Gennie’s story of Child Sexual Abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia
| ‘I watched my girls the other day casually pile onto our bed for cuddles and a chat without a concern in the world … they were safe and happy – not feelings I can identify with. Right there, that moment with no warning a familiar hurt, ache, tightness in my chest returns because I had to think twice, I had to continually consider ways to minimise risk – the reminders are constant and, therefore, have to be managed constantly.’
‘I must work hard not to project these unwelcome, subconscious reactions onto them. They are children; innocent, beautiful children who deserve carefree time, cuddles and chats. And yet for me even these times are marred with yet more waves of grief, loss and pain.’
Gennie’s parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1970s when she was an infant. Her father, Graeme, was a war veteran who drank to excess, and was aggressive and extremely violent in the home. ‘You were walking on eggshells with him.’
Graeme sexually abused Gennie for 12 years. The Church sees the father as the spiritual leader in the household, so when the abuse was disclosed to the elders, they had no mechanism to protect her. Instead, Gennie was handed the burden of responsibility and forgiveness.
The abuse started when Gennie was four, and was very regular. When she was eight or nine, Graeme raped her. ‘I have very clear memories … of the whole day … He chose to call the elders because of what he’d done. He was very distressed, immediately, very distressed post what he’d done … I recall … standing by my mother and them telling me that what he did was very, very wrong … Then the elders appeared but my brother, my mother and I were left outside. We had to stay in the garden. Even my mother … was not privy to that communication.’ Gennie has since asked for any record of this meeting, but things like this are not ‘forthcoming’ to ordinary members of the Church.
Once the elders left, ‘life went on as normal. My parents still had guests that night. I’ll never forget it. I could barely walk. I was in so much pain’. Graeme was subsequently publicly reproved in front of the congregation. The reason was not mentioned, and he was not disfellowshipped. No one reported him to the police.
The abuse continued.
The family moved to a small town for a fresh start and became involved in the Church in their new community. In her teen years, the sexual abuse Gennie experienced was more ‘subtle’ and ‘waist up’. Graeme would fondle her breasts, watch her shower, utter ‘inappropriate commentary’ and have other ‘unpleasant behaviours’.
Members of the Church complained about Graeme’s aggressive behaviour and drinking. The family were brought up before a panel of elders. At one time, Gennie and her brother were alone with the all-male, adult panel. It appears to Gennie that no record of child sexual abuse was handed from one diocese to the next, as this was not discussed. Gennie notes that, even had they known, the elders were not skilled in how to deal with it. ‘There is a bit of a theme that they want to put the responsibility back onto the parents … Well, what are you going to do when the parent is the abuser?’
When Gennie was about 16 years old, she remembers a time when her father came into her room. He tried to force himself on her. Gennie pushed him off and screamed at him to stop. After this, the abuse did stop.
The Church’s goal, in terms of discipline, was to ‘readjust’ Graeme spiritually. On the other hand, it was incumbent upon Gennie to forgive him. This was the Church’s focus as far as Gennie was concerned – a culture of victim blaming. She was extremely traumatised and needed help. The elders were kind and supportive people, but there was no appropriate, systemic response from the Church or from her family.
Seeking support outside the Church was strongly discouraged. ‘Still at that point it was a strong belief that you did not go to “worldly” counsellors. You don’t do that. You don’t go and talk about this stuff outside because they will influence you against the scriptures. They don’t understand … I went to my first “worldly” counsellor when I started having panic attacks … around 18 … at work … The amount of guilt that I felt and fear of going to this person was immense. However, I stuck with it and then became quite an advocate … When I started, I still wasn’t even really dealing with the sexual assault. It was to try and understand Graeme. Poor Graeme. Why are you such a mess? … and still adhere to those Christian values of being a good daughter and supportive and forgiving.’
Gennie left the family home and married ‘probably way too young’. She tried to suicide a few times. One of these attempts prompted the break-up of her marriage even though her husband did his best to be supportive.
In her early 20s, Gennie gave her father an ultimatum – if he didn’t go to the elders and tell them about the abuse, she would. He did go, and a judicial committee was held. It was a respectful experience and the elders shut Graeme down when he tried to excuse his actions by saying they were due to his war experiences. However, ‘They didn’t know what to do’ and no further action was taken.
Years later, Gennie reported the sexual abuse to the police. ‘I don’t know if he assaulted anybody else … If I found out later that he had assaulted anyone, and I hadn’t done anything about it, then I would have felt really responsible.’ She found the police for the most part ‘incredible’. Graeme ended up pleading guilty, was given a suspended sentence and put on the sex offenders register.
Gennie suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, flashbacks and anxiety. She lacks trust in others and is very guarded, making friendships difficult. She continues to suffer from phobias about being in bathrooms and dressing with the lights on. Other symptoms of her trauma are unexplained pain, sometimes to the point where she is unable to turn the steering wheel of her car. On other occasions she is unable to move her legs because they ‘turn to stone’.
She has sought victims compensation, knowing it won’t fix anything, but this has helped her to access support services, including counselling. She has re-married and has children. The whole family has developed ways of dealing with the effects of Gennie’s trauma. Gennie has maintained contact with the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church, but has been told that she is in the ‘too hard basket’.
‘Societally we still have a really huge task ahead of us to try and help people understand how to respond better to people. People are uncomfortable … They don’t want to think that humanity can be so horrible to each other … It’s like when you’re watching it on the news, you can change the channel … but when you’re faced with someone who’s actually experienced it, I don’t come with a remote. Can’t just change. People are uncomfortable with that. That’s not just a religious context, that’s society.’