Escaping Utopia part 2: ‘She’s not safe here’

Escaping Utopia part 2: ‘She’s not safe here’

| Stuff | Amberleigh Jack |

RECAP: Before opening credits even begin to roll, part two of the new Gloriavale documentary hits with a brutal insight into lives within of the South Island Christian community.

It’s a difficult, uncomfortable watch, that’s even tougher to turn away from.

Through off-camera commentary, the viewer is told that fathers and husbands are taught it’s their role to teach children about sex.

But they do it in truly disturbing and abusive ways.

“We had to watch my mum and dad have sex,” one former member continues off-screen, recalling she would have been about 8 years old.

She thought, “every father was doing that to their children”.

“It just became normal to us”.

Escaping Utopia – a three-part documentary screening on TVNZ – explores the live within, and the planning behind escapes from, the South Island Christian community of Gloriavale.

What it does very well, however, is give a gripping, uncomfortable and heartbreaking account of just how controlled those within the community are.

Using archived footage and on-screen interviews – part two introduces more former members, goes deeper into accounts of sexual abuse and control, and highlights more of brave and difficult task of leaving.

Journalist Melanie Reid returns, with an account of an undercover assignment for 60 Minutes. She donned the uniformed frock in an effort to expose the community leader – Neville Cooper, who later changed his name to Hopeful Christian.

Reid uncovered stories of sexual abuse and recalled women telling her about having their hymen broken the night before their weddings.

She also realised the “hell it would be” to try and leave the community.

“To escape physically feels impossible. But to escape psychologically, it actually is impossible,” she said.

Neville Cooper was charged and found guilty of 10 of 11 charges against him in 1994.

“He gets done for sexual abuse then he gets released back into the community [where it all happened],” Reid is shown saying. And when he returned, he returned – to his flock – a hero.

Where the first part of the documentary touched on the years of sexual abuse within the community, the second part delves deeper.

It also continues with the overarching theme of the frightening psychological control.

When shunned members, Clem and Sharon, are introduced, it’s revealed the’ve been banned from being within 100m of the compound for speaking out against the leaders.

Still, they have a 14-year-old buried in the graveyard, five children and 35 grandchildren within the community. Sharon still believes it’s “God’s will” they stay.

They’ve set up camp in an aircraft hanger across the water.

And as new former members are introduced, like Pearl and Theophila, one theme remains consistent – that parents within Gloriavale do not have control over their own children, and women are kept submissive.

There’s talk of child labour within the camp, as well as sexual assault.

Girls are responsible for turning men on, where the boys are taught they can’t be expected to control their urges.

It continues with recollections of leaders flicking bra straps, undoing belts, inappropriate touching, sexual abuse and pre-arranged partners. Of women having a “seal” that was given to their husband. And their worth being tied to the number of children had and how quickly.

The leaders, Rosanna explained, had all the girls matched with the boys – some from as young as 2-years-old.

“I knew I was on the list, and I was terrified. But I wouldn’t have a choice [who I was matched with].”

She had five children over five years, and her “turning point” came when she looked at her daughter and thought, “she’s not safe here”.

With clear emotion she recalls the story of her frightening and dramatic exit from the community, after her husband Elijah confronted Hopeful. She spent six weeks away from her family, unaware what to do or that calling the police was an option.

And once again, as part two draws to a close with a flashback to the news of Hopeful Christian’s death in 1998, a few thoughts are difficult to shake as the credits roll.

Not least of which is: How did any of us let this continue for so long?