A  Stuff  Circuit  Video  Investigation
Connie Ready is a product of her environment. And that environment - the place she spent the first 17 years of her life - is Gloriavale.

She’s happy to take the good with the bad. And there’s plenty of bad, which is why Connie wants to tell her story to Stuff Circuit.

Connie Ready - Ex-Gloriavale member.

Connie Ready - Ex-Gloriavale member.

Her words are precisely chosen, her eyes are alive with anger. She’s confident in front of the cameras because she’s used to it - concerts and performance are celebrated in Gloriavale.

But this is no act. This is Connie wanting to tell us the truth of how her sister Prayer Ready died in the isolated Christian community.

“All the events surrounding her death were completely covered up,” she tells us.

It took a year-long legal fight for us to win the right to report the death of Prayer Ready - the Gloriavale leaders had sought through the courts to have the case permanently suppressed, but lost.

So last year we published what we knew: that on the 4th of June, 2015, aged 14 years old, Prayer died, choking on a piece of meat.

Her family on the outside had told us they were concerned about the circumstances of her death: that she was in an isolation room (used to contain the sick) and that the door handle had been dismantled, meaning, as her Aunt Ruth told us, when Prayer started choking, “nobody could get in.” Or out. The handle didn’t work from either side.

It sounded troubling: apply that scenario to any other group environment - a school, say, or a motel - and wouldn’t there be concerns that in the event of an emergency, people couldn’t get out the door?

Coroner Marcus Elliott didn’t hold an inquest but he did visit Gloriavale to investigate. In his findings, he said, “Prayer was a much loved member of the Gloriavale community. Her death was a tragic accident. It did not result from any want of care on the part of her family or Gloriavale.”

Coroner Elliott was shown the isolation room where Prayer had died, and concluded, “The handle of the door to the room in which Prayer died was disabled. This meant it was not possible to enter or exit through the door at the time. However a window in the room provided a point of access through which a number of people came to attempt to assist Prayer when she was choking. The fact that the door was disabled did not contribute to her death in any way.”

Which seemed definitive - but it didn’t stack up with the concerns expressed to Stuff Circuit. The problem for us, though, was those concerns were second-hand; voiced by people on the outside, quoting family members on the inside.

We tried visiting Gloriavale to speak to the leaders but they wouldn’t answer our questions and trespassed us off the property.

Without direct access to anyone in the community, there was no way to question the coroner’s findings. But now, thanks to Connie Ready’s escape from Gloriavale, and another sibling, David Ready’s departure also, we can. And the truth of their sister Prayer’s death is, they say, very different to what the coroner was told. Not only that, but he was intentionally misled.

It pays to step back a bit, and think about the concept of an isolation room, and the community itself.

Gloriavale Christian Community sits on the shores of Lake Haupiri, a hauntingly beautiful and remote part of the West Coast. Followers grow up in large families (an average of eight children), marry young, and must all contribute to the self-sufficient, communal-living lifestyle.

It was founded by Neville Cooper, a former travelling preacher who changed his name to Hopeful Christian some time after setting up the group in 1969. He remains an influential figure, though the community says he has retired and holds the position of “Overseeing Shepherd”. Decisions are made by an all-male group known as “shepherds” and “servants”, particularly “senior shepherds”.

Everyone who lives there must sign a set of doctrines known as “What We Believe” and the “Declaration of Commitment” which surrenders all their possessions to the community.

There are 550-600 people living at Gloriavale in close quarters, so when someone gets sick, there are understandable concerns about the spread of infection. It’s how that concern is managed that’s in question.

On that day in June 2015, one of Sharon Ready’s daughters and a grandchild had been sent to hospital because the baby had a throat infection. As a precaution, Gloriavale leaders put four other children from the same family in isolation and asked Sharon to look after them. Sharon also had Prayer with her - as she almost always did - even though Prayer wasn’t sick. The children’s father was also in the isolation room.

