What really happened in the house in the Australian bush where a handsome sports coach, his youthful wife, and their four photogenic children, all elite athletes, lived for 20 years?
From the sensational headlines across Australia last October, it was appallingly clear what occurred in an area of New South Wales known for rainforests, creeks, and hippies, or what Australians call “greenies.”
The father, who once qualified for the Olympics, was a “sadistic monster,” the “worst of the worst,” according to media reports, and his wife his diabolical and perverted accomplice. Two of their daughters claimed that they suffered physical, sexual, and emotional violence from their parents that made similar allegations made by the murderous Menendez brothers in 1993 seem tame by comparison.
Unlike Lyle and Erik Menendez, however, the sisters got their revenge not by killing their parents but by sending them away to prison—in their father’s case, for life.
After a 10-week trial at Sydney’s Downing Centre, the jury convicted the 59-year-old father of 73 counts of torturing, raping, mutilating, and almost drowning his youngest daughter from the time she was 5 until she was 19. He was sentenced to 48 years. The 51-year-old mother, also an athlete and respected in the community, was given a 16-year sentence for being complicit in her husband’s abuse and committing child rape herself.
One of the charges involved joint offenses by the parents and several charges involved the girl’s older sister.
“Those who sat in on the 12-week trial have described it as the worst case of child abuse they have heard. Much of the detail is too distressing to publish,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported last fall.
The parents are planning appeals, though they have run out of money to pay lawyers. Neither they nor their children can be identified for legal reasons. The presiding judge, Sarah Huggett, called the father “completely depraved.”
But the sisters, both strikingly attractive and now in their twenties, have presented as unfazed since their parents went to prison—at least on their social media accounts. In photos they are laughing, partying on boats and on beaches with their boyfriends, skydiving and posting optimistic platitudes about life. The younger sister, the father’s main target, just graduated from law school. Neither of the young women responded to emails from The Daily Beast.
The reaction to the conviction of the couple last October was more than the standard astonishment that so-called pillars of the community could be guilty of such heinous crimes. In their case, many people knew them intimately.
As a coach, and one-time university professor, the father worked with numerous athletes, many of whom lived for long stretches with the family in their modest, one-story home. His parents also lived with the family for a while.
The daughters, including the one who said she was viciously assaulted often on a daily basis, broke records at hundreds of sporting events in Australia and around the world. Although she was dressed in skimpy athletic outfits much of the time, no one gave evidence at her father’s trial of physical evidence of what would have been serious injuries on her body.
No witness was called to say they had seen the savage abuse she described, either. She claimed that she was raped, punched in the face, and sexually mutilated with garden tools by her father in a small chicken shed 130 feet from the family home, often while he was holding a machete to her head and wrapping her in barbed wire. She said he often left her to bleed out in the shed naked, alone, and without food for three days or locked her in a tiny box used for his sporting equipment.
But should the grisly stories recounted over 16 days in court via video link by the youngest daughter—bolstered in part by testimony from her older sister and maternal grandmother—have been accepted?
Although two of the couple’s other children sided with their parents, saying they were innocent of the charges, and one testified on their behalf, their accounts were rejected by the jury and in the media despite much contradictory evidence and testimony at the trial.
One area of concern at the trial involved a diary the victim said she wrote when she was 14 detailing abuse at home. After it was introduced by the prosecution, a forensics expert hired by police said that entries dated two weeks apart were written on the same day. Many of the diary entries turned out to have been written when the girl was competing interstate or her father was working overseas.
The public perception of the case took an abrupt turn last July when the Weekend Australian Magazine published a lengthy investigation by veteran journalist Richard Guilliatt that poked holes in the accounts given by the couple’s youngest daughter, whom the writer called “Emily,” the alleged main target of her father, as well as her older sister, “Carly,” who had also testified against her parents.
Titled “The Unbelievers,” the story revealed that the news articles last fall didn’t mention, nor was the jury ever told, that Emily’s testimony was based on “recovered memories” that were “repressed” until apparently coaxed to the surface by therapists after she entered a hospital psychiatric ward in 2010. She underwent more than 1,000 hours of therapy with a psychiatrist and weekly meetings with a sexual assault counselor.
Recovered or repressed memories are a controversial concept that originated with Sigmund Freud. He postulated that such memories are the result of trauma and may affect people consciously until they are unearthed and brought to the surface. Their reliability was widely debunked more than 20 years ago in both the U.S. and Australia after an epidemic of alleged daycare child sexual abuse like the notorious McMartin preschool case in the 1980s and accusations about Satanic cult rituals.
But according to some lawyers, psychologists and experts in both countries, use of recovered memories has never gone away. Like multiple personality disorder, which is now called dissociative identity disorder, or D.I.D, repressed memories have been re-branded and are now called “dissociative flashbacks.” It is politically incorrect these days, say experts in both Australia and the U.S., to question such “flashbacks” when they involve claims of sexual abuse.
One of Emily’s psychiatrists diagnosed her as having D.I.D. and called the memories she began having about her father’s assaults in 2010 dissociative flashbacks. The jury was not told that D.I.D. has been linked to false memories of sadistic abuse, the article said.
