Father tells of rescuing kids from West Coast cult

The New Zealand Herald/April 23, 2009

For hundreds of people living in a cut-off community called Gloriavale on the West Coast, Neville Cooper speaks the word of God.

For his son Phil, Neville Cooper was a controlling, manipulative, sexual deviant who set out to dominate every aspect of his life - from who he could marry to what he named his children.

Phil Cooper has told his story in a book, Sins of the Father, which has been released recently.

Australian-born Cooper moved to New Zealand as a five-year-old with his father, his mother Gloria and 10 siblings in 1967.

Neville Cooper had already set himself up as a Christian preacher and was invited to speak around the country. However, his brand of fundamentalist preachings saw him at odds with mainstream religious groups.

He ended up establishing a community at Haupiri on the West Coast, inland from Greymouth - where the group of about 500 people still live and obey his word as law.

They are known as the Cooperites.

As a head-strong teenager, Phil Cooper clashed with his father, left Gloriavale and moved back to Australia. But without the support of the community or his siblings, the 16-year-old returned to the West Coast and tried to be an obedient son.

The move proved difficult as Cooper disagreed with his father's tight control over the community.

Women were only allowed to wear long modest blue dresses, men were leaders of their families, while children's names had to reflect the philosophies of Neville Cooper.

Phil Cooper says the use of sexual images and movies were prevalent among the older men.

He says he had to endure watching his wife being fondled by his father and young girls were sometimes told to join community elders in hot tubs.

In 1995 Neville Cooper was jailed for almost a year on sexual abuse charges. He was convicted on the testimony of his son and some young women who had fled the compound.

Those who stayed in Gloriavale steadfastly supported their leader through his imprisonment.

At the age of 27, Cooper - a father of five children aged between eight years and 16 months - walked away from the compound and his family.

Shortly after leaving, he was told by a community elder he was banned from having any communication with his children.

Cooper says he was heartbroken and resolved to kidnap them so they could live with him.

What followed was an outrageous night-time raid.

Phil Cooper said he slipped back into the compound grounds, gathered his sleeping children into his car and sped away with them.

"When I look back on it now, it was crazy. As I've got older I realise it was a bit gung-ho," he said.

The family moved around the country hiding from Cooper's father and supporters before fleeing to the United States and then eventually settled back in Australia.

His wife Sandra was left behind, but twice Cooper was able to rescue her from the compound, only to have her return on her own - leaving her children with their father.

She was quoted in the book as saying she felt that only by having one of the children's parents stay at Gloriavale, would they later be accepted into Heaven.

For the first years Cooper and his children were away from the community they survived on almost nothing, with the children helping him build furniture in the evenings to sell the following day.

He has now remarried and built up a multi-million dollar design business in Australia.

He said telling his story was a hard but cathartic experience.

"I think that it was very hard in bringing back up the past...you sometimes bury things.

"But I'm a believer the past only makes you the person you are today, so the past is not always a negative thing."

The book allowed him to "put some things to bed" and it had allowed his children to know exactly what went on in the compound and what his father went through to rescue them.

"So from that point of view the book has been really good."

He said he worked hard not to repeat the mistakes his own father had made with him and his 15 other siblings.

"It's recognising where you've come from, what the upbringing has been, accept the good, but not the bad."

However, he accepted he had inherited some traits of his father.

"I'd be a fool to deny it. Every person that's out there, they have attributes from their parents - good, bad or otherwise.

"But I've got that advantage that he hasn't got, where I've seen the devastation that he's caused. He lives in that devastation and he doesn't see it.

"Because that's who he is - he thinks `it's either my way or the highway'."

Phil Cooper said he had to consciously learn not to be as controlling with his own children.

"I thought I'm going to love unconditionally whereas my father thought love was conditional."

He said it was sad his first wife had chosen to stay in his father's compound because she believed the only way she could live was by following his word.

Two of Cooper's daughters also live in Gloriavale with their mother and have been taught that he and all the outside world are evil and would be rejected from Heaven.

He admitted the thought had crossed his mind to steal away his youngest daughter Cherish, now 16, whom he has not met as she was born after he left Gloriavale.

"I'm always up for a challenge."

But said he would probably try to be more diplomatic in his attempts rather than copy his earlier raids.

He hoped Cherish would be able to somehow read the book and make up her own mind.

He was still angry with the manipulating way his father had controlled his life and said if his father had wanted to, he could have allowed his first wife out of Gloriavale to be with him and their children.

"That shows you the power of my father. And it all comes down to him not wanting me to win."

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