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.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

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.”

Sixty lashes

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.

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