Shauna Leigh's story

Shauna grew up in a strict Baptist family where she was ‘well-trained, in that you do what you’re told because otherwise you pay for it’. She was taught that God’s law was first, her parents’ second, and ‘if you disrespected your parents then it was preached that you would go to hell’.

Over a 14-month period in the late 1980s when Shauna was about 15 years old, she was sexually abused at home by her father who was also the Sunday school teacher at the local Baptist church. As the abuse continued, Shauna became afraid that it ‘would soon escalate to rape’, and she told a school counsellor. However, no reports were made and the counsellor took no other action.

Soon afterwards, Shauna disclosed the abuse to a friend who suggested telling his father, Mr Dixon.

Mr Dixon was the church minister and after hearing Shauna describe that her father was doing ‘sex stuff’, he told her to write a letter to her father telling him she knew that what he was doing was wrong. Dixon ‘then prayed for us’.

Shauna was too scared to give the letter to her father. She had hoped Mr Dixon would ‘step in and protect me, but he did not’. When Dixon later asked Shauna if she’d given her father the letter, she replied that she hadn’t.

‘He looked at me as though I could now not complain as I was clearly asking for it to continue.’

Shauna then told her mother about the abuse. Her mother’s response was to confront her husband who would only admit to ‘hugging and kissing’ Shauna. The family had further contact with Dixon who referred them to a Christian counselling service, and at these sessions Shauna was told she ‘should forgive her father and that it was all over’.

At different times in the next few years, Shauna told youth workers at the church about the abuse. ‘I was told by these people I could not speak because it was my responsibility to consider my father’s feelings, and how disclosing the abuse to anyone would impact on his life.’

Over two or three years, Shauna told about seven people about the abuse but none of them did anything about her disclosures. Shauna’s mother organised for a lock to be installed on Shauna’s bedroom door. ‘I was told I had to lock myself up each night. I did, because I expected my mum to test it and for me to be in trouble if I didn’t.’

In the early 1990s Shauna had what she described as a ‘nervous breakdown’.

‘I couldn’t tell you what the feeling was. I just knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t feel right. When I look back now I can see I was slowly melting down because I was being expected to act as though nothing had happened.’

In hospital, Shauna told staff about the abuse but again nothing was done. Her mother told her that if she ‘still had feelings’ about what her father had done, then it was demonstration that she was a ‘selfish, ungrateful, thankless person’ with a ‘personality deficit’.

The first person that listened to Shauna was a woman she met at an Anglican church where her husband was a member.

Shauna told the Commissioner that at various times she’d been diagnosed with depression and PTSD. She’d had difficulty breastfeeding her children because doing so triggered flashbacks to the abuse. The birth of her daughter was an eventual catalyst for her making a report about her father to Victoria Police.

‘If anything should happen to my husband and I and we both die, my parents are not to get access to the kids and there’s a police record of why. That was my motivation – to protect them … It stops with me. My daughter does not go through that.’

She thought it important that religious leaders be aware of their responsibilities ‘not just spiritually, but also legally’, and that ‘compulsory reporting should be made as a national response to child sexual assault’.

Shauna described periods of her life where she’d had thoughts of suicide. ‘I recognise and I repeat to myself, “I don’t want to die. This is a temporary feeling and it will pass, but I don’t actually want to die. What I want is to stop feeling like this”. And I can sort of separate those.

‘But I was very lucky that I’ve had one person in my life when I was young who made me feel unconditionally loved and that was one of my [grand]pas – my mum’s dad. And maybe, I think that was just enough to sort of give me that glimmer of belief, and I think I’m lucky that circumstances have meant that I haven’t been able to do as much as I liked perhaps or could have, but I’m quite intelligent and I think that helps.’

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