By the 1990s Geraldine was an enthusiastic member of her Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation. She enjoyed the close friendships, emotional support and busy social life of the church community. It was a closed circle – or that was the desire of the elders. Members were expected to keep interaction with people outside the faith to a minimum.
Geraldine quoted one of her former elders when she spoke to the Commissioner. ‘[He] made a statement in front of everyone saying, “The worst Jehovah’s Witness that you’ll encounter is still going to be better than any worldly” – as they call them – “person that you’ll ever meet”.’
That claim was soon put to the test.
When Geraldine’s son Nathan was about six years old, a friend from the congregation approached her to complain about his language. Nathan had been overheard telling a group of friends that a teenage boy from the church had ‘made me suck his pee-pee’.
Geraldine, who had suffered sexual abuse as a child, was much more concerned about the content of Nathan’s story. She took her son aside and gently questioned him, emphasising that whatever had happened was not his fault. Nathan revealed that he had indeed been sexually abused by Ben, the younger son of a church family who lived nearby.
Geraldine approached Ben’s mother, expecting her to be outraged by the accusation. Instead she sighed and admitted that her son ‘did seem capable of that sort of thing’.
Geraldine felt deeply protective of Nathan but tried to keep the matter within the church. She notified an elder, who was genuinely shocked and very caring. The elder notified more senior people and eventually the ‘presiding overseer’ came to visit.
‘He tried to convince us that he was caring, but the strongest message he gave us that day was two things: one – now Nathan has “got the virus” and we’ll need to keep an eye on him because now he’s been interfered with there’s a good chance that he too will become – I was just gobsmacked that that was one of his concerns, and the next thing he said was “And this stays here … this is confidential, you are not to discuss this with anybody else, we will deal with it”.’
Geraldine and her partner were told not to tell any other elders or discuss the matter with other families in the church. ‘He said, “It’s a bit like this. If you start talking it’s like a down pillow where if you rip it open the feathers go everywhere and then you can’t collect all the feathers back”.’
The elders proposed dealing with the abuse by ‘having a talk to Ben’. Geraldine expected to receive some support. She expected action. ‘They will be concerned about other children so surely they will manage this’.
Geraldine heard later that Ben had confessed to the abuse. But because he hadn’t been fully baptised yet, technically he couldn’t be ‘disfellowshipped’ from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The teenager was stripped of some of his duties and activities, but continued to associate with younger children from the church. No one in the wider congregation knew about the abuse.
Geraldine decided to warn friends who had small children. ‘I never told anyone that Ben sexually molested, because it was my son’s dignity as well. So on the one hand I was trying to protect other kids, but on the other hand I’m protecting my son as well.’ Geraldine told others to ‘keep an eye on their kids’ when Ben was around. Rumours began to spread that Geraldine’s family was victimising Ben and his family.
Frustrated with the elders’ inaction, Geraldine eventually called the police. They were extremely supportive. The investigation was thorough, and included interviews with the elders. The detectives advised it would be difficult to secure a conviction and very hard on Nathan if it went to court. Geraldine decided not to proceed at that time.
From that point on life became difficult for Geraldine and her family. The elders were angry that the police had become involved. The wider congregation feared the story would ‘get out’.
‘We started to get shunned by the organisation. People would come to meetings and not talk to us.’
Geraldine had an argument with a former friend about the publicity around Nathan’s abuse. ‘She said, “Jehovah won’t let it come out … because if it comes out, people won’t come into the truth”. They call it “the truth”. And I said, “And that’s more important than children retaining their innocence and their childhood and their safety?” She said, “Yes”. They believe Jehovah’s name is ultimate and his organisation has to be a shining example for the world. Because they are the only true religion. In their eyes no one else is real.’
Meanwhile, forces within the church were moving against her. ‘They couldn’t oust me because I went to the police or because I reported it all, so they had to trump up some charges. This happened almost a year later. It was a witch hunt. I didn’t know it was happening.’
Geraldine was accused of spreading a lie about another church member, and when she denied it, two witnesses were produced. Under Jehovah’s Witnesses rules that was enough to see her disfellowshipped – excluded from the spiritual life of the Church and potentially, salvation.
The experience was deeply traumatic for Geraldine. She decided to fight the expulsion. The life of the Church was important to her at the time and she wanted to be part of it. She was also furious that she had been kicked out on false charges. To fight her way back in Geraldine had to confess to things she had not done. Eventually she was readmitted to the congregation.
The experience soured her view of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the early 2000s she began to ‘disassociate’ from the Church, and many in her extended family have followed her example and left.
Geraldine worked hard to help her son deal with the abuse. She did not want him feeling the guilt survivors often take on. Nathan had a good childhood, has continued to study and now works in the hospitality industry. He is having some addiction problems as an adult, but Geraldine is confident he’ll pull through. ‘He’s a beautiful human being.’