A new story for child abuse survivors

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The Australian nation is given shape by the stories that we tell ourselves each year.

Scott Morrison delivers national apology to survivors of child sexual abuseThere are days when we tell stories about the arrival of the European settlers, and days when we tell stories about the horrific treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There are days when we share the many stories of migrants who have settled in Australia, and days when we remember the stories of the generations who were stolen from their families. There are days that celebrate the stories that are born on the sporting field, and days when we remember the stories that ended on the battlefield.

The annual telling and retelling of these stories gives Australians both old and new a sense of place — a reminder of who we are, and who we no longer wish to be.

On Monday, a new set of stories were enshrined in the nation's consciousness — the stories of victims and survivors of institutional sexual abuse. The National Apology has, one hopes, permanently marked 22 October as a day that we will remember their stories, and commit ourselves to making sure our institutions don't fail in the same way again.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten rightly placed the stories of victims, survivors and their families at the centre of this day. Their speeches focused on the accounts that emerged from the Royal Commission, of children's lives destroyed, of institutions such as the Catholic Church who had failed dismally in their response to the children's suffering.

'One survivor told me that when he told a teacher of his abuse, that teacher then became his next abuser,' said Morrison. 'I also met with a mother whose two daughters were abused by a priest the family trusted. Suicide would claim one of her two beautiful girls, and the other lives under the crushing weight of what was done to her.'

His voice breaking, Morrison continued, 'As a father of two daughters, I can't comprehend the magnitude of what she has faced. Not just as a father, but as a prime minister, I am angry too at the calculating destruction of lives ... those who have abused the shield of faith and religion to hide their crimes.'

 

"The Catholic Church, and its leaders in particular, are the villain of this story, and will remain so for many years."

 

Religious institutions were rightfully absent from the apology. It was a day to focus on survivors and their families, the culmination of years of campaigning. The Catholic Church, and its leaders in particular, are the villain of this story, and will remain so for many years even as the aftermath of the Royal Commission provides continuing impetus for safeguarding efforts, and opportunities for reparation via the National Redress Scheme.

Survivors and their families aren't ready to stop their efforts. As the Prime Minister greeted those gathered in the Great Hall, many were still making demands of the government and of churches — questioning funding for religious schools, tax exemption for religious bodies, and the seal of the confession. They showed that the story isn't quite over for them, yet, either.

They have been at the centre of this story, and now it's theirs to carry. For years, the people who maintained they were victims of abuse were told that they were trapped in a story about something that had happened to them when they were children. If only they could just let go of the story they could move on with their lives. But that wasn't the story they were in at all.

As children they had been betrayed, abandoned or failed in some way by every figure of authority in their life — their priest, their teacher, their police officers, their parents, and even their God. That betrayal, that abandonment or failure, changed each of them in a different way. Some of them didn't survive that change. Some turned to substances to try to cope with the pain, and many found themselves in trouble with the law. Others nursed their stories privately, behind the façade of what might be considered a normal life.

But with courage, many came forward, to witness to the truth, and call those who had failed them to account. That was the story they were in — a heroic tale of survival, of facing the abyss, and emerging from it changed but strengthened.

Their story was of the forgotten child who had found their voice. And much like 13 February has come to mark the anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations, 22 October is the day that Australians will be asked to remember their stories — courageous and heartbreaking, inspiring and devastating. May we work together to ensure they never have to be repeated again.

 

 

Michael McVeighMichael McVeigh is senior editor at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, national apology, child abuse, Catholic Church

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks Michael for a good article. Yes, as you say, 'May we work together to ensure they never have to be repeated again.' And I think the Catholic Church badly needs to change its governance structures to reduce the chances of this happening again. An all-male clerical hierarchy with virtually all the power in the Church is surely at the heart of the problem. If the Church can't practise the principle of equality that Jesus taught and lived, and allow women to have equal rights to Church leadership positions, then I do see a Church governance that is conducive to more paedophilia.
Grant Allen | 23 October 2018


