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Inside Gloriavale: Going undercover still haunts me

It’s now more than 20 years since Melanie Reid went “undercover” to report on the Cooperite community based on a remote West Coast farm.

The Christian Community, now known as Gloriavale, was back in the news this week when Newsroom revealed the findings of an 18-month Government investigation into the community.

When investigators interviewed a group of people who had left Gloriavale, many claimed they had been sexually and physical abused.

Melanie Reid, now Investigations Editor at Newsroom, says she is saddened but not surprised.

Every time the subject of Gloriavale comes up in the media I am inundated with requests to re-run a story I did in 1994. I have always felt proud of the story but perhaps a little haunted by the time I spent working “undercover” in what was then known as the Cooperite community.

It’s 23 years since I posed as an agricultural student and talked my way into the religious community based at Haupiri, in the mountains of the South Island’s West Coast.

I have done hundreds of television stories in the last two decades but this story more than any other has followed me. Hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t say to me, “Oh yeah you’re that journalist who wore that blue dress and headscarf and went undercover into Gloriavale”.

In the early 90’s Gloriavale was called the Cooperites after its leader Neville Cooper, who was known then - and now - as Hopeful Christian.

In 1994 I was the Christchurch-based reporter on TV3’s 60 minutes programme and I had been looking into sexual abuse allegations against Neville Cooper.

Cooper, who had renamed himself Hopeful Christian, was and still is, the leader of the community.

I interviewed a woman who had left the community after being sexually abused by Neville Cooper. Her story was horrific but it wasn’t just harrowing because of the sexual abuse. As I would discover, she along with many other Cooperite defectors struggled to adapt to the outside world.

During the course of making the story I spent a lot of time with some of Neville Cooper’s children who had left the community. Back then seven of them and their families remained inside with their father, and six of them were living in the “outside world” with their families.

They were torn apart, those who lived by the rules of their father Neville Cooper (Hopeful Christian) and those who didn’t.

Pain and heartache were always present. When their mother died in the community, the Cooper kids on the outside didn’t find out until after she was buried. There were many stories like this.

But it was what happened to Neville Cooper's son Michael that gave me the resolve to go “undercover”.

Along with his sister and brothers I’d got to know him quite well. Michael had really struggled since leaving the community when he was 16. The death of his mother, who he had not seen for years, had a severe impact on him.

While I was investigating the story, Michael hung himself from a tree in Linwood park. He did it on the same day his father was committed to stand trial for indecent assault in the Christchurch courts.

It was grim, Christchurch in winter, a big tree in the middle of a lonely park and in the darkness and cold, Michael had ended his life.

I was really upset. It was the saddest funeral I have ever attended, and it took place in the absence of Michael's father and his seven other brothers and sisters still living in the community.

I was told by another brother “dad wouldn’t care”, this was what's expected to happen when you leave the community and go to the outside world. I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe that. It was simply too awful.

I cried all the way home, and decided there and then to infiltrate the isolated Gloriavale community, I just had to figure out how to do it.

I remember thinking as a journalist, I can either stand at the gates of the community and make assumptions about what goes on in there, or I can go in and find out.

For the next few weeks I went to a farm near my house and learned to milk cows before turning up to work at TV3.

Once I had mastered milking, I rang the Cooperite community and said I was a Lincoln agricultural student wanting work experience. I explained that since they had the only floating herringbone milking shed in the South Island, I was desperate to do work experience with them.

Hopeful Christian finally agreed.

So I headed to Haupiri to the Cooperites (Gloriavale) which is 60km south east of Greymouth in the middle of the mountains. A very long way from anywhere.

My excuse to myself for lying my way in was “insincerity for the sake of the truth”.

I began working in the cow shed but within days I switched to doing “women’s work” as farm work was seen as a male domain. I could see they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with me roughing it with the Cooperite boys.

Every night at dinner I sat with Hopeful Christian and he talked, on and on, about God and the merits of his community. He also spoke to me a great deal about what was wrong with the outside world. I seem to remember a lot of it rang true at the time.

In this video I have not shown the full drama of what went on with the original, much bigger, story. All the sexual abuse allegations, our camera crew being beaten up and thrown out. It’s just me going inside the community.

Spending eight days inside helped me understand why it would be so hard to leave, and why so many of the ex-Cooperites struggled in the outside world.

The community is their whole life, in many cases it’s where their mother, father, sisters and brothers are, their work, their God, their religion, their friends and community. Because the majority of members rarely, if ever, leave the property, it is their only world, it is actually their everything.

Because the concept of community living has always rather appealed to me, by the time my stay was over I almost felt indoctrinated myself.

When, much later, the Cooperites found out I was not that little agricultural student, but a journalist, they sent me over a dozen letters. Still to this day I’ve only ever opened and read one. It called me things close to Satan.

I didn’t blame them as they had been very kind to me when I was there.

For two decades, I have watched a variety of stories and documentaries on Gloriavale, many which show the sweetness and goodness of the community, of which there is a great deal. I won’t ever deny that, but when you have also felt the damage and the heartache on the other side of all the Godliness - you are a lot harder to fool.

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