Allegations of physical and sexual abuse, forced marriage, forced separation of families and a controlling environment at the Gloriavale religious community sparked an 18-month investigation by the New Zealand Government.
Now, Newsroom’s Morgan Tait can exclusively reveal what the Department of Internal Affairs’ investigation found out about life inside the controversial sect.
A never-before-published Government report “hints there is a sexual predator” active in the Gloriavale community according to a religious expert who also labelled the decision not to take action against the charity as “soft”.
Police are still investigating allegations of physical and sexual assaults at the Gloriavale Community in remote Haupiri, 65km east of Greymouth.
The allegations were made during an 18-month Charities Services investigation into the Christian Church Community Trust that governs the isolated religious community.
Charities Services is the arm of the Department of Internal Affairs responsible for administering and monitoring the Charities Act 2005.
Its investigation began in April 2015 following media reports about the increase of people leaving Gloriavale and their allegations of sexual and physical abuse, forced marriage, forced separation of families and a controlling environment.
The scale of the investigation is the first of its kind into life at Gloriavale and involved interviewing trustees, 18 community leavers and the people who helped them; analysing bank and finance records and liaising with New Zealand Police, Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
As a result of investigators referring serious complaints to other government agencies, the Ministry of Social Development confirmed to Newsroom that children from two families had been given assistance from Child, Youth and Family.
Claims of unfair work conditions, including working excessive hours, were passed to MBIE which is waiting for guidance from Charities Services before beginning its own investigation.
A copy of the 33-page report and a letter sent to the trust board detailing the investigation’s findings was released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act.
The documents describe a multitude of serious allegations – some of which were proven – against senior members of the church.
The report concluded that despite evidence of serious wrongdoing, the trust should not be issued with a warning notice but instead continue to work with Charities Services to bring it up to standard.
“Charities Services has therefore determined that the most appropriate outcome for the current investigation is for Charities Services to continue to engage with the Trust and assist them in implementing policies that will improve the governance and management of the Trust.”
The letter sent to the trust from Charities Services acting general manager Jane Pierard listed 18 “actions” the trust needed to take to remain compliant and enjoy the tax exemptions that come with charity status.
The actions included:
– Making a formal policy to deal with sexual and physical assault complaints;
– Holding proper board meetings;
– Appointing two external advisors to its board;
– No longer opening or operating personal bank accounts for its members without their knowledge;
– No longer forcing members into an isolated hut as punishment;
– Making it easier for members to leave Gloriavale and stay in touch with those still inside; and
– Not donating to a church with similar beliefs in India.
Pierard also issued an informal warning about the way Gloriavale members’ personal bank accounts are operated by senior church members.
She stated that the outcome of a police investigation into sexual and physical assaults at Gloriavale could result in further action being taken, and any other allegations could spark new investigations.
“In the event that any of the other allegations referred to other agencies should result in either the identification or prosecution of offences that represent serious wrongdoing … further compliance action would be considered,” said Pierard.
Newsroom spoke with head of the trust board, Fervent Stedfast.
He said the outcome was, “A positive conclusion to a very long investigation”.
“We have seen the recommendations and the situation is developing well. We are working together with Internal Affairs on a positive basis. We are working on this positively.”
Massey University religion expert Peter Lineham criticised Charities Services for not issuing a formal warning.
“I was really surprised by the conclusion because surely with all that’s been revealed and stated there would have been an official warning issued.
“Yes they have agreed to comply etcetera, but if as a matter of record they clearly were very non compliant in a very wide range of areas.
“I was really surprised at the letting them off the hook that has happened. That there was no even minor repercussions, I think it is a bit soft.”
“Hints there is a sexual predator loose in the community”
Lineham said there were serious red flags around the allegations of sexual assaults taking place at Gloriavale.
The report stated that of the 18 former Gloriavale members interviewed, five of the females alleged they were victims of sex crimes.
Some parts of the report in the section that dealt with the sexual offending were redacted.
“It was also alleged that community members have been sexually assaulted, often by the same offender/s, and they have further alleged that the leadership were aware and blamed the victims and failed to action, or took insufficient action,” said the report.
Investigators referred those complaints to police, who were still investigating.
Newsroom approached police for further information about the complaints, including the number and was told: “Police will not comment on this in order to protect the privacy and welfare of those people raising concerns.”
Lineham said the revelations about the scale of offending was very concerning.
“There’s obviously things that we don’t know. There are hints that there is a sexual predator loose in the community.
“It is interesting that [Charities Services] decisions and actions haven’t completely disguised that there is a danger to children in the community.
“It’s very, very softened.”
One of the actions the trust needed to take to remain a registered charity was to formalise a policy to deal with complaints of sexual and physical abuse.
“It’s really quite astonishing,” said Lineham. “All other churches’ protocols have always had a mandatory policy to report to the police.”
However, the policy at Gloriavale which was written down to appease Charities Services, states that all complaints are dealt with in the community.