Very well said, Michael. Nothing attenuated, appropriately so.
John | 23 October 2018


I don't think the Catholic Church is *the* villain in this story, Michael. There were many villains - from dance school teachers to Protestant ministers to Jewish school staff. Abuse was widespread. The Catholic Church was the source of a higher number of complaints than the other churches, but it is far from the only villain. Perpetuating the myth that this is a Catholic issue, as the left-wing media have done, is a disservice to children whose guardians may think that the children are safer than they are in non-Catholic communities.
BPLF | 23 October 2018


22nd October was a watershed for all people affected by childhood sexual abuse. A memorial will be a place for people to visit, to reflect and, hopefully, to share. My dream is contained in these words from "Ideas for a Way of Life" by Stephen McInerney: "Broadloaf is a town along the pacific, held in by rainforest - /and the world will begin to arrange itself/in a meaningful order again, a peaceable pact/of reason and faith; an order discerned not achieved,/an arrival acknowledged, received.
Pam | 24 October 2018


The final line of this artical and the juxtaposition of the ‘cartoon’ above it speak volumes. The past and the future need to inform and challenge and challenge they do but are ears and eyes remain closed. What we have is the now. Each night on our tv screens we see the now a small child in Nauru sitting in superphosphate tailings, the remains of excrement What will each one of us do to lift that child out of our metaphorical excrement. As the author says ‘that it may never happen again. Will I remain silent?
M. Casamento | 24 October 2018


Thanks Michael for the sensitive article. I’m one of those who nursed my story privately, only telling my family when I told the Royal Commission. Mine became one of their case studies. The Royal Commission was my friend and protector and I was so sad to see it go as now I have to battle the church alone. And it is a battle as I seek redress and am waiting for their lawyer to agree on what they want to give as redress on the very day of apology. In my case it seems that nothing has been learnt and instead they want to dole out more trauma. I remain a Catholic and know that God is within but it’s a cold shoulder that comes from the Church even though they have written a letter of apology to me and have not questioned the abuse, they have not undertaken any soul searching while I continue to search for meaning.
Carol | 24 October 2018


It took Julia Gillard to call for a Royal Commission which in turn led to yesterday's apology by Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten on behalf of us, the Australian Nation.. As I commented in response to Frank Brennan's Article yesterday in Eureka Street (Compassion and Justice after Abuse Apology), I hope the leadership of the Churches and Institutions, outed by the Commission will now take on the responsibility to ensure that the survivors , the families of those who have passed away or taken their own lives ; are treated with respect, help and restitution for the unfathomable pain they have suffered and still suffer for the loss of their childhood innocence. The days of hiding behind legal barriers is well and truly over .
Gavin O'Brien | 24 October 2018


We need to recognise too, those yet to be recognised who were not included in the Terms of Reference of that Royal Commission, terms that chose not to recognise levels of vulnerability targeted but rather chose what is for many an arbitrary chronological age point, an age point btw that did and does not reflect how society was at their times of the abuse and did and does not take into account significant other factors resulting in their being targeted, factors other than a certain age. These people in their thousands remain largely unrecognised, unapologized to and unredressed in adequate if any proportion. The Saga continues.
Jennifer Herrick | 24 October 2018


A much needed apology indeed. I wonder which Prime Minister will utter the same words for the victims of unjust incarceration in detention centres on Manus Island and on Nauru?
Marlo Drake-Bemelmans | 24 October 2018


