INSIDE THE AUSSIE CULT TEARING FAMILIES APART
In the Twelve Tribes community, members dance, sing, work hard and bake great cookies. But Beverley Hadgraft meets the former members and investigators who believe the cult is also abusing its youngest and most vulnerable members.
Tessa Klein was four when she picked up a glass jar and carefully wrapped it in a tea towel. Denied proper toys to play with, she cradled it in her arms, pretending it was a doll. Suddenly she heard a noise outside the family’s room. “My heart was racing,” she recalls. “I hid that jar as fast as I could. I was so scared I’d be caught.”
If little Tessa had been spotted with her pretend doll, the consequences would have been severe: at least six lashes on her hand or bare bottom with a thin, whippy cane.
In the Twelve Tribes religious community, where she lived in Picton, NSW, fantasy play – like pretending to be an aeroplane or nursing a doll – was banned. Nor could Tessa play with her brother, Bryson, or any of the other children, without strict adult supervision. But then, it seemed, there wasn’t much children could do that didn’t result in punishment. Tessa became abnormally quiet, hardly daring to speak to or look at any of the other children in case it resulted in a caning. Working in the community’s kitchen or beeswax candle factory, she was careful never to do anything to annoy the women working alongside her. She felt permanently frightened. Even now, at 22, there is a sense of anxiety about her, as she carefully considers every one of The Weekly’s questions.
Tessa’s brother, at two, was beaten almost daily. “I have one very speci c memory of two or three guys taking Bryson into a room,” she continues. “I knew exactly why and I sat next to the closed door listening to his screams and thinking, ‘What can
I do?’ But as a kid you can’t do anything to make it stop.”
Twelve Tribes, which has 3000 members and communities worldwide, including three in Australia, makes a big deal about loving the community’s children, but Tessa can’t remember any gesture of affection. “Not really. It’s a pretty weird place.” Their claims that beating children is an expression of love are beyond comprehension, she says. “It’s like they just beat children into submission at an early age so they don’t question things when they get older.”
Tessa was four when her parents joined Twelve Tribes. Her father, Matthew, a former high school teacher and warm, loving father who realised his mistake and ed with his children after two horrible years, doesn’t mince his words. “I’d like to see Twelve Tribes shut down. I want them made accountable for the destruction of kids’ lives.”
Matthew has reported Twelve Tribes to the Department of Family Services and to the police. No action has been taken.
The physical abuse is one thing, he says. “That’s the easy story. It’s the psychological abuse that’s the killer. The kids feel they’re inherently bad because they’re spanked all the time. They grow up fearing the outside world because they’re told it’s evil and if they do end up liking it, they think they’re evil too.”
Although she had loving grandparents and the help of a psychologist to readjust after her two years in the cult, Tessa has endured a lifetime of repercussions. At primary school, she found it hard to make friends, and was bewildered by how carefree other children were. “They weren’t freaking out all the time about the reactions of adults if they said something wrong.”
Even more heartbreaking has been the loss of her mother, Tysha, who remains on a community property, Peppercorn Farm, with Twelve Tribes and has remarried and had two more children. Tessa hasn’t seen her since she left. She has tried writing and phoning and even recently organised a face-to-face meeting. She drove the two-and-a-half hours from her home in Port Kembla, NSW, only to have it cancelled. “I’m not trying again,” she says. “I had one day in school when we were making Mother’s Day cards and I just broke down crying because there were all these other kids whose mums would do anything for them and I couldn’t understand why my mum didn’t want anything to do with me.”
Children put to work
The Twelve Tribes cult was formed in the US in the early 1970s by a former high school guidance counsellor and carnival showman, Eugene Spriggs. He is now known as Yoneq. It promotes a hybrid of Christian fundamentalism, Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism. Most of its followers are in the US and Canada, and there are about 120 members in its Australian communities, which were founded in the 1990s. Members focus on spirituality, communal living, Bible study and – from the age of around ve – constant hard work. Their aim is to recreate the 12 tribes of Israel and prepare for the return of Jesus or Yashua.
Their Common Ground wholemeal bakery stalls are at many popular farmers’ markets, Sydney’s Royal Easter Show and the Woodford Folk Festival, while visitors to the Blue Mountains ock to their Yellow Deli cafe in Katoomba.
Members wear simple, Amish-style attire. The women forsake make-up and are covered from head to toe to preserve their modesty. They appear courteous and kindly, opening their doors to anyone who cares to visit their Peppercorn Creek farm.
Their critics include academics and former members, but many people who encounter them at cafes and markets are enchanted by their dancing and singing, their wholesome home-cooking, their tech-free and TV-free rural idyll and their polite, obedient children, who display none of the usual parental nightmares such as toddler tantrums or teenage boundary pushing. “But they make the best cheesecake,” admirers protest. “They say hello when I meet them on the street.”
“Big deal!” says Matthew, who now lives in the Blue Mountains. “Just
“We were making Mother’s Day cards and I just broke down crying.”
“Abuse happens over time and there is always an excuse for it.”
because they’re nice to you doesn’t mean they don’t think you’re the devil’s work.”
Mind you, he thought they were nice too when he joined. At the time, Tysha was pregnant with their third child, Peter, and the Kleins were already struggling with sleep deprivation and the demands of two small children. Matthew had been reading Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph and agreed with his view that it took a community to raise a child. He still believes that – he just doesn’t believe that community is Twelve Tribes.
