Founder of New Zealand cult Gloriavale dies in his 90s from cancer

  • Leader of a secretive religious cult convicted of sexual abuse has died
  • Hopeful Christian, formerly Neville Cooper, founded Gloriavale in New Zealand
  • He died aged in his 90s, and leaves behind a legacy of sexual abuse 
  • Former members of the reclusive community say they suffered while there 

By Ben Hill and Sophie Haslett For Daily Mail Australia

Published: 21:59 EDT, 15 May 2018 | Updated: 07:20 EDT, 16 May 2018

A secretive religious cult leader who was convicted of sexual abuse has died - leaving behind a shocking legacy of alleged abuse.

Hopeful Christian, formerly known as Neville Cooper, was the founder of Gloriavale Christian Community, a controversial and reclusive cult on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island.

Christian had been suffering from prostate cancer, it is understood, and was aged in his 90s, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Former members have claimed women inside the cult faced submission, domestic servitude and fear of eternal damnation and hell.

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Hopeful Christian, formerly known as Neville Cooper, was the founder of Gloriavale Christian Community
Hopeful Christian, formerly known as Neville Cooper, was the founder of Gloriavale Christian Community

Hopeful Christian, formerly known as Neville Cooper, was the founder of Gloriavale Christian Community

Lilia Tarawa (centre) grew up at Gloriavale and is the granddaughter of Hopeful Christian. She eventually escaped the cult
Lilia Tarawa (centre) grew up at Gloriavale and is the granddaughter of Hopeful Christian. She eventually escaped the cult

Lilia Tarawa (centre) grew up at Gloriavale and is the granddaughter of Hopeful Christian. She eventually escaped the cult

Christian had been suffering from prostate cancer, it is understood, and was aged in his 90s
Christian had been suffering from prostate cancer, it is understood, and was aged in his 90s

Christian had been suffering from prostate cancer, it is understood, and was aged in his 90s

Christian founded the community in 1969 after moving from Australia with his wife Gloria, and was known as the 'overseeing shepherd'.

In 1995, he spent 11 months behind bars for sexual abuse.

Yvette Olsen said she was sexually abused by Christian three times when she was 19.

She said Christian had 'unbridled lust' and was a 'dirty old man'.

Ms Olsen said Christian called her a 'harlot' after she started dating a 14-year-old boy in the community when she was 16.

Christian faced three charges of indecent assault stemming from 1984, where a 19-year-old member of the community testified that she was penetrated with a wooden object.

Christian argued that the girl was given the object and told to use it on herself as a means of 'therapy'.

About 550 people live in Gloriavale, who follow a strict interpretation of the New Testament.

Women are considered to be subordinate to men within the cult - forced to wear headscarves, alongside loose, full-length blue dresses, high necklines and long sleeves. 

A report on the controversial Christian sect unearthed disturbing allegations of abuse, forced marriage and imprisonment.

The report was released by government arm Charities Services and unveiled a multitude of claims made by 11 former members.

Five female Gloriavale defectors claimed they were the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the same alleged offender, with suggestions a sexual predator may be lurking within the community.

Yvette Olsen (not pictured) said she was sexually abused by Christian three times when she was 19
Yvette Olsen (not pictured) said she was sexually abused by Christian three times when she was 19

Yvette Olsen (not pictured) said she was sexually abused by Christian three times when she was 19

About 550 people live in Gloriavale, who follow a strict interpretation of the New Testament
About 550 people live in Gloriavale, who follow a strict interpretation of the New Testament

About 550 people live in Gloriavale, who follow a strict interpretation of the New Testament

Two women from outside Gloriavale also claim they were victims of sexual assault by the same alleged offender.

Gloriavale spokesman Fervent Stedfast said the sexual assault allegations and suggestion a sexual predator lived within the community were 'nonsense'. 

Lilia Tarawa, 26, grew up at Gloriavale and is the granddaughter of Hopeful Christian. She escaped the cult's oppressive rules and now lives in the outside world.

She told Daily Mail Australia she was openly mocked by Christian after receiving a school report praising her leadership qualities.

Ms Tarawa said she was actively encouraged not to speak out in the repressive community
Ms Tarawa said she was actively encouraged not to speak out in the repressive community

Ms Tarawa said she was actively encouraged not to speak out in the repressive community

'My grandfather read it aloud at dinner and mocked me in front of everyone,' she remembered. 'He called me 'bossy' and said we didn't want bossy women in the community.

'I was humiliated and still struggle with a lack of self worth sometimes today because of that.'  

From there, things only got worse for Ms Tawara, who witnessed a boy 'being belted with a metal strap by a teacher' at her community-run school.

'Old-fashioned corporal punishment was encouraged. Those memories are hard, but I shared those stories because it's when I started to think 'this isn't right',' she explained. 

While she knew that things weren't right, Ms Tarawa was actively encouraged not to speak out in the repressive community.

Children were even lower than women in the hierarchy - and everyone was made to share everything - whether it was meals, prayers or breastfeeding. Meanwhile, young girls were married to much older men in arranged marriages.

'I couldn't speak out,' Ms Tarawa said. 'Your whole life is lived in fear of hell and damnation.'

On another occasion from her childhood, Ms Tarawa admitted to stealing rolled oats, after her charismatic grandfather told the community that it was better to speak out than stay silent and be damned:

They wear standardised clothing - women in long, blue dresses and often cover their hair with scarves, while men wear neckties, dark blue pants and light blue sleeved shirt
They wear standardised clothing - women in long, blue dresses and often cover their hair with scarves, while men wear neckties, dark blue pants and light blue sleeved shirt

They wear standardised clothing - women in long, blue dresses and often cover their hair with scarves, while men wear neckties, dark blue pants and light blue sleeved shirt

'Grandad reminded us of the consequences of stealing. "If your hand or foot causes you to sin then it's better for it to be cut off than have all your limbs and be cast into everlasting hell fire,",' she recalled.

'I wanted to ignore my conscience but the guilt was too much. Condemnation festered in my soul. If I didn't cleanse myself then I'd be damned to eternity with Satan... I'd rather look like an idiot now than lose my salvation.' 

At the age of 16, like many of the women in the 90 families inside the Gloriavale community, Lilia made a vow to her grandfather during her commitment ceremony.

She promised, like others, that she would submit to males, look after her home and remain 'meek', 'modest' and 'pure'.

At this point, she also renounced adultery, divorce, birth control and abortion.

'Gloriavale told me that I wasn't allowed to have sex with anyone until I was married,' Ms Tarawa told FEMAIL.

'In fact, it wasn't until I escaped the cult later and had sex for the first time, that I was finally broken free from the religious chain.

'I realised I wasn't going to go to hell for having sex. That was the beginning of my freedom.' 

Eventually, the Tarawa family left Gloriavale for good, at which point Ms Tarawa broke free from the religion which had defined her childhood and embraced the modern world. 

Women are considered to be subordinate to men within the cult - forced to wear headscarves, alongside loose, full-length blue dresses, high necklines and long sleeves
Women are considered to be subordinate to men within the cult - forced to wear headscarves, alongside loose, full-length blue dresses, high necklines and long sleeves

Women are considered to be subordinate to men within the cult - forced to wear headscarves, alongside loose, full-length blue dresses, high necklines and long sleeves

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