Aussie father lured into a notorious sect which beat and brainwashed his children before they were torn apart reveals how he finally escaped - while his ex-wife remains in its clutches

Family reveals ordeal of being in a sect for two years

Daily Mail, Australia/February 17, 2023

By Freddy Pawle

An Australian family who managed to escape a notorious sect have revealed the horrific punishments they endured as children.

In 1999, the Klein family comprising of Tessa, her brother Bryson, their father Matt and their mother, were invited to join the Twelve Tribes at a 22acre farm in Picton, 1.5 hours south of Sydney.

Tessa, then aged four and Bryson, aged two, entered a 'loving and religious group' with their parents that promised an alternative, community-based lifestyle.

Bryson was unsettled at night which led to little sleep for the entire family. His mother - who was suffering postnatal depression - wanted to use a 'naturalistic approach' to his care, and believed Twelve Tribes could help her.

After about eight months of visiting the farm at Picton, the family decided to join full-time. It was the start of their downfall.

'They were not what they seemed,' Tessa told Daily Mail Australia.

Founded in Tennessee in 1972, the Twelve Tribes are a global fundamentalist Christian group and believe they are the only true followers of Jesus - who they call Yahshua.

They also believe they must reform the Twelve Tribes of Israel in order to communicate with him.

The group follows the Book of Revelations and aims to create an army of 144,000 spiritually undefiled virgin men to guide the Twelve Tribes into the afterlife, as per Revelations 14.   

The founder, Eugene Spriggs, taught that women are to be completely subservient to men, and their highest honour is becoming a wife and mother.  

The Twelve Tribes has spread its message across the world by opening up numerous tax-free businesses such as soap factories, farms, workshops and most famously - their Yellow Deli cafes.

Tim Elliot, co-producer of the Inside the Tribes podcast, has spent hundreds of hours researching the sect alongside co-producer Camille Bianchi.

'[They commit] really physically damaging, excruciating punishments on young children for relatively minor things,' Elliot told Daily Mail Australia.

'Not finishing your meal, answering back, being too restless, not doing what you're told on the first command. They would get severely beaten.

'They are happy recruiting anyone, but young families are definitely attractive to them.'

When the Kleins first joined, they were smothered with love and praise from fellow members, making them feel welcome and a part of a solid community.

The tactic of love-bombing disappeared after a couple of months, and the family were ignored, which made them feel not only desperate but also dependent.

Tessa realised early on that every action was being watched by elders within the Tribes, and any disobedience to their teachings would result in corporal punishment.

Punishment involved a 'reed-like rod' to smack a child's hand, and in more serious cases, their bare bottom. The assault could come from any adult, but was mostly carried out by the child's parents.

'I was fairly perceptive, even from the very beginning I kind of knew how to behave,' Tessa said.

'But Bryson was the complete opposite, and I just always remember being scared for him, being around him as much as I possibly could to make sure he didn't do anything wrong.

'While we were in Picton I never saw Bryson get hit by non-family members, but I heard it.

'There was one time where I watched my mum have to discipline Bryson, he was crying so loud, and she just kept going on and on and on.

'It was just horrible.'

Being a 'disobedient kid' meant Bryson was a target for physical punishment from an early age.

On one occasion, just months after the Kleins had joined Tribes, Matt left Bryson with one of the elders while he completed deliveries.

'I asked him [the elder] "Oh how did he [Bryson] behave?" and he just said "not good, I had to discipline him 10, 11 times because he wouldn't come to me on first command",' Matt said.

'We're talking about a two-and-a-half year old boy who doesn't know him. What did he expect?

'Much to my shame I should have picked my kids up and left at that point in time.  

'But when you're exposed to this stuff, over time you become conditioned for this to become the norm.

'We had to discipline the children to prove we were obedient as well.'

Matt said he stopped disciplining Bryson and took him away from the others to chat with him instead.

'He was confused, but his behaviour improved,' Matt said.

'From what I've learnt since, my wife was incredibly zealous on disciplining the children, what my daughter had to witness her do was horrific.'

Matt, who had a degree in industrial chemistry and was a high school teacher before entering the Twelve Tribes, was given the task of home schooling the children on the Picton farm, including his own.

'I wasn't happy with the curriculum at all,' Matt told Daily Mail Australia.  

'The kids weren't taught how to learn for themselves and nothing challenged them.   

'It was just filling in math and English sheets and doing the bare minimum to keep the Department of Education happy.'

The Twelve Tribes had been granted an extremely rare religious exemption that allows children to be taught by anyone, even if they don't have teaching credentials.

'There were only about 15 kids in Australia with his religious exemption. I think 10 of them were on the Peppercorn Creek Farm,' Matt said.

The children weren't allowed to read or learn outside of the Tribes' teachings, including any works of fiction.

