When she was about 10 years old, Manessa moved with her father to an alternative community in New South Wales. Soon after arriving, her dad was sent to build a centre in another part of the state and thereafter saw Manessa rarely.
The leader, Josa, and his acolyte and partner, Daine, controlled all aspects of life within the centre, including access to the children, and they manipulated circumstances so that family members rarely saw each other. The centre had no telephones, letters were screened and censored, and Manessa was home-schooled without access to outside children or adults.
Manessa said it was great at the centre for a while because the children were allowed to run free without discipline. Within six months, she had been moved into the back room of a hut where Josa and Daine lived.
As the community grew quickly in wealth and influence, people who arrived were told to relinquish assets and money and those who hesitated were harangued and isolated. Adults also signed over legal guardianship of their children to Daine, who received all child endowment payments.
Manessa told the Commissioner that Josa was often violent towards adults, using a stick and other objects to beat them. She witnessed him beating one of the men, then forcing him to fast for days and instructing everyone not to speak to or acknowledge him.
There was an atmosphere of intimidation and conformity to the community’s teachings. People were encouraged to report one another for transgressive speech or action.
‘The way you got anywhere or stayed safe was to dob in other people … There was a real divide and conquer kind of mentality.’
When a group of adults confronted Josa about his behaviour, they were quickly evicted. Daine, known as ‘the goddess’, was also violent, and Manessa recalled being beaten so hard that she lost control of her bladder. On other occasions, a dog was set on her, which many of the adults found amusing.
In her early teens, Manessa was told to accompany Josa on a trip interstate. When they arrived at their accommodation, Josa called her into his room and made her climb into bed with him. He then started to fondle her and asked her if she liked it. She said, ‘No’. She resisted him and ‘it was obviously really awkward’. He tried two nights in a row and in the end got angry and sent Manessa home on the train.
When Manessa later tried to tell a friend about the incident she was told she should consider herself special. Josa didn’t again try to sexually abuse Manessa but she knew other children had been and she recalled incidents like being forced to strip naked in front of other adults so they could see what she looked like ‘down there’. Daine often spoke to Manessa about sex, telling her that one day she’d experience it as a spiritual experience at the hands of her leader. Looking back, Manessa thought she was being groomed to have sex with the leader, but at the time didn’t understand what was going on.
Manessa ran away a number of times and each time was brought back. Eventually she left for good and moved interstate. Manessa found the ‘real world’ frightening.
Shortly thereafter, stories of sexual abuse involving Josa started to emerge. Eventually, as more stories of abuse came out, the community issued an apology to victims. They said they had a moral, but not legal, obligation to survivors. The community also organised a ceremony, which was intended to cleanse the past but which Manessa thought put the blame on those who’d been abused.
‘They were trying to drive the process so they could protect the reputation of the centre but be seen to be doing the right thing, and they weren’t really listening to what we were trying to say. So they tried to have this ceremony that … was supposed to make it all go away. And we were saying to them, you know, “We don’t think so”.’
Manessa said that a childhood spent within the community made for a very lonely life. ‘I don’t have a lot of friends because I just don’t relate to people. It’s certainly made it next to impossible to have relationships.’
She has focused her life on her child and holding down a job, but regrets that her family had left the centre with nothing. ‘They had taken our house, all of our money, everything.’
Manessa was concerned that many of the conditions that led to the abuse continued in the centre’s current context.
‘I would like to see them de-operated, like, I would like to see these systems just not allowed to operate in that they’ve got tax-exempt status … they’ve got all this authority, people look to them like they’re some amazing institution when they’re not. And the people still running it are not good people necessarily.’