Telling a forbidden secret finally brings peace
AFTER suffering for eight years at the hands of an opportunistic child molester, Warwick woman Laurel Hughes finally found peace upon speaking up and seeing her abuser thrown behind bars.
Mrs Hughes said through her healing process years later as an adult, she realised how powerful a child's voice could be.
"As children, we were able to stop something that had been happening for generations," she said.
"We made an awareness within the community and hopefully stopped it from ever happening again."
Mrs Hughes said speaking up took a huge weight from her shoulders.
"Almost immediately there was peace of mind and I've never once regretted it," she said.
"It may seem impossible, but, if it's happening to you, speak up and stop it."
"It was a life-changing moment for me."
For more than eight years Mrs Hughes was abused on a regular basis by a trusted member of their close-knit church community.
The memories of the predator were there from a young age.
"I don't know when it started," she said.
"And I didn't ever have any idea it was wrong."
A victim of what she called classic conditioning, Mrs Hughes said the culture in the church was such that speaking out against other members of the church was discouraged.
"I was told repeatedly by my abuser that if I ever told anyone, I'd bring hurt to people," she said.
In the early 1990s, while a 13-year-old student at Warwick State High School, Mrs Hughes's secret finally came out.
"It all came out one night but not by me," she said.
"One by one we all told our stories - it had been happening to all of us, and no-one had said a thing because we'd been conditioned not to."
"I had no idea it had been happening to the others as well."
Mrs Hughes said her parents were heartbroken by the revelations.
"They wanted to right wrongs straight away, but unfortunately it wasn't that easy - not within the church," she said.
"The way it was all dealt with internally by the church was cruel and dragged on and on, no court of law would have ever put children through what came next."
Rather than go straight to the police, the church chose to deal with the matter internally, a process Mrs Hughes said took many painful months.
One by one, the children were forced to face a panel of church leaders, all men, to tell their side of the story - all while facing their accused.
"That was complete hell," Mrs Hughes said.
"But we were told it was necessary to determine who was telling the truth.
"Even after this, there was no immediate resolution like we'd hoped and it was months before we were finally allowed to go to the police. "The church feared its reputation would be tarnished but eventually they had no choice."
Once police became involved, things moved quickly. Statements were taken, protocols followed and Mrs Hughes said she remembered the whole process being relatively painless.
"We'd already been through the hardest of it, the pain was behind us for the most part and we knew we were nearing a conclusion," she said.
"It helped that we realised we were nearing a conclusion and people were finally listening.
In the years that followed from the time the allegations of abuse surfaced, more than 30 other women approached Mrs Hughes with stories of the same person doing the same sorts of things to them.
Not one took it further but it appeared the alleged abuse had been happening for decades.
The abuser - formerly a close, trusted family friend - was sentenced to just over two years in prison for his crimes.