There is no doubt that the retention of innocent children on Manus and Nauru is scandalous and destructive beyond imagining. There is no doubt that the sexual abuse of innocent children is scandalous and destructive beyond imagining. In both instances, the children are victims of those to whom their nurturing and care was entrusted, their parents in the former and their institutional teachers and carers in the latter. The truth is that the same if not worse abuse is far more common within a child's own family at the hands of parents and other relatives - above 80 - 90% of all cases. We seem to react more readily to the revealed minority situation than the overwhelming majority and in so doing destroy institutions that overwhelmingly act only for the common good. It is to be expected that the Catholic Church will be responsible for the numerical first place in numbers of abused children simply because it far outstrips other institutions numerically. Percentages are a different matter and tell a different story - some of the smaller religious sects and organisations have greater percentages of abuse than the Catholic Church. This is not an apologetic for the evil perpetrated by some Catholic clergy, religious and lay staffers in Catholic Institutions who will be judged and punished if we truly believe in God and creation. In our human judgement we should be wary of destroying the Church as a whole. Rather, we should destroy the evil within it and that won't be achieved by establishing gender equality in governance. Both genders exist in human beings. Human beings are the problem - not the gender they individually possess. Women and men are equally capable of evil and corruption. Only have to read the daily news bulletins to understand that!
john frawley | 24 October 2018


There is no doubt the National Apology to the victims of sexual abuse is important. The hypocricy is while apologising, our government is abusing refugees and people seeking asylum in Nauru and Manus Island. When are they going to say sorry to them?
Pan Jordan | 24 October 2018


As a young child my life was profoundly changed by the betrayal of a Catholic priest and on Monday I was traumatized once more after viewing the National Apology. PTSD never goes away completely, it comes over unexpectedly like an avalanche and one just has to endure until it passes. BPLF I think the Catholic Church is the villain because Jesus makes it clear in three out of four gospels that children are closer to God than any adult and the Church had an obligation to preach this message to society at a time when society still looked to the Church for guidance on morals and society matters. There is still no Theology of Childhood in church doctrines and it seems that the governors of the Church still 'dont get it' when it comes to the priority of a child.
Trish Martin | 24 October 2018


John Frawley's observation, "Women and men are equally capable of evil and corruption," is echoed with searing irony in Andrew Bullen SJ's new book released this year, "Etiquette with Angels". In one of the highly impressive Holocaust poems in this collection, the author writes: "Women had a hand in this too you know;/They too like to smash things and clean them up./Look how the square is hosed down spotless and empty of human muck." A timely counterpoint to the notion gaining undeserved media support of males having a monopoly on malefaction.
John | 24 October 2018


Will Mr Morrison shed some tears also for the children and parents on Nauru, and refugees in Australia living on scant resources?
alex nelson | 24 October 2018


I can affirm that as a child who grew up in the Australian suburbs in the late 40s early 50s, sexual abuse in the family was not at all exceptional. The isolated nuclear family network back then allowed "the doer" complete unchecked reign over his offspring: he was free to do whatever he wanted despite vain protests from the helpless spouse, who had no financial means other than the weekly house-money he would give (or not). There were no government services or shelters then for abused children or assaulted wives - we just endured the daily violence - and survived. The current discussion on child abuse within institutions is but a small part of a much wider story.
JSC | 25 October 2018


You’re obviously right John Frawley in reminding us that ‘evil and corruption’ are not peculiar to men nor to the Catholic Church. May I suggest that the basic problem is not with religion, or sex, or gender, per se, but rather with power and absolute power. Nor is it simply about the abuse of that power but rather very much about the ‘exceptionalism’ (I can’t think of a better word at he moment) that goes with notions of ‘ordination’, or of ’predestination’, or of being one of ‘the chosen’, and the hubris that is a seemingly inevitable consequence of that ‘setting apart’ and ‘being set apart’ which in turn allows the abusive behaviour to be ‘normalised’? And this is why some robust form of external accountability is so important. It's why companies have external directors and audit committees, why governments have auditors-general, why we resist the concentration of political power. It's not accidental, I suggest, that those institutions that have fared worst in this enquiry have been those with strong centralised and discriminatory power structures and/or without effective external accountability.
Ginger Meggs | 27 October 2018


Well said Michael. Gerald Francis Ridsdale, an Australian Catholic priest, who taught at St Alipius was convicted between 1993 and 2017 of a large number of child sexual abuse and indecent assault charges against 65 children aged as young as four years. He is certainly not the worst offender. I heard one of the victims say on the ABC that of his Grade 5 class of 55 children at Saint Alipius, 14 later in life committed suicide.
Frank Armstrong | 30 October 2018


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