Mid-way Reflections on the Girls’ Employment Court Hearing
Written by Liz Gregory. Opinions expressed are her own.
A number of Gloriavale Leavers staff have spent time in Christchurch supporting witnesses for the Employment Court Hearing during September 2022. While it’s fresh in my mind, I’d like to give an update on where things are up to and some reflections.
The case was initially set down for 3 weeks, but I had a large suspicion that was not going to be long enough. It was quickly extended to 4 weeks after it got underway, and then it became apparent that more time was going to be needed.
Those extra weeks have been found in February 2023, and so there is a 4-month delay until it restarts. It took three weeks for the Leavers’ evidence to be heard, and then there was one week of listening to Gloriavale’s evidence.
Role of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust
Our role is to support the witnesses. This involved renting a house and running an overnight accommodation hostel. We want to thank all the amazing people who brought us meals, and made lunches. We couldn’t have coped without you! Graham and I were in court every single day, and I spent my time writing down every word that was spoken in court. In the evenings I would speak the notes into a transcription programme and send them out to the leavers and supporters who aren’t able to be in court. I wish there was an easier way! It’s been incredibly intense. But it’s an important job. The leavers who are part of this court case, are just a small number of a much wider group of leavers who support the court action. It’s vital they know what is happening in real time.
Who was in the public gallery?
Court is open to the public and members from Gloriavale were allowed to attend court. They had regular groups of people coming over, which changed each day depending on who was in the stand. On the first day of court there were around 30 of them, which quickly dropped to 15 and then down to 2-5 most days. I think it’s been an excellent thing for them to come to court and see how the process works. I wish more of them would have come when the leavers were giving evidence.
I was surprised at how few of the defendants (Shepherds) have been attending. They have been there for the odd day or two, here and there. But none of the Shepherds have dedicated their time to sitting in court hearing the evidence. It would have been good for them to hear the pain and the truth of the trauma they have inflicted on people.
When the Gloriavale witnesses started, the defendants and leaders decided not to come to court at all, and we don’t expect to see them again until they testify. One can only surmise they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they came to court, it might be said that their presence would have impacted the witnesses’ answers (appearance of coercion). On the other hand, by not coming to court, they are missing out on hearing evidence straight out of the mouths of those testifying and being examined. They will, I guess, get to read the transcript at the end of every day, but they don’t get to see the experience of their own people being questioned. They don’t get to hear the delays and read the body language.
During the trial there were some interesting “side-shows”. These were mini hearings that were brought about usually because of an objection to something that was being said or done, or to a witness that was being called. The most interesting one was the suggestion by the Attorney General legal team (acting for the Government) for the judge to appoint a Court Expert to assist her with issues of power, control, obedience and submission. It was suggested an expert was necessary, because after hearing the leavers testimonies, it was clear there was a huge disconnect with their evidence and that provided by the defendants. The two sides were at either ends of a spectrum. One lot was saying the leaders have total control and dictate what to wear, what and when to eat, but the other side was saying that was not at all the truth.
The leavers’ legal team had no objection to the expert being appointed, but Gloriavale’s team were opposed to it. They stated it would lengthen the court case, and the expert would then need to conduct interviews and psychological evaluations. He also objected because it’s unusual to appoint an expert when only side of the testimony has been heard. Gloriavale also indicated they would be allowed a reply expert, and suggested that possibly international experts may need to be called to ensure no bias. The judge weighed up the issue, and has decided to appoint the expert. The name of the expert will be released soon.
I can only assume this person will be a psychologist with some understanding of power and control dynamics.
What is this case about?
You might ask what this has to do with employment? This case is about far more than employment. If, as has been alleged, there are elements of servitude and slavery (and these fit under the employment category), then the concepts of submission and power are very pertinent. That is why much of the evidence that the judge is allowing to be heard is far wider than just strict employment.
Pretty much any aspect of life and belief and practice and the history of Gloriavale has been opened up on the stand. It’s all relevant, and the judge reminds the court regularly that she is quite capable of giving the correct weight to evidence – whether it be hearsay, or opinion.
