After surviving 10 years of hell, Anna* held on to hope her perpetrators would finally atone for the sins of the past. Tim Scott investigates how the Presbyterian Church’s redress retraumatised Anna, convincing her it is washing its hands of accountability.
Anna* never had a childhood.
What was meant to be filled with innocence and joy was instead plagued by nightmares, isolation and loneliness.
Anna was raped, drugged and trafficked for 10 years as a child.
She was shared among a ring of paedophiles around Southland, Otago and as far as Christchurch.
It all transpired under the watch of the Presbyterian Support Services Association (PSSA), an offshoot of the Presbyterian Church.
“I was never safe or felt safe in or around the church,” Anna says.
“I experienced sexual abuse at post-church functions, Sunday school, Bible study, church picnics, live show outings, on weekends and in school holidays in parishioners’ homes.”
Last year, a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care unearthed just how far this paedophile ring stretched.
Once those revelations were exposed, Anna came forward.
She lodged an abuse claim with the church, demanding accountability, and recounted her trauma to its complaints review panel.
Not only was Anna the first survivor in New Zealand to undertake the redress process, she also advised the church on its process after it requested her help.
The panel compiled a 10-page report of her abuse which, along with a 25-page appendix, was distributed to the church’s council of assembly to make her a final offer of redress.
It concluded the Presbyterian Church held a degree of responsibility for Anna’s abuse.
“[Anna] was under the care of PSSA and a lot of the abuse did occur at the hands of carers under the PSSA,” the report stated.
“However, it appears that some, if not all, of these carers also attended the Presbyterian Church.”
Despite the acknowledgement, from its own complaints panel, the church assigned the blame solely to the support services association.
“We know that both the Presbyterian Church and PSSA are organisations that are part of the wider Presbyterian denomination, but they are separate.”
The church decided her childhood ordeal was worth $15,000, one year of paid therapy and a “genuine, heartfelt apology”.
What began as a selfless act to help fellow survivors had left her devastated.
“It felt like a violation, a re-rape.
“All I was is something to be used and set aside, just not worthy of even having told my story.”
Anna said the church was simply dodging accountability.
“They are passing responsibility as easily as they passed children around.”
For Anna, one question has lingered — what is the price of a stolen childhood?
“How much is a little girl worth? Can you measure it, in dollars? How much should it cost, to abuse and destroy her? She knows nothing of dollars and cents. She only knows about fear; about being terrified, inside her own skin.”
Anna described the church’s verdict as “a knife to my guts”, which did not reflect the scale of her abuse.
The panel concluded the church was jointly responsible for creating an environment that allowed abuse to occur, and not ensuring the support services association had sufficient processes to ensure abuse did not occur.
From Anna’s perspective, the two organisations were “tightly linked”.
She described being taken to a church service immediately after being put in the care of the association, was abused at church functions and unvetted parishioners were allowed access to association homes to do Bible readings with the children.
She also mentioned the carers, whose families she was passed around, were often from the church.
She was even taken to a church event at a parishioner’s home and was abused on their property.
“As this was a church event, the Presbyterian Church had responsibility,” the report stated.
The panel’s report concluded that, while the two institutions were separate, the church had control originally.
In documentation about lodging an abuse claim, the church said redress would be offered where the church was either directly or indirectly responsible for abuse, and it was committed to avoiding the retraumatisation of survivors.
For seven months Anna served as a senior principal adviser for the process and recounted her history of abuse to the church’s complaints panel.
She sought $200,000 financial compensation, $20,000 for each of the 10 years of her life that were stolen.
In June, she received the outcome.
In this letter, the church’s general assembly moderator, the Right Rev Hamish Galloway, acknowledged that Anna’s abuse occurred at church functions and was perpetrated by those who attended the church.
“You were in the care of PSSA when you were abused, although we have heard you when you say some of the abuse you were subjected to happened at Presbyterian Church functions, and some of the people who abused you attended a Presbyterian church.
“We also heard you when you told us that you told some people in the Presbyterian Church about what happened and that they did nothing.
“The individuals that did this are absolutely responsible for their appalling actions.”
