‘I was told it was my bad karma, and that I had raped people in past lifetimes and God was punishing me. I had to be grateful to God for allowing me to pay back my bad karma in this way. I paid extra money and cleaned toilets to offer more service to God.’
When Tiffany and her mum joined a spiritual organisation in the 1980s, it seemed to offer them a way of rationalising their troubles. Tiffany’s lifelong disability and her mother’s addictive behaviour could easily be attributed to their supposed past-life sins.
‘We were so damaged and exhausted by everything that was happening in our lives that we believed them.’ The organisation held regular ‘purification’ ceremonies, which they both attended.
Tiffany was in her mid-teens when she met Ben Peterson, who represented himself as a senior member of the movement. He befriended her mother, and she allowed him to drive Tiffany home from gatherings.
Over the course of a few months, Peterson sexually assaulted Tiffany three times during these trips. This included fondling her breasts, and forcing her to perform oral sex.
The last of these incidents was ‘particularly bad’, and she knew he would continue abusing her. ‘He was calling me his girlfriend, and he was saying it was a secret.’
Prior to the assaults by Peterson, Tiffany had been sexually abused by her mum’s father and had disclosed this to her. This experience ‘made it easier to tell my mother’ about this latest abuse.
Tiffany said she wanted to go to the police about Peterson. Her mother agreed to this, but said they should contact the organisation first. They were still fairly new members and didn’t want to do anything wrong.
They went to see the state head of the organisation, who seemed very concerned and agreed they should make a report to police. He called the national director, and ‘had to repeat word-for-word what I was saying. It was humiliating. Mum had to sit outside the office’.
The director then spoke to her, and she expected him to be compassionate. Instead, he suggested ‘that I might have raped Peterson in a past lifetime’, and him assaulting her was a punishment from God.
Tiffany should be grateful, he advised, to be able to atone for her past sins in this way, and she should make prayers of apology, and a large financial donation to the movement.
‘I remember feeling really cold and floaty at this point.’ She felt guilty that the director even had to deal with her, and wanted to cry.
He said the organisation would deny all knowledge of the abuse, and ‘if I chose to report to police I would be undoing the karma that God “made arrangements” for me to repay in such a way, and that if I did, God may make me repay in a worse way next time – I might be murdered’.
Tiffany was given ‘spiritual counselling’, but there were conditions to receiving any assistance at all from the organisation that ‘I kept it secret from other members’. Telling others, she was informed, would mean ‘all the evil spirits would disturb everyone else’.
Peterson ‘was told to do more divine service to repent for what he had done to me’, and Tiffany was informed ‘they were going to make sure he wasn’t alone with any woman in the future’.
Although she did not have to be with Peterson alone, he was often around. He also apologised to her. ‘That was part of his atonement, but it was insincere ... How do you accept an apology from someone that’s done that to you? I just looked at him, I didn’t respond.’
Tiffany developed anxiety and this had an impact on her schoolwork. Although she managed to complete her studies, she did not do nearly as well as she had hoped to. Feeling ‘discouraged’, and with entirely inadequate support, Tiffany tried to suicide twice in the 18 months after the abuse.
‘I would pray to God for forgiveness and apologise for being so full of sin and filthy over and over again in the hope that [I] would stop seeing the assault in my head.’
She continued attending the organisation, although she was branded as ‘evil’, made to undertake ‘spiritual counselling’ – of which written records were kept – and forced to make more donations.
In her 20s Tiffany became aware that Peterson sexually abused a number of other young women, overseas students who were ‘were told that he hadn’t done it before and to keep it secret’.
Tiffany was devastated to learn this, and reported it to the organisation. Called a liar by a senior leader, she was so upset and angry that she replied ‘if you lot are going to continue to protect that slimy fucker whilst he abuses young women I'm out of here’.
That was the end of her involvement with the organisation, though her mother tried to ‘guilt’ her into coming back and she was scared of divine retribution. ‘In that first year, I was so convinced that God was going to kill me for leaving.’
After school she continued to tertiary studies, which she enjoyed. She still lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and agoraphobia, and her work history has been ‘patchy’. Seeking sexual assault counselling has helped Tiffany deal with the abuse, and her husband is a great support.
Tiffany has recently made a police report, and the investigation is ongoing. She is considering seeking compensation, and would like an ‘acknowledgement of wrongdoing’ and apology from the organisation.