As a child Helena confronted her father, also her abuser: ‘I’m on my way to the police … to tell them.’ And her father replied, ‘You know that won’t work. I’m protected by the Jehovah’s Witnesses’.
Helena grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and she and her family moved around regional Australia a lot. When Helena was around six years old, her mother joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church. Her father went to church for a few months but then stopped going.
Helena’s father was a violent and sadistic man. He abused Helena from as early as she can remember until she was about 12 or 13. He also abused her siblings. When Helena was 13 she disclosed the abuse to her mother. Her mother told the elders at the church and Helena and her sister were asked to go to a meeting with them.
Helena was embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about it to three ‘older’ men. Nonetheless she went alone into a room with them at someone’s home.
In a written statement Helena provided to the Commission, she recalled ‘They kept asking for further information about “exactly” what my father had done. I would not go into exact information as this was devastatingly embarrassing for a 12-13 year old girl however I definitely knew they had enough information for them to know it was very, very wrong on any level. I told them I did not want to get pregnant and was very, very ashamed’.
Her sister did the same but the elders’ decision was that they were both lying. After this decision, the girls’ mother was counselled by the church about her daughters being liars. They told her to focus on saving her marriage. Even though the father wasn’t a member of the church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were protecting him. He was aware of these proceedings and this was when the sexual abuse stopped.
However, he told their mother that the allegations were true. Why he told her, Helena doesn’t know - possibly to be cruel.
In her statement, Helena wrote about her mother: ‘She then went to the elders and told them, they again told her to save her marriage and as it was extremely uncomfortable at home with my sister and I being there, she was advised to send us away.’
Helena’s siblings were all sent to work placements in different parts of the country. They were ‘put on a bus with one bag’. Helena, being only 13, was sent to live with family.
The living arrangements didn’t work out well. Helena wasn’t wanted and was given all the chores to do. ‘I was a modern day Cinderella.’ Eventually, at 14, she moved out, finding menial jobs to support herself and lying about her age in order to work. She left school.
Helena married young and had children. ‘What I didn’t understand, because I was so sheltered etc, was that my first husband was an absolute raging alcoholic.’ However, Helena was determined to get an education and she did so while raising a family and working. She is now a successful professional and is finalising the divorce from her second husband, who was violent. Financially, ‘it is a struggle’.
The impacts of the abuse – or the church’s response to it – have been profound. It caused her family to break up and consequently they have little contact. Some of her siblings have severe problems. She has had no family support throughout her life.
Helena has had a medical condition caused by anxiety. She has sexual problems. In her statement she wrote ‘I live with shame every day ... My children bear the scars from my scars.
‘In my opinion if the elders had of handled the situation in the correct way, of reporting my father to the authorities, being confidential as best as possible, giving my mother, myself and siblings support to re-establish ourselves, combined with guidance and education I would of still had a family, education and support to understand abusive relationships and gain support … The elders took this away …’
Helena doesn’t see herself as a victim but she does wonder what she could have been had circumstances been different. ‘I am still very angry when I look back, as my future was made so very limited. I have been told that I have “done well” for myself from my background and should be proud of myself that I have “come so far”.
‘I know that. But it is not comforting to me.’