Gwen’s parents divorced when she was very little and she was raised by her mother and stepfather who were part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community. Gwen said it was a difficult and dysfunctional home life but she managed to get by.
Then, when she was 16, a man named Simon Hughes started working for her stepdad. Gwen told the Commissioner:
‘I used to have to hand the keys over to him every day in the mornings if my stepdad wasn’t quite ready. And he started threatening me and he started saying, “Don’t say anything”. I was like, “What’s he talking about?” And then I started having nightmares and then it came back.’
Piece by piece, Gwen remembered that Hughes had sexually abused her one time during a Bible study meeting when she was eight. With the memory now clear in her mind, she decided to tell her mother and stepdad what had happened. They didn’t believe her and called her a liar and a ‘troublemaker’.
So at 16-and-a-half, Gwen ran away to live with her dad. He was happy to have her and, when she told him about the sexual abuse, he believed her. But he had some unexpected advice to offer.
‘My father said, “Oh, the same thing happened to me”, like he was touched by a Jehovah’s Witness when he was younger. He said, “Just get over it”.’
Over the next decade or so, Gwen did her best to follow this advice, completing her uni degree and embarking on a career in which she excelled. Still, the memory of the abuse combined with some ongoing family problems left her in a situation where she felt like she had to escape. So she decided to go overseas.
Gwen said that this became a kind of trigger for her mother. ‘My mother is very manipulative. She knew that if I went I wouldn’t come back for a while, and my mother was very dependent on me.’ So, in order to keep Gwen in Australia, her mother decided to bring the sexual abuse issue back into the light. She mentioned it to the church elders who then asked to speak to Gwen.
Gwen ended up attending two meetings with the elders. At the first she told her story and they promised to look into it. At the second they returned with the results of their investigation.
‘They tell me that he’s very apologetic, that he’s actually suicidal, that they can’t do anything about it because they’re scared that he’ll kill himself – and that two other girls have come forward plus me, and they think there’s more. But that’s all they say.’
That was the last straw for Gwen. She shoved the whole matter aside, left the country and lived overseas for the next five years. By the time she came back, her troubles were catching up with her.
‘When I’m travelling and not close to the family I was fine, but when I come home, I don’t know, it just hits me. And I realise that I haven’t done anything about it and it’s still there at the back. And I started drinking heavily and I end up in a bit of a mess.’
Gwen sought help from her GP and a psychologist, and ended up going on antidepressants. During this time she met the man who would later become her husband. She told him about the abuse ‘straight away’ and he was very supportive.
A few years ago, Gwen decided to report Hughes to police. She said, ‘I think my mother starts talking about him and something just flicks in me, and I just want to make sure he’s not around any more children’.
Gwen visited the local station and gave a statement to the uniform cop who was on duty. He advised her to come back and give a more thorough statement to someone from the child abuse squad.
Gwen was planning to do so but got thrown off track when she discussed the matter with her mother and stepdad. They threatened her, saying: ‘If I mentioned that this gentleman was a Jehovah’s Witness with association to how I met him, that they would withdraw any statements of his guilt and of what they know to be true. So they said they would not support me by any means.’
Gwen was left feeling alone and overwhelmed, and decided to drop the police investigation.
‘They knew how much it affected me and they knew about his confession but when they started threatening me I felt I was just back at being eight again and having nobody that listens to me.’
From this low point, Gwen gradually rebuilt her resolve. She approached a support group for victims of child sexual abuse and with their help went back to police and made a statement. An investigation is now underway.
Recently, Gwen’s mother and stepdad have shifted their attitudes and begun to support her.
‘I think now they do want – not vengeance, but they just want it to be heard by the police, that’s what they want now. But before, not so much. It was up to me.’