Or Mathias breaks 18-year silence on life inside Twelve Tribes sect He spent 18 years as a member of a secretive NSW sect — his earliest memory being beaten 15 times a day with a bamboo stick. Or Mathias lifts the lid on what really happens to members
… INTERACTIVE: INSIDE THE SECT
Source: Daily Telegraph
Or Mathias’s earliest memory of growing up in the Twelve Tribes is being beaten 15 times on the buttocks with a bamboo stick.
He wasn’t allowed to be comforted by his mother. Instead, he was sent to help the night shift in the Tribe’s bakery. He was five.
By the time he moved from the Twelve Tribes’ Brazil commune to Picton a year later, he said he had become a compulsive liar to minimise the daily “discipline” applied with the thin rod used by the group to “train” children.
Born and raised in the fundamentalist Christian sect that has communities around the world, including three in Australia, Mathias, now 26, said his 18 years inside had left him scarred and angry.
For the first time since leaving eight years ago, he has spoken about life in the Tribes, claiming the constant physical punishment, poor education, use of child labour and “the fear they put into children about schooling and the outside world” made for a damaging childhood.
“As far as I am concerned they shouldn’t continue operating,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “I have learned to cope with it but it’s something that will affect me for life, as it will so many others.”
Allegations of child abuse, child labour and indoctrination have dogged the Twelve Tribes overseas for decades, leading to the removal of some children in the US and Europe.
The Twelve Tribes, which follow a mix of Christian fundamentalism, Hebrew Roots, and Messianic beliefs, claims to live like the first disciples and follows the teachings of founder Eugene Elbert Spriggs, who is considered a modern-day apostle.
Conventional medicine is shunned, women must be subservient to men, children are homeschooled, marriage is forbidden outside the group and information and technology from the outside world restricted.
But it’s the Twelve Tribes’ strict doctrine of child-rearing and use of corporal punishment that Mr Mathias claims is the worst.
The group’s 300-plus page child-rearing manual demands children who are not unquestioningly obedient be spanked for any breach with a 50cm thin rod, with “training” beginning at six month of age.
Toys are forbidden, as is imaginary play, and children must be supervised at all times by an adult. Members other than parents can administer discipline.
While the group states on its website “because we love our children we do spank them”, it has repeatedly denied allegations of child abuse, saying the rod is not used to abuse or harm children, only to “discipline”, but former members we spoke to dispute this.
Mr Mathias said he received daily discipline, “usually 15-20 lashes at a time on the hands or buttocks” often for reasons unknown, or obscure such as asking for a drink of water.
He said he saw his five-year-old sister severely whipped with a bamboo stick “leaving huge welts all over her legs and buttocks,” and witnessed an eight-month-old baby “disciplined” for crying at dinner at Picton.
Clinical Psychologist Rudi Črnčec, who has worked with some older adolescents and adults raised in Twelve Tribe communities, said the Tribe’s child-rearing manual promoted ideas of parenting and childhood development long since abandoned in scientific literature and the international community.
It was also at odds with longstanding international views about children’s rights, he said.
“The practices put forward could meet contemporary definitions of childhood physical abuse,” Dr Črnčec said.
“These observations have been made by many others both within Australia and abroad over time.
“Indeed, the manual acknowledges that the approaches endorsed may be viewed by psychologists as abusive, but also specifically states that psychologists are ‘very stupid’ and their opinions are to be disregarded.”
Rather than focusing on a child’s mental health and wellbeing, and secure parent-child relationships, Dr Črnčec said the child training manual focused explicitly on children being conditioned from birth to be in a “surrendered” state, totally obedient to the parents.
Parents’ failure to obtain complete control of the child also meant the child’s potential rejection from the community.
But he said such practices and the environment in which they’re carried out are likely to have unintended results of long-term mental ill health, particularly in children who already developmentally vulnerable.
Children with ADHD or autism spectrum disorder were likely to experience additional harm given the difficulty they would have in complying with the behavioural demands.
Dr Črnčec said a child’s brain development can be negatively affected by excessive physical punishments over a long period, affecting their stress response which could present as chronic anxiety, numbing and detachment. Those conditions can continue into adulthood.
Mr Mathias, who spent time in 10 of Tribe’s communities, including six years in Picton, said his childhood was one of work and constant physical discipline.
“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.
In Picton, he said he was regularly sent to work late nights with his 11-year-old brother in the Tribe’s bakery and said children were given mate tea to keep them awake.
Frequently left in the care of other adults, he alleged he was sexually assaulted in a Tribe commune in Brazil as a small boy and in Picton, where he lived from 2000 to 2006, he was left in the care of “sketchy” men.
There is no suggestion of sexual abuse in the Australian communities.
“The Twelve Tribes don’t really do background checks on anyone. So they welcome in a whole lot of people that they have no idea who they are,” he said.
“One time a man came to visit from Melbourne and he was very strange, he came into our room, sat down and got a knife and started passing his finger over the blade as if he was feeling how sharp it was.”
When Mr Mathias left the Tribes in Brazil, he said he struggled to adjust to life outside.
“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.
“I was constantly told that I left I would never be forgiven or have a relationship with my family again.”
He fell into heavy drug and alcohol use until an uncle pulled him back from the brink and, over the years, has adjusted gradually.
Now based in Auckland, four of his five siblings have left the Twelve Tribes, as has his mother. He remains in contact with other ex-members who have left.
“Most of them don’t have the courage to come forward because they have no hope or expectations that if they speak up it will help them,” 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.”
Dr Črnčec said it was not easy to conceive of a community of parents setting out to raise young people in a way that could cause harm to them.
“Where this occurs it is often inadvertent,” he said. “Twelve Tribes parents sought eternal salvation for their children, and were persuaded that these practices were an integral part of the path to achieving that goal.”
The Sunday Telegraph contacted the Twelve Tribes several times and left a list of questions on Tuesday however at the time of Publication the community had not responded.