Marissa’s story of Child Sexual Abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia
| Marissa was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Her family had been involved with the Church for several generations and were well known in the congregation. Marissa’s parents were very close to one of the elders, Liam Parker.
She remembers Parker often visiting the family home, but only when her father was there. A Church elder couldn’t visit women unless he was accompanied by another elder. ‘That’s against Jehovah’s Witnesses rules’, she said.
In the 1990s, when Marissa was five, Parker came to the home alone when her father was away. While her mother was in the kitchen, Parker grabbed Marissa and placed her on his lap. This was uncomfortable because she wasn’t an affectionate child and didn’t like being close to others.
‘I have a quite vivid memory of him ending up digitally penetrating me while I was on his lap. Mum came back and I pushed away. He explained the awkwardness of the situation that we were playing kangaroos.’
After Parker left, Marissa told her mum what had happened. Her mother believed her and disclosed the abuse to the church elders. They agreed to investigate the matter following the ‘two-witness rule’, but her mother wouldn’t let them interview Marissa. ‘She felt that that was uncomfortable and I am thankful for that’, Marissa said.
However, due to that two-witness rule, Marissa’s allegation was quickly dismissed. Her parents were explicitly told not to tell anyone, including the police, and her mother was reprimanded for upsetting Parker and his wife. Parker was then taken to a camp by two elders, to ‘recuperate his spiritual health’.
‘I feel the impact of the two-person rule is that it discredited me as a child. It discredited my parents and has an underlying assumption that your intent would be malicious, which I find just absurd; that the abuse I faced wasn’t real or sufficient to warrant investigation until a second child was harmed.’
As she got older, Marissa noticed that her family became segregated from the rest of the congregation. She never understood why, which caused her to immerse herself in the Church and its practices. She wanted to be an elder so much that she devoted many years to learning the Jehovah’s Witnesses laws.
Marissa’s family never spoke of the sexual abuse again, and she repressed it. But after having a vivid memory in her mid-teens, Marissa confronted her mother who confirmed that the abuse had happened. Her mother also told her that she reported it to the elders.
As Marissa tried to process this, she was learning about feminism at school, which challenged all that she’d been taught within the Church. She didn’t like the possessive role that males had on her life. When Marissa spoke up about her new beliefs, her parents asked her to move out.
At 16 she left the Church and her family, and moved interstate to continue her education. She found it very upsetting to be away from her old community, but did her best to get on with her life.
She completed her education and went on to university, but couldn’t keep up and was asked to leave. This had a profound effect because she thought her peers assumed she was dumb. Marissa sought counselling and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘I realised that I hit this wall that you just can’t do it alone. That was the primary thing for me, I may think I’m very invincible but … even if I really, really don’t want to sometimes I just drag myself to a counsellor … I have learnt that I’m not invincible.’
Throughout her adulthood Marissa has had intimacy issues and difficulty maintaining relationships. She considers herself a jumpy person and is often startled when people stand behind her. She’s defensive when women encounter sexism, especially catcalling.
Marissa has only told a few people about her abuse. ‘It’s just the fear of not being believed and the social isolation that that creates … The failure for them to be able to understand why I would want to tell my story is not necessarily a fault in them but just that people don’t understand how isolating and complex this issue is. That can be really painful in itself.’
Prior to coming to the Royal Commission, Marissa learnt that her family had left the Church and relocated to another state. She has since reconciled with her parents, and they’ve had many discussions about the abuse she suffered, as well as the abuse perpetrated by one of their relatives, a notorious sexual predator.
‘I was told … that one of these women weren’t really hurt and it was a privilege for them because anal rape didn’t affect their virginity … [His] abuse was seen as a medical necessity or illness of his, rather than a crime.’
Marissa never reported Parker to the police. She knows that he has left the Church and has a new family. Marissa wants to focus on her own future and has re-enrolled in university, where she is actively involved in women’s groups.