‘When I was about 25, I made a decision that I was going to put my experience to good use rather than let it completely destroy me. So that’s why I went to uni and studied ... I wanted to be that person that I didn’t have.’
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, Sharn needed someone who would act on her reports that her father was sexually abusing her. The abuse that she can remember, which included rape, took place between the ages of seven and 17. However, she suspects that it began when she was baby.
Sharn’s father was an elder in an Assemblies of God church, and in terms of seniority, he was ‘a step down from the pastor’. Sharn’s mother knew of the abuse but, fearing her ‘volatile and violent’ husband, was too scared to intervene. Her siblings were also abused, she believes, but they have not come forward.
The first person Sharn put her hope in was her sixth grade teacher. ‘We were doing sex ed at our primary school … There was a question box, and I wrote a question … “Is it still sex if it’s a dad and a daughter?”
'And the teacher read out the question, and then put the whole class on detention … I wasn’t going to own up to it in front of the whole class! No one owned up to it, so we all got class detention for not taking it seriously and writing ridiculous questions … So that shut me down enough until I was about 14.’
Sharn next put her hope in the youth leaders at her church. ‘At that stage, I wasn’t 100 per cent clear on what actually was happening to me. I didn’t have words for it … but I was distressed about what was happening, and was talking to them about the fact that he was doing things that I didn’t like, and that he was physically violent as well.’
The youth leaders initially thought that this was ‘quite serious’, but after speaking with the pastor, they did ‘a complete 360’ in line with the view that ‘that doesn’t happen in these circles’.
‘It was, you know, “A lot of teenagers have conflict with their parents, and you might be just misunderstanding what’s going on. And your father’s an elder in the church, and the pastor doesn’t believe that he would be doing anything that he shouldn’t be doing. So therefore you need to deal with your issues with your parents”.’
When Sharn was 17, a teacher she had spoken to about the abuse organised a meeting in which her mother was present. ‘I was basically just bombarded with questions, and just completely shut down and couldn’t disclose’, Sharn said. ‘They basically said, “We can’t help you, you need to go home”, and so I went home with my mum.’
Sharn was also sexually abused by a teacher at her Christian school, Mr Stanley. She reported the abuse to the deputy principal.
‘He basically said that he’d gone to Mr Stanley and told him what he’d been accused of, and he’d denied it’, Sharn said. ‘And when he reported that back to me he said, “Look, he’s a good teacher, he’s a friend, and I don’t think he would’ve done anything like that”.’
About 10 years ago, Sharn confronted the deputy principal and ‘laid all the cards on the table and said, “Look, this is what happened, this is how you responded, and I’m not happy”’. The teacher apologised to her, which was helpful, and ‘sort of put that to rest’. She also reported the matter to the police, but was advised that it was outside of the statute of limitations.
Sharn met her husband when they were both teenagers, so he ‘got roped into all this from the get-go’, and has been very supportive. However, she found it difficult to adapt to ‘living in safety and security’, and continued to feel ‘unsafe and hypervigilant’. She also experienced ‘a lot of internalised maladaptive responses’ such as suicidal tendencies, self-harm, and mental health problems related to her identity and self-worth.
Sharn said that she has had long-term therapy because ‘there was a lot of leftover stuff from the multiple disclosures and multiple knockbacks around “Nobody’s going to believe you, he’s too important, nobody’s going to take it seriously, it’s not worth fighting for because you’re just worthless” – all that sort of stuff’.
After a bout of depression in her 20s, when ‘stuff started to come out and unravel’, Sharn asked herself, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ She decided ‘to try and fix it and make it worth it’ by studying for a degree that would allow her to delve into her experience. Her physical and mental health suffered as a result. However, she completed her degree in her early 30s.
Sharn recommends that trauma education be included in the curriculum of people training to work in child-focused institutions, ‘so that when they start working with children they can start to recognise the signs of trauma and respond appropriately, rather than just going, “This kid’s off the show and I don’t know what to do. It’s someone else’s problem”. I think that early intervention stuff is really important.’
After the recent prosecution of the actor Robert Hughes for child sex offences, Sharn felt hopeful that a complaint against her father might finally be heard. She went to the police, expecting ‘to be treated pretty roughly’, but was instead treated ‘brilliantly’. Her police interview was long and conducted with patience and support. The victims’ support service and crown prosecutor were ‘amazing’. And her father pleaded guilty and is now serving a custodial sentence.