For 27 years, former Gloriavale resident Virginia Courage was tormented by nightmares. She’d often lie awake in the cramped bunk room she shared with her husband and children, frozen with fear after a terrifying dream, wondering what it meant and why it was happening to her.
“I’d pray the nightmares would end,” says the brave mum-of-11, who has become a staunch advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. “But that only happened the day I walked out of Gloriavale. I could finally sleep because I didn’t have to be scared any more.”
It’s almost three years since Virginia, 43, her husband David, 42, and their 10 children left the West Coast religious sect they’d been born into. Turning their backs on the only life they knew took enormous strength, but the point had come where Virginia realised her kids weren’t safe and she had to get them out.
“Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, the day we left was very hard,” she recalls. “I was so scared. What were we stepping into? Would God still love me? Would I go to hell for this? I had to deal with the fact my friends and family who loved me the day before now actively hated me. It was heartbreaking.”
But as she speaks to Woman’s Day from her Timaru home, her newborn baby Jonas in her arms, it’s clear Virginia has finally found peace. She is free to think and act how she likes, and able to raise her family without the perpetual sense of fear from being watched over by the community leaders.
“I love my life now,” she declares. “My only regret is I didn’t leave sooner.”
But with five of her 11 siblings and her parents still living in the community, Virginia is determined to use her voice to help those still inside, which is why she agreed to feature in a new film called Gloriavale, now showing at the Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival.
The documentary provides fascinating insight into the religious community, which was started in 1969 by controversial evangelist Neville Cooper, and follows lawyers as they mount ground-breaking legal action against its leaders, tackling human-rights abuses, workplace breaches and sexual abuse claims.
“People in Gloriavale are carrying so much trauma, yet they’re resilient – they just keep going,” tells Virginia, who says she was sexually abused at 13 by a married member of the community. “You have no choice but to get on with it because if you complain, you’re told you don’t have enough faith and that you’re a bad Christian. It’s constant criticism and judgement.”
While she can’t speak openly about her experience for legal reasons, she tells us she’s determined to bring her alleged perpetrator – and the church leaders who she says habitually condone criminal behaviour – to justice.
Virginia says she saw first-hand how Gloriavale protects the men who prey on young girls and boys, and a culture of shame and fear means the emotional damage runs deep for victims.
She remembers being called to a meeting after the sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl, where leaders told the group, including the child’s mother, that there had been “no indication the child disapproved of the behaviour” and that she was “a very friendly girl”.
“I exploded,” says Virginia, tears streaming down her face. “I couldn’t stay quiet because no child should be blamed for their abuse. That was the tipping point for me – I’ve always seen a mother’s job as being to protect her children and it was clear my children weren’t safe there. My husband and I knew we had to get them out.”
Virginia shakes her head as she recalls her old life. Like all girls, she left school at 15 to work 14-hour days in the kitchen, before marrying at 20 and starting her family. Within a couple of weeks after the birth of each baby, Virginia would have to return to work, with childcare staff radioing her when the infant needed feeding.
“We were always being hurried,” she says. “Sometimes even at dinner, someone would walk around with a stick and poke you if they thought you were taking too long or making too much noise.”
It was a relentless and exhausting existence, with rest viewed almost as a sin. “I just got used to being exhausted. Everyone in there is sleep- deprived. There are people falling asleep at the dining table, in meetings, everywhere!”
Virginia and her family’s home consisted of a tiny room in a hostel with so many others, a situation she says led to blurred boundaries and inappropriate behaviour.
“There is no privacy. You have kids sharing beds, 80 people sharing three or four bathrooms… It’s not right and it’s no wonder crazy things happen. The boundaries are constantly being pushed.”
With support from the Gloriavale Leavers’ Trust, set up to help those who flee, Virginia and David, who works as head mechanic at an organic apple orchard, have set about rebuilding their lives. For someone who’d never had any choices, let alone money, simple things like going to the supermarket or bank were at first overwhelming.
“For the first year, my husband had to do the shopping with me because I’d have panic attacks. I mean, how do you choose cereal when there’s three shelves of the stuff?! I was so scared I’d choose the wrong thing or waste money if the kids refused to eat something.”
But seeing her kids – Anna, 21, Hosea, 19, Jasmine, 17, Sunshine, 15, Pure, 13, Abigail, 11, Naomi, nine, Masada, seven, Joy, five, Jordan, three, and baby Jonas – thrive in their new environment has made it all worthwhile.
They now attend their local schools, play weekend sport, have playdates with friends and choose their own clothes, which are all freedoms Virginia could never have imagined. She hopes they will grow up to embrace their education, choose fulfilling careers, and take their time before marrying and having children.
“It’s the simple pleasures of freedom that mean the most to me,” says Virginia. “Being able to buy my son a pie at the bakery or treat the kids to some lollies at the dairy feels amazing. Now I walk around my beautiful house, and it’s so peaceful and quiet. I think, ‘Those poor women in there, my friends and family, they have no idea what they could be experiencing and how much better life could be.’
I’m incredibly grateful.”
Gloriavale is now screening as part of the NZ International Film Festival and is coming soon to cinemas.