Dad reaches out to sect child

Herald on Sunday, New Zealand/April 12, 2009

A New Zealand father of six is desperate to give a 16-year-old daughter he has never met the chance of life outside a religious sect that still has his former wife in its grasp.

Phil Cooper escaped the sect, a Christian community set up by his father Neville Cooper in 1989 - bundling his five children and wife Sandy into a waiting car in the middle of the night.

The family fled to the United States, but after three years Sandy returned to the community, then based in Cust, North Canterbury, and was later joined by one of their daughters, Dawn.

Phil Cooper raised the remaining four children - Israel, Tendy, Crystal and Andreas - on his own. Unbeknown to Phil, Sandy was pregnant when she left America and his daughter Cherish's existence was kept from him until she was a toddler.

He went to confront his father, Neville Cooper, who has served a jail sentence for sexual assaults within the community, hoping to take Cherish away with him, but was ordered to leave. Now all he wants is to give his daughter the option of freedom.

Although Cooper helped his father build the community, he planned secretly to escape after becoming increasingly worried about its religious "brainwashing", he said.

Two years after Cooper left the community, his father, known to his followers as Hopeful Christian, moved the group to the South Island's West Coast and named the new commune Gloriavale after his late wife.

Contact between Cherish, Cooper and the four children who live with him has been "totally impossible", Cooper said. At one stage son Israel was in brief contact with his younger sister through internet service Skype.

Then, last month, came a phone call and Cooper heard Cherish's voice for the first time.

"I picked up the phone and it was her on the other end ... I quickly said before she hung up: 'Dad loves you and would love to see you.'"

Cherish is currently in India with her mother and grandfather at a school the community set up.

Cooper has written a book, Sins of the Father, about his experiences.

The Gloriavale community produces Pure Vitality deer velvet, exports fishmeal and sphagnum moss products worldwide, runs a plane charter service and operates the only fixed-wing and helicopter maintenance company on the West Coast.

Commune leaders at Gloriavale did not return calls from the Herald on Sunday.

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