Real Life

“Too scared to escape” Evil husband abused me, and my child

Xenia Schembri, 53, from the Gold Coast, Queensland, shares her powerful real-life story of overcoming abuse at the hands of her husband, who also abused their daughter.
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My fiancé’s hands gripped my arms tightly.

“No, Richard*,” I pleaded. “Let’s wait till our wedding night.”

As Christians, Richard, 22, and I had agreed to abstain from sex until marriage, but recently he’d been trying it on.

I was terrified, but he insisted until he got his way.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated afterwards in tears. “I got carried away. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

He explained he’d been abused as a child and he’d been seeing a counsellor to work through it.

He’ll grow out of it once we’re married, I told myself.

I’m determined to help others in the same predicament. (Image: Supplied)

Truth was, I knew very little about the man I was marrying.

We’d met earlier that year when he came into the health food shop where 
I worked to buy supplements.

It was 1988, Richard was a member of the RAF, and I was just 18.

Once we got together, he bombarded me with professions of love.

My childhood 
had also been dysfunctional, so this overload of affection was disarming, and I chose 
to ignore parts of our relationship I didn’t like.

Six weeks in, Richard  proposed to me.

“Make sure you keep your ring sparkling,” he ordered me, “otherwise I’ll sell it.”

His controlling behaviour only worsened once we married. He’d tell me what to wear, what to eat and even make me explain how I’d cleaned myself in the shower. He also expected sex on demand.

“I’m the head of this house and you’ll put out whenever I want
 it!” he’d yell.

I desperately wanted freedom, but was too scared to escape.

Maybe having children will fix things, I prayed.

Me around the time I was married. (Image: Supplied)

Our first child, Kylie*, arrived in 1992.

Richard soon became jealous the baby was taking my attention. “I’m starved of sex, Xenia,” he’d complain. “You’re withholding what’s rightfully mine!”

As Kylie grew, her strong-willed personality aggravated him.

Once, he was trying to teach her to count and when she couldn’t remember what came after five, he slapped her across the head.

“Richard! Don’t!” I cried.

“You don’t know how to parent properly,” he hissed.

Maybe he’s right, I thought. He’d diminished my self-confidence.

Over the next five years, we had three more children, but this didn’t quell Richard’s violence and I had no idea how to leave.

Occasionally, I contemplated ending my life, but I couldn’t risk the kids finding me.

Finally, in April 2005, Richard announced he wanted to separate.

“I know it’s not what you want, but it’s the only way,” he said.

Little did he know, my prayers had been answered!

“But I want to see the kids,” he clarified.

Although I didn’t like the children being alone with Richard, I reluctantly agreed for them to stay with him regularly.

I thought having children would help. (Image: Supplied)

Feeling lonely after we separated, I joined a Christian chat site and connected with a man named Simon, 39.

He was on the Gold Coast, a world away from my home in the UK, so I felt safe telling him my story.

During our phone calls, I found myself falling in love.

In August 2006, I visited Simon, and we soon decided to marry. When he came to live with us the following year, the kids warmed to him quickly, but his loving nature was foreign to me.

He’d bring me coffee in bed. “What’s this for?” I asked him.

“Because I love you,” he said, smiling.

After years of abuse, being respected was difficult to fathom.

I hoped our family was starting a new chapter but later that year, when Kylie was 14, she started acting erratically.

I suspected something was wrong.

I asked her if the 19-year-old boy she’d been hanging out with was touching her.

“You’re way off,” she laughed.

The kids stayed with Richard for the next few days. When they returned, Kylie asked to speak with me.

“You know how you asked if someone’s been touching me?” she said, trembling. “It’s Dad.”

Stunned, I hugged her tightly and we sobbed.

“I’m so sorry,” was all I could muster.

I didn’t want to know the details.

Even after all Richard had done to me, I never imagined he’d hurt one of our kids like this.

I felt sick, but needed to be strong.

Together, we told Simon.

Simon showed me what real love looks like. (image: Supplied)

“We need to go to the police,” he insisted.

Over the next six months, police conducted their investigation, revealing what Richard had done to my daughter.

I was heartbroken.

Richard went to trial in 2009 and was found guilty of 14 charges of sexual activity with a child.

“You are a selfish, sex-obsessed, dominating, arrogant and manipulative individual,” the judge declared.

Richard, 43, was sentenced to just nine years in jail.

I felt relieved it was over but it didn’t seem like justice.

At the kids’ request Simon officially adopted them, and in January 2010, we moved to the Gold Coast to start over.

Inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark, Simon and I built a place for families who were in similar storms to the one we’d weathered.

We started a charity called At the Ark aimed at preventing sexual abuse, and protecting victims.

I couldn’t protect my child, I thought, but now I’ll protect as many as I can.

I also published a series of children’s books called Brave Little Bear advising kids on how to protect themselves from predators.

In 2020, I received Heart of Women’s Woman of the Year award, and this year their Making a Difference group award for At the Ark.

All my kids have grown into well-rounded adults.

For a long time, I carried guilt about what Richard put us all through, but through the healing power of grace we are closer as a family than ever.

Looking back, I realise that before Richard’s abuse became physical, it had already started as subtle manipulations.

I share my story so other victims of abuse might identify these warning signs and see there’s always hope.

*Names have been changed.

For info, visit

If you have been abused and need support, call 1800 737 732 (Aus) or 0800 456 450 (NZ)

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