Maxine’s story of Child Sexual Abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia
| Maxine was born to a teenage single mother in the early 1970s. When Maxine was a toddler, her mother joined a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Sydney and met Graham, a man she married a few years later. Before their first anniversary, Graham started to sexually abuse Maxine in the home where they hosted weekly church meetings.
Graham kept Maxine quiet by offering her money, and saying that her mother would be hurt if she told anyone. It was their ‘secret’. He was ‘educating’ her. He was the father figure Maxine had never had, which made her think, ‘I wonder if this happens to everybody’.
Maxine was a good student who loved school because it got her out of the house. Except for a period in primary school where she used to ‘bash up all the boys’, she was a well-behaved Jehovah’s Witness who was ‘always scared of getting in trouble’, so her behaviour didn’t give anything away.
As she approached her mid-teens, Maxine managed to stop Graham by threatening to kill him if he ever touched her again. However, when her half-sister Ellie came to her in tears, she realised that he was also sexually abusing his own daughter.
‘Her exact comments to me when I pressed her, and I had to press her a lot, was that Dad tickles me in a funny way, as in a weird way. And so that was it.’ Maxine had to put a stop to this. She ran to her mother and said, ‘Something terrible has happened. Graham’s been molesting me, and now he’s doing it to Ellie’. Her mother believed her and confronted her husband, but she decided to report him to the congregation instead of to the police.
When two male elders came to the house, Maxine was very scared. She thought she was in trouble with her religious community which had been her ‘whole life’ up to that point. It was a ‘closeted’ and ‘disciplined’ community in which sexual matters were just not discussed, so Maxine was not comfortable describing what had been done to her, especially with Graham waiting in another room.
‘I didn’t divulge the full extent of the abuse to the elders … I didn’t have the words for most of those things. I didn’t know that there was actually a name for oral sex … It was embarrassing. I remember crying the whole time, and having my head in my mother’s shoulder the whole time.’
The meeting ended with the elders saying that ‘it would be good to keep it quiet, keep it within the family’. They also said it would be good if Maxine made sure that she ‘didn’t wear any revealing clothing’. Graham had secretly recorded the meeting, so when he was counselled, he used Maxine’s lack of detail to his advantage and minimised the abuse.
When the matter went before a judicial committee, Maxine thought that Graham would be disfellowshipped. All he got was a ‘slap on the wrist’. Over time, this ‘wasn’t enough’.
A number of years later, Maxine told Graham that she was considering legal action, and gave him a chance ‘to make a police statement and tell the elders everything’. She also wrote to the legal branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, asking them to revisit her case. After initial resistance, and after Graham had been charged, the matter did go before a second judicial committee, and Graham’s disfellowship from the congregation was announced.
The court case took place at the turn of the century, and was ‘quite difficult’ for Maxine. In the lead up, elders hiding behind ‘ecclesiastical privilege’ had to be threatened with subpoenas before they produced statements. A plea bargain reduced the charge to carnal knowledge, but spared young Ellie from the ordeal of giving evidence. Maxine was well supported and advised during the process, and got through it with the aid of counselling and anti-depressants.
Maxine felt ‘sheer relief’ when the judge read out the sentence. ‘I can tell people now’, she said. ‘It’s not something I have to hide. Yes, I was a victim, but I’ve now got vindication and confirmation that he was in the wrong, not me.’ It was a ‘pretty awesome feeling’.
However, the abuse and trial left Maxine with an ‘ongoing sort of anger and upset’. This eased somewhat when she and her husband stopped going to meetings. ‘I would stop on the side of the road on the way and throw up because I didn’t want to go … I’d be sitting there wanting to throw chairs at the person talking because they were saying the wrong thing.’ She also felt ‘extreme rage’ towards her mother for maintaining relationships with Graham and the church. ‘I actually said to her you either divorce him, or me and Ellie are gone.’ These days, she stays on antidepressants because they provide relief from this problem.
For Maxine, the ‘deal breaker and soul destroyer’ was not the sexual abuse as such. It was how the abuse was handled by people who were supposed to protect her. Disillusioned, and lacking respect for their ‘procedures and policies and guidelines’, she walked away from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and lost many friendships as a result. Until mandatory reporting is in place, until individuals are held to account, it would be very hard for her ‘to claw any of that faith back’.
She is not holding her breath. ‘God’s law is higher than man’s,’ she said. ‘And that’s what it comes back to … If they think they can get away with it, and they can keep God’s name out of the press or out of the court, they will.’