Incest victim turned lawyer speaks out on reporting violence and sexual abuse

Updated April 08, 2019 07:11:29

After enduring years of secrecy and betrayal, Shelly Rose Braieoux finally dug deep within herself and picked up the phone.

Key points:

  • Shelly Braieoux said Jehovah’s Witnesses elders failed to face up to her abuse allegations
  • She said she felt like God would strike her down when she cut ties with the church
  • Her initial experiences with police and the legal system prompted her to study law

Having grown up with parents who were strict Jehovah’s Witnesses, she remembers being taught to fear outsiders.

Making a report to the police, an elder told her, would “bring reproach” upon Jehovah’s name.

But she had something to say.

Her father — a man who had forced her to carefully write out scriptures on a poster, and had forbidden her from wearing two bangles on her wrist — had inflicted violence and sexual abuse at home in the past.

In the period after she cut ties with the church, Ms Braieoux said she felt like God was going to strike her down at any moment.

But a voice on the other end of the line, that of Detective Senior Constable Natalie Bennett, offered her some genuine compassion.

“She was so caring. It made me feel believed for the very first time,” she said.

After a strict upbringing ruled by religion, it was Ms Braieoux’s first experience with the law.

‘A good example for my children’

More than 15 years on, her path to justice will come full circle when she walks out of the Banco Court in Brisbane today — having qualified as a lawyer herself.

Despite only completing school to Year 10, the 47-year-old went on to graduate from James Cook University with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) last year and said she found it “surreal” that she was being admitted into the ranks of the legal profession.

“I’m shocked at myself,” she said.

“I’ve just kept being consistent — studying and moving forward, and trying to be better and set a good example for my children.”

In a powerful show of support, Detective Bennett will be watching on — and Ron Swanwick, who was crown prosecutor at her father’s trials, will be moving her admission.

“I have the most admiration for Ron … and said to him, I really wish I had a father like him,” she said.

She said her own father, who was appointed a ministerial servant in their Far North Queensland congregation, belted her with a strap.

When she was 17, her mother and siblings headed off to Brisbane for Expo 88, leaving her alone with him.

He started slipping into her bedroom at night and assaulting her, telling her to “be obedient to your father”.

“I thought initially that I was imagining it — like it was a nightmare,” she said.

She said she bolted from the house on one occasion after he tried to force her onto the bed and offered her money.

“I told him I wasn’t a prostitute and actually jumped over my sister’s bed and ran away from him … and he chased me,” she said.

Church elders asked for eyewitnesses

She said it was practice among Jehovah’s Witnesses that any wrongdoing had to be reported to church elders.

But when she approached them, she was told she needed her father to be present to make a complaint.

“We weren’t to study sex education at school … and I didn’t even know how to express it … it was confusing for me at that age,” she said.

She later discovered her father had abused her other sisters. So, fuelled by anger and betrayal, she confronted him during meetings with the elders.

While her father ended up being “disfellowshipped”, she was told it was because he had had an affair, not because of what she had told the elders.

“They said I didn’t have two eyewitnesses to each of my assaults,” she said of the religion’s judicial policy.

She said a couple of years later her father was allowed back into the congregation, despite stalking her and tampering with her mail.

“I said [to one of the elders] I wanted to take it to the police.

“Then he showed me a scripture and said if I take it to the police, (I’ll) bring reproach upon Jehovah’s name and I’ll be disfellowshipped for that,” she said.

Ms Braieoux said the first thing she did after leaving the church was make a report to the police.

“When (Detective Bennett) said this was a crime, it gave me the confidence to keep going with it,” she said.

In 2004, after a third trial, her father was convicted and sentenced to three years’ jail on one count each of rape, attempted rape and sexual assault, and four counts of indecent assault.

She said Detective Bennett attended the committal and returned for each trial.

“It wasn’t until later on that I realised it wasn’t her role. She had changed job descriptions,” she said.

Mr Swanwick said after the trial he had a conversation with Ms Braieoux in which he suggested she could pursue formal study.

“Five years later at work I got a phone call … saying, ‘hey this is Shelly, remember me? I’ve done a year of study, now I’m going to switch to law,” he said.

Ms Braieoux had been told by a lecturer at James Cook University that law was “in her blood”.

Mr Swanwick said that five years later he received another phone call from Ms Braieoux telling him she was doing honours and had been invited to give evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

She gave evidence under the pseudonym BCG in Case Study 29.

“The criminal trials … were great for justice … but this was different. This was healing,” she said.

Ms Braieoux was awarded a high distinction for her thesis, which drew on the different practices within the Jehovah’s Witnesses church and how it applied to the law.

‘So proud of her’

Mr Swanwick said she was “very bright, very intelligent, and very, very determined”.

“Life has come full circle. From assisting her as a victim, I’m now facilitating her entry into a career in law,” he said.

“I hope that she has just a wonderful career.

“Life hasn’t been good to her up to now. She certainly deserves the best … and I have a feeling she’s going to get it.”

Detective Bennett, who attended Ms Braieoux’s graduation last year alongside Mr Swanwick, said theirs was “an unusual friendship in terms of how and why it started”.

“I’m so proud of her. I think she’s an amazing person who has resilience,” she said.

Ms Braieoux said having children of her own had given her the will to live.

‘I’ll make up a name for you’

She recalled tearfully sitting at a table after separating from her partner, feeling like she didn’t know where she belonged.

“My eldest son said to me, ‘You belong with us’.”

She said he also suggested she reinvent herself and asked her, “How would you feel if I made a surname up for you out of the initials of your children’s given names?

“He added an x [at the end] for kisses.”

She now worked in an administration role for police prosecutions and said she was thrilled to be part of the justice system.

“I love working for Queensland police, the people … the ethics and standards are amazing,” she said.

Ms Braieoux said she was now full of excitement for the future and hoped that telling her story would show other people “there is life after trauma”.

“Stop the cycle of abuse. Take back your power and your voice by reporting your abuse,” she said.

“It exposes the abuser for who they are, and most importantly it warns other parents to protect their children.”

Topics: sexual-offences, family, religion-and-beliefs, courts-and-trials, judges-and-legal-profession, police, brisbane-4000, qld

First posted April 08, 2019 05:35:05

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