Bella recognises that the sexual abuse she experienced as a child is as much her mother Judy’s story as her own. ‘It is about me but, if anything, it’s more my mum’s story. She was the one that faced so much opposition from the Church and even from my father in going to the police. They pretty much told her “Don’t go to the police. We’ll handle it. We’ll take care of the situation”. All they did was disfellowship him, but he was still able to attend the congregation.’
When Judy and her husband and children came to Australia in the late 1980s, Bella was two years old. The family soon became involved in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church. Bella attended church, as well as study groups in the house of a family they got to know well.
During these study groups, Nathan, the father of the household, took Bella to his car and sexually abused her. This started when Bella was six years old and happened at least 10 times. Nathan also abused Bella in the bushes behind the church and elsewhere. He told her what they were doing was normal. ‘All the boys are doing it to the girls. It’s fine.’
Nathan threatened Bella, saying her parents would hit her if they found out, so she needed to keep it a secret. However, when she was six or seven, Bella told her father, and he was ‘stunned’. He and Judy reported it to one of the elders of the Church. Judy recalled, ‘That night we couldn’t sleep. As a family, we was crying all night’.
Some days later a meeting was held with the elders, Bella’s parents and Nathan, who admitted to some of the offences, but not all. A few days after that it was announced that Nathan was disfellowshipped, but the elders gave no reason why. That was the extent of the Church’s response.
No one checked on Bella’s wellbeing. No one apologised to the family. No one reported it to the police. In fact, Judy and her husband were instructed by the elders not to go to the police.
Although disfellowshipped, Nathan was still able to attend congregation. That meant Bella and her family continued to see him. This went on for six months and the injustice was very clear to Judy.
‘It was hard because, at that time, I can’t speak very good English … I remember saying to my ex-husband “I want this man to be punished. I want him to pay for what he done to my daughter”. And my husband say, “No, you not” ... I say … “I will report it to the police” because, even like I didn’t speak English, I know what is right and what is wrong … in any language … This man has done the wrong thing. Not only to God but with the law.’
Judy’s husband didn’t want to bring the name of Jehovah into disrepute. Despite this, Judy did report to police. Bella enjoyed being questioned. She was encouraged to play with toys and was not put under pressure. However, the medical examination was ‘horrible’.
Alone in her decision to report, Judy was also very concerned ‘because I don’t want Bella to be more traumatised than … she already is’.
Nathan was convicted and given a good behaviour bond. Judy was angry the law was so ‘soft’ on him.
‘But at least I done something.’ The elders were ‘not happy’ that Judy went to the police. The family was criticised and basically frozen out. Judy and her husband moved the family to the other side of town. At the time, Bella had an unrelated health crisis, but still, the Church offered no support.
The family became involved in a new congregation, which Judy notes has better child safety procedures. The family later learned that Nathan was reinstated in the congregation just two years later, despite his criminal convictions. Judy confronted the elders about this but their response was inadequate. They also defended their lack of reporting, claiming a requirement of ‘confidentiality’.
The impact on Bella’s life has been massive. ‘From the moment that I reported to my dad and then to the police and then to the psychologist and, I think, I just got so sick of telling my story. The more I told my story the more … I was ingraining it into my head … It really affected me … especially throughout my teenage years.
‘I got into a massive depression, became very suicidal ... self-harm … I was institutionalised [in a mental hospital] a minimum three times. And it was all because of this … this experience that I went through and even now, it still affects me now … I don’t trust men and I do, at some stage, want to be able to have a family and get married … But I can’t go there.’
Bella’s self-harm was extreme as a teenager. Judy was determined to save her daughter, who used to tell her she just wanted to die. It took its toll on Judy, who also sought counselling. It led to Judy and her husband divorcing.
Bella’s grades were poor. When she was in Year 10, Judy took her overseas for five weeks, back to ‘our country’. Bella found it liberating to be away, and with people who didn’t know her story. She also saw how other people lived.
‘It just completely changed me.’ Bella returned home and completed high school with awards. She is now a health professional and is studying part-time for an alternative career. Keeping her mind busy is also a way of coping.
‘I think I’ve come a long way … I can talk about it but … it still affects me today … but more than anything, it’s affecting my ability to have a future. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why I really want my voice to be heard … The reaction from the institution, it was nothing.’
The thing that concerns Bella the most is that when Nathan was reinstated into the Church he was effectively granted access to children again.
Both Bella and Judy agree that it needs to be mandatory for Churches to report abuse.