Gloriavale employment case: Judge says suggestion women had 'choice' largely illusory

RNZ, New Zealand/July 14, 2023

By Jean Edwards

A woman's place

What's in a Gloriavale name? A lot, as it turns out.

Members are often mocked for names derived from the Bible or Christian values, but for the six former Gloriavale women who testified to a life of servitude at the secretive religious sect, courage is a virtue.

Long read - Raised to be meek and submissive in a world dominated by men, six former Gloriavale women have won an extraordinary legal victory they say vindicates their claims of labour exploitation.

The Employment Court has found Serenity Pilgrim, Anna Courage, Rose Standtrue, Crystal Loyal, Pearl Valor and Virginia Courage were employees who worked extremely hard under punishing conditions for years on end.

In a case traversing challenging spiritual terrain and the Southern Alps, 50 witnesses came to tell their gospel truth before the court's chief judge. Slave labour or a labour of love? Jean Edwards reports.

Members are often mocked for names derived from the Bible or Christian values, but for the six former Gloriavale women who testified to a life of servitude at the secretive religious sect, courage is a virtue.

Recounting her journey from the West Coast commune to the witness box, lead plaintiff Serenity Pilgrim told the court she worked an average of 90 hours a week during her teenage years.

"As far as I remember, we always had to work. It was work or get told off and get in trouble," she said.

The court heard the women were destined to a life of drudgery on Gloriavale's domestic teams from the day they were born, working long hours from the age of 15 preparing food, cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry.

The women, all of whom were born into the community, said they worked on a gruelling four-day rotation under an all-pervading regime of secular and religious control with few if any breaks.

Pearl Valor recalled waking at 2am to get a head-start and on occasions, the immense pressure of cooking for the entire 600-member community with just two others.

"I always felt I owed them. No matter how much work I did, it only ever amounted to my bed, my clothes and my food," she said.

Perpetually exhausted, the women said they could not refuse to work without significant consequences, including the threat of eternal damnation, corporal punishment, public shaming, denial of food and expulsion from the community.

In 2016, Virginia Courage was close to breaking point.

"I remember getting to the end of that year and thinking, are they trying to work us to death?" she said.

Courage held her nine-week-old son Jonas in court - the only one of her 11 children to have been born on the "outside" - in a touching moment of mother-baby bonding other women said they were largely denied.

Crystal Loyal lamented a "connection lost" after returning to labour-intensive work a week after her son was born.

Distressing testimony came from others whose treatment left them feeling enslaved, entrapped and suicidal.

Through tears, Rose Standtrue described living in fear - fear of being late for work, making a mistake, public shaming, abusive men and going to hell.

"I just wanted my life to be over because I was miserable. I felt that was the only way out of Gloriavale because I wasn't allowed to leave," she said.

Courage's daughter Anna also contemplated ending her life before leaving at the age of 17.

She had a panic attack every time she saw a blue dress - the costume inspiration for the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale.

In his opening submission, barrister Brian Henry told chief judge Christina Inglis the women's working conditions were scandalous.

Yet a procession of Gloriavale women denied working under the whip of its leaders, accusing the plaintiffs of making misleading, distorted and exaggerated claims about life at the commune.

They were not brainwashed, downtrodden, subjugated or worked off their feet, and were not forced to do anything against their will, the women said.

So-called "slave labour" was simply a labour of love by willing volunteers and the concept of some kind of child labour force was ridiculous, they said.

Inglis instead found the women were employees, primed from their early life as girls to do "unrelenting, grinding, hard, and physically and psychologically demanding" work.

In a typical week in 2018, the female kitchen workforce produced more than 11,000 meals, while laundry workers washed at least 17,000 items.

The women were taught from birth to submit to male leadership in all aspects of their life and any suggestion of "choice" was largely illusory, Inglis said.

"I was left with no doubt that they worked extremely hard, and under punishing conditions, during their time on the teams," she said.

