Men 'groomed' to have underage sex in Gloriavale, ex-member says

The Press, New Zealand/May 1, 2015

By Ashleigh Stewart

Gloriavale's men are "groomed" to have sex with underage girls and should not shoulder the blame, the granddaughter of the commune's leader says.

Another former member has revealed that girls who put on weight were verbally abused and forced to fast.

However, Karen Winder insists underage sex is "not rampant" inside the West Coast commune and only occurs in isolated cases.

More than three decades after she left the commune with her family, she has become one of the unofficial points of contact for families leaving the commune.

Winder has just spent time with the Ben Canaan family, who have begun making their new life in Timaru.

The commune has been under intense scrutiny after former members came forward with accusations of brain-washing, p hysical punishment and sexual abuse, including against girls as young as 12.

"These children are growing up in an environment where sex is celebrated. The leader thinks that 13 or 14 year old girls are ready to have babies - there's no child rape going on," she said.

"A 23-year-old is not necessary totally culpable for his actions, because he's been groomed for it."

Hopeful Christian, formerly known as Neville Cooper, is Winder's grandfather. Her family were founding members of the Springbank Christian Community near Cust, before it outgrew its original property and moved to the Haupiri Valley to become Gloriavale.

They were also one of the first ones to leave.

Since then hundreds have left and the number leaving had "intensified" in recent years, Winder said.

More members were gaining access to the internet on the inside and realising the outside world was not as evil as they had been told, more were rebelling against the leaders and more families were wanting different for their children.

She does not doubt many surfacing stories of sexual abuse are true.

While she herself was never abused, her best friend was embroiled in a relationship with a man in his late 20s when she was 15.

"She left when she was 15 and her moral compass was so far off it wasn't funny. She was a stripper within weeks - she had no value in herself."

It was important to note underage sex was not the norm in the commune, Winder said, but "a few isolated cases with a few guys who can't keep themselves together".

Sex was also viewed differently there.

"They've grown up sharing a bedroom with their parents - you're there when your parents are having sex, they don't see it as a gross thing."

READ MORE: * Gloriavale: Cult or idyllic society? * Family leaves Gloriavale for new life in Timaru * Will Gloriavale's West Coast commune survive? * Gloriavale controversy not helping those inside, says former member
On Tuesday, police called for ex-Gloriavale members to come forward and discuss their experiences at the community and the West Coast's top police officer visited the following day.

Area commander Inspector John Canning told the Greymouth Star it was a "social visit" to make himself known and it appeared to be "business as usual" at the community. 
Winders said police intervention may feed into the commune's paranoia and force them to withdraw further to where "no one can hold them to account".
Girls were hesitant to go through court cases if the men would not be reprimanded, she said.
Hopeful Christian was sentenced to six years prison on eleven charges of indecent assault in 1994 but the Court of Appeal quashed the sentences and his convictions and ordered a new trial.

He was found guilty on three charges of sexual abuse on young community members at his second trial in December 1995.

With her time at the commune long behind her, Winders has found happiness.

"[Life is] brilliant. I have four children, I am happily married, I attend church and I have a life of freedom, where I get to make choices for myself."

Other ex-members spoke to Campbell Live on Thursday night.

The twin sisters, who weren't named, said they had experienced sexual, verbal, and physical abuse in Gloriavale. 

One was "shunned" and kept in isolation at age 14 for having a relationship with a boy.

She was put in "the hut" - a shack in the bush - for four weeks.

Child abuse was "not unusual", she said.

"My dad used to beat us all the time, for no reason.

"I never knew why. You'd go home and dad would be angry and the first thing he'd do was get a stick and start hitting you."

They were forced to fast because the leader considered them overweight, her sister said. 

"If there's a girl putting on weight the amount of insults they get, it's incredible."

She said she and some of her friends were sexually assaulted.

"It was the same young men who were doing it to me, were doing it to them."

Their nine siblings were still inside Gloriavale, and the girls said they were constantly worrying about them.

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