Inside the controversial ‘Twelve Tribes’ commune: Man who spent 18 years trapped in a ‘surrendered’ state opens up about how he escaped the secretive religious sect
- Or Mathias claims he was subjected to years of physical and psychological abuse
- Mr Mathias said his 18 years in the sect have left him permanently traumatised
- The now 26-year-old alleges child abuse is rampant within the communities
- Original member Andrew McLeod previously said there is no child abuse present
By Brittany Chain and Nic White For Daily Mail Australia
Published: 15:11 AEST, 9 September 2019 | Updated: 16:10 AEST, 9 September 2019
A man who spent the first 18 years of his life in a Twelve Tribes commune claims the ‘training methods’ used to discipline children still affect him almost a decade after he escaped.
Or Mathias claims he was subjected to years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the secretive sect.
He told The Sunday Telegraph he spent the first six years of his life living in a Brazilian commune with ‘strange men’ before finally moving to the Picton branch in south-west Sydney.
The now 26-year-old left Twelve Tribes eight years ago. Four of his five siblings and his mother have also left the sect.
Mr Mathias said while he keeps in contact with plenty of ex-members, most are too afraid to speak out.
Or Mathias claims he was subjected to years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the secretive sect
He said he is permanently scarred after he was allegedly abused as a child.
Mr Mathias claims he was beaten with a thin rod and forced to work from a young age. He was also given limited opportunities for an education.
The sect is very guarded about its privacy and members are expected to live by a set of rigid guidelines which govern almost every aspect of their lives.
Twelve Tribes shuns the use of conventional medicines or technologies, and communication with the outside world is largely forbidden.
Women are expected to be subservient to men and everyone must marry within the group.
Children are home-schooled and raised on the back of a 300-page manual which insists they are obedient, do not question their superiors, are forbidden from playing with toys or the make-believe and are to be spanked with a 50cm rod for any indiscretions.
Mr Mathias said he spent the first six years of his life in a Brazilian commune with ‘strange men’ before finally moving to the Picton branch in south-west Sydney (pictured)
Mr Mathias claims he watched an eight month old baby be disciplined during his time with the Picton sect because she cried at the dinner table.
According to Mr Mathias, any adult can administer discipline as long as the child is older than six months.
Andrew McLeod, who manages one of the sect’s many cafes in the Blue Mountains and is an original member of the Australian branch of the group, said allegations of child abuse and child labour were untrue.
‘We want our children to have a well-balanced life and what we do and our beliefs have somehow been taken out of context to portray us as a fundamentalist cult that bashes our children, which is just not true,’ he said.
‘It’s sad that so many people are gullible enough to believe what they believe without looking into it themselves.’
Mr McLeod instead encouraged people to visit the group at the cafe, Balmoral House, or the farm in Picton – the doors to which are always open – and even spend a few days getting to know them.
‘They can see there’s no horns, no cloaks and daggers, just some people with a genuine faith wanting to raise their children with purpose and purity and make an honest living and be hospitable,’ he said.
The father-of-five said children were indeed all home-schooled but no one working in the cafe was younger than the legal work age of 14 and nine months, and teenagers worked on Sundays or school holidays.
‘I raise [my children] strictly but honestly and openly and will admit when I’m wrong. That’s why they’re still here and haven’t run off on a motorbike to join a rock band,’ he said.
The group celebrate each morning and afternoon with rituals that include praying and dancing (pictured)
But Mr Mathias argues the unconventional disciplinary action did more harm than good in his childhood.
‘Long term, it has made me scared of messing up, or doing something that I think others wouldn’t like. So I am not who I really am, I am always living something that is ‘pleasing’ to others,’ he said.
He claims the sustained abuse he allegedly received during his formative years has shaped who he became as an adult.
Ultimately, even after leaving the sect, he still lives in fear that he made the wrong decision.
‘It really made things very hard, because I had no schooling, I had no support, I feared that I was going to suffer for the rest of my life and go to hell after I died because I left,’ he said.
‘Things that have hurt in the past cannot be remedied in the present. We’re talking about, mental and spiritual problems here, it’s not something money or anything else could do to help that hurt go away.’
Children are expected to help lighten the work load and pull their weight within the community
Clinical Psychologist Rudi Črnčec told the publication some psychologists would deem the punishments as ‘abusive’ by modern standards.
He said children within the communities are preferred to be in a constant ‘surrendered’ state rather than develop relationships with their parents, peers or community.