However, in the same letter, Mr Galloway told Anna the church would not accept responsibility for her abuse.
“As an organisation we condemn the actions and inactions of these individuals, but we cannot conclude that this was a failing of the Presbyterian Church as an organisation.
“Anna, you are believed, and what happened to you was wrong. But we cannot offer compensation for abuse that the PSSA was responsible for.”
Anna labelled the church, “unscrupulous hypocrites”.
She said it was washing its hands of any responsibility for its support organisations, and she regretted ever entering redress.
“They shift their responsibility to their service arm, like the Catholics shift their paedophile priests around the Pacific islands.”
The notion the church and its support organisations were separate entities dates back to a royal commission hearing in October last year.
Among those who appeared before the commission was Presbyterian Support Otago (PSO).
It ran two care facilities: Glendining Presbyterian Children’s Homes in Andersons Bay and Marama Home in Lawrence.
The hearing found that abuse had occurred from 1950 to 1960, and during the 1980s until 1991, when Glendining was shut down.
After a number of complainants came forward, between 2004 and 2019, neither PSO nor the church had investigated what had happened to children in their care.
PSO chief executive Jo O’Neill said she had been made aware of the allegations of a paedophile ring in 2020.
When asked by the ODT about the status of an investigation into the allegations, Ms O’Neill said PSO was co-operating with the church.
She too stressed the two institutions were separate entities and said she did expect the Presbyterian Church to compensate survivors in the care of PSO.
“PSO will take responsibility to ensure there is redress for any person who was abused while in the care of our organisation, regardless of who inflicted the abuse.”
A historic report, supplied to the commission, showed the relationship between the general assembly of the church and its social services was not clarified until 1983.
The report described this relationship as one built on “‘trust’ and ‘responsibility’ rather than any legal accountability”.
Despite the lack of a legal relationship, when asked by the commission at the hearing if the church should have done more to monitor and oversee care homes, whose boards were largely comprised of Presbyterian ministers, assembly executive secretary the Rev Wayne Matheson said
these ministers had a moral responsibility to report deeply distressing findings back to the church.
Mr Matheson did not answer questions about whether the church was trying to dodge accountability by distancing itself from support organisations, referring the ODT to an earlier statement.
Like others, he reiterated the church and its support organisations were separate entities, but acknowledged some church members served in both organisations.
The organisation under which abuse occurred was the “primary factor” in determining financial compensation, regardless of whether an abuser was a support worker or parishioner, he said.
The organisation that delegated care was responsible for the abuse inflicted by those whom they delegated, he said.
He said he was unable to comment on Anna’s specific case, but when told about her disgust at receiving her outcome letter, he said the church would be open to reviewing its redress system.
“We are devastated when we learn of an abuse of trust; we respond by reaching out to offer our sincere apology, pastoral care and support.
“Our church offers a pathway to justice through our own processes, which give any person who has experienced, or has knowledge of, any form of harm in our church an avenue to raise these matters with us. We know that historically has not always been the case.
“We have put in place many safeguards since historic offences occurred because we are doing all we can to make sure such abuse never occurs again.”
Network of Survivors in Faith-based Institutions spokeswoman Liz Tonks said the Presbyterian Church’s redress procedures could not adequately address historic abuse, and was retraumatising by design.
“The Presbyterian process for making a complaint is one of the worst examples of the church processes, lacking independence and transparency, and definitely not trauma free.
“It forces the survivor to engage with the institution that failed to keep them safe at the time they were in care,” Ms Tonks said.
“It is a disciplinary process, not a redress or rehabilitating process.”
Anna’s compensation offer was inadequate for the level of abuse she suffered, Ms Tonks said.
“The outcomes of faith-based complaints processes, as is the case for this survivor, is woefully inadequate to compensate survivors for the harm they experienced or to provide the necessary assistance to address the lifelong impacts they suffer as a result.
“This commonly leaves survivors devastated and any hopes for the support they need, dashed.”
She thought the church was shifting its responsibility on to its service arm, which was exactly what all churches were doing, Ms Tonks said.
