‘I feel ashamed in a way, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, because I tried to say about it when I got out, but … when you’re in there things warp and what’s wrong becomes right … It makes me frightened for my [children] … Parents have such a responsibility … kids are so vulnerable.’
Lisa and her mother moved to an alternative community in New South Wales when Lisa was still in primary school. ‘As a child I thought it was a great place … I wanted to be part of it.’
The community centre was located in the bush, ‘with quite a few different types of animals, horses, cows, peacocks, chickens, birds of different types, and pet rats. It was the children’s jobs to look after the animals. The setting was too good to be true’.
The tenets of the centre were ‘abstinence, celibacy … [and] hard physical labour’ and Lisa and her mother had to give up all their possessions. Contact with the outside world was limited and Lisa completed her school studies by correspondence. She was further isolated because adults and children were made to live in different places on the property and she was separated from her mother.
Now, Lisa understands the control the man who ran the centre held over them all.
‘You’re giving up all your power over to people who you don’t really know. There’s a different culture there, and it’s a different way of thinking and behaving … a different set of rules.’
The children at the centre were primarily looked after by a woman, the leader’s assistant, whom Lisa adored.
‘We just loved her. Revered her, sang for her, danced for her … just thought that she was wonderful. And couldn’t understand it when she got angry.’
In a written statement Lisa submitted to the Royal Commission, she explained that she was groomed by both the leader and his assistant.
‘I was made to feel that if I was particularly singled out to accompany either [the assistant or the leader] to a task, then I was one of the select few or “chosen ones” and that was meant to make me feel lucky, honoured and privileged … I loved and revered her and was also slightly scared by her.’
The leader and the assistant would frequently slap and hit Lisa. ‘On one particular occasion … she slapped me across the face very much harder than usual … as a form of punishment and also humiliation, to cut me down and break my spirit. What could I do? I wanted to be loved and accepted by her so I did not question her, just accepted punishment from her and then pleaded with her to forgive me for doing wrong. There was nowhere to go.’
The leader often requested that children come into his accommodation and massage him. Lisa was one of these children.
‘I can remember being there with other kids, feeling privileged to be singled out like this. I massaged his right upper thigh, lower leg area while other kids massaged other areas of the body. I can remember my hand touching his penis, which was an awkward situation and frightening. We were told to leave the room after some time.
‘The frightening, shameful and embarrassing thing about it is that the culture was that it was okay, although being under the age of consent. I think that I wanted to be part of the peer group.’
Lisa has traumatic and vivid flashbacks of being ‘held down with force and people doing things to my body, lying on top of me’. She knew that other children were being sexually abused by the leader and other centre members or associates.
There was a doctor at the centre but when Lisa presented with symptoms that may have indicated sexual activity, the doctor ignored, and then downplayed her condition. She was given hallucinogenic drugs at the centre too. ‘It was weird because it’s all sort of warped the whole experience.’
During her years there Lisa had been able to maintain contact with her family. ‘Every week or two, my mother and I would ring … so we stayed in touch which was actually most probably our saving grace as we were not completely cut off from the outside world.’
When she was in her mid-teens, Lisa decided she had had enough of life within the community and left the centre. Her family assisted her and she moved interstate. She disclosed her abuse to her father but he ‘didn’t realise … the extent of what it was and he didn’t take it any further’. She has told her husband about the sexual abuse.
‘You know, life goes on. You’re out of there. Your family is happy that you’re out. You start to make a life.’
Lisa has found the process of coming to the Royal Commission very difficult but feels a deep responsibility to speak up.
‘I thought all the memories were in the past, locked away, although I have been very upset since ﬁnding out about the Royal Commission, as it is bringing up memories of helplessness from the past …
‘I wanted to do it because I have children now of my own and I wanted to be a positive role model and … I don’t want the experiences that we’ve had to happen again.’
Lisa has reported her abuse to the police and is hoping to receive financial compensation from the centre. An apology would not be meaningful because, ‘My mother gave [them] everything we had and we’ve been through a lot of stuff … and everything costs’.
She is currently seeing a psychologist for depression but finds stability and comfort in her family. She feels a sense of irony about the woman who manipulated her in the centre.
‘She said, “Don’t you ever tell anyone … or I’ll haunt you for the rest of your days” and that’s exactly what’s happened. What a powerful thing to say. You must be so careful of what you say to children.’