"It is apparent that for the plaintiffs their time at Gloriavale, and their experience working there, has left deep scars."

'Whores', sexual harassment and the crimes of Hopeful Christian

When girls as young as eight were serving food in Gloriavale's communal dining room, they were scared of being groped.

No-one wanted to serve Overseeing Shepherd Howard Temple, Crystal Loyal said.

"When you served his table in the mornings he'd put his arm around your waist, kiss your neck, and touch your bum. A lot of the older men thought this was their right with the young girls," she said.

Rose Standtrue also testified about unwanted attention from Temple.

"Even as a little girl we were told by other girls and older women to keep our distance from Howard Temple so he wouldn't grope our legs when we were serving at the table. He still tried to pull me closer to him by my dress and I couldn't always avoid him," she said.

In the kitchen, men grabbed girl's bottoms, unzipped dresses and pinged bras, while prying eyes peeked in the showers.

Workplace sexual harassment was normal at Gloriavale, where an ingrained culture of victim-blaming and shaming meant "harlots and whores" were always punished for misbehaviour, former members said.

Four of the six plaintiffs signed Gloriavale's Declaration of Commitment, unwittingly binding themselves to a life in a Christian community that was a "haven for sex offenders", Henry said.

Powerful men did not practice what they preached.

Gloriavale founder Hopeful Christian was a convincing and charismatic man, and a convicted sex offender.

He used his dominance to exploit young followers, committing "cruel and bizarre" crimes under the guise of education or preparation for marriage.

Christian was sentenced to five years in prison in 1995 for indecent assault, after attacking a 19-year-old woman with a dildo.

He spent 11 months in jail before being released on parole, presiding over a period of intergenerational sexual abuse.

In a 2020 inquiry code-named Operation Minneapolis, police identified 61 young people involved in harmful sexual behaviour at the commune, either as offenders, peers or victims.

Howard Temple insisted much had changed at Gloriavale under his leadership.

Belief in repentance, forgiveness and never taking a "Christian brother to law" had been replaced with clear child protection policies and guidelines for reporting abuse without stigma or shame, he said.

Gloriavale did not condone sexual offending and had systematically sought to root out abuse with the help of Oranga Tamariki and police.

Temple denied any impropriety himself, for there was nothing sexual about a fatherly hug or a comforting arm around a girl's shoulder, he said.

In a world of sin and lust, Gloriavale women told the court they felt safe.

They were not "sex cult" slaves, victims of forced marriage or baby-making machines, but mothers of gifts from God, Lydia Christian explained.

"In our ignorance and desire to be merciful, loving and forgiving, there have been perverts among us, but I have never heard sexual immorality encouraged, condoned or taught," she said.

Howard Temple and his men

One February morning, Shepherd Samuel Valor rose to tell chief judge Christina Inglis he was "not a lawyer, not even a wannabe lawyer", yet he and Stephen Standfast would lead Gloriavale's defence from now on.

The community could no longer sustain the cost of a legal team, the men said, appearing in blue shirts beside black-gowned barristers on behalf of fellow defendants Howard Temple, Faithful Pilgrim and Noah Hopeful.

These were the faces of power, the plaintiffs said.

Men at the top of Gloriavale's hierarchy had a powerful stranglehold on members practical and spiritual life, enforcing doctrines designed to control and silence dissenters, they said.

Brian Henry told the court the community's foundational document What We Believe created a misogynist utopia, forcing women to live in subjugation, as slaves to men.

"The control over them is absolute and deliberate. The entrapment is deliberate, the male dominance is deliberate, their powerlessness is by design. The intention is to have women enslaved," he said.

Girls were groomed from birth to provide cheap, sweatshop-style labour under the command of the Overseeing Shepherd who had absolute power and control over every aspect of their daily lives, right down to the length of their hair, Henry said.

Gloriavale had been forced by its growth to turn to child labour, denying members freedom of choice or a voice, he argued.

