The controversial leader of a Christian cult has died and left behind a legacy of abuse and shame. Neville Cooper was the founder of Gloriavale Christian Community, a religious and reclusive cult on New Zealand's west coast. He took the new name of Hopeful Christian before he died.
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Christian suffered from prostate cancer and was in his 90's according to the New Zealand Herald. Former members of the cult said women inside were forced into submission, domestic servitude, and other abuses for fear of eternal damnation to hell. The cult leader founded the "community" in 1969 after moving to New Zealand from Australia with his wife Gloria. He became known as the "overseeing shepherd".
The leader spent 11 months in jail for sexual abuse in 1995 after Yvette Olsen claimed she was sexually abused by Christian when she was 19. Olsen called Christian a "dirty old man" with an "unbridled lust". Christian also faced three charges of indecent assault from 1984 when he penetrated a teen girl in the community with a wooden object. Christian argued that she was given the object and told to use it as a means of "therapy".
At least 550 people live in Gloriavale, all of whom follow a strict interpretation of the New Testament as part of their religious cult's teachings. An investigative report on the community found disturbing allegations of abuse, forced marriage, and imprisonment. The report was conducted by the Charities Services of the New Zealand government which exposed numerous claims made by at least 11 former members of the cult.
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Five of the victims said they were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the same alleged predator which may have been a part of their own community. The granddaughter of Hopeful Christian is 26-year-old Lilia Tarawa. She said she received a school report that spoke highly of her leadership abilities. "My grandfather read it aloud at dinner and mocked me in front of everyone," she recalled in an interview with Daily Mail. "He called me 'bossy' and said we didn't want bossy women in the community. I was humiliated and still struggle with a lack of self-worth sometimes today because of that."
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<span style="margin-top:15px;rgba(42,51,6,0.7);font-size:12px;">Lilia Tarawa</span>
The community also encouraged corporal punishment. Tarawa described seeing a boy "being belted with a metal strap by a teacher" at the community school. "Old-fashioned corporal punishment was encouraged. Those memories are hard, but I shared those stories because it's when I started to think 'this isn't right'." Tarawa wanted to speak out about the abuse but could not. Meanwhile, young girls were married to older men in arranged marriages.
"I couldn't speak out," Tarawa said. "Your whole life is lived in fear of hell and damnation." When Tarawa finally escaped the cult, her most freeing moment came after a sudden realization. "I realized I wasn't going to go to hell for having sex. That was the beginning of my freedom." She eventually got out of the religious cult and joined the modern world.
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<span style="margin-top:15px;rgba(42,51,6,0.7);font-size:12px;">Daily Mail</span>
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