Alita works every day at getting her memories back, terrible though they are. All she has now are fragments and flashbacks and the earliest date from when she was about four.
Her entire childhood was spent under the control of her father and members of a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Victoria. ‘Walk with God or walk into the world alone’, was drilled into her head. She was kept isolated from the world outside the Church.
Alita’s mother was chronically ill and bedridden when Alita was a child. She’d never been an enthusiastic member of the Jehovah’s, so it was usually Alita and her brother who went to Church meetings with their dad, who was a ministerial servant in the congregation.
Alita calmly read to the Commissioner her account of what happened after the Tuesday night meetings at the Kingdom Hall if her mother wasn’t there.
The two kids would wait in the car and after the service their dad would come back. ‘Everyone would leave and then dad would get into the driver’s seat. And I was instructed to go with an elder. Sometimes they gave me a special drink for being so good at waiting. And then I was taken into the blue room. I remember looking into the picture on the wall and going to be with the lady there. She was looking out a window.
'There were seven people in the room. And then I remember being in the girls' bathroom and being very worried because there was blood on my lace white body suit and my blue dress was ripped.’
‘The next time I was meant to go back with the Elder I fought and tried to kick and bite the man. I felt something sharp in my bottom and then I woke up in the boot of the car.’
Alita believes that on those nights she was driven to a remote location. There were other children there and about 10 to 12 men from the congregation. The children were sexually abused and forced to perform sexual acts on each other. Alita remembers that there were women who tended to the children after the abuse and cleaned up, telling them they had done a good job.
Alita also told the Commission that she was sexually abused by circuit overseers who visited Kingdom Halls around the country to check everything was in order.
Her father would also abuse Alita at home. He’d come into the bedroom and masturbate over her at the edge of the bed. She’d pretend to be asleep. Or he’d give her a massage and then reach around to touch her chest. ‘I had nothing developed yet. He would massage my legs and in between my legs and put his fingers in. I used to sometimes hide under my bed or take my pillow and sleep under there.’
These particular episodes, both at home and with the members of the congregation, took place until Alita was about 14. By Year 10 she was cutting herself.
When Alita was 16, her parents divorced and the two children shuttled between both parents’ houses. The abuse from their father intensified. ‘He’d beat us and lose his temper, control our food and shower and toilet times.’
He also began forcing Alita to perform oral sex on him. Once he dragged her out from under the bed by the ankles. When she tried to get up and turn around he punched her in the back of the head and she blacked out for a second. ‘He was on top of me with his penis in my mouth. I couldn’t breathe so I bit him.’ She managed to run. He caught her and raped her. Then he left without a word and she went back to her room.
Her mother asked about Alita’s bruises. Alita yelled ‘What do you think fucking happened? I’m not going back there!’
‘I think she knew what was going on but … for her to realise there was something going on means that she had somehow failed as a mother … a big emotional thing.’
Alita had regular bible studies with a mentor from the congregation. She told her about her father. Was she sure, the woman asked. Alita said yes. The woman stopped visiting her. Alita, still convinced that the Elders had the highest authority and were meant to shepherd their flock, talked to an Elder called Ian. She’d blocked memories of the Tuesday night meetings so only disclosed her father’s sexual abuse. Ian asked if she was sure, because they were serious allegations to make. He warned her about damaging her father's reputation. Had she considered the effect on her family?
‘Then he quoted scripture at me about respecting your parents and having a sharp tongue.’
After that, Alita tried to kill herself.
‘When I woke up in the hospital the nurse had let my dad in to visit me ... and he was saying things like, “See what happens when you don’t put your trust in Jehovah?” And then I fucking gave up on the lot of them.’
Alita moved out with friends. Her father stalked her. The other Jehovah’s Witnesses shunned her. She told her mother the bare minimum about the abuse. ‘I think I wrote the least worse thing I could think of on a piece of paper.’
Her mother wrote to the Head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses but nothing came of it. Alita reported some details of her father’s sexual abuse to the police.
The police obtained an Apprehended Violence Order against him but Alita didn’t yet want to press charges. She moved town but broke down three months later when she started to remember the Tuesday meetings in more detail. A fragment of scripture ran on repeat in her head. ‘I became so afraid that I never left the house.’
She moved back to her home town and spent some time in a psych unit. She then moved back with her mother, a block away from the Kingdom Hall. Members of the Church congregation began a systematic program of stalking and intimidation and so again she moved away.
Alita has now found an effective support group for abuse survivors. She finally feels safe and loved.
She agrees with a psychiatric assessment that she has post-traumatic stress disorder but found the mental health system horrible. ‘I was given a lot of labels and chucked in a box and medicated up to my eyeballs.’
Alita believes that Jehovah’s Witnesses should stop hiding behind scripture and be made to abide by the law. She also recommends that all religious ministers get police checks and that health care professionals get some trauma informed care training.
She’s still afraid to report her father but doesn’t want him abusing anyone else either. ‘It hurts me but I have to stay balanced … I have to concentrate on my own safety … before I save the world.’
Alita couldn’t finish university when she first started but now she’d like to get some qualifications and start helping people.
‘I’ve never afforded myself the luxury of making goals for the future. But I’m starting to.’