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

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

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

Lilia Tarawa, 31, spoke about her 18 years in the Gloriavale community


Lilia Tarawa, 31, spoke about her 18 years in the Gloriavale communityPhoto credit: Youtube/1news
Lilia imagined living with her family in the sect


Lilia imagined living with her family in the sectPhoto credit: Youtube/1news
The costumes in The Handmaid's Tale were inspired by Gloriavale


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

The disputed Christian community near 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 severely restricted.

The oppressive cult has been hit by multiple police investigations over the years looking into allegations of forced marriage, sexual and physical abuse, and enforced family separations.

Weddings are arranged in Gloriavale, while clothing and diet are tightly controlled – and when people try to leave, they are shunned.

Women must cover their heads, show no flesh to avoid tempting the men, do all the housework, submit to their husbands, and bear as many babies as possible.

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

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

Women are forced to wear headscarves with loose, floor-length blue dresses, high necklines and long sleeves – which serve as inspiration for the hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

The show is set in the dystopian United States, where maids in bright red dresses and white peaked caps that cover their faces are forced to give birth to children.

Costume designer Ane Crabtree said she wanted “a sense of reality in the clothes” and based the maid’s outfits on Gloriavale.

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

Lilia – Christian’s granddaughter – was a member of the commune for 18 years and followed its strict, oppressive rules before finally escaping.

Lilia, who bears a striking resemblance to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale, said her life in Gloriavale as a woman was marked by submission, domestic bondage, and fear of eternal damnation and hell.

Children were even below women in the cult hierarchy – children were forced to marry older men in arranged marriages.

And birth control was banned — meaning lots of girls had lots of kids.

Lilia said her ailing grandfather had “happily married children as young as 10 or 12.”

At 16, she promised her grandfather that she would submit to men, take care of the household, and be “meek, humble, and pure.”

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

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

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


And Lilia claimed she witnessed brutal corporal punishment from 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 and remained part of the cult – but that meant she was exposed to the life of a modern woman.

“I’ve lived two lives, but I could see elements of another world out there,” she said.

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

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

Hopeful Christian who founded the New Zealand sect in 1969


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


Women were considered subordinate to men – forced to wear headscarvesPhoto credit: Youtube/1news

“It was tough, but I wanted 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’s made me grateful to be here — there’s so much here that enlightens me.”

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

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

Christian – who is believed to have had 19 children with three wives – was eventually jailed for three indecent assaults on girls aged 12 to 19.

According to the New Zealand Herald, he died of prostate cancer in 2018.


A police investigation, which concluded after two years this year, found 61 people involved in large-scale sex crimes spanning multiple generations.

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

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

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

“More people came out and said that happened and you didn’t do anything,” she said.

“It was pretty heartbreaking… it was a big reason we left. It wasn’t just about the abuse, it was about not being able to get the leaders to be honest and get something done.”

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

“During this time, we have revised our governance and set new directions for our community.

“We are deeply saddened by the harm that members of our community have suffered. We apologize for our role in not preventing and protecting victims of abuse.

“We try to reach out to those who are no longer in our community and, along with our current members, encourage them to speak openly with us if they have been harmed in any way.”

It added, “Despite our best efforts to create a safe haven, we too were hurt when we discovered the scale of sex crimes in our community.”

“Demonic Culture”

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

Eventually, her father pleaded guilty to two counts of assault with a gun.

She told Stuff, “Seeing my little sister being dragged from the dining table where everyone is and into the room next door and I can hear her screaming and I’m just sitting there…

“You can toughen yourself up, you can build walls around yourself to protect yourself from harm, but every single one of them breaks down watching someone as defenseless as they are, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Connie said the beatings were relentless.

She said: “He might just be tired and coming home from work, he gets bugged so he’ll throw something at you or kick you if he’s really upset, he’ll grab anything around and lay put it on you and you hit, you know, his belt, a coat hanger, one of his tools from his work bag.

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

She told Māori Television: “It wasn’t something I should be proud of or even openly say I’m Māori.

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

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“When you make that decision, you know you’re leaving everything you knew, you’re leaving all your childhood friends, all your whanau.

“You’re entering a world you don’t know about, and it can be really scary.” In the real Handmaid’s Tale – I escaped from a religious cult run by my grandfather, a sex offender


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