Karena came to the Royal Commission to give her sister Julia a voice. Julia suicided in her early 30s. After her funeral, Karena discovered her sister had been sexually abused as a child, and that her abuser was a former elder within the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church.
Karena was nine when her single mother was approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses and eventually joined the Church. At congregation, Karena noticed there were many single mother families and lots of children. Looking back she can see that her family was targeted.
One of the members involved with the family was Guillermo Rosso who would drive Karena and her sisters to and from bible study at his home, as their mother didn’t have a car. Their religious commitments became daily - either bible study or attending congregation. Then there was preaching on the weekends.
As a child, Karena heard ‘idle gossip’ that Rosso had had some kind of inappropriate dealings with women, specifically with his own daughters. At the time, she was very young and didn’t understand the significance of what was being spoken about. Now she understands the rumours concerned incest. Rosso was stripped of his title of 'Elder' but was not reported to police or removed from the congregation.
Karena told the Commissioner about the dysfunction within the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church. Women were expected to be subservient to men who were subservient only to Jehovah. Allegations of wrongdoing were rarely discussed as it would bring disrepute on Jehovah. They never went to the police, for example, as it was understood Jehovah was the only entity that bore judgement and it wasn’t for people to do this. ‘It doesn’t matter if … a Brother is abusing his wife or beating up the children. Jehovah will take care of him in the end. It’s not for us to judge.’
‘It was all centred around the religion’, Karena said. ‘There was no concern for welfare … It was just “How is your faith?” That’s what they were interested in … They’re not interested in whether … you’re homeless or whether you’re hungry. They’re just wanting to make sure that you’re staying within the organisation.’
In her mid-teens, because of family dysfunction and her discomfort with the religion, Karena ran away from home with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. This was a difficult time for her, and she felt ‘survivor’s guilt’ because she had left her siblings behind. Her family was not allowed to contact her, and she had no contact with her mother and siblings until she received a text a decade later about her sister Julia’s death.
After the funeral, Karena’s relationship with her mother ‘thawed’ for a time. Her mother told her that Julia had recently disclosed that Guillermo Rosso had sexually abused her as a child. Mother and daughter then went to the elders and reported the abuse. There was no investigation, and they were told to ‘pray for strength’.
Karena noted that her mother seemed ‘very matter-of-fact’ about the elder’s response. ‘I think it’s this whole … “We can’t judge … Only Jehovah knows what’s in your heart.” … I think if you resign yourself to that belief you can almost excuse anything.’
Karena had no notion of her sister’s abuse when she was a child. However, years later, things started to make sense. Julia, who was always prone to depression, became more depressed at one stage, as well as anorexic. A couple of times Julia refused to get into the car with Rosso and wouldn’t explain why.
‘I struggled with that [knowledge of the abuse] for a long time because I feel that if this man had been investigated, or stopped somehow … when rumours first started circulating about his family, his daughters, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened to us … Hopefully this [the Royal Commission] ... will lead to some changes that will, at the very least, make people think.’
Karena wants the laws changed so that everyone, including church leaders, undergoes background checks if they work with children. She feels they need to be held to the same standard as other community members. They should not hold themselves accountable only to a ‘higher power’.
Although painful, her sister’s death has made Karena more aware of how precious her own life is. She has children of her own and is always conscious of their mental health.
‘I’ve always been vigilant … with my own children … sleepovers … visiting friends in their homes … they have to pass the “mum sniff test” ... It becomes where you suspect everyone. Everyone’s a potential predator … It works its way into every aspect of your life.’
She also encourages her children to speak up if anything happens to them. ‘In my own small way I’m doing that for my sister because she can’t anymore.’