Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Restorative justice for child sexual abuse victims



On Monday 27 October, the Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM, Chair, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, gave a talk at the Blue Knot Day for adults surviving child abuse. In his speech he used a well-worn phrase most adults will have heard, 'children should be see but not heard.'

The Commissioner went on to point out that this attitude has prevailed for decades and has been a critical contributor to the conditions under which abusers could manipulate and silence children in order to abuse them.

The Commissioner also highlighted current efforts by most institutions, to modify their practices in order that future abuse can be recognised early and brought to the attention of those charged with the protection of children. 

In fact, ask most office holders charged with the responsibility of child protection and they will readily outline efforts and safeguards to prevent future incidences of abuse. 

It is interesting that the language of protection is now front and centre when it comes to the care and protection of children. This is admirable and in the culture of what has transpired, it is an achievement creating some quiet satisfaction. But could this sense of pride be masking something deeper and more troubling? 

Might total focus on stringent practice and policy design be creating a hole where all that is heard is the drone to ‘moved on’? I listen and still hear whispering whimpers. There is something missing from the current lexicon. Where are the stories of people gathering to help mend and heal themselves and the victims of this horrific episode in our history? 

I was brought to these questions after reading an account of how a family engaged with one of their own, who is the victim of severe sexual abuse. In this case, four siblings and their families gathered with their younger brother in what is called a restorative conference – conducted by Real Justice Australia – in order to come to a deeper understanding of how each of them had been affected by an incident that had occurred over thirty years ago. 

What struck me about this account were the following paragraphs:

As he spoke, I did not hear the voice of a forty five year old man, I heard the cadences and soprano of the prepubescent boy who had experienced an unimaginable assault that had left him totally bewildered, isolated, confused and condemned to an unheralded life of spiralling pain. 

His was the story told by an eleven year old who had not be able to speak to us, his family, to tell us what had happened to him when he was raped by a Catholic priest in the sacristy of our local parish church, moments before he was to serve at Mass. 

My experience of that family conference was profound. Years later I struggle to understand its power. 

My brother was not speaking to an empathetic counsellor or psychologist, those practitioner hands of care, peace and direction. He was not retelling events to an investigator or interested professional, they respectfully document but cannot touch the level of knowing that is in the DNA of belonging. 

But what made this challenging encounter so powerful as it allowed us to face into some of our deepest fears and darkest pain? 

Perhaps it was all about who we were. As he spoke, my brother was speaking to a totally authentic audience, us, his blood, his earliest memory web. We were the people with whom he had mirrored smiling and lost his balance to walk. We were the formative ones who had given, and still give, currency to the sinews and bones that hold his silhouette against the sun. 

The circle itself was a supremely challenging and a pure encounter with the truth where together we faced the deep reality of his pain. Our words clanged against the armour of institutional denial. We were charged with compassion and anger and shame in equal measure as the haunting decades of suffering and denial slowly emerged from the mist. Yet through this single experience, there grew an awareness of grace that asked not only for recognition but quiet and humble reception. 

Pope Francis has described the Church as a field hospital, but are church members capable of receiving and tending the wounded? I think it needs to be recognised that if it were not for the civil courts, no canon lawyer would be putting into place the laws and regulations that are being enacted today. There is a very large elephant squashing people out of churches around the world. I submit this creature will only walk out into the sun when we wrap families around their wounded ones?

Yes, this is a field hospital, can you hear the siren, or like a dog whistle, is it audible only to a few?

Vic O'CallaghanVic O’Callaghan is a trainer in Restorative Practices. With his wife Liz, he works in schools and communities throughout Australia.



Topic tags: Vic O'Callaghan, church sexual abuse, restorative justice, professional standards, Pope Francis



submit a comment

Existing comments

In answer to your question "Where are the stories of people gathering to help mend and heal themselves and the victims of this horrific episode in our history?" There are many of us online, our one inhibitor is money unfortunately and that is why their question is where is the support or public appeal to assist survivors? I have been trying to engage the Royal commission into a program that would provide access to immediate funding for those eligible for redress. The conversation is slow and constipated despite the fact that the process is simply, effective and will save lives if implemented. If you are interested in writing about some of that I would appreciate giving you the benefit of my attempts at this and more.

