A major police investigation into abuse at Gloriavale has identified more than 100 potential victims of crimes spanning about four decades, Stuff can reveal.

Photo: Sungmi Kim/Stuff

The previously undisclosed and ongoing investigation, dubbed Operation Mathius, began in 2021, and followed another investigation that brought to light offending involving 60 people at the West Coast fundamentalist Christian community.

Operation Mathius was launched after an array of serious allegations surfaced about two Gloriavale men, Timothy Disciple and Jonathan Benjamin.

As inquiries into the two men ramped up, it became clear there was a need for a broader police investigation into historical abuse at the community.

More than three quarters of the reported offences relate to people who were aged under 18 at the time.

Gloriavale leaders knew of some of the allegations years ago, but chose to deal with them in-house, enabling predators to continue to abuse vulnerable members of the community.

So far, 17 people have been charged as part of Operation Mathius, while a further 18 suspects remain under investigation.

Some of the reported crimes haven’t resulted in charges because the alleged offending happened outside the statute of limitations, or the potential victim didn’t want police to pursue the matter through the courts.

Details of Operation Mathius, and the wide-ranging offending it has identified, can be reported for the first time after Stuff inquiries using the Official Information Act.

Gloriavale, which is home to about 600 residents, has been at the centre of significant controversy, particularly in the last decade as leavers, investigations and court cases have revealed details of workplace exploitation and physical and sexual abuse there.

After speaking to hundreds of former and current members, detectives identified 138 potential victims of about 400 suspected crimes, ranging from low level physical assaults to serious sexual offending.

Founded in 1969 by the late Neville Cooper, who later changed his name to Hopeful Christian, the community was originally based in North Canterbury, and known as Springbank.

However, as the sect grew, it moved to its current, isolated West Coast site on the shores of Lake Haupiri in the early 1990s, and became known as Gloriavale.

The self-sufficient community, which has limited contact with the outside world, has its own school, a large dairy farming operation and various other businesses.

But a recent Employment Court case revealed how women at Gloriavale had worked extremely hard in punishing conditions from a young age after being taught from birth to obey all the male leadership of “shepherds and servants”.

Christian was jailed in 1995 for sexually assaulting a young woman in the community. After his release a year later, he returned as the leader, known as the “Overseeing Shepherd”, until he died, aged 92, in 2018.

Howard Temple was chosen as his successor.

In June 2020, police launched an investigation, dubbed Operation Minneapolis, after a recent leaver raised concerns that a family member, an 11-year-old boy, had been sexually abused.

When the suspect was interviewed, he identified various other potential male victims.

During the five-month investigation, Oranga Tamariki and police screened nearly all young boys aged 7-16 at the community, and found 60 people had been involved in “harmful sexual behaviour” as either children, young people or adults.

Some of the boy-on-boy abuse was intergenerational. In many instances, offenders had been victims themselves.

The investigation resulted in two men and three boys being charged. Others were dealt with through alternative means, such as education.

According to police, Operation Mathias began in April 2021, after disclosures were made to a “professional” working within Gloriavale.

It has identified suspected crimes dating back as far as the early 1980s, meaning they span the community’s North Canterbury and West Coast sites.

There are currently four detectives working full-time on the investigation, which is likely to continue for most of 2024.

Benjamin, 58, is currently on trial in Greymouth District Court accused of sexually assaulting five children at Gloriavale and Springbank between 1986 and 2017.

The court has heard that when community leaders learnt of allegations about him in the 1990s, they didn’t involve police.

Instead, the bookkeeping and music teacher apologised to the girls at a meeting, and was punished by being sent to a hut for two weeks, the court heard.

He then returned to the community and allegedly reoffended for 20 years.

Disciple, 41, admitted indecently assaulting five young people – four girls and a boy – and was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment on appeal.

According to court documents, the dairy farmer confessed to police after learning some of his victims had disclosed his offending to Oranga Tamariki.

Temple, the Overseeing Shepherd, is among others who’ve been charged as part of Operation Mathius. He’s pleaded not guilty to indecently assaulting 10 girls over two decades, and elected a judge-alone trial.

As part of Operation Minneapolis and Operation Mathius, police have spoken to most current Gloriavale members, and nearly 300 leavers.

Across the two investigations, sex crimes made up 70% of the offences reported, while physical assaults accounted for a further 25%, police said.

Of the 44 alleged adult perpetrators identified, 36 were men, and eight were women.

On Friday, a Gloriavale spokesperson said they were unable to get comment from the appropriate people about Operation Mathius prior to publication.

In May last year, the community’s leadership apologised publicly for their role in “failing to prevent and protect victims of labour exploitation and sexual abuse”.

In a statement, the leaders said a lot had changed since 2018 when Temple assumed the role of Overseeing Shepherd after Christian’s death.

They had been “hurt as we discovered the extent of sexual offending within our community”.

Extensive measures had been put in place to ensure such events could not reoccur, they said.

That included establishing a child protection team that answered directly to Oranga Tamariki.

This week, Tasman police district commander Superintendent Tracey Thompson said police and other agencies had “worked tirelessly to earn the community’s trust and support victims through the legal process”.

“In order to make meaningful change within the community, and encourage both victims and perpetrators to come forward, it was vital everyone involved understood we were there to help. That important work continues.”

In August 2022, the Gloriavale-West Coast Stakeholder Group, which involves ten different government agencies, was set up to look into issues raised about the community. It meets fortnightly.

By Blair Ensor
Published in Stuff