Repentance and forgiveness are at the core of that process, and then a victim is “free” to go to the authorities if they are not satisfied.
“They are basically saying that they will not take disputes in the community to the court of law,” said Lineham.
“These are quite inadequate statements because repentance is well and good, but if there has been an offence committed against the laws of the country it needs to addressed properly.
“This is not good enough. In a closed community it is a very, very difficult thing to do to speak out.”
Stedfast said he did not wish to comment on the police investigations or allegations.
“It’s in their hands and up to them. I have no comment to make on any of those questions.”
“What happens in our community is our affairs.”
Governance of the trust board
The investigation found that although there were three trustees, the group’s founder Hopeful Christian had significant influence over the board’s decisions in his role of “Overseeing Shepherd”.
Christian, a convicted child sex offender previously named Neville Cooper, refused to be interviewed by Charities Services, the report says.
While Christian has been to jail for sex crimes against two girls, there is no information that he is connected to the current allegations.
“His role is just as a spiritual leader that he does not make any day-to-day trustee decisions.”
Instead, the trustees Fervent Stedfast, Enoch Upright and Howard Temple dealt with authorities.
There were concerns the trust board did not share its decisions and decision-making processes with the community, a potential breach of the Trustee Act 1956 and Trust Deed.
The report stated that no formal trust board meetings were held. Instead, the 16 senior members of the church, titled shepherds and servants, would discuss issues at their meetings.
Once everyone was in agreement, the trustees would ratify the decision.
“In response to the concerns … the trustees advised that they would appoint two additional internal trustees, from the younger people in the community, together with two external advisors.”
The new trustees and advisors are not named, and the external advisors were identified as a local lawyer and accountant.
“I was quite fascinated by this idea that they have brought in outside trustees from outside the organisation,” said Lineham.
“It makes one wonder what the relationship between the advisors and the community is. They must be fairly close to get them involved.”
When asked who the advisors were, Steadfast said: “I don’t think that’s necessary, it’s not a public matter.”
Lineham said the common theme through the report was the harsh religious verses that dictated the communities’ beliefs.
The beliefs of the community are set out in two documents, one called What We Believe and the other named Declaration of Commitment.
Members are required to sign and adhere to the principles of the documents, which state rules such as the jobs to be performed by males and females; that school will be finished at 15 and that surrender all their money, possessions and property to the trust.
“The particular verses that they quote are harsh verses. There is a very, very deep attitude of distrust and disdain for those who have left.”
Right to assets
Each member is expected to sign a document agreeing to the strict Christian principles of Gloriavale and to hand over all their assets, and rights to any assets.
Former members alleged they were coerced into signing the documents – if they didn’t they wouldn’t be able to stay at Gloriavale with their families and would have to leave the settlement with nothing.
The report stated that trustees admitted the process would need to be improved. Now, a lawyer will need to be present to explain to each person the legal and financial implications of signing.
A document outlining how this will occur, and what will happen if someone does not sign, will need to be provided to Charities Services.
Forced marriage, shunning and punishment
To allegations of forced marriage, Charities Services said in the report it was satisfied with the trustees responses that “no one was forced to get married if they do not wish to get married”.
“Members are advised that it is ‘God’s will’ for them to get married and it is up to the individual members to decide whether they wish to proceed with it.”
Also addressed was members being shunned when they left Gloriavale. Former members alleged they were not provided the means to support themselves or to transition to life outside Gloriavale, and that they were unable to maintain contact with those still inside.
The report found: “The trustees have also acknowledged … that they may have ‘got it wrong’ a few times in the past as it was always a highly emotional time for all involved, but these processes have been improved and are in the process of being captured in writing”.
Lineham said this was a weak response.
“They still come out with virtually nothing.”
When it came to punishment, the report detailed accounts of members being overworked or locked in a remote hut.
The trustees told investigators that the facilities were not in bad condition and that being placed there was not a punishment.
It was a “time for members to reflect” if they had broken rules or wanted to leave the community.
A policy dealing with this would also need to be supplied to Charities Services.
“A benchmark on which they are going to be marked”
Charity lawyer Sue Barker said that the response by Charities Services was a productive way to address the issues with the trust.
She said it was likely formal action would be taken if the new terms were not met.
This view was supported by a spokesman for some of the Gloriavale leavers. The man has helped the leavers adapt to life outside of the sect, but did not wish to be identified.
He said that he and former members had read the report.
“A lot of allegations have been brought to the surface and the way that the authorities put it to us was that the report will be used as a measuring stick which all further actions will be judged if they fall short“.
“In the past they might have been able to get away with things but this will serve as a benchmark on which they are going to be marked.”
Barker said that there was a possibility if the trust did not comply it would lose its charitable status.
There had been cases overseas where similar groups had been found to be harmful to communities through similar “shunning” techniques.
“Obviously their charity’s registration is very important to them, they have a multi-million dollar industry going on which would otherwise be paying tax so they have bent over backwards to ensure can stay registered.”