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Gloriavale members can’t necessarily exercise right to freedom of religion, Faithful Pilgrim says

Gloriavale Christian Community

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Former Gloriavale Christian School principal Faithful Pilgrim has told a court the community’s leaders do not rule like tyrants, before breaking down over his relationship with a son who has left the sect.

Pilgrim, who was a Shepherd until his resignation last May, also claimed that members could not necessarily exercise their right to religious freedom at the commune.

His granddaughter Serenity Pilgrim is one of six former Gloriavale women who say they lived in slave-like conditions and are seeking an Employment Court ruling they were employees, not volunteers.

Faithful Pilgrim told the hearing Gloriavale’s Overseeing Shepherd Howard Temple did not have unfettered power and the community’s Shepherds and Servants were not “yes men” seeking personal power or glory.

“The plaintiffs have claimed that the Shepherds at Gloriavale have absolute power and control over the community and are in effect tyrants. That is not true,” he said.

“The New Testament speaks against tyranny and oppression.

“Nobody in our leadership wants absolute power or authority. Power and authority was and is to be used to protect the weak and to safeguard the rights of the people, not to enable a leader to have his or her own way.”

Pilgrim was the first of the five Gloriavale defendants to give evidence in Christchurch.

He disputed testimony from his sons Isaac and Zion Pilgrim, in one instance accusing Isaac of “over-generalising and misrepresenting people shamefully”.

Faithful Pilgrim later denied beating Isaac and became upset describing their relationship.

“I do remember that I found it hard to relate to Isaac in particular and I deeply regret the fact that I was not being able to get through that barrier,” he said.

“At the time, he appeared to be a lot happier, and he remembers it.”

Former members including Zion Pilgrim have testified about Shepherds and Servants meetings in which they were told to submit unconditionally or be cast out.

Under cross-examination about the leaders’ treatment of dissenters, Faithful Pilgrim told the court Gloriavale was set up for people who followed its foundational document, What We Believe.

“Everyone in New Zealand has the right to freedom of religion, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can exercise it inside Gloriavale,” he said.

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

He told the court he retired as principal because he had made a “serious mistake” he felt had “brought the school into disrepute”.

“I didn’t really think that I had been doing a very good job as the principal. I was getting older, the stress was getting at me and I needed to have a less stressful life to survive,” he said.

The court has heard evidence women and girls worked long hours on a gruelling four-day rotation once they left school at the age of 15, including doing cooking, cleaning, communal and commercial laundry and preparing food.

Pilgrim rejected claims Gloriavale was running a commercial hostel.

“Although the kitchen and other operations managed by the women are on a large scale, they are not a commercial operation, but just a large private arrangement to meet the needs of the community,” he said.

“A big part of their time in the kitchen was spent socialising rather than working flat out the whole time.”

Girls were not expected to start work at 4am and he made a point of telling team leaders it was unacceptable for children to work early or late, Pilgrim said.

“To the best of my knowledge this was implemented, much to the chagrin of some young ones who thought it was quite exciting and heroic of them to be up at that time,” he said.

The women have testified they felt they had no option but to work on the teams and their education was limited.

Pilgrim said most Gloriavale parents favoured a vocational pathway for their children.

“We didn’t need a lot of academics in our situation. Half-a-dozen lawyers might help us now but it wouldn’t have helped us then,” he said.

“I regret, looking back, that people weren’t made more aware of options.”

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.

Since that decision all children aged 14 and 15 were enrolled at the Te Kura distance school and all children under the age of 16 were not allowed to work for Gloriavale’s commercial businesses, Pilgrim said.

He earlier told the court he was the natural father to 13 children, had informally adopted another, and had 99 grandchildren.

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