Australia

Kezia Whitton's childhood was stolen. Despite its promises to the child abuse royal commission, her church did nothing

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Legal (CSA)
Country
Australia
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Copyright 2024 Australian Broadcasting Corporation All Rights Reserved
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Words, visuals and production by Briana Fiore. (January 30, 2024 Tuesday). Kezia Whitton's childhood was stolen. Despite its promises to the child abuse royal commission, her church did nothing. ABC Premium News (Australia). https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6B6N-4TJ1-JBN5-F002-00000-00&context=1516831.

Raised in a strict Jehovah's Witness community, Kezia Whitton's childhood was stolen when she was sexually abused by someone she should have been able to trust.

But despite its promises to the child abuse royal commission, the church did nothing to help bring him to justice.

WARNING: This story contains references to child sexual abuse.

"All rise."

Kezia Whitton remembers pulling a wrinkled tissue from her sleeve when she finally got her day in court.

The 34-year-old was breathing fast, her heart pumping and her whole body riddled with pins and needles.

She'd gone to the hairdresser the day before to get extensions, in the hope he wouldn't recognise her.

She glanced at her supporters and then across at her abuser.

He was the man who sexually abused her from the age of five, despite being an adult at the time.

He was the man who confessed the abuse to the Jehovah's Witnesses elders following the royal commission into child sexual abuse and wasn't reported to police.

He was the man that left her plagued by nauseating nightmares and paralysing anxiety.

He was her brother.

Joel Desmond Whitton.

And almost three decades on, she wasn't sure if he'd even be brought to justice.

Fearful childhood

Kezia was one of eight children and grew up in a family of "kids raising kids".

Her parents ran a busy caravan park in a regional West Australian town, just a stone's throw from the ocean.

For the masses, it was paradise – seagulls drifting in the breeze, waves carrying sandcastles back to the sea and Sunday markets full of farmers.

But it was a paradise Kezia was cut off from, brought up to fear the outside world.

She was raised a strict Jehovah's Witness, in a family and community governed by ironclad rules around its relationship with mainstream society.

The Christian sect, widely known for its door-to-door preaching, was awaiting Armageddon.

Kezia believed the end of the world was approaching and not everyone would be saved.

She'd fret at every thunderstorm or rainy day.

"I used to really freak-out and have really bad nightmares … there's meant to be brimstone [sulphur] and fire," she said.

"We would talk about it as a family, some of us could even die … it was very real to us and very real to me."

Kezia said she was petrified of the outside world.

But there was a far greater threat inside her family home.

Hidden abuse

From the age of five, Kezia's brother Joel began abusing her.

He was 18 at the time.

The abuse went on for half a decade and stole Kezia's childhood.

Kezia said her brother was abusing her without her parents knowing.

"He'd come into the bathroom, he'd just sneak in," she said.

"And then he'd just open the door and he'd sneak out."

He was sly and secretive. And he knew what he was doing was wrong.

"He [also] had a computer desk that he'd hide me under.

"The only place he didn't abuse me was in my own bedroom.

"I guess that's because he had more control in his bedroom."

Kezia said her brother always kept it hidden and nobody could ever know.

"He'd always end with a panic like 'what have I just done?'.

"And then he always, always, always would say a prayer," she said.

The abuse didn't stop until Kezia was 10 and Joel was 23.

It wasn't until a few years later when the family viewed a television story about child sexual abuse within the Jehovah's Witnesses religion that the abuse came to light.

Kezia, a teenager at the time, said she told her mother what Joel had done.

Court transcripts show Joel, then aged 26, then made admissions to his family and church elders.

But their mother never reported Joel to the police, instead encouraging Kezia to tell church elders about the abuse she endured.

Kezia thought it was intimidating and personal, and feared recounting graphic details to the older, male leaders.

So, the matter was abandoned.

Looking back, Kezia said she was too young to comprehend what had happened and that the adults in her life should have reported it to police.

She said that was part of the reason she no longer speaks to some of her family members.

During her late teenage years, Kezia began dating.

This was seen as rebellious, and she became fed up with the strict rules and lack of freedom.

She felt as though the religion was suffocating her and she eventually decided to leave.

Kezia said after she left the faith group, she felt shunned by her former community and loved ones.

She even recalled feeling like a stranger at her father's funeral.

She was later told by a family member that she ended up being disfellowshipped for having sex outside of marriage.

"I'm basically dead to my family … my mum has taken all my photos off the walls and out of albums and sent them back to me," Kezia said.

"I believe it is a cult, anything that controls and has a way of separating people and family is a cult."

Chasing justice

Just over a decade ticked by and Kezia watched on as the Jehovah's Witnesses were one of the religious organisations hauled over coals during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The faith's handling of abuse was scrutinised and blamed for contributing to the pain endured by survivors.

The inquiry heard that since the 1950s, the Witnesses hid more than 1,000 cases of child sexual abuse.

The faith group did not report one case to police over that time.

The royal commission was announced in 2012 and the final report was delivered in 2017.

In the wake of the institutional failings exposed by the commission, Western Australia's mandatory reporting requirements were expanded to include religious ministers in 2021.

It meant that they would have to report child sexual abuse to authorities.

Kezia confronted Joel about the abuse in 2018.