“Recovered memory is alive and well in Australia and it’s become almost McCarthy-like,” Greg Walsh, a Sydney lawyer handling the appeal pro bono for the mother, told the Daily Beast. “It’s one of the stronger influences in the legal world right now. Anyone can be accused of sexual abuse and no one dares to question the accusers. A victim today is never wrong and if you challenge them, you could be ruined.”
Guilliatt’s article does not claim to know the absolute truth about what happened to what he calls the “Johnson” family. His account acknowledges that the father was at times abrupt and authoritarian and most damningly, had been accused of molestation by two teenage girls at the high school where he taught when he was 27, before he was married.
But no one could corroborate Emily’s abuse and close friends of hers interviewed by Guilliatt said she never mentioned anything about it to anyone even to her grandmother, with whom she was very close. Until her mid-teens, she was described as a cheerful, vivacious girl who “thrived on sport.” Then, she began “to remember things no one else remembered,” according to the report. She also accused a male coach of rape prior to making accusations against her father and attempted suicide several times.
“It’s completely crazy,” says Mark Pendergrast, the American author of Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die, to be published Oct. 15, and an expert in the area of recovered memories. “The only way you wouldn’t remember being raped and tortured from the age of 5 until adulthood is if you’d had a lobotomy.”
“The idea that people could completely forget years of childhood sexual abuse and then remember it later has become enshrined in the popular imagination, despite its widespread, scientific debunking,” he added. “Then again it’s been 30 years since the McMartin preschool case and the Satanic cult hysteria and you have a new generation who don’t realize how unreliable and dangerous so-called repressed memories can be.”
Melbourne-based Ian Freckelton, one of Australia’s most prominent barristers, spoke more cautiously about the case to The Daily Beast.
“In the current environment of heightened awareness, suggestions that someone might be fabricating something tends not to be taken well by juries,” Freckelton said. “That said, the fact that the jury in this case took 10 days to conclude its deliberations is extraordinary and shows they really had to engage intellectually with what was presented. They must have believed [Emily] was a reliable witness.”
Emily’s other sister, called “Brittany” in the article, is devastated by the incarceration of her parents as well as the total rupture of her relationship with her sisters, with whom she had once been close. She and her younger brother maintain that their parents are innocent.
“I can only say that my mother and father are in prison because of a gross miscarriage of justice and that I totally reject the allegations my sister has made against them,” Brittany told The Daily Beast.
“We lost my sister to the state mental health system seven years ago, and I believe her allegations are a product of her mental illness and the very poor “treatment” she received. In that sense, she is as much of a victim as anyone in this.”
Brittany said she is now “committed to helping my parents with their legal appeals and making sure the people who were responsible for destroying my family.”
Guilliatt’s story on Emily and her family touched off controversy about so-called “false memories” last week in Australia where a royal commission on institutional child abuse was established in 2013 with about $3 billion in funds for victims who can apply for up to about $120,000 each in compensation.
One of the main advisers to the commission and one of Australia’s most influential child abuse activists is a former physician named Cathy Kezelman, the author of Innocence Revisited, a 2012 memoir about what she claims was harrowing sexual abuse by her father and paternal grandmother who led a ring of pedophiles.
Kezelman claimed that after suffering a suicidal depression in 1998 at age 44, she began seeing a psychologist who helped remember that she’d been ritualistically abused by a “sadistic mob” wearing hoods who once took her to a cave where a young girl was dismembered on a stone altar. Her father, she said, also began raping her in her bedroom when she was 9. Her mother was portrayed as callous and indifferent. Kezelman described herself as suffering from dissociative disorder.
Since her book was published, Kezelman has run a well-funded organization called the Blue Knot foundation for child abuse survivors. She also wrote the counseling guidelines that train thousands of staffers in sexual assault clinics, mental health wards and counseling centers around Australia. She will help decide what victims get payouts from the royal commission.
Kezelman’s brother, Claude Imhoff, an emergency room doctor who shared a room with Kezelman until she was 10, told The Australian he decided to speak publicly about his sister for the first time after reading Guilliatt’s July piece about Emily. Imhoff’s remarks were included in a Weekend investigation article on Sept. 30 by Guilliatt.
“I utterly refute everything Catherine states in her book about our father and grandmother,” Imhoff said. “It’s not that I don’t remember those things, I can categorically state that those events never happened.”
Imhoff said Kezelman “had not mentioned anything about the dangers of false memories" being created in counsellng sessions and he was speaking out to prevent a wave of false accusations against alleged perpetrators.
“This [the article about Emily and her family] is what I was afraid might happen—that the ideas Cathy is spreading might lead to prosecutions of this nature,” Imhoff added. “There is potential for this to affect the lives of many, many people. That’s strongly what I believe.”
Guilliatt’s piece also questioned Kezelman’s account of her abuse and if the counseling guidelines she recommends based in part on her own experiences are more harmful than helpful.
Kezelman fired back the same day, saying it was “totally inaccurate” to say she encouraged psychologists to help patients retrieve memories and prefers the term “trauma-informed care.”
“Especially in situations of incest, it is common for siblings to either be unaware of the abuse of their sibling, not acknowledge it and/or be supportive of the abuser,” Kezelman said. “We can all turn a blind eye or shut off to information and events we don’t want to know about, and see only what we want to see.”