‘Women aren’t given a choice in the Baptist Church … there’s a huge oppression of women within the Church and once women are silenced men can do what they like.’
Kirsty and her family returned to Australia in the late 1970s, when Kirsty was five years old. They joined their extended family attending a Baptist church in Western Australia, where Kirsty’s grandfather, Edgar Watts, was an elder and Sunday school teacher. Watts also held a position in the Baptist state hierarchy.
‘From the time I got here from [overseas] to the time I was 13, to reach puberty, my grandfather abused me’, Kirsty told the Commissioner. ‘And not only me but my brothers and sisters and all of my cousins … and all of my uncles and aunties. So the entire family has been subjected to his abuse. He was a very sick man, I think.
‘Some of the abuse I remember was on church grounds … Often my parents would leave us overnight at my grandparents’, not knowing.’
As a little girl Kirsty tried to tell her parents about her grandfather’s actions. Her mother told her, ‘“You must have been really naughty then if grandad was touching your bottom”. So I’d grown up thinking that my parents knew about it and that it was a sort of punishment for me for being naughty’.
Years later her mother recalled the conversation. ‘Mum said she had no frame of reference for it. She’d never even heard of anyone being abused.’
‘The role that my grandfather had in the church exacerbated all of our abuse so much … we were always told that he was a man of God, he was a godly man, he was so high up in the church, he was so amazing.’
When Edgar Watts became ill in the late 1980s, Kirsty finally revealed the full extent of her grandfather’s abuse to her parents. They were devastated. ‘My mum called a family meeting and said, “What the hell’s going on here?”’ Kirsty’s siblings disclosed abuse as well, as did her cousins. The truth came out: Watts had been abusing children for decades – his own kids at first, and then his grandchildren.
Kirsty wanted to report her grandfather to the police. ‘I thought that I could be the one who’d actually get him brought to justice. I really wanted that, but it didn’t happen.’ Edgar Watts died before any action could be taken.
‘After I’d brought it up in my family, my parents’ marriage fell apart, pretty much. My mum was horrified her sisters-in-law hadn’t told her. My cousins had very little exposure to their grandfather because their mums and dads kept them away.’
Reports were made to the Baptist Church, but Kirsty believes the matter was swept under the carpet. She was sent to one counselling session when still in her teens. ‘It was just horrible, it was awful … It was a Baptist Church person that we saw … It was horrific.’ Telling her story again re-traumatised Kirsty.
‘Everything I encountered was to shut me up. It was shaming.’
Kirsty has been dealing with the impacts of the abuse all her life. ‘I became very promiscuous at a very young age … from a young teenager up to mid to late 20s. I had no clue what I was doing.’ Kirsty has had no long term relationships with men.
‘I’ve struggled to have any confidence in myself.’ Her grandfather used to give Kirsty money after performing sexual acts with her. ‘It was like you were a prostitute.’
After university Kirsty had a breakdown and started to have thoughts of ending her life. She contacted the Baptist Church again and demanded help. They enrolled her in an eight-week group counselling course run by another religious organisation. Again, the counselling was poor. ‘It was the most traumatic thing I ever had to go through … it was all like, “You’ve got to forgive, because Christ forgave us”. You weren’t allowed to be angry.’
In her mid-20s Kirsty found a counsellor she could trust, someone who already knew what her family had been through. The relationship with this counsellor has been life-long and has helped Kirsty prevail.
Kirsty believes the culture within the Baptist Church facilitates sexual abuse and that it is widespread. Women still have no voice in the Church and no leadership roles. ‘I see it as a choice where it’s just acceptable and it's par for the course. If you’re a woman you’re going to be raped, you’re going to be abused. It’s just what happened. At a young age.’
Many of Kirsty’s family remain in the Church, despite all that’s happened. ‘My family is still very much wrapped up in the secrecy model. We don’t talk about it. It’s the elephant in the room at every occasion. And we get together a lot.’
Kirsty has always been challenged by Church insiders. ‘Why did I think I had the right to be so outspoken about it? Even recently in my family someone said that to me. It continues that whole thing where women can’t talk.’
‘The thing that annoyed me the most was my mum said that in the 1960s people had come forward at the Baptist Church and made complaints against my grandfather and that there was a little girl … they made her get up in front of elders in the church and they got him up as well and they asked him if he’d done it and he said, “No”. And I think she was punished.
‘The thought of that is quite horrific. I don’t know who she is. I’d like to know who she is and if she’s okay.’