Scarred for life but unbowed by child sex abuse
She became a passionate campaigner in the fight against child sexual abuse and devoted her irrepressible energy to helping those affected.
However, when Debi Ray-Rivers launched a charity to raise awareness of the problem in Bermuda, she had still to address the buried trauma of being a victim herself.
When she was only 8, she was abused by a babysitter who, in an alarming twist, decades later attended one of her training sessions.
Now courageous Ms Ray-Rivers has decided to tell her story and hopes other victims will draw strength from her words and find a voice of their own.
Ms Ray-Rivers, founder and executive director of Saving Children and Revealing Secrets, a child sexual abuse prevention charity, said: “Silence protects sex offenders and continues to negatively affect so many children who become broken and many times scars them as adults.”
She added: “It’s never too late to prosecute, it’s not OK gaining sexual pleasure from children and it’s never too late to hold accountable those who commit this crime.
“It’s so important that victims come forward, they can support each other in this.
“Perpetrators don’t just have one victim, they have many, and if more victims come out then it makes a prosecution stronger.”
Ms Ray-Rivers was abused in the early 1970s by Bernard Marshall, her father’s barber, who was her babysitter when he was aged about 26.
Marshall, now 72, from Smith’s, was jailed in August for four months after he pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawfully and indecently assaulting a girl aged under 14.
Ms Ray-Rivers felt she gained “some power and some control” when she read her victim impact statement in court.
She said in the statement: “What Bernie Marshall did to me can never be forgotten and can never be changed.
“When he violated, deceived, and used my eight-year-old body for his sexual pleasure, he impacted my life and he scarred me.
“Bernie Marshall stole my innocence and he victimised me.
“I became a victim because I never had a chance to experience innocence after the tender age of eight. He stole that from me.”
The court heard that Ms Ray-Rivers, now 56, “stuffed those dirty memories down” until her late thirties.
She added: “I realised that he took advantage of my insecurities as a little girl, telling me I was pretty and grooming me to give him sexual pleasure.”
The horrific experience led to years of promiscuity as a teenager as she “confused sex with true love”. She told the court: “The impact of my sexual abuse experience caused me to suffer from having trust issues. “When Bernie sexually abused me, he took away my full potential to fully trust.
“Trusting others is not an easy thing when you’ve been sexually abused.”
She added: “My body remembers.”
Her statement said: “The impact of my sexual abuse caused me to live with fear — fear of running into him in public places, fear when I would see him in the post office, fear when I saw him on an airplane. Fear when I saw him in Lindo’s.”
For the past seven years, Ms Ray-Rivers has campaigned for greater awareness of the risks to children and how adults can act responsibly when they have concerns.
A cruel twist meant she found herself face-to-face with Marshall when he attended one of her charity’s educational events to help adults protect children from sexual abuse.
Her statement said: “My past has haunted me. Do you know how I know that? Because when I saw Bernie Marshall walk down the hallway towards a Scars training session last year, I experienced fear.
“I was traumatised and my instinct was to run away.”
Ms Ray-Rivers returned to the room and was later brave enough to stand up to her abuser in court, where she revealed the “secret about the trauma he caused, the impact he made, and the scars he is responsible for”.
Other aspects of the case have tormented her.
She told the court: “Although Bernie Marshall admitted his illegal acts to me, to the chairman of our Scars board, to two police officers, and to members of his church, he claimed in court that he was not guilty, only to change his plea to guilty two weeks later.
“I had to suffer two weeks of unnecessary anxiety, sleepless nights, and endless worrying about having to remember details from 45 years ago.
“It is very painful to relive trauma, to dig down and retrieve memories that I’ve pushed down for over 40 years.”
The mother of two said it was difficult to explain why she had finally chosen to bring Marshall to justice but a responsibility to others felt greater than the “anxiety and pain” she knew a court case would bring.
She explained: “The decision I made to prosecute and tear off the scab of my childhood wound wasn’t about revenge and retribution.
“This decision was solely based on the protection of children in our community.”
Ms Ray-Rivers said: “If I stayed silent then I would be a fake as a child advocate and I would be partially responsible if he scarred another child.
“My silence would protect him and set up children to be at risk of sexual abuse.”
She confronted her abuser in court and told him: “You apologised to me and asked me to forgive you, but saying sorry is just mere words, it’s not an action.
“Saying sorry and then blaming me for the sexual activity between you as a 26-year-old adult and me as an eight-year-old child is not sorry and it’s not truth.
“Blaming me was either a fantasy or your way of removing the guilt and shame from yourself. Whichever the reason, you are clearly not a safe adult in our community. Your choices affected my adulthood.
“As an adult, I have a choice now — to focus on what I lost — my innocence and my power as a little girl — or I can choose to focus on what I know, which is, I didn’t cause it and it wasn’t my fault.”
She added: “Today is about justice, and the consequences of criminal behaviour, regardless of the time lapsed.
“This is about trying to protect another child from being scarred by you.”
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