Matthew says he initially enjoyed his new life. He liked working with and being part of a community and not having to worry about money. He was even happy to have got rid of all his possessions. Like most Twelve Tribe recruits, he sold his home and car and handed over the pro ts to the cult. “But it’s like an abusive relationship,” he explains. “You don’t fall in love with an abuser, you fall in love with a wonderful person. The abuse happens over time and there’s always an excuse for it.”
His rst misgivings arose after he returned from a delivery run for the community, having left Bryson in the care of a male member of the group whom the toddler didn’t know. When Matthew returned, the man revealed that he’d had to discipline the twoyear-old for not coming to him when told. In all, this had happened at least 10 times, with the toddler receiving six lashes each time.
“That’s more than 60 strikes!” Matthew says. “I should’ve left then. I knew they were striking kids but not to that extent and it’s totally different when it’s in the hands of another man. In that guy’s defence, he was doing what he’d been told. We live in a society where you don’t contemplate hitting other people’s kids but with Twelve Tribes, you leave this society and enter another, so if you don’t do it, you become abnormal. Your whole mindset is changed.”
After that, says Matthew, “whenever Bryson didn’t do what he was asked, immediately and without argument, he was spanked … It starts at six months. If a baby wriggles when their nappy’s being changed, they’re punished. It’s in their child-training manual.”
Despite the dogma, Matthew refused to discipline other people’s kids and stopped caning his own. He’d simply take Bryson into a room and pretend. It was only later that he discovered Tysha was getting other male members to ll in for him.
Before entering the Twelve Tribes, Matthew had read his children bedtime stories. Now, children’s classics such as Cuddlepot and Snugglepie and Possum Magic were forbidden, replaced by stories based on the Old Testament. Before Twelve Tribes, if his children were sick, he’d head straight to the doctor. Now prayers and homoeopathy were the preferred treatments – which also meant whip-striped bottoms never came under a doctor’s scrutiny.
As a teacher, he had encouraged independent thinking and homework, and the ability to rationalise, research and exercise critical thought. Now, teaching within the community, he had to follow a syllabus written by Twelve Tribes and abandon those basics. “No outside books were allowed, only the kids were allowed to visit the library.” Tertiary education was considered a waste of time, so even ‘obedient’ children were totally unmotivated. Work was far more important and it wasn’t unusual for lessons to be cancelled so children could help out at one of the community’s many industries.
Matthew has made reports to the unions on illegal child labour, including those working on building sites. As far as he knows, no action was taken, even though concern is well documented. In America, cosmetics giant Estée Lauder is one of several businesses that has severed ties with Twelve Tribes amid questions of under-age workers producing the cosmetic company’s Origins range.
Reporter Shelton Brown has spent the past 18 months investigating Twelve Tribes for a new podcast series due for release in December. Like Matthew, he is frustrated by the intransigence of government agencies. Based in Chattanooga in America, where Twelve Tribes was born, Shelton and his team have interviewed dozens of former members, along with law enforcement agencies. “The central question to our investigation,” he says, “is how are Twelve Tribes still operating? How have law enforcement agencies turned a blind eye to the plethora of allegations that we’ve looked at?
“I’ve talked to the FBI and they’re well aware of what’s going on. Local law enforcement know what’s going on. I could 99 per cent guarantee your Australian police know who they are but this also brings into play the question of religious freedom. We are in support of that but what are the consequences?”
Shelton is particularly horri ed by the trauma suffered by women and children in the group. “I’ve been rebuked for stepping on a minority but this minority is a monster. When you join, you give up everything – including yourself.”
The fear factor
Sydney child psychologist Beverley Thirkell is similarly concerned. “Where are DOCS?” (the Department of Community Services) she exclaims. Play, she says, develops everything we value in society – creativity, imagination and problem solving. Playing with other children teaches communication skills, con ict resolution, emotional regulation and self-esteem.
“These children are controlled by fear. When the only way of having a secure relationship is to follow strict rules and if you don’t, you’re hit … that’s textbook how to form an attachment disorder. It’s scary.
“This is heartbreaking because it’s in plain sight – it’s not behind closed doors – so we, as a society, allow it to continue because these well-behaved children are regarded as a marvellous thing.”
The Department of Family and Community Services was unable to make a comment for this feature and Australian Twelve Tribes declined – although they very politely thanked The Weekly for the opportunity. Their of cial websites, however, make no secret of their approach to childrearing and defend it robustly. They ban kids from playing together because they believe they have no self-judgement and could in uence each other. They see nothing wrong with sending children to work alongside their parents instead of playing or studying. “It is a safe, healthy, educational environment. It is not child labour.” Letting them waste their free time on “empty amusements only leads to bad behaviour”. They defend spanking, quoting endless passages from the Bible to support their cruelty. Whoever spares the rod hates his child, but the one who loves his child is careful to discipline him (Proverbs 13.24), is a particular favourite. They write long articles quoting academics who commend corporal punishment and cite crime gures of countries that have banned it, ignoring any other factors that contribute to the statistics.
Spanking equals love, they insist over and over. “The rod removes guilt from children’s souls and trains them to do good …We know some people consider this controversial but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful of authority.” History, they insist, has shown that spanking results in “responsible, diligent, respectful human beings with strong moral bre”.
Even a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights has not dissuaded them. That came about after an undercover journalist in Germany obtained horri c video evidence of children aged between
Above: scenes from the Twelve Tribes’ base in Chattanooga, Tennessee.Right: The Yellow Deli cafe in Katoomba is one of the Australian Twelve Tribes’ outlets.