Penelope was around six years old when the Mormons knocked on the door of her family home, in suburban Melbourne. Her parents decided the family would convert from Catholicism shortly after.
Penelope was an only child at this time, quiet and reserved – ‘I was like a goody two shoes girl’. As her parents worked a lot she was often left on her own.
She remembers their relatives stopped visiting after they changed their religion, and she was sad about not seeing them anymore. ‘I felt quite isolated, losing that family connection.’
Penelope and her parents attended their local Mormon church on Saturdays. She always felt very ill on the way there in the car. She suspects now that this sick feeling was because Darren Wiggins, a preacher at the church, was sexually abusing her.
Penelope remembers that Wiggins molested her numerous times, over the course of two years. This abuse usually happened in the church kitchen.
She also recalls one time she was lying on the stage in the church hall, with a group of men standing around her. The men were bending her legs back, but she does not know what they were doing, and cannot remember much else about this incident.
Penelope disclosed the abuse by Wiggins to her mother during this period. Her disclosure was not treated seriously, and so she eventually stopped talking about what was happening to her.
When she was in her 40s, Penelope had a major mental health breakdown, and was hospitalised in a psychiatric facility. Around this time, she wrote to police, wanting to know more about Wiggins. She felt ‘put down’ by the police, as they did not give her any information about him.
Penelope experiences uncontrollable anger at times, has engaged in self-harm, and has attempted suicide. She dissociates, has psychotic episodes, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. Her husband left her, and she began drinking heavily (despite not consuming alcohol previously).
Throughout this, her own children ‘suffered greatly. They would come home not knowing if I was alive or dead’. She hasn’t seen her oldest son for many years, ‘because he was the one who was ringing the ambulance’.
Penelope was assisted by her local member of parliament (MP) to get records from the Mormon Church. She had a meeting with a Church representative, along with her MP’s assistant, and some support workers.
During this meeting Penelope talked about the abuse against her, and the man from the Church acknowledged it had happened. He also said he knew of another girl abused by Wiggins, and that Wiggins had been charged and convicted for this abuse.
Penelope then made a civil claim against the Church. When her solicitor for this matter asked her father for a statement about Wiggins, he declined to provide one. ‘He knew this guy who had abused me, but Dad wouldn’t do anything.’
Penelope received a $40,000 compensation settlement. As part of this agreement, she signed a confidentiality clause. This was particularly distressing for her, and she was pleased to learn of later legislation that overrides this condition.
Through victims of crime she was provided with some counselling. However, she didn't attend all of the allocated sessions, as she felt the counsellor expected her to go into too much detail about her experiences.
Accessing trauma-informed therapy is Penelope’s ‘saving grace’, allowing her to understand how trauma affects the brain. She finds that her voluntary work as a consumer representative for mental health organisations is energising, and assisting others helps her deal with her own experiences.
Attending peer support groups and residential retreats has also been very beneficial, giving her a space to discuss her experiences with others who have first-hand experiences of abuse. As she told the Royal Commission, ‘My little girl needs to talk’.