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Inside the real Handmaid’s Tale – I escaped a religious cult run by my sex offender grandfather

A WOMAN who fled a cult run by her warped grandad has told how young girls were forced into sexual slavery after marrying older men.

Lilia Tarawa, 31, said everyone in the Gloriavale commune in New Zealand was made to share everything, from meals to prayers and even breastfeeding.

Lilia Tarawa, 31, spoke out about her 18 years living in the Gloriavale commune

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Lilia Tarawa, 31, spoke out about her 18 years living in the Gloriavale communeCredit: Youtube/ 1news
Lilia pictured during her time living in the cult with her family

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Lilia pictured during her time living in the cult with her familyCredit: Youtube/ 1news
The costumes in The Handmaid's Tale were inspired by Gloriavale

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The costumes in The Handmaid’s Tale were inspired by GloriavaleCredit: HULU

The controversial Christian community, close to Haupiri on the coast of the country’s South Island, is cut off from the outside world with no access to the internet and media is heavily restricted.

The oppressive cult has been hit by several police probes over the years, investigating allegations of forced marriage, sexual and physical abuse and forced family separations.

Marriages are arranged at Gloriavale, while clothing and diet is strictly controlled – and if people try to leave, they are shunned.

Women have to cover their heads, show no flesh in order to not tempt the men, do all the domestic work, submit to their husbands and birth as many babies as they can.

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Young girls are forced to marry much older men, with one former member revealing how the leader thought “13 or 14-year-old girls are ready to have babies”.

Karen Winder said the men are “groomed” to have sex with underage girls.

The women are forced to wear headscarves with loose, full-length blue dresses, high necklines and long sleeves – serving as inspiration for hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

The show is set in a dystopian United States, where Handmaids, dressed in bright red dresses and white peaked caps that obscure their faces, are forced to bear children.

Costume designer, Ane Crabtree, said she wanted there to be “glimpses of reality in the clothing” and based the Handmaid’s outfits on Gloriavale.

Australian evangelist Hopeful Christian, born Neville Cooper, founded Gloriavale Christian Community in 1969.

Lilia – Christian’s granddaughter – was a member of the commune for 18 years, following its strict, oppressive rules before she eventually escaped.

Strikingly similar to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale, Lilia said her life inside Gloriavale as a woman was one of submission, domestic servitude and fear of eternal damnation and hell.

Children were even lower than women in the cult’s hierarchy – with kids being forced to marry older men in arranged marriages.

And birth control was banned – meaning many girls had lots of children.

Lilia said her sick grandfather “would have happily married off children of 10 or 12 years”.

At the age of 16, she promised her grandfather she would submit to the men, look after the home and be “meek, modest and pure”.

She told Femail: “Gloriavale told me that I wasn’t allowed to have sex with anyone until I was married.

“In fact, it wasn’t until I escaped the cult later and had sex for the first time, that I was finally broken free from the religious chain. 

“I realised I wasn’t going to go to hell for having sex. That was the beginning of my freedom.”

RELENTLESS BEATINGS

And Lilia claimed she witnessed brutal corporal punishment being dished out to people who broke rules.

She said: “Old-fashioned corporal punishment was encouraged. Those memories are hard.”

Later in her teenage years, Lilia’s parents moved to a separate house near Gloriavale, remaining part of the cult – but it meant she was exposed to the life of a modern woman.

“I was living two lives, but could see elements of a different world out there,” she said.

Eventually she broke free and when she returned, she said her grandfather treated her “like a stranger”.

She said: “He wouldn’t talk to me. He treated me like an outsider.

Hopeful Christian who founded the New Zealand cult in 1969

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Hopeful Christian who founded the New Zealand cult in 1969Credit: Youtube/ 1news
Women were considered to be subordinate to men - forced to wear headscarves

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Women were considered to be subordinate to men – forced to wear headscarvesCredit: Youtube/ 1news

“It was hard, but I wanted some closure from the world I had left. Part of me still wondered what life was like in Gloriavale.

“It’s a tough world out here, but it made me thankful I am here – there is so much here that lights me up.”

Former Gloriavale member Yvette Olsen also broke her silence in 2015 to say Christian sexually assaulted her three times when she was 19.

She called him a man of “unbridled lust”, “lies”, “absolute power” and a “dirty old man”.

Christian – believed to have had 19 children with three wives – was eventually jailed on three counts of indecent assault against girls aged 12 to 19.

He died in 2018 from prostate cancer, according to the New Zealand Herald

HORROR ABUSE

A police inquiry, wrapped up this year after two years, found extensive sexual offending involved 61 people across multiple generations.

A police letter sent to Gloriavale in May revealed a list of places where horrific sexual abuse was taking place – including inside a dinosaur prop in the dining room, Stuff reports.

The list included an old car down by the creek, the hen house, underneath the stage in the main area, a bike shed, and all communal toilets and bathrooms.

Former member Virginia Courage said she knew the sexual abuse was going on for more than 20 years.

“There were more people coming out and saying this had happened and you haven’t done anything,” she said.

“It was pretty heartbreaking… it was a big reason why we left. It wasn’t just about the abuse, but it was that you couldn’t get the leaders to be honest about it and get anything done.”

In a statement issued in May, the leaders of Gloriavale said: “Much has changed at Gloriavale since 2018 when, at the passing of our founder, the leadership mantle passed to a new leader.

“During this period we have revised our governance and charted new directions for our community.

“We are deeply saddened by the harm members of our community have experienced. We apologise for our role in failing to prevent and protect victims of abuse.

“We are seeking to reach out to those no longer in our community and encouraging them, along with our current members, to speak to us openly if they have experienced harm in any way.”

It added: “Despite all our efforts to create a safe haven, we too have been hurt as we discovered the extent of sexual offending that has occurred within our community.”

‘DEMONIC CULTURE’

Another woman who fled, Connie Ready, said she and her siblings suffered horrific beatings at the hands of her father, Clem Ready, for years.

Eventually, her father pleaded guilty to two charges of assault with a weapon.

She told Stuff: “Seeing my baby sister dragged out from the meal table where everybody is, to the room next door, and I can hear her screaming, and I’m just sitting there…

“You can toughen yourself, you can build walls around yourself to protect you from the hurt, but every single one of them break down when you watch someone as defenceless as her, and you can’t do anything about it.”

Connie said the beatings were relentless.

She said: “He could just be tired and come home from work, he gets annoyed so he’ll throw something at you or kick you if he gets really worked up, he’ll grab anything that’s around and lay into you with it and beat you, you know, his belt, a coat hanger, one of his tools from his work bag. Anything.”

Connie said she eventually decided to flee the cult to explore her indigenous roots despite Gloriavale viewing Māori as “an evil, cannibalistic and demonic culture”.

She told Māori Television: “It wasn’t something that I was to be proud to say or even openly say I was Māori.

“I had to get away for a while to give myself a chance to make that decision about what I wanted to do.

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“If that’s the choice you make, you know that you’re leaving everything you know behind, you’re leaving all your childhood friends, all your whanau.

“You’re stepping into a world you know nothing about and that can be really scary.”




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