Cult survivor tells of years of abuse, and urges other victims to speak

Fairfax Media, New Zealand/September 2, 2016

By John Weeks, Jack Barlow and Illya Mclellan

Two former church members, one of whom was sexually abused as a girl, say the organisation they grew up in was a "cult" in which multiple abuses were carried out.

Sophia and her cousin Anna believe the old Commonwealth Covenant Church was as much a cult as any higher-profile religious group such as the Gloriavale community on the West Coast.

Now 36, Sophia – not her real name – says when she first raised sexual abuse allegations in the 1990s, she and her mother were bullied into leaving the church.

Sophia and Anna spent much of their youth in the CCC, based in urban centres, including Lower Hutt.

Jonathan John Edward Belcher, now living in Masterton, was jailed for the offending against Sophia. 

This week, he said he had served his time, and was a changed man after undertaking a programme for sex offenders while in prison.

Though a jury found Belcher guilty, and the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court dismissed his appeals, he still accused Sophia of lying.

She believes he is not remorseful, and wants nothing to do with him.

The detective who investigated the case, Miles Horsnell​, said Sophia's case was one of the most disturbing he worked on.

"How long it went on for and the types of things he did ... It was a really bad one."

Secrecy a factor

Sophia said the secrecy and patriarchal nature of the CCC was a factor in Belcher's abuse, which began when she was 4.

"He used a lot of religious stuff when he abused me. He used to pray and make me pray."

A common theme through the abuse, she said, was his making her feel as if she was to blame.

And when she raised allegations years later, she said the church dealt with those claims internally, rather than going to police.

"My mum went out and got a protection order against him. Then we were really bullied because of that."

The church in the 1980s and 90s was a cloistered, sexist institution, she said.

"We had really strict rules. Boys and girls weren't allowed to associate. We weren't allowed to cut our hair. No makeup.

"Women were taught to be subservient ... your place was to have babies.

"We didn't have radio, we didn't have TV. It was very much like Gloriavale."

And she said adherents were told going to police was immoral.

Sophia and Anna were both certain other CCC children were abused. Anna said some were removed from their parents at times "and sent to other people in the church environment, which was very damaging".

"Completely paranoid of outsiders"

Both women wanted others to come forward, but acknowledged how difficult it was to do so.

Anna said the church had a deeply paranoid world view, and members who left had difficulty adjusting to society. "We were completely paranoid of outsiders ... We didn't tell the authorities anything."

Church leader Stanley Watkins ruled with an iron fist, members were micro-managed, the fear of hell put into them constantly, and during this time a child she knew was taken away from his parents, Anna said.

"It's really hard for me to talk about ... I know some of [Watkins' relatives] and I don't believe they're bad people."

After Watkins' death, the church underwent reforms in the mid-90s, the old power structure was disestablished, and some genuine changes made as the new Hope Centre was established, she said.

A leader of a successor church in Lower Hutt has been approached for comment.

Anna said an investigation, or public inquiry, into abuse carried out during the CCC days should be launched.

"I believe in restorative justice. But I'm also really passionate about victims having the chance to say how they feel."

"Extreme group"

Former detective Horsnell said his background work on the church revealed what he called an "extreme" religious group, very different from most others. 

"There was some type of meeting that took place within the church to deal with Belcher's offending."

He recalled Sophia and another relative raising concerns about Belcher when they realised he would not leave them alone.

"It was when Belcher, I think, started making contact with another family member that she decided to come to police.

"I interviewed her probably over three sessions, just going right through, because it started when she was so young."

He had great admiration for Sophia, he said. "She had actually come out of it by herself, still quite a good person. She seemed to be quite a normal, functioning member of society."

Belcher was found guilty by a jury of 10 sex offences against Sophia, between the ages of 8 and 16.

On Friday, he said at his Masterton home that it was wrong for Sophia to say he had no remorse.

"How can she say I show no remorse when she's never even tried to get in touch?

"I'd love to apologise for the things I've done ... but I've never, ever seen her naked. In court she lied about what happened, but that's up to her.

"She'll get to face God one day."

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