“They’re not taking responsibility for the fact they let them affiliate with their church. They’re putting it on to each of the institutions where the person was abused,” Ms Tonks said.
“Why does the church allow them to still be affiliated with the church if they’re responsible for abuse? They shouldn’t be directly off the hook.”
An ongoing ordeal
Anna’s suffering did not stop once she left Presbyterian care.
She suffers social anxiety, body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria. She has never been able to hold down a long-term job for fear of people discovering her past. She suffers lifetime depression and acute panic attacks. She has recurring dreams where she is being held down and cannot escape.
Anna says she would appeal her redress outcome, and was seeking legal advice.
“I could just go away and accept what they’ve offered, but I’m not going to do that,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s good enough. I believe I deserve more.”
Anna says you cannot put a price-tag on the happiness and innocence of another human being.
But she is determined to use her pain to help others.
She says that she will see the church’s redress process through to the very end, for all survivors like her.
“I will ask you again: what is a little girl worth?
“There’s no answer on the planet that could take away the sting. But as a mother myself, and grandmother, I know the answer to my question — absolutely everything.”
On January 20, 1968, 5-year-old Anna* entered Presbyterian care. For the next 10 years she was sexually abused.
She walked away in 1981, at the age of 18, leaving both her abusers and childhood behind.
While she left the abuse at the door, Anna could never escape the memories.
Anna’s abuse would haunt her for the next 40 years, casting a long shadow over her relationships, employment, and peace within her own body.
Anna was abused within the care of the Presbyterian Support Services Association (PSSA), passed around multiple churches and small towns spanning the South Island.
When she entered the care of Presbyterian Support Services Association (PSSA) that January day, ‘‘the grooming began immediately upon entering’’.
Anna was taught that good children were obedient and silent.
She was fed prayers, biblical stories, readings and songs every morning and evening, and was punished for questioning the bible.
‘‘We were made to love Jesus but were also abused like empty vessels in his name,’’ Anna said.
‘‘I can still hear the shuffling sound of Pater’s slippers, making their way down the long corridor of polished linoleum.
‘‘There is no shoving a knife in the door frame to lock it, no screaming out in fear or protest.
‘‘The covers held tight around you so that your knuckles are white, your breath stops, and your protest is the silent scream in your chest that thuds in time with your heart.’’
‘‘Pater’’ taught Anna to be his child lover.
He gave specific sexual acts certain names, which were repeated by other abusive parishioners.
Anna does not remember the names, but knows what they meant and what she was expected to do.
If she did not perform these acts, they threatened that she would never see her parents again, or would be sent to ‘‘the Cherry Farm’’.
She did not know Cherry Farm was a psychiatric hospital, only that it was a place from which you never came back.
Anna and the other children would line up, morning and evening, to take their daily vitamins.
In the morning the pills were colourful and chewable, and she would go to school clearheaded. In the evening, the pills were bitter and made everything feel blurred and ‘‘fuzzy’’.
Anna said her medical records never indicated that she was prescribed medication by a GP. But she was convinced that she was drugged to serve the needs of those who had access to her.
‘‘After some time, you don’t protest. You learn how to behave, how to respond, how to perform, and you learn to leave your body until it’s all over.’’
Anna said she was shared around Southland and Otago and as far as Christchurch.
She said it seemed to happen more when you were deemed an, ‘‘amenable, quiet, compliant’’ child.
Her first faraway trip with an abuser was to a bach in Arrowtown for two weeks.
Anna said she was placed in the care of people who were not vetted caregivers that had access to her because of their reputation as ‘‘good Christian people,’’ and the camaraderie they had with church officials.
From 11-years-old, each summer holiday for three years, Anna said she was trafficked between three different families.
She was at a horse-racing jamboree in Glenorchy with one, but went home with another family, and then two weeks later went away with another.
She was told she had ‘‘come to bed eyes’’, and ‘‘baby blues that asked for it’’.
Anna got to know the look in her abusers’ eyes, and always knew what would happen next.
‘‘I learned to avoid looking at people.’’ she said. ‘‘It was like having a neon sign across my face saying ‘available’. ’’
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.