Special Investigation

Gloriavale: The history of a reclusive sect

Founded by Australian-born evangelist Neville Cooper in 1969, Gloriavale follows its own fundamentalist interpretation of the New Testament.

The principles of sharing and holding all things in common are at the centre of the group’s philosophy, as well as strictly abiding by God’s commandments.

In the 1980s the group, also known as Cooperites, outgrew its Christchurch premises and moved to farmland in remote Haupiri, 65km east of Greymouth.

The closed community currently has between 550 and 600 members, made up of about 55 families with an average of eight children each.

Gloriavale is considered to be ultra-conservative due to its beliefs about living modest lives free from the sin and temptations of the outside world.

A leadership group consisting of elders called shepherds and servants oversees and enforces the rules of Gloriavale.

Cooper is the “spiritual leader” of the community but was removed as a trustee in 2010.

The church is run by the Christian Church Community Trust, an entity registered with Charity Services.

To be a charitable entity in New Zealand, organisations must exist to benefit a charitable cause. In this case, the cause is identified as advancing religion and benefitting the wider community.

With $10m worth of farmland and $20m in assets such as buildings, vehicles and equipment, the trust has eight companies including large dairy farming, scenic flight, oil exploration and deer hunting businesses.

It also has three early childhood education centres and a private school, which are funded by the Ministry of Education.

The businesses are all run by members, with men taught manual labour and women taught housekeeping for when they leave school at 15 years old.

All Gloriavale members live at the property and work for the community without any payment or direct salary. Any income received by individuals is paid into their individual bank account and then donated to the trust.

Food, clothing, laundry and medical costs are listed as necessities provided by the trust, with weekly living expenses calculated at about $39 per person.

Allowed a rare glimpse into the closed community, media coverage has caught the attention of New Zealanders by showcasing life inside Gloriavale in recent years.

The modest lifestyle shocked viewers, who were astounded by the full length blue dresses and bonnets for females and obscure “holy names” given to residents.

Cooper, for example, renamed himself Hopeful Christian.

However, the stories were labelled one-sided for not showing the true experiences of members and it was revealed that Cooper was a convicted sex offender jailed for crimes against young girls.

A steady stream of residents leaving the community since 2011 resulted in more media reports about life inside the sect, many speaking of the controlling environment and alleging systematic sexual and physical abuse.

Now, a Department of Internal Affairs investigation has found evidence of serious wrongdoing by the trust under trustee and charity laws.

While allegations of sexual and physical abuse are still being investigated by police, the trust has avoided any official penalties.

Despite avoiding penalties, the trust has been issued 18 “actions” it needs to take to stay registered. These will be judged when it files its next annual return on April 30.

* Read more from this special investigation by Newsroom's Morgan Tait:

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