Georgina spoke on behalf of her ex-husband Philip who was sexually abused as a child and went on to commit suicide when he was in his early 40s. She described how Philip was born into a family of ‘very low socio-economic background’ who were active members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church.
From an early age, Philip and his siblings were sexually abused by their father, Derick. The abuse was a secret within the family. Philip’s mother suffered from chronic health problems and was mostly oblivious to what was going on, and his father deliberately isolated the children from each other so that none would know that the others were also being abused.
That all changed in the late 1980s when Philip was about 19. Philip’s sister disclosed the abuse to her mother and the church elders. Georgina said, ‘When Phil heard that it just hit him hard and he realised he wasn’t the only one’. Philip went on to disclose his own abuse to his mum and Georgina.
It was then left to the elders to deal with the issue. Georgina said, ‘They do nothing. There’s a lot of secrecy. It’s sort of like this boom, it all comes out and then it was all like “hush, hush, hush”. And there was this constant thing that because it was a family unit and nobody else knew about it, that nobody else had to know about it’.
The elders privately ‘reproved’ Derick for his behaviour and advised Philip that when he suffered from painful thoughts he should distract himself by reading the Bible. When Philip’s mother said that she might seek counselling, the elders told her not to mention the sexual abuse.
Outraged by this weak response, Georgina confronted the elders. One of them gave her a vivid piece of advice:
‘The scenario he gives me is like, “Can you imagine two trains travelling towards each other? One of them has 200 people on it, the other one has your only child. Both of them are headed for a bridge that’s broken and you have the ability to save one train. Which train are you going to save? The one with your child on it” – which is, in his example, the one victim of sexual abuse – “or are you going to save the majority?”’
Georgina was stunned and appalled by the elder’s comments. In the face of such an attitude she didn’t know what to do, and so the matter rested there for some years. Meanwhile, Philip’s mental health was crumbling.
‘He gradually starts drinking and that drinking gradually starts increasing. It’s like he needs to drink more to have the same effect as time goes on. He became quite abusive, not physically, just really verbally and psychologically abusive. ’
About 10 years after Philip’s first disclosure, Georgina decided to raise the matter again. This time she bypassed the local elders and sent a forthright, detailed letter to the supervisory council. She expected to hear back directly from them but instead their response was filtered through the local elders and never delivered to her in writing.
The elders acted as if this was the first they’d ever heard of the abuse. Georgina threatened to take the matter to police and the elders responded by ‘disfellowshipping’ Derick from the congregation. This lasted about two years before he was allowed back in.
By this time Georgina’s relationship with Philip was becoming toxic and unsustainable.
‘I started realising, this is a person that needs help, who isn’t going to get it, who is using alcohol to try and cope and I’m his punching bag. I started to think about it more, going, “The way I’m treated, you should go speak to your father like that. Go and take your anger out on him”.’
Georgina gave her husband an ultimatum: “Get counselling or I’ll leave you”. Philip took this to heart and started seeing a counsellor and for a while the situation improved. But after six months or so he quit the counselling and the same patterns started up again so Georgina stuck to her guns and left him.
Over the next few years she and Philip drifted further apart and so Georgina didn’t realise how far her ex-husband had fallen until her daughter revealed that he was now taking antidepressants with alcohol. A short while later Philip committed suicide.
After all her experiences, Georgina says she has no confidence in the ability of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church to handle claims of sexual abuse within the church.
‘I’ve always felt, dealing with sexual abuse and the victims of sexual abuse, it needs to be done outside of the organisation. It needs to be an independent body. That is my recommendation.’