Carleen was raised in a devout Jehovah’s Witnesses family in New South Wales during the 1960s. Carleen’s immediate and extended family were all members of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation.
She described herself as a fidgety child who was often sent to the back of the class for not concentrating, but she always completed her school work. She was the only Jehovah’s Witness at her school but she managed to form a close group of friends.
In the early 1970s when she was 12, Carleen’s family moved congregations so her father could be higher up in the Church, and he became an elder. At the new congregation she met the Bensons, who had a daughter named Wanda. She recalls being made to befriend Wanda because the girls were going to attend the same high school.
At school, Carleen and her friends didn’t want to associate with Wanda and so Carleen disobeyed her father. One afternoon, the Bensons were at Carleen’s house and had a conversation with her father. Carleen said the Bensons told her father that she wasn’t playing with Wanda and was leaving her out. Her father was furious that she had disobeyed him. While the Bensons were there, he took her into a room and beat her.
‘To the point that my mother had to run in and stop him. He’d never done that before.’
The next day she had several bruises along her legs. She found it difficult to hide them from her teachers and when they questioned her about them, she lied and said he had tripped over. As she didn’t want to play with Wanda, Carleen’s father continued to beat her for misbehaving.
One day after school, Carleen saw Wanda’s parents’ car outside her home. She assumed that they were visiting her father to tell him that she wasn’t associating with Wanda so she ran away because she didn’t want her father to beat her again. She ran to the local community services and told the officer about her father’s behaviour, hoping that they would take her somewhere else to live. However, her mother was called and she was taken home.
Shortly after being returned home, Carleen was playing hide-and-seek with a group of children from church. Frank Rover, the son of one of the elders, was a man in his 20s and often hung around the children and played their games. Rover discovered Carleen at the back of a shed and sexually abused her there. He tried to perform oral sex on her, but she escaped.
Carleen couldn’t tell anyone about Rover because of his father’s position in the Church and she was scared he would punish her again. She then ran away from home because she thought that Rover would come back and try and assault her again. Looking back, she believed her family knew about the abuse but did nothing.
The police picked up Carleen and once more sent her back to her parents. Her father wanted her to be placed in an institution so organised to send her to a remand centre as punishment for running away. At the institution she was forced to have a vaginal examination because the staff didn’t believe she was a virgin. She was 13 years old and found the process traumatic. She was sent home after being at the centre for a month.
Upon her return, the elders threatened to give her another internal examination. Once again she ran away, and found herself in a big city at the age of 14. She was homeless and had no contact with her family. Somebody – she doesn’t know who – reported her to police for being exposed to moral danger and they picked her up and took her to a girls’ shelter.
One of the police officers visited her there and sexually abused her twice. The next time he tried, she screamed. ‘If I kicked up a ruckus he wouldn’t [abuse me further].’
When she was 15, Carleen left the shelter and got involved with an older boy, Henry. Henry was a heavy heroin user and consequently Carleen became an addict too.
Some troubled years followed. She tried to return to her family but they wouldn’t take her back as she believes the elders advised her family not to accept her. She found work in a night club. At 17, she was raped by several men.
Carleen felt that throughout her teens and adulthood she had made bad choices. Her children were removed from her care because she was using drugs. She was able to raise her youngest children but feels they suffered because she was estranged from her extended family and the Church. She has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder but she regularly sees a counsellor, which has helped her significantly.
In the late 2000s, she told her counsellor and her children about the abuse. She has never reported the abusers to the police because she was taught not to report outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church.
‘In my heart I feel the ones responsible for throwing me to the wolves were the Jehovah’s Witnesses and my father … It was absolute hell.’