995 on sexual abuse charges.

Christian retired from the board of trustees in 2010 but was still the "overseeing shepherd". This gave him the power to appoint himself back onto the board and to appoint new members.

Stories of sexual assault

The woman who was sexually assaulted by Christian applied to have her name suppression lifted by the courts and then went on national TV to speak against him.

In 2015 Yvette Olsen said Christian sexually assaulted her on three occasions when she was 19 and called him a man of "unbridled lust", "lies" and "absolute power", and a "dirty old man".

Olsen said she was inspired to speak after her niece, known only as Julia, spoke to Campbell Live about being the victim of a "wrong relationship" with an adult married man when she was a child.

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.

Hopeful Christian served 11 months in prison in 1995 on sexual abuse charges. Photo / File
Hopeful Christian served 11 months in prison in 1995 on sexual abuse charges. Photo / File

Christian faced three charges of indecent assault from January 1984 relating to a 19-year-old member of the Christian community when it was based at Cust, in North Canterbury.

The woman testified that she was penetrated with a wooden object.

Christian said she was given the object and encouraged to use it on herself as "therapy".

Many unaware of sex abuse conviction

A former member of Gloriavale said most of the families living in the secretive community are unaware of their leader'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. So everyone says, 'oh, evil people put him in jail because he preached the gospel'," Overcomer 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'."

Elijah and Rosanna Overcomer are former residents of Gloriavale. Photo / File
Elijah and Rosanna Overcomer are former residents of Gloriavale. Photo / File

It would be difficult to convince the small community in Haupiri to believe their leader had committed such a crime, he said. "No one's going to believe you ... they would take it as an attack on their church."

Overcomer was banished in 2013 from Gloriavale after questioning Christian over his ability to lead with such a conviction on his record.

Overcomer was eventually joined by his wife Rosanna, who fled the community to be with him, bringing their three children - and another on the way - with her.

Life at Gloriavale

Founded in 1969, Gloriavale has around 550 members with families living according to a strict interpretation of Christianity and working unpaid in community farming and aviation businesses.

The members of the church and community wear standardised modest dress and the women wear scarves covering their hair.

Christian began the Gloriavale community in Rangiora and it moved to Haupiri Valley, on the West Coast, in 1991.

Gloriavale has been featured in a series of documentaries and many news reports.

Granddaughter's book reveals all

Last year Christian's granddaughter Lilia Tarawa released a book about life in the community.

Tarawa, who with her parents Perry and Miracle Tarawa fled Gloriavale nine years ago, wrote Daughter of Gloriavale - My life in a Religious Cult.

Lilia Tarawa, escaped the Gloriavale community and wrote a book about her experiences. Photo / Doug Sherring.
Lilia Tarawa, escaped the Gloriavale community and wrote a book about her experiences. Photo / Doug Sherring.

In her book the 27-year-old 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 Cooper 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.

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

Lilia Tarawa wrote about her relationship with
Lilia Tarawa wrote about her relationship with "Grandad Hopeful" in Daughter of Gloriavale My life in a Religious Cult.

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.

Gloriavale rejects reports of sexual abuse

The Christian Church Community Trust, which governs the isolated West Coast community, was the subject of a Charities Services investigation.

The probe began in April 2015 after media reports about an increase of people leaving Gloriavale and allegations of sexual and physical abuse, the Newsroom website reported.

The main allegations in the report included:

• Of the 18 former Gloriavale members interviewed, five of the females claimed they were victims of sex crimes

• Claims of unfair work conditions, including working excessive hours

• Senior Gloriavale members acting illegally in operating bank accounts of members without their knowledge

• Members forced into an isolated hut as punishment

• Those who left were not provided means to support themselves or to transition to life outside and were unable to maintain contact with members still inside.

Police said last year they were already investigating allegations of sexual assault within Gloriavale.

"Investigations into allegations of offending at the Gloriavale Christian Community are ongoing.

Gloriavale reportedly has around 550 members with families living according to a strict interpretation of Christianity. Photo / File
Gloriavale reportedly has around 550 members with families living according to a strict interpretation of Christianity. Photo / File

"Any and all complaints received by police are treated seriously," the acting area commander for the West Coast, Inspector Dan Mattison, told the Herald last year.

No charges had yet been laid.

Stedfast told the Herald sexual assault allegations as well as comments that there was a sexual predator on the loose were "just nonsense".

"The stories are getting out of hand. There's no such thing at Gloriavale. It's not the case."

Asked at the time whether he was satisfied claims of sexual assault were dealt with appropriately, Stedfast said: "Yes, absolutely."

Police keep an eye on Gloriavale

Police this year said they regularly visit the isolated community.

West Coast Area Commander Inspector Mel Aitken said police had an "ongoing positive relationship and commitment" with the Gloriavale Christian Community, which had a population of more than 550 people.

"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.

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