Dr Črnčec added that sustained physical punishments could lead to anxiety and detachment later in life and that children with learning or behavioural difficulties are the most likely to suffer.
Another couple who were formerly members of the Australian sect claim they were shunned due to their son’s bad behaviour.
Mark and Rose Ilich were members of Twelve Tribes for 13 years after meeting the group at the Newtown Festival, reported to be a fertile recruiting ground.
They said when people join the group they have to sell all their possessions – including houses and cars – and give the proceeds to the group.
Their clothes are replaced with conservative outfits and their lives become filled with long hours of work and chores in the self-sustaining community.
What is the Twelves Tribes?
The commune began in 1975 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when former carnival showman Gene Spriggs broke away from the First Presbyterian Church after finding services were cancelled for the Super Bowl.
He and his wife Marsha earlier opened the first Yellow Deli a few years earlier and were living communally with a small group from 1972.
Twelve Tribes practices a hybrid of pre-Catholic Christianity and Judaism mixed with teachings by Spriggs.
The group’s stated aim is to bring about the return of Jesus – whom they refer to by the Hebrew name Yahshua – by reestablishing the 12 tribes of Israel.
Twelve Tribes practices a hybrid of pre-Catholic Christianity and Judaism mixed with teachings by its founder, Gene Spriggs
All members are forced to sell their possessions and give to proceeds to the cult and are assigned a Hebrew name discard their old ones. Spriggs himself is known as Yoneq.
These tribes would include 144,000 ‘perfect male children’, which accounts for the group’s obsessive and controversial child-rearing practices.
The Sabbath is observed in line with Jewish tradition, along with conservative dietary rules and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
Birth control of any kind is banned, as is much modern medicine – they instead rely largely on homeopathy and ‘natural’ remedies.
Marriage outside the sect is forbidden and couples must go through a series of supervised talks to get to know each other. Only after marriage can they even kiss or hold hands.
These tribes would include 144,000 ‘perfect male children’, which accounts for the group’s obsessive and controversial child-rearing practices
Children aren’t allowed to play with toys, engage in make-believe, or any of the normal childhood activities, and must be supervised at all times.
They must be strictly obedient and are beaten with a 50cm rod for every infraction by any adult watching them, not just their parents.
All children are homeschooled and do not attend university as it is considered a waste of time and not a good environment.
Instead, children work in the community from a young age, sparking accusations of child labour.
Estée Lauder and other businesses cut ties with the organisation after finding children were involved in making their products.
The few boxes of pamphlets would be easily missed or glossed over by the vast majority of visitors
Members don’t vote and are not allowed to watch TV or any other media as ‘the crazy box robs your time and pollutes your soul’.
Twelve Tribes has 3,000 members and operates in the U.S., Canada, France, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and England, arriving in Australia in the early 1990s.
There are now about 120 members living in Balmoral House in Katoomba, Peppercorn Creek Farm near Picton, and a small number in Coledale, north of Wollongong.
Numerous businesses include a network of cafes in every country, all called the Yellow Deli or Common Ground, and bakeries, farms, and furniture, construction, and demolition businesses.
These are believed to be very profitable because none of the workers need to be paid.
Mr Ilich claimed he worked 15 or even 20 hours a day on the farm or at one of the cult’s many businesses – from bakeries to furniture making and the Yellow Deli Cafe in Katoomba.
‘Once I helped them carry $40,000 in cash out of the Easter Show. But I never saw a cent,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald years after escaping.
The couple allege they were constantly told the outside world was evil and their sin needed to be purged from their lives.
‘Leaving is not an option. You have to understand how brainwashed you become. You lose the ability to think critically,’ Ms Ilich said.
The couple’s son Daniel was considered rebellious, which they claim eventually led to them being ostracised as ‘bad parents’.
Ms Ilich said a senior member told her it was ‘God’s kindness’ that her baby was stillborn because it would be ‘evil’ to give a baby parents like them.
Authorities have intervened in the past. In 1984 American police raided the group’s base in Vermont and took 113 children into care, but they were later released when the raid was ruled unconstitutional.
The in 2013 German police seized 40 children secretly recorded video showed some being beaten, but they were also returned.
Former members and anti-cult groups claim the group’s activities have been repeatedly reported to Australian authorities, but no action has been taken.
What the vast majority of Yellow Deli customers don’t know is the cafe is run by a religious sect and the flannel-clad waiters serving artisanal sandwiches and green tea are all members