The Court Process
The Leavers’ testimony was heard first. Each of the Plaintiffs and their witnesses followed the same process. They read their Briefs of Evidence aloud. (These were submitted to Gloriavale weeks prior so they could read them and respond with their own Briefs of Evidence). Then they answered questions put to them by the various lawyers. The idea behind the cross-examinations and reply questions is to test the evidence.
The leavers’ lawyer Mr Brian Henry would ask the first lots of questions. This is to clarify the evidence given, and give an opportunity for more examples to be included, and more evidence to come into the court. They were asked if they had read the Gloriavale reply briefs and whether they wanted to comment on them. This was another opportunity for more evidence to be brought out.
Then Gloriavale’s lawyer Mr Philip Skelton would ask questions. They would say things like “Have you read the brief of xxx?” Then they would say, “Well on page 53 of xxx’s brief, she said that she doesn’t agree with what you said.” He would then go on to give the other side of the story. Then the leaver would get to say, “Well I disagree with xxx because…”. Or maybe they would say, “I agree in part but there is more to that story than what they have written.” And they would tell the story as they saw it. This gives the witness another opportunity to bring in more evidence for the judge to hear.
Then the judge’s assisting lawyer Mr Robert Kirkness, would ask questions. He would ask about their own brief of evidence, and ask any questions to clarify what just came out in the preceding questioning time. He seemed to have a line of questioning where he wanted to understand the hierarchy at Gloriavale, the concept of submission and obedience, the belief system, and also why was meant by “they” or “them”. He wanted the detail. Are you talking about Team Leaders or the main leaders?
After that, there was an opportunity for Gloriavale’s lawyer to ask some clarifying questions. These questions must be strictly related to the responses in the cross-examination. They can’t just be new questions dreamed up that are unrelated.
And finally the Leavers’ lawyer is allowed the last word. He clarifies questions that have been asked in the session – but he’s not allowed to ask new and unrelated questions.
And THAT’s why it takes up to a day for each witness to testify on the stand! The witnesses early on get a lot more questions as the lawyers try to lay the foundation for their case.
When it came time for the Gloriavale witnesses the order was changed. Their lawyer first, then leavers lawyer, Judge Assist, Leavers lawyer and finally Gloriavale’s lawyer.
My reflection on the Leavers’ Witnesses
The leavers were credible witnesses. You could see by their body language that they were candid and answered honestly. They were generally quick with their answers, and just said what come to their minds. There were times of emotion with all of them. Some of the questions triggered unhappy memories and trauma, and they were given time to cry and to ask for a break if they needed it. Testifying in court can be a nerve-wracking experience. For some it was reminiscent of a Servants and Shepherd’s meeting, and they had to tell themselves it wasn’t the same.
We found the leavers to be candid and certain with their answers. At times they had to ask for a rephrase, but they were more than willing to give their answers to assist the court. I am pretty sure they gave a lot more information than Gloriavale’s lawyer was willing to hear, and that made his job harder.
We have only heard from five Gloriavale witnesses so far and some witnesses have been cool, calm and collected and quite emotionless, while others were clearly agitated. Most were calm when they read their briefs, and were confident to read them aloud. But things diverged when it came to questioning time.
The most striking difference was the lack of candour. It appeared difficult for the lawyers to get the answers from the people still inside Gloriavale. For some there are very long delays before answering, a lot of requests to repeat questions, and a surprising number of requests to the judge that they don’t answer the question. (The judge usually said they needed to answer the question)
Generally we found the younger ones were more candid in answering questions about the beliefs of Gloriavale.
It seemed that when the Gloriavale members weren’t sure how to answer a question, they would quote a Bible verse. And then the ensuing questioning would unpack the Bible verse and reveal the answer they didn’t initially want to give.
Their body language was extraordinary at times, and I have spent much time reflecting on the difficulties they must have in the stand. They know the question that is being asked might lead them to an answer that might not look good for Gloriavale. All cult-members feel a strong sense of loyalty to the group, and so the desire to defend the group and the leaders is the most important thing. We could see the struggle on their faces and in their body language as they tried to work out how to answer the question. I felt very sad and sorry for the younger girls who testified. There was no pleasure in watching them being questioned.
