The founder of a New Zealand cult who changed his name from Neville Cooper to Hopeful Christian, died today, leaving behind a trail of controversy, a sexual abuse conviction, and questions over the future of the sect called Gloriavale, located in Haupiri Valley, on the South Island’s West Coast.
According to this report, the current leader, Fervent Steadfast, refused to comment on the death.
He served 11 months in prison in 1995 for sexual abuse of a 19-year-old woman.
He 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.
Yvette Olsen, who was sexually assaulted by Christian, revealed in 2015 that she had been targeted by Christian on three occasions when she was 19 and called him a man of “unbridled lust”, “lies” and “absolute power” – and a “dirty old man”.
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, above, was evicted from Gloriavale after questioning leader Christian over his conviction.
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’. 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’.
Overcomer was banished in 2013 from Gloriavale after questioning Christian over his ability to lead with such a conviction on his record.
He 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.
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.
Last year Christian’s granddaughter Lilia Tarawa, above, 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.
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.
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, something Fervent Steadfast, above, flatly refuted.
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 investigating allegations of sexual assault within Gloriavale.
Meanwhile, it is reported here that cult members are trying their darndest to repel Christian “Night Raiders” who are on a mission to deposit religious tracts in the Gloriavale’s compound that offer a “kinder” interpretation of Christianity than the fundamentalist hellfire version the cult adheres to.