Sexual harassment of Gloriavale employees a ‘normal’ occurrence, court hears

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Gloriaval community buildings on the west coast.
Photo: Google Maps

Sexual harassment at work was common in Gloriavale, where leaders in the kitchen would grab girls’ pants, unzip their dresses or ping their bra straps, a former member says.

Rosanna Overcomer told a labor court that the behavior made her nauseous, but was derided as nothing to worry about by older women and other girls in the Christian commune.

Overcomer was born in the community when it was based in Springbank north of Christchurch, but left Gloriavale with her husband and children in 2013.

She said most of the abuse took place in the kitchen, where she began working regularly from the age of 13, by men including Gloriavale founder Hopeful Christian.

“When I lived in Gloriavale, sexual harassment in the workplace was just normal,” she said.

“It was mostly an ass grab from the leaders – even if you walked past by undoing the zipper on the back of your dress or undoing your belt, or even pinging your bra strap.

“You didn’t even know what happened was called abuse. It was so normal that no one would blink, but when I said that, I hated it. All the girls hated it.”

She said men would also run after girls and wrap their arms around their waists for hugs.

“This behavior made me cringe. I hated it, but at the time I had no knowledge or power to say leave me alone.”

Overcomer told the court she hated serving a shepherd’s breakfast table when she was an elementary school girl.

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“I would avoid it at all costs. If you got close enough to him, he would pull you close to your dress. He would wrap his arms around our legs and rub our legs up and down.

“If we said anything about it, it was just brushed off.”

Four years after she left Gloriavale, police spoke to leavers about sexual abuse and inappropriate touching, Overcomer said.

“We were all amazed and realized that all the touching that had made us nauseous in the kitchen was not allowed, we had all just thought it was normal and we had to put up with it,” she said.

Overcomer testified in an employment lawsuit brought by six former Gloriavale women who wanted the court to rule that they were employees, not volunteers — a claim community leaders vehemently denied.

She said she was expected to work in the women’s teams when her family moved to Haupiri.

“I remember not long after we got to Gloriavale, I thought we weren’t doing fun things anymore. I literally thought my childhood was over. I was 10 years old and I thought my life as a kid had ended,” said they.

Around that time, Hopeful Christian said people didn’t need lunch.

“Sometimes they would give us a cheese stick and we would melt it on the stove after lunch to make it bigger because we thought it would fill us up more that way,” she said.

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“I can remember always being cold and hungry.”

Gloriaval community buildings on the west coast.

Gloriaval community buildings on the west coast.
Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

When she started high school, Overcomer said she weighed 32 kilograms.

She told the court that children were often denied food as punishment and that some would suffer a humiliating “blockage” on the stage in front of everyone.

“If you were on stage you would be blacklisted and then you would be looked at and scrutinized and criticized for every move you made,” she said.

“This principle of blacklisting has been true for my entire life in the community and has been true for adults as well as children. I was so afraid of being blacklisted, afraid of becoming kind of the whipping boy.”

Former Gloriavale wife Rebekah Kempf previously told the court that she started working from the age of six and was later charged with stacking food in the -18-degree freezer.

“Life in Gloriavale was spent hours alone lifting 20-kilogram crates overhead on a stool on a wet, slippery floor in freezing temperatures,” she said.

“I often struggled to get the box up and let it rest halfway through, my legs were shaking, and then I would somehow lift the baskets. It was probably adrenaline.”

Kempf said she had permanent frostbite on her fingers and was not getting help for a back injury.

“Countless times I cried because I was in so much pain, I didn’t want to be working there,” she said.

“My overwhelming memory was that I was always tired. I never refused to work because I was so afraid of what might happen.”

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Kempf said she was taught not to complain and was told from an early age that she had no talent except to serve God, and was fat.

“I was told a number of times that I couldn’t have been a Christian if I was fat because it proved I wasn’t disciplining myself.

“Hard work proved I had talent.”

Gloriavale’s leaders were always talking about saving money, Kempf said.

“In high school, they said they would stop buying women’s sanitary products, so I filled my drawer because I was told we had to go back to using peat moss,” she said.

Kempf said she became depressed at age 14 after someone looked at her in the shower.

“I clearly thought it was somehow my fault. That’s how we’ve been taught all our lives, that if something sexual happens, it’s always the girl’s fault,” she said.

Kempf’s sister Hannah Harrison also described unwanted attention from Gloriavale men.

“I was afraid of old men,” she said.

“When my father was in India, Howard often said hello to me and gave me hugs from behind that I didn’t like. He said things like, did anyone tell you today that they love you? It made me feel like I was important, but I never liked to cuddle.”

Gloriavale’s attorney Philip Skelton QC told the court on Tuesday that community leaders did not condone sex crimes and had taken steps to address it.