Twelve Tribes members speak of breaking free from secretive sect
Source: Daily Telegraph
It was only the second email Twelve Tribes sect member Rose Cruzado sent in her life. But with just four words she found the courage she had spent years searching for. It took two years for Matthew Klein to escape — but it too came at a cost.
The second email Rosemary Cruzado sent in her life was in 2010 to the elders of the Picton Twelve Tribes religious community. It read: “I’m not coming back.”
After 14 years inside the strict Christian fundamentalist sect, Mrs Cruzado and her two daughters had gone to Auckland to visit her husband and son who had left.
Her eldest daughter, who was about to be married, chose to return.
“Straight off my daughter was told we were never allowed on any of their premises. She went really stiff on us, she was afraid to be alone in a room with me,” Mrs Cruzado said.
“I think if it was up to her she would have still continued to see us but they make a rule of separating those who left from those who are still in.”
Her daughter, now 29 and married, has four children in the sect that Mrs Cruzado cannot see.
“There’s only so much you can cry. It’s almost as if she has died. I know if she died, they probably wouldn’t let me know. I hope and pray she will get out some time,” she said.
Mrs Cruzado, along with fellow ex-member Matthew Klein and their families, have faced years of heartache after leaving the Twelve Tribes.
Mr Klein spent just two years in the group before leaving in 2001 with his three small children but another 18 years watching them grow up without their mother, Tysha, who chose to remain inside.
“My wife gave up a breastfeeding child, and she did it because she was told to do it. Then she didn’t contact them for 16 years. It doesn’t make sense.”
His children have tried reaching their mother several times, including his daughter Tessa, but meetings were cancelled or when she called, she was told her mother wasn’t available.
In 2011, after one attempt at contact, he said he was called by his ex-wife’s new husband.
“Tysha’s husband told me to stop calling and to leave them alone and that he didn’t care about my children suffering,” he said.
Recently his youngest son made contact with Tysha and then Tessa reached out but again meetings were cancelled.
“As she’s remarried and her husband is now the head, he has to permit contact,” Mr Klein said.
The family’s story is not unique among ex-members of the Twelve Tribes, which has communes in about 40 locations around the world.
Mr Klein, who spent time in a community in the US and in Canada as well as Picton in Sydney, said it was common practice for members to alienate family and friends outside, making it hard to leave.
“It’s surprising the number of people in there who are separated from the kids and it’s unusual for estranged parents to be given permission to visit,” he said.
“And no one outside the community ever gets child support from members
“Every year I’d ring up the Child Support Agency and contest the $0 child support she was required to pay, she’s working full time (in the Tribes’ businesses), she’s not getting paid in money but she’s getting paid in kind. She can’t do a thing for her kids,” he said.
“When I was in America there were a couple of Europeans who could never go home because of all the child support they owed.”
Counsellor Raphael Aaron, who is the director of Cult Consulting Australia, has helped several former Twelve Tribes members recover, including the Cruzado and Klein families.
He said the group’s indoctrination and subsequent splitting of families had caused significant trauma to ex-members.
“The most important aspect for me which defines them negatively is the way they deal with any families outside the organisation,” Mr Aron said.
“Families are estranged from children or parents and they’re doing nothing at all to do anything different and foster contact.
“It comes back to indoctrination and the sort of views being spread over there that children don’t need to be seen because they’ve left the organisation.”
It’s easy to dismiss people who join fringe religious movements as naive or foolish, but Mr Aron said people convert for all sorts of reasons.
In some cases, membership could also be benign early on. Addicts, for example, may go in and stop using drugs but it’s unlikely they deal with the issues behind that addiction. The group doesn’t believe in conventional medicine or psychiatry and “therefore people are at the mercy of its belief system”.
In the Twelve Tribes case, from the outside, their belief system seems old-fashioned and bucolic. Members live communally, praying and working together in the Tribe’s businesses and on the farm. Children are homeschooled, babies are born at home and modern books, TV and the internet shunned.
But the ex-members we spoke to said inside life is very different to that quaint picture. Following a doctrine of Christian fundamentalist, Hebrew and Messianic beliefs created by founder Eugene Spriggs, they say every aspect of life is controlled.
Marriages are arranged, corporal punishment of children mandatory and information from outside strictly controlled.
Having relinquished all their personal wealth to join, members also have no financial means, making it difficult to leave.
“There’s not one religious order anywhere in the world that would endorse them and would say they’ve got a legitimate path,” Mr Aron said.
“They’ve cobbled together all these different ideas, it’s a little bit alternative, it’s a little bit hippyish in a lot of ways, and it’s very attractive in that respect, the clothes that people wear, the whole thing I would say it’s almost seductive rather than attractive.”
Membership doesn’t happen overnight.
Most new recruits meet the community in the Yellow Deli and Common Ground cafes, or at their market stalls and festivals. Visitors are invited to attend the group’s Friday night dinner or Sabbath, then stay as guests. If they chose to join, they are baptised after relinquishing all their wealth and possessions, and often take a Hebrew name.
“On the Friday night, when we first went to the Peppercorn Creek Farm (in Picton), we were met by very friendly people,” Mrs Cruzado said.
“They had this huge tents, musicians, they had the table set up with candles, all very pretty. The impression was like they were a breakaway little society, which seemed very wholesome and beautiful when we first met them.”
She said her family were made to feel very at home and continually asked to stay for a bit longer — for the next festival, or event, or celebration.
Eventually, they joined the commune.
“They want to be self-sufficient, they don’t fight, they don’t divorce, they homeschool all their children. They seemed harmless, intelligent, spiritual loving people.”
But she said, once inside, she found she became a “willing slave” working all the time, depressed with a catastrophic view of the world as a result of the apocalyptic preachings inside. Every day was up to five hours of teaching, then work and no communication with people outside.
“They’re actively engaged in trying to convince you that you need their salvation, you need their community, their friendship, their God,” she said.
“When you’re cut off from all other sources of information, I didn’t talk to anybody, I was fully immersed in their life, I became convinced I was going to hell.”
Mr Klein said he was also drawn to the Tribes’ promise of an intentional, loving community, when he and his then wife Tysha joined in 1999. He also feared if he didn’t join, his marriage would fall apart.
Like Mrs Cruzado, he struggled with the demand to physically discipline his children, the hierarchal system which he said favoured leaders and their families over common members, the poor education offered to kids and the lack of medical care, which he said almost claimed his youngest son Peter two weeks after he was born, until he demanded his wife and child be taken to hospital.
“They did pressure me to put faith in God and to just pray for him rather than take him to hospital,” he said.
“At the hospital he actually stopped breathing in the emergency department and if we weren’t there, he would have been dead.”
Mr Klein said there were good people in the group but the elders should be held accountable.
“There’s no checks and balances, there’s nowhere to report concerns. There is no accountability. If you go against the system, you’re punished, and it’s psychological for adults — demoted, shunned, ignored, ostracised,” he said.
Labelled a disgruntled ex-member for repeatedly speaking out against the group, Mr Klein said the public needed to know the group’s practices were damaging families, especially children.
“They’re getting minimal education, little life or work skills. They’re damaged, damaged kids. They’re continually disciplined so some of them are getting spanked 10-20 times a day. Not just parents, but teachers and other elders in the community can administer spanking.
“I don’t want anyone else to suffer like my kids have suffered. Society gives them such an easy ride, and they need to be held accountable for the damage they do to people.”
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.
The Twelve Tribes has repeatedly denied allegations their child-raising practices are harmful. They also deny their leaders live off the labour of members, do not follow anti-social or oppressive rules and are simply trying to live like the first disciples.