Rebekka was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Queensland in the 1980s. Her father, Brian, was a ministerial servant – an assistant to the congregation's elders – and her family obeyed the Church without question. She described the community as disconnected from the outside world. Contact with anyone outside the congregation was not encouraged.
The church community recognised no authority for women and insisted they be ‘submissive to men’. Anything that tarnished the name of the head of the household, being the husband or father, was not to be discussed in the congregation. So when Rebekka spoke out about sexual abuse perpetrated by her father, Brian, she felt conflicted. She wanted to protect her family’s reputation while keeping her sisters safe from their father – and also to speak up for herself.
‘You are encouraged to present such a good view of yourself, but I think [the Church doctrine] crosses the line. It suggests that even when something is wrong, you should cover it up.
'That, personally, had a big impact on me because that’s why I didn’t report the abuse when it was happening. If you go and tell someone about it, what’s going to happen? Will your family be thought of badly? Will you be torn apart?’
Rebekka was sexually abused – inappropriate touching, then penetration – from the age of nine until she was 17. She was too scared to disclose her abuse to anyone because she wanted to protect her family’s reputation.
The abuse ceased when she ran away from her family and moved in with a friend from university. She told her friend of the abuse and confided in her teacher from school, but the teacher took no further action.
Being away from her younger sisters concerned Rebekka and she became increasingly worried about their safety around Brian. She believed that reporting her father to the police would destroy her family, so she re-connected with the congregation in the 1990s and disclosed details of the abuse to several church elders. She felt positive that they would investigate her case and help her family – but months went by and she heard nothing.
After seeing an elder in public, Rebekka was informed that her allegation had been dismissed.
‘My father denied it and they said, “Well, you don’t have any witnesses, so we can’t do anything about it”. I just don’t know how someone could sit with that. How can you sit with that knowing there’s two kids there, someone’s reported a serious allegation and you do nothing?
'The Church said, “We need two witnesses”; they didn’t even come back and ask me if I had another witness. That was what surprised me. I didn’t have an eyewitness, but I could have given them more if I had known if that was what they were looking for.’
After being betrayed by her own community, Rebekka left the congregation altogether. She also made a formal complaint about Brian to the police.
‘I heard stories back after I left [the town], there was lots of victim blaming. Again, because of the whole male dominance thing, anything to do with sex, there’s always that undercurrent that shamefully exists. That I must have done something to be there in the first place.
'That was particularly destructive and damaging … there is no outcome from being treated badly by people who should have known better.’
Unfortunately, the case took several years to be brought to trial due to her father’s allegation that he suffered from ‘psychiatric problems’. Rebekka believes that he fabricated this claim and that ‘he knew exactly what he was doing’.
During the trial Rebekka developed extreme depression and had ‘suicidal thoughts’. She felt the treatment she received in court was unjust. Brian’s lawyer accused Rebekka of lying about the abuse, which made her feel like she was the one on trial. Nevertheless, Brian was convicted and sent to prison, thus removing him from her family.
Rebekka’s relationships with her mother and sisters were strained throughout the trial, but they have since improved. She learned that one of her sisters had also been sexually abused by Brian, which made Rebekka feel guilty for not being at home to prevent it.
Rebekka believes that all members of a community that have authority should always speak out. She feels that her original disclosure to her teacher should have been taken seriously, and that the elders in the church should have done more to stop the abuse.
‘I don’t think anyone should be required to make a decision, I think they should be told “This is what’s happening”. It should never be left up to individuals.
'Reporting something doesn’t necessarily mean it will go to this extent [trial]. Reporting something means you’ve told someone who’s in a better position to judge whether something needs to be done than you are. I think it should be required of the people in the Church, too.’