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Escaping Utopia (Photo: Supplied)
Escaping Utopia (Photo: Supplied)

OPINIONPop CultureMarch 27, 2024

Escaping Utopia reveals ‘a whole other level of what the hell’ to Gloriavale

Escaping Utopia (Photo: Supplied)
Escaping Utopia (Photo: Supplied)

The new docuseries reveals shocking new information about the global expansion of the cult – which somehow still has charitable status in New Zealand.

When I visited Gloriavale for the first time to endure their last concert – a Disney-style variety show with overtones of North Korea – the fundamentalist Christian community near Greymouth was more of a joke than a problem in the public eye. 

Two months earlier, in May 2018, their founder and convicted sex offender Hopeful Christian aka Neville Cooper had died of cancer at the age of 92. During his 49-year reign, the evangelical preacher turned a utopian dream of communal living into a living nightmare. The year before Cooper’s death, a report by the Charities Commission revealed multiple cases of sexual assault, beatings, coercion, forced isolation and financial control, since amplified by high-profile court cases which exposed slave labour and child sexual abuse on a grand scale. 

But little did we care, back then, about the victims of our homemade Handmaid’s Tale. Instead, we were obsessed with their ridiculous names and weird blue frocks. 

When the charismatic leader died, the coercion and sexual abuse didn’t stop (their recent leader Howard Temple was charged for sexual offending across 20 years in 2023). But there were no protests demanding freedom and women’s rights outside the idyllically located compound on the West Coast, where Gloriavale was and still is a major economic player. Nor were there petitions or members of parliament asking to shut down this prison without walls so that the children born inside Gloriavale could have a chance for higher education, income, birth control and a partner – let alone a sexual orientation – of their own choice.  

Instead, meme pages and funny websites to find your own Gloriavale name sprung up. The lols and the hype were aided by an uncritical observational TVNZ series made in 2016 that portrayed the high-control group as a shiny happy place of faith, no hard questions asked. Newlywed Dove Love was the breakout star. 

Dove Love, a resident of Gloriavale, in the TVNZ documentary

The documentary was the highest rating TV2 programme in 2016, but it should have never been made. The saccharine show with condescending voiceovers was not just a distraction from Gloriavale’s grim reality, but effectively taxpayer-funded cult propaganda that prolonged the harm. It received $460,000 in funding from NZ On Air, was sold all over the world, and is still on Amazon Prime.

At the time, I was interviewing “second generation adults” from Gloriavale. These young survivors had either escaped or been kicked out after weeks of isolation and years of suffering trauma. I heard of their severe depression, losing all their hair from the constant stress as teenagers, or contemplating suicide after being ostracised, humiliated and beaten for minor acts of resistance. All of them had been abused – physically, emotionally, sexually – at some stage. 

One of them was Theophila Pratt, now an occupational therapist in Auckland and the first woman from Gloriavale with a tertiary degree. While still inside (where she was Honey Faithful), she had managed to duck out of the kitchen when the girls were filmed making butter. Theo hated the glossy TV series. 

This week, I saw her again, but this time onscreen. TVNZ launched its new three-part documentary series Escaping Utopia, directed by Natalie Malcon, which covers everything and more that Gloriavale: A Woman’s Place omitted – including Gloriavale’s oversexualised culture that resembled Bert Potter’s Centrepoint in its early days, described by a leaver as “a glorified brothel”. With Malcon’s powerful work – hard-hitting but survivor focussed and nuanced – the network has finally redeemed itself. 

Theophila Pratt in TVNZ’s Escaping Utopia (Photo: Supplied)

Fearless Theo takes the lead in the third episode. Together with fellow activist Rosanna Overcomer, she travels to India to find her sister Precious, who Theo hasn’t seen since she was 15. Out of sight from authorities or media scrutiny, Hopeful Christian set up a satellite community in Tamil Nadu in 2009. Precious was married off to a stranger. Her younger kids have no passports or birth certificates.

Theo finds her in a rundown compound with few amenities, pregnant with her sixth child, without any extended family or support network. A hidden camera captures Precious dissociated, almost in a stupor. It’s disturbing viewing. Or as her shocked sister puts it, “a whole other level of ‘what the hell’”. 

The series alludes that some of the women are abuse victims from Gloriavale who were sent away by the leaders to “get them out of their hair” – essentially trafficked overseas. After having no response from police and media, Theo Pratt involved human rights lawyer Deborah Manning. They’re making the case that someone born and raised in Gloriavale cannot fully consent, given the level of coercive control and brainwashing. Theo wants to bring all the women and their children back – some of them looked “way worse” than Precious.

“They’re in survival mode, with no hope,” says Theo. “Why are they not protected by our government and law enforcement?”

Theophila Pratt in TVNZ’s Escaping Utopia (Photo: Supplied)

Everyone watching Escaping Utopia will be asking the same question. But our authorities haven’t even managed to dismantle a cult that enslaves women right under their nose in the South Island, let alone in South Asia. The new government appears to be doing even less than the old one – its multi-agency response to look into all the burning issues inside Gloriavale is no longer active since the end of last year, while the Christian community still receives tax breaks with its many businesses and rural properties. 

In the light of all that has come out, including the sentencing of another predator just last week, Escaping Utopia provides yet another reminder of how appalling and unfathomable it is that Gloriavale still has charitable status. The Charities Commission finally started an investigation into this hot mess in 2022, but the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust – also in a starring role in the doco – is still waiting to see the results.

Meanwhile, Gloriavale is expanding even further across the world. Their latest outreach is in Kenya. 

Anke Richter is the author of CULT TRIP: Inside the world of coercion & control, and the convener of Decult 2024, New Zealand’s fist cult awareness conference.

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