Joanna first visited an alternative community centre in regional New South Wales with a family she knew well and trusted. It wasn’t a lazy life at the centre – community members rose at 4am and did a long day’s work in the garden, kitchens and elsewhere. But Joanna loved it.
‘I had been in a private girls’ school and was stifled there and not happy’, Joanna recalled. By contrast, the centre ‘suited my nature’, she said. It was set in a beautiful landscape and was largely self-sufficient, producing all the food the community needed. Joanna enjoyed working in the gardens and learning the community ways.
She returned home to finish school, then went on to further study. But she ‘had the bug’, she told the Commissioner. Though her parents weren’t happy about it, she made the decision to leave her studies and return to the centre. ‘It was so beautiful and free’, she said.
On Joanna’s first visit, the leader at the centre had paid her ‘enormous’ attention. When she returned, he continued to show a great deal of interest in her.
Joanna’s mother had written a letter to the centre asking them to take good care of Joanna. There was a woman there whose role was to look after the younger children, but she and Joanna didn’t get on. Joanna didn’t really fit in with the adults either. ‘I wasn’t really an adult but I wasn’t a child so I was very isolated. I see now that I was a perfect target’, she said.
One day Joanna was told that she’d be travelling with the leader to a retreat just outside a nearby town. The accommodation at the retreat was small cabins.
‘He called me into one of the cabins and had me on my hands and knees sweeping up sand off the floor. And then he told me to start giving him a massage – and then he started groping me and stuff. I was very shocked. I was sort of numb. I didn’t know what was going on.’
When she saw him the next day, he asked her how she was feeling. ‘Confused’, she told him.
‘He said, “Don’t worry about your mind. Your mind belongs to me”.’
The leader instructed her not to say a word to anyone, and she did as she was told.
‘He had huge power’, Joanna explained. ‘There was thousands of people that worshipped this man. Thousands of people would come to see him. You never questioned the leader. It was very highly brainwashed into everyone, all the adults and everything, that you never questioned him.’
That first episode of abuse was followed several nights later by another one. Joanna, the leader and several others were all staying together in a small one-bedroom apartment. The leader had the bedroom and the others were sleeping on the living room floor. At night, the leader told Joanna to bring him a glass of water. She took it to him in the bedroom and he closed the door.
‘It was the same routine’, she said. He wanted a massage, and then he wanted oral sex. ‘I felt very powerless’, she said. ‘It was like do this, do that; ordering me around.’ Then he raped her.
Joanna blanked out, she told the Commissioner. She hadn’t had sex before. When she came to, he ordered her to leave. Bleeding from the assault, she left the room and lay down on the living room floor beside the others.
The leader didn’t rape Joanna again but back at the centre he continued to molest her, while frightening her with threats about what would happen if she told anyone about the abuse. She felt absolutely lost and alone.
Joanna was sent for some months to another centre. When she came back she observed that the leader had turned his attention to other young women. It was for more of the same, she feared. She challenged him, and he reviled her for daring to question him.
‘He got really angry’, Joanna said. ‘I was really shattered and afraid and thinking, what will I do?’
A visit from her father reminded her she had options and, soon after, Joanna got back on the bus home.
Joanna had one more stay at a centre, after struggling with life back at home. It was a different one to where she’d been before, but located nearby. She tried speaking about the abuse she’d suffered but was met with a wall of silence. Eventually someone reported what she’d been saying to the leader and he told her she had to leave.
‘I got on a bus and I basically went back out into life, with no absolutely no support at all’, Joanna said. ‘I was so deeply traumatised. It’s had a huge impact on my life, and still does to this day.’
Joanna observes now that the whole idea of worshipping a leader lends itself to abuse. It creates an environment of control, she said, which is very concerning.
‘People go [to the community] for a refuge, for a place of peace – so to then be abused … It really gets me because I was so committed. I loved the lifestyle, and I was really committed that it helps people. And because I was so devoted, that made me a prime target.’