Brook became a Jehovah’s Witness in the early 1990s, after being brought up a Catholic. She and her husband John had moved to a small town where there were a lot of Witnesses and she got talking to her neighbours.
‘I still had this concept of God and belief, but I was disillusioned by the Catholic Church and along comes this religion that says we do this and we do that, and so I was hooked.’
Her parents were still strict Catholics and, she said, ‘They were really disapproving of me converting and I kept it a secret from them’.
A couple of years later their daughter Amber was born. John was working full time, while Brook was busy with church activities and part-time work. When she was about three, Amber started showing sexualised behaviours.
John explained: ‘We often had shared bath times. I was in the bath and she was down that end and she stood up and sort of spread her vagina and started walking towards me and I thought “What’s going on?”’
He immediately put Amber out of the bath, but Brook saw and thought John was abusing their daughter. She turned to her fellow Witnesses for advice.
‘There weren’t many people in our lives. There were these people, my family, which I was slowly pushing away because I was being indoctrinated into the “They’re worldy, they’re going to pull you away from Jehovah”. So I’m starting to look at John with suspicion and we’re having these arguments and I’m threatening to take him to the police.’
Brook shared her worries with her Bible study leader while the arguments continued at home for many months. She also went to see her neighbour and friend, Wendy.
‘I went down to Wendy’s place and I’m sobbing my heart out because my family didn’t accept the religion. So I was getting basically shunned by my family and I didn’t know where else to turn.
'In that conversation she decides she has to clear her conscience and she says “Oh, I better let you know that it was my daughter that was touching Amber."'
Wendy told Brook that, 'I didn’t tell you because [the Bible study leader] told me not to tell you.’
Brook confronted the Bible study leader, who admitted she had given that advice and revealed that Wendy’s daughter had herself been abused. Brook said she felt angry and shocked, and also guilty that she had put her daughter in an unsafe situation.
‘I’ve lived with this guilt for 20 years. I do. I feel like I failed her.’
Wendy’s family moved away but Brook said she still had a lot of anger and a lot of questions, and she started to open up about it. She found people avoided her and she was shunned as a gossiper and a troublemaker, until she stopped talking about the abuse.
About 10 years later, John had become a ministerial servant within the congregation, and female members started coming to Brook as a way to gain access to him. They shared their own experiences of child sexual abuse within the Church and she went to the elders with their allegations.
‘Cases were going as far as the police and they were just getting threatened with disfellowshipping for gossip. The disillusionment, it all came again and I’m starting to say things like “I left the Catholic Church for this reason. I didn’t realise this was an issue in this Church”.’
By the mid-2010s Brook and John had stopped going to meetings, moved away from the area and broken away from the Church. Brook admitted she didn’t cope well.
John: ‘It’s been like grieving … You’ve lost all your friends again. Your family have been kept at arm’s length for 20 years so you’re back on your own. You feel like an isolated island again.’
Brook: ‘There was a handful of people that kept me there, and they were supporting me. But those handful of people have dumped me like a ton of bricks now and so my whole world is shattered with this … I know I’ve done nothing wrong except to speak up. But I’m being made to feel like I’ve done something wrong.’
Brook has not yet managed to repair relations with most of her family, but her sister has been a great support, while John has good support through his work colleagues. Brook recently had a breakdown but is now receiving counselling.
She gets angry when she sees elders from the Jehovah’s Witnesses publicly defending their actions as she said they are lying to protect the organisation from allegations of abuse.
‘It’s because they’ve got this black and white thinking that it’s us against them … They’re just seeing it as an attack on God’s people … They think God’s law is above man’s. So they feel superior.’
She believes a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t come forward because they have so much to lose, in terms of identity, family and community. She said they are also intimidated by the Church’s rule that you must have two witnesses to any abuse, and the requirement to go alone in front of the accused perpetrator and a panel of elders to give evidence.
She is hopeful that will change.
‘The Royal Commission has injected me with a lot more courage because up until then I did feel alone. I felt like I suffered in silence the whole time. It’s given us more power.’