To add to their growing dependence on the sect, the Kleins had given everything up to join the Tribes. They sold all belongings that elders believed were 'materialistic' and gave all of the proceeds to the group.

Matt sold off around $30,000 worth of goods, while his wife sold some Champagne diamonds that were given to her as a gift, today worth between $3,000 to $4,000 each.

The Kleins also became separated from friends and family, with communication or meetings with anyone outside the group heavily investigated.

'I've already given everything up, it wasn't as easy as just not attending church anymore,' Matt said.

'It thought my whole life is now wrapped up. I knew if I left, my wife would say, "that was the end of our family".'

Matt and his wife had a third child, Peter, while in the Tribes which further bound them to the sect.

More trouble started when Matt's mother became worried about him and wanted to spend more time with the family.

To stop any influence from Matt's mother, the Twelve Tribes shipped the family off to Cambridge in New York. However, their time there was cut short after three months because Matt couldn't receive another visa.

They were then sent to Winnipeg during the middle of a Canadian winter where temperatures hit as low as -30C.

Winnipeg was turbulent for the family. Matt and Tessa both revealed they were given a box of 'slimy carrots', or a single roast chicken to feed 100 people.

It was also where Tessa would experience the full horrors of the Tribe as she was of school age, which meant she had to spend mornings being indoctrinated into the sect's teachings.

'They had kind of their own version of school, but it was mostly just based off parts of the Bible,' Tessa said.

'It was very much teachings in line with their beliefs, and I guess to help get out of you what they wanted out of you.'

She said Bryson's beatings also continued.

'I heard Bryson crying from three storeys away, I thought it's never going to end.'

Tessa and Bryson were already undereducated by the time they started school.

'When we left (the Tribes) I went to a normal kindergarten and obviously I fell behind. Even in kindergarten I was so far behind,' Tessa said.

Meanwhile, Matt had become increasingly disillusioned by the Tribes teachings soon after arriving in Winnipeg when he was asked to illegally cross the border into America.

He knew he had to get out soon after the September 11 attacks occurred.  

'During one of the morning teachings, one of the elders said that we needed to be more like the men that flew the planes into the Twin Towers,' Matt said.

'That we've got to be so single-minded that nothing else matters.

'I just said, "I was so thankful to see all those firemen running into those buildings, that they were willing to lay down their lives there so that others may live. It sort of reminds me of somebody else (Jesus)".'

While Matt understood the leader was not suggesting the Twelve Tribes members become terrorists, rather that they have as much dedication to the sect as the terrorists had to their September 11 attacks, Matt knew it was time to leave.  

For his direct disobedience Matt was 'cut off' from the Tribes. No-one was allowed to interact with him.

Three weeks later he was asked to leave permanently.

Matt's wife decided to divorce Matt and stay with the sect . This meant Tessa and Bryson had to choose between their now-outcast father and their mother.

'Being asked to choose between your parents, as a five year old is like, where do you even start?' Tessa said.

'I guess as a young girl, I chose my mum.'

Bryson chose to stay with Matt, and the two were given $100 cash and dropped off at a sleazy motel in Winnipeg that cost $60 a night.

The two made it home thanks to the help of Matt's brother who rushed from Australia to help bring them back.

A week after coming home, Matt's wife, Tessa and Peter arrived. She dropped the two children off, and returned to the sect.

'I don't know why she did that. But she did,' Tessa said.

'I would cry almost every night, and days like Mother's Day or Christmas would hurt so much more.

'I just didn't get why she abandoned us.'

After spending two years with the sect, Tessa believed every adult was watching her like a hawk and waiting for her to make a mistake, including simple acts like playing make believe.

'As a child, I don't think I ever played make believe, not once, because I was just so scared of doing the wrong thing,' she said.  

Undereducated and mentally and physically traumatised, the Klein siblings were held together by their father Matt.

'How he was as a parent afterwards when we came out, just making sure that there was a lot of stability in our life and that we had as many opportunities as he could possibly give us,' Tessa said.

'He definitely rewrote his wrongs as best he could. I'm very grateful to him.'

After years of appointments with psychologists who were shocked by how well Tessa was handling her time with the Twelve Tribes and her mother's abandonment, she has started to move on with life.

'When I was still that very shy kid I kind of took quite a liking to ballet. Just because it was this silence and discipline, but very creative, and like freeing in a way,' she said.

'I then got into engineering at uni, I loved maths and logic. I also guess to get as far away from Christianity as possible.'

Tessa now happily lives in Germany, and is the mum of a one-and-a-half year-old daughter. She still keeps limited contact with her own mother, who still lives with the Twelve Tribes.

Matt has since remarried and is building a house in the Blue Mountains area. He helps prevent people from joining or removing people from sects including the Twelve Tribes.

Daily Mail Australia have reached out to the Twelve Tribes for comment.

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