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.

READ MORE:
Cult survivor tells of years of abuse, and urges other victims to speak
Have you left a cult or religious sect?
'I survived the Exclusive Brethren'
Life after Gloriavale: Former member speaks

"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.

Ad Feedback

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

Ad Feedback
special offers
Auckland

Group to file against Watercare

Simon Kitson from the Titirangi Protection Group.

People who don't want native bush cut for a new water filter station in a west Auckland suburb are heading to court.

Connecting retirees and pets

Baxter enjoys a cuddle with Thelma, a resident at Maygrove Rest Home.

"Dogs need companionship, and life is better with a dog," The Dog Share Collective founder Sandra Walker says.

Ram-raider gets rehab chance

The Christchurch District Court has given teen offender Jordan Lee Duncan a chance to turn his life around by letting ...

Teen ram-raider flies to Auckland with hopes for end to his synthetic cannabis addiction and the best wishes of at least one victim.

The courage to speak up video

McLoon says growing up she always wanted to help people.

At about 17, Taylor McLoon walked off her first job, before becoming a leader in a collective action named the 'McStrike'.

Wellington

Rental WoFs for capital

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester says the council wants to "lift rental standards and make better accommodation available ...

Wellington becomes first to introduce voluntary warrant of fitness for rental properties.

Hutt hostage standoff

Emergency services at the cordon on Kings Crescent, near High St, Lower Hutt.

Police have used stun grenades to flush out a woman at the centre of a hostage standoff at a Lower Hutt house.

Torrential rain, gales

MetService has warned northerlies could get to 130kmh in exposed areas of Wellington, Marlborough and the Canterbury ...

Gales hit central NZ while heavy rain is falling across parts of the South Island - and there's more to come.

Brothel building for sale

Il-Bordello is on Vivian St.

"More bang for your buck" for this brothel building.

Canterbury

Wooden stadium for Chch?

NZ First party leader Winston Peters wants Christchurch's new stadium to be built out of wood.

Winston Peters wants the Government to make a major injection into stadium - but only if it's built from wood.

Chilly weekend ahead

July snow just east of Lake Tekapo

Winter has more in store for Canty before the expected milder spring weather arrives.

'Pushed to the edge' video

Hennie Murray and his friends narrowly missing being hit by an avalanche while driving along the Mt Hutt access road on ...

Hennie Murray was among the thousands leaving Mt Hutt when "everything turned white".

Free parking in Christchurch?

An artist's impression of the Lichfield St car parking building, due for completion in October.

Idea to offer free parking at new parking building may be put before councillors for a vote.

Waikato

Mum dies in Cook Islands

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is aware of the death of a New Zealander in the Cook Islands.

Much-loved Waikato wife and mother Michelle Robertson died in Rarotonga, aged 37.

Driver rams cop car

Ali Taipari, 26, was sentenced in the Hamilton District Court on Wednesday.

It was third time unlucky for Ali Taipari in his attempts to stay one step ahead of the police.

Nationwide hunt for gunman video

Police are looking to locate Rollie James Heke, 36. He is believed to be armed and dangerous and should not be approached.

The search for "unpredictable" Rollie James Heke has been elevated to a national level.

Ghost school to be bulldozed

The Ministry of Education says some of the buildings had asbestos.

Buildings at the Hamilton school have sat vacant for 13 years.

Taranaki

Arts Festival begins

160817 News Photo. SIMON O'CONNOR/STUFF
Taranaki Arts Festival Story in the Crystal Palace.
L-R Cleo Wood and Suzanne ...

It really does sound like one of the best jobs...where we do we sign up?

Heavy rain warning

Get the wet weather gear ready, a weather warning has been issued for Mt Taranaki.

Up to 90mm of rain could fall on the mountain today.

Student action prompts review

A recent survey revealed how only a few students from Taranaki's polytech were aware of its policy allowing for exams ...

Student seeks better promotion of Te Reo policy: It's New Zealand's language and it should be able to be used."

Life after suicide attempt

Nganeko Eriwata attempted suicide 11 years ago and now she is fighting to help educate people on prevention.

