Real Life

Rosina Claxton: I survived a cult

In the 1970s, this Christchurch woman fell victim to the notorious God Squad. today, for the first time, she tells her story.

Rosina Claxton was only five months old when her parents joined one of New Zealand’s most notorious religious cults. Formed in the 1960s, The Full Gospel Mission, or God Squad as it became known, was led by Dunedin-born, self-styled bishop Douglas Metcalf. His followers believed the charismatic man was Jesus Christ and Rosina (57) says he manipulated and brainwashed his congregation to surrender absolute power to him.

When she was only 13, the impressionable young girl became one of Metcalf’s most innocent and tragic victims when he forced her to succumb to his sexual desires.

It has taken Rosina more than 20 years to find the courage to speak out about the abuse and pain she endured within the cult. Fearful and traumatised by what she had experienced,it wasn’t until six years after Metcalf’s death in 1989 when Rosina confided in another woman in the cult that, as a minor, she was forced into a sexual relationship with Metcalf.

In her book, The Counterfeit Coin, is the only recorded and first-hand account of what transpired behind the walls of one of the country’s most controversial communities.

Rosina says that sharing her story is part of her long healing process and she now has the blessing of her parents, Golda and Albert, to speak out.

Rosina was in her thirties when she finally escaped the controlling commune, based just outside the north Canterbury town of Waipara.

Her symbol of freedom was a simple act that most women would take for granted. There were no physical chains that bound her to the controlling sect. Instead it was shedding the strictly-imposed dress code of long floral dresses with long sleeves and headscarves that the women – viewed by Metcalf as harlots – were forced to wear.

As soon as she was free from the walls that restrained her, Rosina threw away the headscarf, released her long hair and let it blow in the wind.

“That was so liberating,” Rosina reveals. “Women were forced to dress that way to make us feel subservient. I finally found the courage to remove the headscarf. Guilt immediately consumed me, but then the feeling of wind on my head and through my hair was therapeutic. I was free.

“When I look back now, we gave Douglas so much power that he thought he had the right to control our lives,” Rosina tells.

“He was so charismatic – it was hypnotic. It’s not healthy when someone becomes powerful and wealthy through his flock. When people stop asking questions and stop following their intuition, then they are inviting all sorts of problems into their lives.”

The God Squad thrived during the 1970s, and courted attention when Metcalf and his devotees built a fortress-like community in the Canterbury hills. They were raided several times by police for possessing military equipment, including semi-automatic weapons. Many believed the stockpiling of guns and ammunition were for the group’s highly-trained and elite commando unit.

“There were weapons all over the place. We were preparing to flee to the hills to survive the take over from communism. We were told when this happens we would have the seal of 666 tattooed on our foreheads to stop us from entering the kingdom of heaven. The weapons were for our survival.

“From the moment the adults accepted him to be God’s mouthpiece and all denominations were wrong, they gave away their right to think, to make decisions and to explore for themselves.

“And in doing so, we, the children born within this regime, suffered immensely.”

The saga began when Rosina was five months old. At the time, a friend of Golda’s was suffering from leukaemia. Metcalf, an up-and-coming evangelist, knocked on the door to preach the gospel.

Despite being sceptical, Golda challenged Metcalf by asking, “If there was a God, why couldn’t he heal my friend?”

Metcalf prayed with the women and within the next few days, the friend’s cancer improved dramatically. The disease then disappeared and doctors were unable to offer any scientific reason as to why she was healed.

“Shortly thereafter my mother knocked on Doug’s door and asked if he could teach her about God and The Bible. That’s how the story of my life in a spiritual cult began,” Rosina recalls.

Over the years, the two families held prayer meetings at their homes and recruited others to join their religion.

As the congregation grew, so did Doug’s thirst for power and control, and his attraction to pageantry.

The cult flourished when about 100 members and their families established a farmland community in the Canterbury hills, which they called Camp David. White walls protected followers from the outside and enabled them to live a subsistence lifestyle off the land.

“We grew up thinking we were quite privileged to be in the select few who would make it to the Promised Land and everyone else around us wouldn’t,” Rosina tells.

From the six-bedroom home shared with his extended family, Metcalf lead his flock in grand style. He was heralded by robed priests, blowing on wild rams’ horns that were imported from Jericho. Metcalf’s minions would spend days hand stitching the royal regalia he wore.