On a theological level, it was concerning and saddening to hear current members answering questions that showed their faith and salvation is ultimately in the leaders. They would not say this outright though, and they maintained the Scripture is the sole authority, but then they would concede that what the leaders say is to be obeyed, because they always speak the truth from the Word of God. Most of them said they trusted that the leaders always speak the Word of God, that they had never had cause to question them, and they were willing to submit to them in every area of their life, because they are the voice of God. Mr Kirkness, the counsel assisting the judge spent considerable amount of time with each witness to help understand their beliefs.
The other disturbing theological point they confirmed is that their marriage is only valid for as long as both parties are submitted to the church. The wife, or the husband, has the right to end the marriage if one party is not obedient to the church. We all knew this was their teaching, as it’s in their writings and is practiced. But it’s sad to hear it said in court, without emotion. It was just a fact of the matter and there was little embarrassment about this belief.
Questions were then led down the line of “Who gets to make the decision of who is out of unity with the church?” The answer was “the leaders”.
There was also a line of questioning around whether they needed to remain in Gloriavale to be saved. Most said no definitely not. But on further probing they admit that for THEM personally to leave Gloriavale it would be a sin and their soul would be in peril if they left, because they believe God wants them to be there. To be out of His will is to sin.
When asked if that also means someone else who has left Gloriavale is also in peril of their soul, their answers became cagey again. They were also reluctant to say that “peril of my soul” means going to hell.
One line of questioning focussed around the concept of there being other Christians in the world. One of the witnesses said there definitely are. When asked where? They responded “India”. (Gloriavale has a community in India…).
In our view, one of Gloriavale’s biggest problems has been their interpretation of Scripture, and how it’s been used a club to force people to submit. When asked whether Gloriavale has made practical changes, one of the young ladies said, “Yes”. When asked if they have made any changes to their beliefs she said, “No”.
That was probably the most deeply concerning thing I heard in court this past month.
Learnings to take away
When you’re in court, anything you write in your brief might be examined. I think some of the younger witnesses may have been surprised at the questions they were asked, because they weren’t directly related to employment per se.
It’s good to remember that being in court is a solemn exercise, and you need to be able to back up your claims. If you have exaggerated anything it will become apparent.
I have learnt that if you have something to hide, then court is not a good place to be. Between all the lawyers and the cross-examination, your evidence will be tested and picked apart and compared and analysed. It’s best to be candid, honest and transparent. I can only assume the judge is an expert in body language.
Breaks and Lunches
The most incredible part of the past four weeks was the opportunity to mix and mingle with people who still live in Gloriavale. We shared a large foyer outside the court, and there were also rooms where children were being looked after. Leavers made a point of seeking out their friends and family for a catch up. Gloriavale members knew that their witnesses were saying they don’t cut off their friends and family, and so they were caught in a situation where they needed to show that in practice. Food and drink even passed hands. There were definitely some cold moments between people, but with others there was warmth and genuine happiness that they could see each other.
I noticed a distinct change in the mingling and the atmosphere on the day that particular leaders were in court. On those days the two groups didn’t mix and mingle as much. On the whole it was more relaxed than we expected and it was heart-warming to see people hug who have been estranged for so long. There were some very special moments.
It was also amazing to be asked to sit and talk to current members who wanted to tell us how happy they were living at Gloriavale and how upset they have been over the intrusion into their lives. We were able to tell them that it wasn’t personal and that the leavers love and care for them and their wellbeing. Many said they were grateful for changes that were occurring, and we reminded them that without all the court action and intrusion from other agencies these changes wouldn’t have occurred. Most can see that, but they are living in fear of what will become of the future. No one has those answers for them.
With some we were able to gently challenge them about who they are putting their faith in. Is it Christ or is it the leaders at Gloriavale?
Some wanted to play the blame game, but we gently reminded them that they shouldn’t be worrying about WHO was laying complaints, but instead they should ask themselves the question “Is it true?”.
This time of exposure is turning into a Truth campaign. Court is a good place to test the truth.
Next year in February the court will resume. We expect there is another 4 weeks of evidence to be heard. After that the judge will rule. There is nothing quick about the court process. That is one thing I have learned!