It’s a sunny spring morning in a sleepy village in rural NSW, and children skip and amble up the road to the local primary school. Birds are singing and the creek can be heard rushing over rocks and boulders.
But the peace of this community has been shattered by gut-wrenching revelations of the horrendous abuse that one young girl endured here for years, at the hands of her parents.
Last week, on October 28, a 59-year-old man was sentenced in a Sydney court to at least 36 years and a maximum of 48 years in jail for raping, mutilating and torturing his daughter over a period of 14 years, starting when she was five years old.
The man’s wife – the girl’s 51-year-old mother – was sentenced to 16 years (11 years without parole) for 13 counts of abuse, including indecent assault. One of the charges involved joint offending by the parents, and two of the charges against the mother involved another daughter.
Much of this abuse took place in an old chicken shed on the family’s property, where the girl was often tied up and left for days at a time.
Character references submitted to the court described the parents as intelligent, educated people, and the father – who once qualified to compete in the Olympics – as a firm but fair athletics coach.
Former neighbour, Meredith*, says she and her husband and children had not long lived in the village when they befriended the family.
“We had heard about them before we met them, because they were all very sporty,” she says.
Meredith and her daughters used to run with the mum, and both families would regularly get together for barbecues or dinner at the pub.
“I never would have imagined what was going on,” Meredith says. “When we found out, we just couldn’t believe it.
“Looking back, there were some strange things, but nothing that you could ever point to as being drastically unusual. They didn’t have many friends, and they were so devoted to running that it was almost cult-like, and very insular.
“Their house was always a bit eerie, very silent, and there was nothing out of place. One day we went there for a barbecue and there were family photos on display in the lounge room, surrounded by little candles burning. One photo was of the mum and her teenage daughters in front of a waterfall. Sounds nice, but, they were all naked! They had their parts strategically covered, but at the time I thought, that’s pretty unusual! I mean, who has a naked family portrait on the mantelpiece?!”
Another local, William*, was a student of the father’s.
“I admired him because he was successful in sport, and also very driven,” he says. “He used to set different goals for himself every year, such as a canoe challenge, and then move onto something else when he’d completed that.
“But when I heard about all of this… it’s just unimaginable. If you were going to write a horror movie you wouldn’t put this stuff in it. You don’t expect this kind of thing from anyone, let alone someone you hold up there as a community leader.”
Katrina*, who now works with survivors of early childhood trauma, used to work at the local pub and says the parents would come in for dinner several times a week.
“Monsters don’t look like monsters,” she says. “The parents were kind of friendly and smiley. They always ordered the same thing, and I used to think wow, those people can eat anything, because they looked so fit,” she says.
However, Katrina says their children seemed quite isolated and, in a way, elite. “They didn’t go to school for periods of time, and there was that sense of them being a really connected, insular family.”
Katrina had enlisted the mum’s help with an after-school sports program at the local primary school. “I am horrified about that now,” she says. “And at the time, I did think she was strange to work with. Sometimes she was kind and friendly, and other times she would be really short and quite rude. Now, knowing what was going on, I wonder how that was impacting on her behaviour.
“The frightening thing is, you think you can tell when something like this is going on, but you just can’t.
“I was so shocked when I heard about what had been happening. Everything I thought I knew about this community suddenly fell out from beneath me. These people you think are holding up a community, with their morals, their achievements, their behaviour…. they are not what they seem to be.”
* not their real names