‘“Whistleblower” has got such a bad name. But if you think about it, in the mines that was the person who went to blow the whistle to get help: “There’s been an explosion, there’s been a cave in, come and help”. So the person who went to blow the whistle was bringing help. That’s who we are. God help us.’
One day in the early 2000s, Meredith was attending a service at her local Seventh Day Adventist church when she saw a man at the back of the room touching a child in a sexually abusive way. She later found out that the man was Simon Harris, a volunteer deacon.
After the service, Meredith reported the incident to Pastor Daniel Clarke. A few days later, Clarke reported the matter to Senior Pastor Greg Lewis. At this stage, Meredith had full confidence in the Church’s commitment to child safety, so it came as a shock when she heard the response from Lewis and the other elders. They said that because the touching had occurred outside the child’s clothes ‘it was not abuse’.
Things only got worse after that. A report was sent to the Seventh Day Adventist complaints-handling organisation ‘Adventist Support’ (now known as ‘Safe Places’). Adventist Support sent a woman to provide support to Meredith, Pastor Clarke and the child. But on the same night that the woman was supposed to meet with Meredith and the others, she scheduled herself to meet with the alleged perpetrator, Harris.
‘She went to him and his wife, overstayed, missed her appointment with the child and then tried to remake it the next morning. And the kid would have nothing to do with her, and had been pressured into seeing her in the first place. And she missed her appointment. And she’s supposed to be my support person – she cut me off after her time with the perpetrator.’
The state authorities were just as ineffective. The matter was reported to child welfare but Meredith was ‘never interviewed face-to-face’.
Undaunted, Meredith continued to push her local church to take action. As a result she was ‘vilified and disbelieved’ and senior leaders tried to discredit her by suggesting she’d exaggerated what she saw. Why such an extreme reaction from the Church? Meredith puts it down to a misguided attempt to protect the Church’s reputation coupled with a culture of ‘nepotism and cronyism’. Nowhere was this cronyism more blatant than in the behaviour of Senior Pastor Greg Lewis.
Lewis had a close friendship with Harris and went out of his way to protect him. After word got around about the incident, several women in the congregation came forward with similar complaints. Lewis visited the women individually and told them that chapter 18 in the Gospel of Matthew demanded that they confront Harris directly before reporting him to police or other authorities. After hearing this, all of the women dropped their complaints.
‘Lewis was going on about Matthew 18, that if your brother sins against you, you go and see him. Well how’s a child to do that? And there’s a difference in someone sinning against you as a spiritual thing, and a crime being committed. Do you go see a murderer who’s just as likely to slit your throat as anyone else first, or do you call the police? They don’t see it, that it’s a crime.’
Lewis’s interpretation of Matthew 18 was later discredited by a Seventh Day Adventist theologian, but this made no difference to the way Lewis and his cohort dealt with the matter. Nor did anything else. Not even the Church’s professional standards committee (PSC) could move them.
PSC got involved when Meredith asked them to conduct an investigation. Congratulating her on doing ‘the right thing’, they accepted her proposed terms of reference and attempted to take action. The local church blocked them.
‘The professional standards committee wanted an investigation of what happened and what policies were and were not in place and were and were not followed, and that never happened. They [the local church] repeatedly refused to look at themselves.’
PSC dropped the matter but Meredith couldn’t. ‘I knew what I was seeing and knew the ramifications.’ She fought the Church for years, at great personal cost.
‘For three years I fought the bastards and it got me nowhere except into poverty, homelessness, part of the hidden homeless phenomena. Lost my husband … I lost everything but drawing breath. I just lost life as I knew it. I’ve been through hell.’
Meredith has seen some recent publicity from the Church, claiming that they’ve taken steps to improve their child protection policies. She calls these steps ‘smoke and mirrors’. One of the biggest problems, she said, is the Church’s insistence on handling complaints internally – and that policy has not changed.
‘The old boys club is alive and well … and the women amongst us don’t get it, we’re so sucked into this system.’
Meredith now lives in a different state but still attends a Seventh Day Adventist church. There she hears first-hand how misguided her fellow members are when it comes to the issue of child sexual abuse. Recently a pastor announced that all church servers would have to get a Working with Children Check.
‘Because the government will audit them and could close them down. That was her concern. Nothing about the need to protect our children from predators who deliberately make their way into our midst. Nothing about the trauma and havoc wreaked on victims’ lives for decades … nothing about our responsibility to put safe practices in place long before being required to by legislation.
‘All these years later. They’ve been forced into it now by the law. They have not voluntarily done this stuff, even after all we went through. So don’t tell me – somebody said to me “Although you’ve made a terrible sacrifice, at least it’s changed things”. Oh really? Might have changed the paperwork but it hasn’t changed attitudes.’