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HomeNew ZealandGloriavale leavers 'twisted details' about the commune, member tells court

Gloriavale leavers ‘twisted details’ about the commune, member tells court

Gloriavale Christian Community

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A Gloriavale father-of-nine has accused leavers of twisting details about the sect to paint a dark, sensationalised picture of life at the Christian commune.

David Stedfast told an Employment Court hearing members had freedom of choice and denied portraying an idealistic, utopian view of Gloriavale, which has apologised for failing to protect victims of labour exploitation and sexual abuse.

He was giving evidence in a case brought by six former Gloriavale women, before former Christian School principal and defendant Faithful Pilgrim took the stand late on Wednesday afternoon.

Stedfast is the son of long-time Shepherd and financial controller Fervant Stedfast and is married to current school principal Rachel Stedfast.

The six women claim they lived in slave-like conditions doing cooking, cleaning, laundry and preparing food under a regime of total control and are seeking a ruling they were Gloriavale employees, not volunteers.

Stedfast told the court Gloriavale members felt vilified because of the actions of a few.

“The plaintiffs are dredging up a few isolated incidents and twisting the details to make them as black, as dark and as sensational as possible and then insinuating that all of Gloriavale is like this and these actions are commonplace,” he said.

“It is not a fair, accurate or balanced picture of the life at Gloriavale.

“It is not about starvation, or deprivation or power and control as the plaintiffs have painted it.”

Large families always worked hard, Stedfast said.

“There are lot of allegations made about the terrible working conditions at Gloriavale and how hard we all work. It is true that we do work hard, however I don’t know many people who have large families that aren’t obliged to work hard just to survive,” he said.

The women’s case follows similar legal action by three former Gloriavale men found to have been employees from the age of just six, working on farms and in factories when they were still legally required to be at school.

Cross examination

Under cross examination, the women’s barrister Brian Henry questioned Stedfast about overlooking the “dark side” of labour exploitation and sexual abuse at the West Coast commune and portraying Gloriavale as an idealistic, utopian society.

Stedfast said it was misleading to claim the women knew as girls that they were destined to work on the teams, but conceded men had never been rostered on those duties.

He later agreed child labour was abhorrent in any civilised society.

The court has previously heard evidence women and girls felt trapped at Gloriavale and those who eventually left were shunned.

David Stedfast said no-one was forced to live at Gloriavale, or “locked up or chained up”.

“At Gloriavale, there are no gates or locks keeping people in or out. There is no-one forcing me to stay there,” he said.

“The Shepherds do not have absolute power and control over community members.

“The irony is, although the media labels us as secretive, due to their reporting the New Zealand public probably knows more about our private lives than anyone else in the whole country.”

Stedfast said Gloriavale’s leaders were not “monsters” and were developing a policy to help members who wanted to leave.

Faithful Pilgrim is the first of the five Gloriavale defendants to give evidence in Christchurch and the grandfather of Serenity Pilgrim, one of the six women who have brought the case.

He resigned as a Shepherd last May.

The same month, Pilgrim was suspended from teaching for three months by the New Zealand Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal for serious misconduct, for twice endorsing a teacher he knew had sexually assaulted a nine-year-old girl.

In his opening remarks, Pilgrim told the court he was the natural father to 13 children, had informally adopted another, and had 99 grandchildren.

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