And it’s the fact of the isolation that is Connie Ready’s first concern. “It’s just one bad step after the next bad step that led to what happened.”

She says the children already had the all-clear, but were kept in the isolation room, “because Gloriavale is paranoid about illnesses getting around.”

Connie Ready has questions too, about the demands made of her mother, demands which then had implications for her sister.

“[Mummy] had just done 12 hours of work, and ‘now you have to go and look after this man and his children’.”

You can picture it: Connie says her mother was kneeling to heat up a meal (the microwave was on the floor), with her back to Prayer, when she realised her daughter was choking.

Remember, the coroner concluded the fact the door was disabled did not contribute to Prayer’s death in any way.

Connie could not disagree more. “Right outside that door is the central telephone system. You can’t tell me… you can’t… that it was just as easy to jump out the window, run around the verandah, into the hostel to get to the telephone, when you could [have just opened] the door, and it’s right there.

“My mum said to me, as soon as Prayer started choking her first reaction was to go for the telephone, or open the door and call out, because everyone lives right there, call out for some help, but she couldn’t do that.”

When helpers did come, they had to climb in and out through the window.

So the facts around the situation seem concerning enough. But it’s Connie’s description of what led to the coroner’s conclusion that is really troubling.

“The poor man was just completely manipulated in his decision”, she told us.

What does that mean?

The answer lies with Connie and Prayer’s brother David Ready. He too is now on the outside, also able to speak freely.

And, crucially, David was a first responder to the emergency, so was one of those called to a meeting by the leaders in advance of the coroner’s visit to Gloriavale.

Two years on you can still hear the anger in David’s voice as he describes it. He remembers “pretty much every word.”

The purpose was, he says, “To sort out what we’re going to tell the coroner.”

The main issues that needed resolving were the use of the isolation rooms, and the disabling of the door handles.

David Ready says the leader responsible for the isolation rooms had a simple motivation, “To clear the isolation situation of any incompetence and inadequacies, he was like ‘it wasn’t isolation that was the problem’. But it contributed to the problem.”

He says another leader was “there pushing that the [disabled] door handle wasn’t a problem.”

And that the message from a third was, “‘let’s not blame anyone, let’s just call it a terrible accident’.”

“And you’ve got mum there saying nothing because she’s just too hurt to speak.”

“I was just angry, ‘this is bullshit, this is just total rubbish’, and I started saying stuff and they shut me up.”

But David Ready says it didn’t end there. He describes how, the morning the coroner visited Gloriavale, “[the leaders] got the whole family together to make sure everyone was going to toe the line.”

Asked whether he felt he could tell the coroner the truth: “I didn’t even get an opportunity to talk to him.”

“[The leaders] did most of the talking, they just totally dominated the situation, even though they weren’t there when Prayer died.”

When we reported last year on Prayer’s death, we heard a recorded conversation in which her father, Clem Ready, when asked about accountability for the dismantling of the door handles, said, “I think that process has already taken place… I can tell you point blank that the person who did that will never do it again.”

He went on, “So there has been accountability and recognition that that wasn’t a wise thing to do.. So to me, that's a closed issue, it’s over.”

Two of his children - now on the outside, no longer subject to the commands of what Connie Ready calls a cult - disagree.

And their concerns are deeper than those we initially reported; the isolation rooms and the door handles. Now, it’s much more serious: an allegation that members of the community were instructed to mislead the coroner.
Connie Ready is resolute. “I want justice. I really want justice. It’s not fair... That things like this can just happen and be swept under the carpet and it’s okay.”

She wants the case re-opened and for there to be an inquest into her sister’s death.

But she’s also a realist. “If people are still fed the lies that they are to tell the coroner it will have the exact same outcome. If people aren’t given the chance to speak freely and to say what they really feel, the outcome will be exactly the same.”

For the first time in her life, Connie can speak freely. And her motivation is simple too. “[Prayer] never had a voice. This is my opportunity to give her that voice. To give her that voice she never had.”