‘It’s funny, like, I feel as though I have passed the hurt over the abuse, like the actual acts and things that happened, I have come to terms with that and I feel okay about that. Now, it’s all the stress from the reaction from the Jehovah’s Witnesses … It’s like a completely different type of stress.’
Toni was born in the late 1980s into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. From a very young age, until she was about six, she was sexually abused by an older relative who threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
Nevertheless, the relative was charged. In court he was supported by senior Jehovah’s Witnesses and Toni was too fearful to openly discuss the abuse. He was found not guilty of the crimes against Toni.
‘I was really scared that someone was going to come and do us in or something if I said, “Yes this happened” … So a lot of the time I think I just said, “I don’t remember” because I was frightened … I was just really, really afraid.
‘He’d threaten me and then every day I felt scared …. That just had a really profound effect on me … That’s always stayed my whole life. It’s never gone away.’
Toni has been harassed by local Jehovah’s Witnesses for years because of her ongoing assertion that she was abused by the relative.
‘It was only after I mentioned to a friend a couple of years ago that I had a grievance [with the faith] and she was really shocked by it and she went and told people. Since then, since the elders have found out that we are unhappy about it, they are very concerned about us speaking to people and so they are really just trying to keep us quiet.
‘A month ago, we had another circuit overseer come and visit, and he basically said, reiterated the fact that if there is no second witness [to the abuse] they will not do anything about it, and you need to leave it in God’s hands and wait … It’s just not good enough really.’
These visits are unannounced and intimidating, and Toni is often re-traumatised by them.
‘It’s horrible because it’s bringing up awful things that I have to remember and go through constantly every time. I don’t want to talk about that sort of stuff with these people … They’re not in any way qualified to be dealing with sensitive situations like this.
'All they’re doing is telling me, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it”, so I just don’t understand why they keep coming.’
She came to speak with the Commissioner after seeing the public hearing into the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
‘After watching the Commission … I’d been mulling these things over for a long time but one thing that stood out to me was the organisation was saying, “We’ve updated our policies and procedures blah, blah, blah” – but they haven’t.
‘What frightens me the most is that if they actually have someone confess [to child sexual abuse] they can say, “I’m sorry”, and they can have a quiet reproval and not even be publicly disfellowshipped.’
Toni told the Commissioner that even when the public hearing was on, no one in her area openly discussed it.
‘It’s really risky to mention anything like the Commission, a news article especially, because they’ll label you as being apostate and that’s a disfellowshipping offence as well. So anything that has a negative spin on it is not to be mentioned really.’
The habitual sexual abuse Toni experienced has significantly affected her life, particularly in regard to relationships.
‘The biggest thing is I don’t like people touching me. To have someone sit there and touch me in any way or form, it freaks me out. So there is like a bit of a block a lot of the time. I have to be either very relaxed or very calm to behave like a normal person … I’m so hyped up and afraid all the time.’
She has trust issues and finds it very hard to make friends or have intimate relationships. Toni is also aware that because her abuse occurred at such an early age, her psychosocial development was affected.
‘What’s really worse is that I don’t think people always understand the difference between being raped as an adult and then being abused as a child. So, my earliest memories are some of this abuse. My developing brain was treated like this, so my outlook and my understanding will never be like a normal person that was raised in a normal environment.
'And I can’t undo that … I was basically being trained that that was normal when it wasn’t.’
Toni has recently gone through a traumatic physical experience that has reignited her memories of the abuse.
‘Ever since then, it’s like a lot of bad memories come back because that was such a traumatic experience. It was like being damaged. A lot of that bad feeling came back again; I’d wake up having nightmares and terror attacks again.’
The intimidation by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses continues. Toni is still fearful of their retribution, especially living in a small town where any shunning of her would affect her livelihood and wellbeing. In a written statement Toni stated:
‘I would go so far as to say that the stress I have had to deal with in recent times has really compounded the hurt that I feel from the initial abuse, and in some ways it hurts me even more. Being told that it's all just a matter of faith, and to let it go, is quite possibly the most horrible advice I have ever heard. My suffering has not been taken seriously and I have been treated more like a criminal myself for speaking up at all … I have not been offered compensation as it is not something that Jehovah's Witnesses offer.’
Toni lives in a small town with connections to a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations. Members of her family live in the area and remain active within the faith. Toni is also a member of her local congregation but doesn’t attend any functions.
She has also recently reconnected with close family who aren’t in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and this has brought some stability and perspective to her life.
‘I really just want to move on with my life, and I feel that having my story heard and taken seriously will really help me in this regard. So I am very grateful that the government has put in place the commission and hope that it might help children for the future.’