From exile and sacrifice: Secretive church's children seek to heal

Jason Belcher says music saved his life after his family left the Commonwealth Covenant Church.
SUPPLIED

Jason Belcher says music saved his life after his family left the Commonwealth Covenant Church.

Children who grew up in a secretive church sect say they were separated from their parents and sent to new families.

One man said he was sent from Wellington to live with unrelated members of the Commonwealth Covenant Church in Auckland.

The church came first, and its cohesion was key, said Mark – not his real name. "Basically the pastorship, the leadership, made the decision as to what family I went to and where.

Nelson, where the Commonwealth Covenant Church had another chapter.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

Nelson, where the Commonwealth Covenant Church had another chapter.

"You were told: 'You're going to live with this particular family'. I think it happened a lot.

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"It was done all very covertly. I was basically sent away on holiday.

Historian Peter Lineham says a group like the CCC is the "perfect place for bad behaviour to take place".
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAX NZ

Historian Peter Lineham says a group like the CCC is the "perfect place for bad behaviour to take place".

"I arrived at this house and they were my 'new' parents for the next 15, 16 months."

A woman who grew up in the Nelson branch of the church said she was split from her parents and siblings.

Last month, CCC survivors who described the church as a cult spoke out for the first time. Others have now come forward.

"It's so unsafe," Mark said.

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He left the church in the mid-1990s, but still speaks of it in the present tense. 

"It's very exclusive. It's very closed down. Nobody talks to anybody outside of it."

He said the church decided he should be taken from his parents in Wellington and sent to South Auckland.

"I've spoken to my parents. There was nothing very democratic about it.

"There are plenty of other people. It was a bit of a practice in the church over the years."

Mark, still a Christian, says the CCC probably started out with a benign ideology but became a "very dangerous place" for children.

Church leaders seemed to attain "God-like" status in the CCC he grew up with.

"You get one, or maybe two or three people telling everybody else how their lives should be run."

Mark understands a girl who raised sexual abuse allegations in the mid-90s asked for the alleged abuser to get counselling.

"But that request was somehow either denied or not acted upon."

He says in the mid-1990s, the church started changing. "My brother and two of our cousins, we actually spoke to our youth pastor at the time and said we want to see some positive changes ourselves."

'CONSTANT INTENSE FEAR'

Jason Belcher grew up in South Auckland's Papatoetoe church.

Based now in Nashville, Tennessee, he describes experiences of a world unto itself, where fear of eternal punishment and divine wrath kept members in line.

He says his mother's family left the church when she was 15, but she stayed.

"She was told that if she left the church she would go to hell."

And "constant intense fear" infused the mindset of CCC members, he says.

"They would have public ridicule of people from the pulpit. They would just chew people out for nothing."

In front of her children, one woman was labelled a "whore" from the pulpit, for some perceived misdemeanour.

Belcher was home-schooled, not out of necessity, he says, but due to the church's "fear of culture".

There was no TV, no radio. "My dad would have to seek permission from the church to see if we could go away on holiday. They had authority over everything."

Jason says his father Stephen spent time with the church's patriarch, the late Stanley Watkins.

He says his father went on mission trips with Watkins, who far from being superhuman, needed constant help.

Jason believes the frailty of Watkins was an eye-opener for his father.

"He was a broken, helpless old man. Dad never had as much terror or respect for Stan Watkins after travelling with him."

But it took years, Jason says, for the family to acquire the courage or know-how to leave the CCC.

"My dad had kind of been groomed as the next pastor there. He just didn't want to. My dad had been in it his whole life."

Belcher says when his father and the rest of the family left in the mid-1990s, the church basically collapsed.

But, as other members found, establishing a new life in the world outside was not easy. "I was socially messed up."

Sent to a regular high school, adjusting to society often seemed impossible.

"I didn't make friends the entire time. I was bullied so badly. It was dark times for me just trying to reconcile everything."

At lunchtime in school, he'd find guitars, take them away to a secluded place, and start writing music. "Music kind of saved my life."

He says talking about the CCC is helpful. "It's been a healing process. I think hundreds of people can know their pain doesn't have to stay hidden."

LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE

Stephen Belcher, who was in Lower Hutt until the early 1980s, says he's yet to see any value in discussing the past. "I think I put it to bed 20 years ago."

He accepts others have a different view, but says God alone delivers justice.

"OK, things have happened, people have been abused in the past by all sorts of organisations and churches and non-churches.

"It's best to get on with life and help yourself and help others."

Though others say speaking about the CCC brings catharsis, he says muckraking does more harm than good.

He says he "left with his feet" and believes there was no illegal activity former church elders carried out.

Any allegations of wrongdoing should have been put to legal authorities at the time, he says, or to police today.  

SACRIFICED

"All these years they've got away with nothing being said about them," says Angela, who grew up in the Nelson CCC.

One of five children, she says her mother left the church some 60 years ago and was given an ultimatum.

Normally, those who left were cut off from relatives remaining in the church, she says.

Her grandmother, a church member, demanded at least one child stay with her.

"She said 'You've got four others'. I ended up being sacrificed and staying there. I wasn't even allowed to be with my parents, brothers, sisters. It was terrible.

"I wasn't allowed to go and play with anybody. I loved my mother, and I missed out."

But Angela says CCC members were mostly decent people, in a draconian regime.

Angela - who also doesn't want her real name used - remembers Watkins's wife travelling from the capital to Nelson to admonish churchgoers for their sins.

"Mrs Watkins used to come over and scream. That was meant to be the wrath of God talking to people."

She says Watkins was "like an old witch but everyone revered her because she was anointed by God".

In 1943, Nelson CCC Pastor Eric Wilson was jailed for thrashing a 7-year-old girl.

The pastor's "zeal to convey vicariously a divine command" was behind the thrashing, The Press reported at the time.

The local court found Wilson even compelled the girl's father to join in dispensing the hiding.

Angela eventually left the church in the late 1950s, when she was 15. Her dogmatic upbringing offered little preparation for the outside world.

"Somebody said to me 'Are you still a virgin'? I didn't know what it was."

Angela says she knew of other children taken away, like Mark was.

"They were cruel that way. They separated people from their families."

'PERFECT' FOR ABUSE

Massey University history professor Peter Lineham​ says the CCC presents "a really peculiar story in some ways".

The church fused Pentecostal beliefs with British Israelism, a belief the Anglo-Celtic people and similar groups were descendants of the mythical Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

He cautions against calling the CCC a cult, but is not surprised to hear some of the claims against it.

"Within the tightness of a small church group, it's a perfect place for bad behaviour to take place because people feel caught up in loyalty and will disempower people against a leader if a leader is accused of abuse."

JUDGEMENT

As the stories accumulate, questions of responsibility and reconciliation arise.

Most who left the church and have spoken out are Christians today, but adhere to a different strand of the faith.

Lineham says because the church no longer really exists, it is difficult to assign responsibility for any wrongs committed in the past.

Former members say the Hutt Valley CCC eventually transformed into the Hope Centre, with an altered leadership and outlook.

"In 1995 the church was impacted by a fresh and dramatic move of the Holy Spirit that stirred us again towards evangelism, city transformation and unity between the churches of the city," the Hope Centre says on its website.

The Hope Centre has been approached for comment but has not engaged.

Jason Belcher feels some sympathy for the old CCC church leaders, even though he says they showed no empathy for their own flock.

"The greatest driver was fear and anxiety. In a way even the leadership I see as victims of the same oppression.

"The guilt of carrying all of this s*** would be so brutal."

But he wants to hear this admission from any remaining church leaders: "I messed up and I've tried to change things."

Forcing anyone to apologise would be of little point. "You can't just force someone to say sorry and it means something. Sorries are nice but I think people have to come to terms with loving and accepting themselves."

Mark, meanwhile, says Watkins' death and the spate of people leaving were probably factors in the mid-90s reforms.

But closure has been elusive, he says. Mark does not want vengeance, preferring reconciliation.

"Apologies, absolutely, to individuals would go some way. After that I don't know. Whatever I suppose that people needed to feel like justice was being served.

"The culture may have changed but the question is: Have the people healed? I'll be healing for the rest of my life."

 - Stuff

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