A suicide attempt spurred a woman to fight to stop others from getting to the same point.

Manawatu

Weaving cultural ties

Tanemahuta Gray in his Feilding home.

Tanemahuta Gray is a choreographer and director who now calls Feilding home.

The political outsider

Adrienne Pierce is aiming to take Palmerston North for National at the election.

A newbie to the Manawatu political scene has an uphill battle to turn Palmerston North blue for National.

Free ink draws crowds video

Jamee Mitchell's new tattoo.

An offer of free tattoos drew a line of keen punters staunchly queuing in winter downpours.

Sudden death shocks

Ambulance staff alerted police to the woman's death on Wednesday morning.

Police are investigating the unexplained death of a woman at a Palmerston North flat.

Nelson

Kids benefit from bike build

Skyla Ruebe, 8 of Motueka with the new bicycle she received from Night & Day franchisees and support staff during a ...

Nine kids from the Nelson region given new bikes.

From cage to stage video

Meg Cole, her daughter Ella Dols and their SPCA rescue cat Gypsy, who won numerous prizes at the Nelson Cat Show.

An SPCA "ball of fluff" rescue kitten ended up winning best in show at the Nelson Cat Show.

Tasman teams light up the stage

Teen Theatre team Knock Your Socks Off, who competed in the Tasman Regional Theatresports competition this month against ...

Talented Tasman teens have taken top honours in regional theatresports championships.

Final credits roll for DVD store

Stoke Video Ezy owner Sean Davis is closing his store.

Video Ezy in Nelson is no more but is the rapid decline really down to the Internet?

Marlborough

Procession for crash victim

Marlborough 19-year-old George Holland died in a crash in Wairau Valley.

A motocross-loving teenager was farewelled with a 50-strong procession of brightly-coloured motorcycles in Marlborough.

Big win for Blenheim

A million-dollar winner, but Powerball not struck.

Blenheim Lotto player strikes it lucky with $1m win.

Shocked, less than shocked

Jeff Hynes found this pile of rubbish dumped near the Grovetown Lagoon on Friday.

Two very different responses as illegal dumping cases pile up in Marlborough.

NZ cyclocross titles at stake

The national cyclocross championships will be held near Blenheim on Saturday. Marlborough riders Antony Clark, left, and ...

 The New Zealand cyclocross championships will be staged in Marlborough for the first time on Saturday.

South Canterbury

Walking for hope

Timaru woman Michelle Cogger has organised a hope walk to raise awareness of suicide prevention.

Timaru mother organises community Hope Walk to create awareness around suicide.

Hospital rebuild plan

South Canterbury District Health Board chief executive Nigel Trainor said it had decided to shift a planned ...

Proposal to redevelop Timaru Hospital moves up a gear with plans afoot to rebuild.

FastPost ... anything but

Veronica Fellows wants to know why it took six days for a birthday card she posted to her to her grandson to arrive.

Timaru woman Veronica Fellows questions why a birthday card took six days to travel 4km by post.

Clamping down on free-for-all

The building on Sophia St was inspected in March this year and found to be unsafe in the event of an earthquake. The ...

Council says people must stop snapping up reserved parks in earthquake-prone building.

Southland

'Chaotic' DHB department

The entrance to Dunedin Hospital.

Some patients have waited up to three years for a follow-up appointment due to dysfunction within a DHB department.

Cow neglect 'appalling'

Castlerock Dairies Limited and the managers who ran two farms were fined $60,000 in total in the Invercargill District ...

At least 193 cows on a Lumsden farm had to be euthanised in "one of the worst examples of long-term neglect".

Film festival growing in Gore

Theatre manager Peter Cairns at Gore's St James Theatre ahead of them hosting the New Zealand International Film ...

The Gore leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival is proving popular with Southland film buffs.

Missing runner found

A runner was missing for three-and-a-half hours in Southland before being tracked down by a search and rescue team on ...

A missing runner was found cold, but safe, after becoming lost with no cellphone battery.

Ad Feedback