Her mental health had deteriorated because of the abuse and she wanted him to be brought to justice. 

Joel then went and confessed again to his Jehovah's Witness elders.

However, despite it being post royal commission, documents show how the religious group conducted its own internal investigation.

The religious leaders did not report the matter to police. 

Later, District Court Judge Belinda Lonsdale, presiding over Joel Whitton's case, questioned why the matter was never reported to police.

Joel's lawyer Kylie Ferridge replied: "It's my understanding that the elders of the Jehovah's Witness church consulted with the legal department of their establishment in New South Wales, and it was determined that due to the passage of time, and the remorse and the engagement, that they were not obligated to report the matter."

Judge Lonsdale: "Times have changed."

Ms Ferridge: "They have. Noting that Kezia Whitton was and remain able to report the matter to the police, should she so wish. And that is what Mr Whitton expected at those times. But that did not happen until 2021. So certainly, he attended the church for that investigation with the expectation that the matter would go further, and it did not do so until 2021."

Kezia said she was never contacted by the elders when they became aware of the abuse or encouraged by them to pursue the matter with police.

A document seen by the ABC shows a summary of how the elders dealt with the abuse.

It stated the "judicial committee determined there were grounds for mercy" as Joel "hates" what happened.

"Strong scriptural reproof was given and restrictions were put in place."

Those restrictions included not commenting at meetings and not praying on behalf of the congregation.

Kezia thinks a church should refer criminal matters to police instead of conducting its own investigation.

WA's mandatory reporting laws don't require religious groups to report historical child sexual abuse that happened before 2022.

The Jehovah's Witnesses did not answer a detailed list of questions about the handling of Kezia's case.

In a statement provided to the ABC, a church spokesperson said: "Out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved in this matter, it would not be appropriate for us to comment on the specifics of the case."

The spokesperson said the abuse Kezia suffered was "familial abuse" and not "institutional abuse" and that they cannot be responsible for what occurs inside the home.

They said Jehovah's Witnesses regard child abuse as a crime and abhorrent sin.

"We do not condone, conceal or shield those who are alleged to have committed it, and we provide comfort and support to survivors, acknowledging the deep and lasting scars that abuse leaves behind," they said.

WA's Minister for Child Protection Sabine Winton was asked whether she thought the reporting law should be reviewed but said mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse is intended to protect children, rather than to address historical abuse.

The office of WA Attorney General, John Quigley, would not weigh into the matter because he was on leave. 

After feeling failed at every turn, Kezia reported the abuse to police herself and her brother was finally charged in 2022.

She said having a child of her own made her realise how vulnerable she would have been at the time. 

If you know more about this topic, contact reporter Briana Fiore

Finally jailed

Back in the court room, Kezia let out a sigh of relief as her brother pleaded guilty to five counts of indecent dealings with a child and one count of sexual penetration of a child under 13.

His defence attempted to use his "extremely sheltered and religious environment that prevented sexual education" as to why he was "not aware of the illegality of his actions".

But prosecutors maintained Joel was "well aware that sex acts were wrong".

Joel was sentenced to a total of two years and six months in prison where 12 months must be served before he can be released back into the community.

He was 47 when he was sentenced late last year.

Kezia said she was hurt that she never got the type of relationship that most people have with their older brothers.

She often thinks back to a viral news event involving a pair of siblings and wishes that she had an older brother who protected her.

"I keep thinking of that little kid who got that bravery award because he stopped a dog from mauling his sister to death," she said.

Her eyes began to water.

"You've probably seen the picture; he has got scars all over him. And they've done a cartoon picture of him holding up a shield, like Superman with his little sister."

"He [Joel] should have been hurting for me, not hurting me."

Finding light

The festive season has been and gone but Kezia's Christmas tree remains.

The handmade ornaments she crafted with her young son continue to sparkle long after the ham and prawn sales hog full page paper ads.

After not being able to celebrate Christmas growing up, she admittingly overcompensates now but it's because the season bring her so much joy.

"We made little decorations to go up, I got hell excited with the glitter gun," she said.

The coloured bulbs on her tree flicker like the candles she makes to remember to find the light in life.

She started her own business and makes fun-scented candle creations out of Froot Loops and banana lollies.

"I love candle making. It's helped me heal, I think because it's bringing out my creative side and helping me sort of look at the world a bit more colourfully.

"I've never never been able to stick to a job without ending up leaving it, you know, through anxiety or getting fired, so this candle making thing has been awesome.

It's given me heaps of confidence back again, because people just seem to love what I do."

And she's determined to help other survivors and help them find the light in their lives too. 

"You're a survivor every day, every day you survive, but I think it's knowing that you're a lot more than what hurt you instead of letting it consume you completely," she said.

"It gets to a point where it gets a lot better … I can talk now … and every time you talk about it, like now, [you heal] and feel more free."

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This so-called "christian" organization is nothing but an abusive money grubbing publishing company disguised as a high-control-religion, aka a cult. It has destroyed my entire family and almost every family I knew growing up, in one way or another. I have seen these similar stories to Kezia's over and over again as a 4th generation (now) ExJW. This group spends millions to publish puff pieces so they're the 1st thing u see in a Google search. But in reality, they are a destructive cult that needs more press and awareness because it needs to be exposed. Go to jwfacts.com

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