Followers were encouraged not to form any relationships with non-members, even if it meant cutting ties with family.

Many devotees worked outside the farm, bringing in finances to support Metcalf’s projects, as well as his regular trips to the Middle East.

Rosina eventually became the church secretary and would accompany Metcalf on his overseas excursions.

On one trip to Germany, he forced the impressionable and shy Rosina to watch a violent pornographic film.

The content of the film still gives Rosina nightmares, so do the years of sexual abuse that she suffered.

“He had a key to our home and he came up to my room. My parents had no idea. My body went weak and collapsed. I was able to separate what was happening to me from my mind. I was taught that the man doing this to me represented Jesus, so there was a lot of pain and anger.”

Metcalf also built secret passageways and lairs within the commune, which Rosina says he used for his many sexual trysts with her and other girls.

There were many times when Rosina wanted to escape from the community, but was far too scared to do so.

“I was a prisoner because there was a fear that you would burn in hell if you left. It was brainwashing and you didn’t know any different. If you walk away, you leave your emotional, physical and spiritual support. You will be leaving the devil you know to go out into the cold world.”

Rosina saw first hand the effects of rejecting the cult when her younger brother left the compound at 16 years old.  He was shunned and ostracised by the entire community, including his family.

“My brother was not allowed back into our home, which made my father cry and I remember seeing my mother collapse on the floor in the kitchen. This was raw emotion and the most painful memory I have,” she says.

Also, during her time in the commune, Rosina was courted by another member – a young man named George. The pair fell in love and wanted to get married, but all proposals had to be approved by Metcalf and he refused to give his blessing.

“It pains me that I wasn’t able to get married when I wanted. I felt those years were wasted,” says Rosina. “Other girls he had interfered with were allowed to marry and have families, but Doug wouldn’t allow me to do the same. He told me that I belonged to him and marrying someone else would be committing adultery.”

Life changed for Rosina when Metcalf died unexpectedly in 1989 from heart failure. His followers kept a 24-hour vigil over his body that lay in state at the cult’s headquarters, watching for any signs of resurrection. Despite the hype, there was no second coming.

With Metcalf passing, Rosina could finally marry the man she loved. She and George wed three months after Metcalf’s death. The leader’s successor and son-in-law, Daryl Metcalf Williams, carried on the teachings, preaching that his father-in-law would return to Earth before the year 2000.

That prophecy never transpired. Instead, it was Rosina’s bravery that ultimately caused the cult’s demise.

In 1995, six years after Metcalf’s death, Rosina confided in a fellow cult member about the abuse and the woman confirmed she too was a victim.

Rosina finally told her father about the abuse. Enraged, he visited other families to ask questions and discovered there were many others. Rosina says the scandal was like a “freight train” had torn through the community and people were wracked with guilt and horror about the ultimate betrayal.

Her confession sent shock waves through the community, with other women coming forward to reveal their own sexual relationships with the man everyone revered. Knowledge of the abuse and adultery caused a mass exodus, with people burning everything from diaries, photos and books.

“Part of it was so the news media wouldn’t find out about what went on in the community,” reveals Rosina.

“Everyone was angry. They were being taught something from the pulpit and another was being practised. That tore away the complete religious foundation,” she says.

For Rosina and George, it meant they could forge a new life with their three children. However, it has taken years of counselling and self-discovery for Rosina to become the free-thinking, independent woman that she is today.

With her father being Maori, Rosina was taught by Metcalf that having dark skin was a curse and she should be ashamed of her heritage. But reconnecting to her iwi and culture helped her healing process.

“There’s a need for us to get back into our original culture. Our Maori elders had such wisdom. I’m confident of who I am and where I come from,” says Rosina, who proudly wears a pounamu around her neck.

She has forgiven her parents for their role in her life and has even let go of any hostility she felt towards Metcalf.

“I don’t blame my parents,” she says. “They were looking for something better in their lives. We were dealt our cards, ran with them and have now learnt from our mistakes. With the life we lived, we developed skills that helped us cope with other pressures.”

Today, Rosina lives in Brisbane with her close-knit family. She’s proud that her two sons and especially her daughter have grown up to be independent, free thinkers.

“I’m pleased she didn’t inherit my timid nature. My children have a choice to follow whichever faith they wish, but my advice is to follow their gut feeling and question everything,” says Rosina.

“No matter how much pressure you’re under, if it doesn’t feel right to you, then don’t do it.”

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