Neroli’s story of Child Sexual Abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia
| Throughout her disrupted childhood in the 1970s and 80s, Neroli’s family ‘shifted around’ various states. She lived with her parents and brother in caravan parks and attended numerous primary schools.
She also had a religious upbringing within the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). ‘We grew up without TV and we weren’t allowed friends, not even within Witnesses’.
Despite their religious beliefs, her father was violent towards his children. Belts and electric cords were used ‘to belt us all the time. You looked at him in the wrong way and you’d cop it’, Neroli said. And ‘it wasn’t good enough unless it was bruised’, no matter how she ‘tried to be good’.
According to documents before the Royal Commission, Neroli was subjected to familial sexual abuse involving both parents and forced acts with her brother.
Her father, who was a tradesman and a ‘ministerial servant’ with the Church, allowed two of the Church’s circuit overseers in congregations the family attended to have sexual access to Neroli.
One incident involved Ned Blake, and occurred on a lounge chair when she was about three years old. Another involved Bruce Sampson, and occurred when she was about eight. Neroli can’t remember what Sampson did to her, but said that ‘I just get the physical pain memory’. Both instances involved fellatio, and her father was present.
Neroli knows from the school reports kept by her mother that she was submissive.
‘I was always eager to please … I just wanted to do the right thing by everybody. But then there’s one incident in [Queensland] where someone tried – sat on top of me and tried to put his penis in my mouth. And I was not going to have a bar of it so he just held my nose until I had to take it back. So there was obviously some sort of fight in me but – I’m still alive.’
‘I always wished I’d thought of running away and I never did.’
When her youngest child was a toddler, Neroli disclosed to ‘someone in the congregation’ after watching a television program on paedophilia within the Jehovah’s Witnesses and its requirement for there to be ‘two witnesses’ against someone accused.
‘I thought I was the only one [to have been abused by members of the Church] because I’d never heard of it until that story came out on the TV and it was like, “well, I’m not the only one”.’
Neroli told her [former] husband, Anton, and he tried to bring her abuse to the attention of the Church hierarchy. She also ‘followed what the Bible says, where you confront the person first and then, if they don’t listen … then you go to the elders’.
Anton, as ‘head of the house’, was very supportive and confronted Ned Blake. Blake denied the allegations in front of two elders. Had Blake admitted what he’d done he would have been disfellowshipped. Neroli would then have had to decide whether to inform police.
Anton also wrote to the JW headquarters in Sydney and New York, but there was no concrete response and her parents denied allegations she put to them, as did the overseers.
She agrees there are conflicts of interest when allegations of child sexual abuse are handled by men within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because they know each other and serve together. None have any training about the subject either.
All complaints within the Church are compartmentalised, she agreed. No one, apart from the elders, even knows about her complaint.
Regarding the issue of the familial sexual abuse, Neroli told the Commissioner that the two-witness process meant that it was ‘basically me and my brother against Mum and Dad’.
For years Neroli has not spoken to her brother, who remains within the faith, because it is just ‘very difficult’.
It wasn’t until later in the 2000s that she reported her abusers to Queensland police but no prosecution ensued.
The Church never took action against her parents. Nor did Neroli’s allegations discredit Blake or Sampson ‘which is unfair that they’ve still got their position and their respect from the community when they’re evil people. And how many other kids have they abused in the meantime? Because they’ve got access to it all because of all the respect that they get’.
Leaving the Church around the time she made her police reports was the ‘only option’ Neroli had. She also had to go ‘outside’ to get counselling. Now her spiritual outlet is ‘all destroyed’ and she has trust difficulties. Her children know of her abuse, but not the details.
Without a criminal conviction, Neroli cannot apply for victims of crime compensation. The police have told Neroli that her father, acting on legal advice that he might incriminate himself, has refused to talk.
Neroli is now considering a compensation claim because ‘it’s getting hard’, fighting for justice since the television program aired in the early 2000s. ‘I used to call it gorilla on my back … I’m worn out. You’ve always got to pretend that everything’s alright to everybody and it’s not.’
She wants Blake and Sampson stopped. ‘And the other thing – I think that “child sexual abuse” should be changed to “child rape” because that’s more in line with what actually happens and “sexual abuse” tends to gloss it a bit.’
She broke down when the Royal Commissioner described her experiences as ‘a crime’.
‘For someone else to see it as facts is really good.’