Real Life

Louise Nicholas: ‘Sexual violence is a crime of silence’

It takes real courage to stand up to your abusers, more so when those who violated you are representatives of the law. Judy Bailey talks to the advocate for victims of sexual violence.
Louise Nicholas

“You are nothing but an uneducated, vindictive, sex crazed, media loving, racist liar.”

That was the sort of vitriol levelled at Louise Nicholas as she battled through seven court cases to get justice for what she says was years of sexual abuse at the hands of four policemen.

It was a lawyer representing one of the policemen who made those accusations. Louise remembers them word for word, her bright blue eyes staring directly into mine, full of hurt, as she repeats them.

How times have changed. The Louise Nicholas sitting at my kitchen table is now feted across the nation.

She has won pretty much every major award in the country. She was named New Zealander of the Year in 2007. She was Anzac of the Year in 2015 and created an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit that same year for her services to the prevention of sexual violence.

The Anzac honour is for showing comradeship, compassion, courage and commitment, reflecting the qualities our Anzac soldiers displayed. They are qualities Louise has in spades, but she’s humbled by the award.

“So many deserve that alongside me,” she says. “I accepted it on behalf of all my survivors.”

She talks often of ‘her survivors’. It’s to survivors of sexual violence that she now dedicates her time. Over the past eight years she’s supported thousands of women and their families through the often harrowing process of having their accusations heard.

Her formal title is National Sexual Violence Survivor Advocate, a role funded by the Ministry of Justice.

Louise spent her childhood in the small forestry town of Murupara. She was a tomboy; not surprising, given that she grew up with three brothers. Pete and Rob are older than their sister, and Kevin younger.

They’d play outside all day, Louise not wanting to be left behind by her brothers. She was mad about horses and dreamed of being a vet when she grew up.

“It was the best place ever, there under the Ureweras,” she says wistfully.

Louise’s parents, Jim and Barbara, were integral members of the local search and rescue team and, as such, they had close mates in the police force.

“There was always a paddy wagon in our driveway,” Louise recalls with a smile. They hunted together, barbecued, worked hard, played hard.

The children were brought up to respect adults. Jim and Barbara were sticklers for good manners. It was in Murupara, when she was 13, that Louise says she was first raped by a local policeman.

Did he groom her for sex? She pauses. “He groomed my family,” she says simply. “He made sure they trusted him.”

“Sometimes the nicest people can be the worst in harming others,” she warns. “If you notice an adult paying too much attention to a child, be wary.”

Louise was afraid to tell her parents what had happened to her.

She was afraid of two things – firstly, that she wouldn’t be believed because he was a policeman and she was just a child, and secondly, if her father believed her, he would be so consumed by anger that he would take matters into his own hands and shoot the man.

The abuse went on repeatedly. She even ended up moving to Rotorua with the policeman’s family as a quasi nanny. Despite repeated calls home telling her parents she didn’t want to be there, they insisted she stay. Her parents thought she would be getting a better education at Rotorua Girls High. They had no idea what was going on.

Eventually Louise returned to Murupara and it was there, when she was 15, that she finally felt able to tell someone about what had been happening to her.

She told a teacher. The teacher told her mother, but her dad was still left in the dark. They feared what he’d do if he knew.

What had happened to Louise as a child was repeated when she was a young adult. At 18, she was working in a bank in Rotorua. She was walking home from work when she was offered a lift home by another police friend of the family.

Why would she accept the lift? And why would she later follow him into a house where two other policemen were waiting? Those questions haunted her for years. She had no answers. She had no idea what caused her to submit to another round of abuse.

It was only after watching the dramatised documentary of her story that she realised how traumatised and conditioned she had been by those early rapes in Murupara. She was terrified of the police and could only do as they told her, despite telling them repeatedly that she didn’t want to be with them.

The documentary showed her as a young woman entering the house where the Rotorua rapes occurred, then that young woman morphed into the young girl she’d been when she’d first been raped. It was only when she saw those dramatised scenes that she put two and two together.

Louise eventually found the courage to take her complaints to the police. But again she was betrayed. She went through the agony and humiliation of six trials, as each time her integrity was questioned and the defendants acquitted. Yet despite also being betrayed by the senior policeman who conducted the early inquiries (that policeman was eventually sentenced to jail in a seventh trial for perverting the course of justice), she is not bitter.

“I do still look back and find what happened to me painful. I look at what my girls are doing. I lost so much. They’re having so much fun doing so many neat things. I was robbed. But you can never go back.”

Louise and her husband Ross Nicholas have four children – Jess, 27, Kerri, 24, McKaela, 22, and Luke, nine. Louise says her girls are strong, beautiful women who always think

of others before themselves.

“They are mini ambassadors for the work I do,” she tells me. “Luke understands I help people but he can’t understand why I don’t have a police car!” she adds, laughing. “I’ll have to tell Luke about my story when the time is right.”

There were times when Louise felt she couldn’t go on – dark, lonely times. It was Ross who drove her on. He has been her rock since she first laid eyes on him when she was 18. They married 28 years ago when she was 20. Many times she thought of giving up on her quest for justice, but Ross would say, “You’ve finally got the opportunity to right the wrongs, but no, you’re going to be a victim”.

“That spurred me on,” she grins. “I thought, I’ll prove you wrong.”

These days Louise works alongside the police to help other survivors of sexual violence, advising senior police on how best to assist those women.

“At the end of the day I figured out it wasn’t the New Zealand police who hurt me, it was individuals within the force.”

In fact, her eldest brother, Rob, has been a policeman for 24 years.

Louise believes the culture of victim blaming is now changing. The accusation ‘she asked for it’ is not so prevalent these days.

She says often a victim will say, “My boyfriend raped me,” but it turns out it’s not a boyfriend but someone else in the close family or extended family who has committed the crime.

“Sexual violence is about power and control. It’s a crime of silence.”

Her advice to parents of children who claim they’ve been violated is to always acknowledge their bravery in coming forward. Never dismiss their story.

Tell them, she says, “That’s so courageous of you to tell us, we’re not sure how to handle this but we’re going to get some help”.

Louise says she always reassures victims, “It’s not your stuff to carry. Hold your head up high. It’s not your fault. Use whatever emotion you need to get through this.”

She explains, “They need permission to be angry, to cry, laugh, be inappropriate. That’s how you get through it. If you can stand tall and allow other people to help you, you are not alone.

“I enjoy changing attitudes. The rape myths out there are just that – myths.”

Louise is hoping to set up a trust to allow her to carry out advocacy independently from the Department of Justice. She feels that will make it easier for her to change the system.

“My challenge is the length of time it takes for a survivor to go through the system. It can take up to four years. It’s cruel.”

Still, it’s her triumphs that drive her on. She tells me she had a call from one of her survivors the other day, a 67-year-old woman. The woman told her, “You know, I was a victim, then I became a survivor, now I’m past being a survivor. Now I’m a thriver.” Like Louise.

Photography courtesy of The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.

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