Witnesses testified about an entrenched culture of bullying and mocking, where women were punished, degraded and denied a decent education.

In Shepherds and Servants meetings, members had to submit unconditionally or be cast out broken, penniless and alone, for the men controlled the money.

In turn, Gloriavale accused leavers of twisting details about the sect to paint a dark, sensationalised picture of life at the commune.

"It is not about starvation, or deprivation or power and control as the plaintiffs have painted it," David Stedfast said, nor was anyone "locked or chained up".

Leavers claimed members were still bound by psychological shackles, with unquestioning obedience to Gloriavale's spiritual leader Howard Temple, an 83-year-old former US Navy engineer with deep-set eyes and an American drawl.

He admitted leaders had made mistakes, promised to report abuse to police and insisted far-reaching changes would ensure past wrongs during a "dark period" in Gloriavale's history would never be repeated.

Temple argued the plaintiffs had confused the concepts of religious submission and subjugation, and denied ruling like a dictatorial tyrant or imposing faith in God on the community's children through isolation and ignorance.

"I do not have, nor do I exercise absolute power and control over community members. I have never claimed to have such power and nor do I want such power," he said.

Yet Christina Inglis found the women worked under the strict direction and control of the Overseeing Shepherd, for long hours and for years on end, and were subordinate to him.

She concluded the women worked on the teams because that was what they were told to do; "what each of them had been trained to accept from birth, and the consequences of not doing what was expected (namely falling "out of unity") were dire and well known - exclusion from the community, from all that was familiar, from family and friends, and into a world they know little about, were ill-equipped to navigate and had been taught to fear."

Inside Gloriavale

As lunchtime neared in one of the most isolated kitchens in the country, a young woman dipped a giant wooden spoon into a steaming hot vat, like a paddler working against the tide.

"Sorry, it's just a little nerve-racking with a whole lot of people," she confessed as the chief judge, lawyers and reporters filed past, although Christina Inglis had not come to judge her cooking.

Gloriavale had pulled back the veil on life at the Christian commune, for an unprecedented two-hour tour.

Single girls turned out trays of warm chocolate muffins - a far cry from the porridge and rice fasts alleged in court - while others milled cheese, washed fruit and sliced bread.

Dated, Disney-esque relics of Gloriavale concerts decorated the dining room, where stuffed lions and fake palms fringed colourful jungle murals.

Gloriavale's employment fight was also on show, in news articles pinned to the wall, as Purity Valor explained the seating rules.

"Everyone knows their place here," she said.

Outside bush-clad mountains rose above the lawn to the lake - a wildly beautiful part of the West Coast with a sometimes ugly past.

In May last year, Gloriavale's leaders issued an unprecedented public apology for failing to protect victims of labour exploitation and sexual abuse.

In court they argued the women were never Gloriavale employees and the community had always worked to comply with New Zealand law.

Leaders warned employment relationships would destroy members' Christian way of life, violating their deeply-held religious beliefs and upending their communal economy, for members were bound not by contracts, but by their vows.

Chief judge Christina Inglis noted the court was not concerned with the merits of Gloriavale's way of life or religious underpinnings and the community's financial situation did not sit well with a claimed lack of capacity to pay for women's work.

Gloriavale intends to appeal against the judgement, arguing it has significant and wide-ranging implications, including how faith-based communities, iwi and whānau choose to live and structure their household responsibilities.

Police are investigating allegations of forced labour, slavery and servitude at Gloriavale, while lawyers say the precedent-setting case should trigger action by government agencies lacking for so long.

The women have been applauded for their courage in overcoming a lifetime of teachings against challenging authority.

Haupiri means "meeting of the winds", according to Gloriavale.

Leavers like Virginia Courage hope the winds of change finally blow through the West Coast wilderness to their old spiritual home.

"We're thrilled to know we do have rights, we're thrilled to know that the women in Gloriavale now have rights and they must be acknowledged. They're our friends, they're our family and that's why it's so important to us."

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