Bob Hewitt’s rape victim urges children to share without fear

Suellen Sheehan.
Suellen Sheehan.

She even jumped up in court and hugged a stranger, in her excitement at the guilty verdict on two counts of rape and one of indecent assault.

Sheehan was just 12 years old when she was raped once by Hewitt, during a tennis lesson in Boksburg.

Other sexual acts followed over a number of years.

Following a journey of shame that spanned more than three decades, she is now finally vindicated, after her own parents refused to believe her story, to the extent that they even testified against her in court, calling her a ”pathological liar”.

A relieved Sheehan feels good that the truth has been finally heard, as Hewitt could, otherwise ”still be out there doing what he wants”.

She now plans to empower women and men who are rape victims through the court process.

Sheehan still plays tennis and participated in a tennis tournament held in Boksburg, in January, her first in 20 years.

Asked if she would entrust a coach with her child, Sheehan said she does not want to paint all the coaches with the same brush.

Her advice to children faced with sexual abuse and not being believed by their parents is to contact her, so that she can help them to deal with the matter.

“It is important that children should be able to talk to their parents about anything, even the smaller things,” she said.

Sheehan first tasted victory back in 2012, when Hewitt was suspended indefinitely from the International Tennis Hall of Fame, following a lengthy investigation into allegations that he sexually abused underage girls he coached.

Sheehan said it was originally the intention to only have Hewitt’s name removed from the Hall of Fame, which led to her laying charges in 2011, and eventually to the court trial.

The criminal case in South Africa followed the International Hall of Fame’s findings.

“I no longer carry the shame of saying I was raped,” she said.

”I still felt ashamed when I was on the witness stand, but now I have been liberated.

“I will obviously start talking about my experience at schools, companies and everywhere.”

She realises that there is a huge lack of empathy for and awareness of people who report abuse.

For this reason she is now working with Martin Pelders, the founder of MatrixMen, which assists male abuse survivors to come forward and to break the silence.

Together with Pelders, they will cycle from Bait Bridge to Cape Town, next year, to raise awareness and raise funds to support rape victims.

One of the things Sheehan hopes to achieve is to change how rape crimes and sexual abuse cases are reported.

“I’m going to advocate that there should be a special room and a specially trained person to report to, not just an ordinary police officer, because victims are already traumatised and need special care,” she said.

“They do not need to face the trauma of reporting abuse, especially when the danger exists that no one will believe them.”

She will also start helping the victims to deal with the court process, which she describes as being traumatic, difficult and tiresome.

Sheehan plans to register her own NPO soon, to focus solely on rape victims.

“We live in a time where abused people must not be fearful of breaking the silence,” she said.

“It is a sad reality victims do not want to speak out because they might not be believed. This is especially true if the rape or abuse occurs among family members.

“There is still a negative stigma and shame attached to rape, which needs to be addressed; the silence needs to be broken,” Sheehan said.

She described her experience during the Hewitt trial as “horrendous” and ”the most traumatic times of my life”.

When the rape became a public matter, a lot of people accused her and the other victims of being money-hungry.

“It was never about money, it has always been about justice,” Sheehan said.

“During the trial I had to face many difficulties, like being bullied and even threatened with death.

”My child’s life was also threatened.

“If people want to talk about money, I will tell them I lost everything as a result of trying to find peace after my nightmare ordeal.

“This is a criminal case and, besides, from a civil perspective, it is prescribed that people are allowed to make a civil claim only within three years, which has long passed.

“That’s what people don’t get and that’s what frustrates me the most. I hate it when people don’t believe me.”

Hewitt is due to be sentenced in the Pretoria High Court, on April 17.

Sheehan lives in Benoni and those needing her help may contact her on 082 329 0909.

 

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