JohnB | 13 November 2014  

It is still mystifying that no psychologist has been called to account over advice given to bishops to recycle offending priests sent off to an: ""empathetic counsellor or psychologist," or ínstitute.
"to use the language of retired judge Antony Whitlam QC, who has conducted a thorough inquiry into the case of Father ['xx]'. A psychologist subsequently gave him the "all clear" for continued ministry."
[Broken Rites]

Father John George | 14 November 2014  

As a community we are not willing even to visit the hospital with grapes let alone sit patiently by the bedside.Don't we realise the many ways that we helped create the culture in which this abuse could happen???Until we are willing to see ourselves (with for example our impossibly high expectations and our blindness to signs of distress) as part of the problem how can we possibly be part of the solution? Equally we are in danger of creating a new set of unsafe situations for children because we are focussing on new rules rather than a radically new culture that authentically reflects Christian values.Bad enough to shut the stable door but even worse not to notice that no one rides horses these days...

margaret | 17 November 2014  

Thanks for your article which resonated strongly with me. My story was one of the case studies in the Commission's interim report. I can objectively discuss these issues with anyone but find myself that vulnerable 13 year old again every time I talk about my own experience. I'm not sure what would help but do know that the Commission was an excellent step in the right direction.

Carrie | 17 November 2014  

It is doing my share in this 'keeping' restorative justice that I am trying to achieve in i a letter in reply to the Royal Commission's requests of me. These requests are as to: 1. "the circumstances in which the Vatican and the Catholic Church directed you to research Church policy regarding sexual abuse in the church."; 2. "the work you have done in relation to the Towards Healing document" with examples of defects; 3. "a summary of the 'defective enrolment processes' " with examples.

Oliver Clark | 17 November 2014  

I think that the saddest aspect of this is that ever present, 'moved on' drone that you mention. The same acknowledgement that the first Australians still yearn for appears to be hidden from sight. I think the most painful feature stems from a component in our sacrament of reconciliation. When we complete an examination of conscience, how can we ignore the plight of these people and the long term impact that these actions have had. It is not enough to lay the blame at the foot of those who committed the abuse, it is in ignoring the knock on the door from the least of us that demonstrates the deficiency in our institution. When we reject those who have been injured, we are rejecting Christ and denying him the voice that he sacrificed himself to give to us. This is not a condemnation of the church, it is one voice that seeks true communion. In order for this to happen, we must give voice to the harm and, in the words of Bishop Anthony Fisher say, 'I'm Sorry, Forgive me, I Love You...

Francis | 17 November 2014  

Vic O'Callaghan is right - even in close-knit families & in the extended families of these wounded people, this is still a raw area within the psyche of many in our generation. Our 20th century generation was where most of this abuse went on. It was able to go on virtually unchecked and it went on under cover for so long because of our church's and our society's fear of public disclosure, mixed with a fear of public shame. The hiding of the sexual abuse of minors was assisted by the past culture of suppression of any open talk on sexuality issues within our families and within past society. We need to learn now from the openness of the youth of today, with respect to discussing these taboo issues once so hidden by our churches and society. Only by active compassion and empathetic acceptance by the families of all abuse victims (within their own family groups), and by encouragment of open family discussions within family groups can any real healing to abuse victims start. This applies whether these abuse victims are now 7 of 17 or 70, or any age in between.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 17 November 2014  

I believe that heard Pat Feeney from Newcastle say in a ABC radio interview with Richard Fidler that the priest who had abused her son had not only groomed him but had groomed the whole parish where she and her family lived. I think that this culture of grooming for compliance and keeping quiet is installed in seminaries, Generally priests have learned not to speak out because their progress to Orders depends on their compliance. Wittingly or not, in turn many priests have passed on to their parishioners the culture of silence and compliance under the guise of the virtue of obedience. The cost of that distortion is paid most of all by those who have experienced sexual violence from clergy, and then by their family of origin and conjugal family. The culture of "Do not disturb Father" has made many of us cowards, and has wounded the whole church, preferring to keep the hierarchy comfortable and ourselves safe. How do we heal ourselves of that virus/culture? So many have taken a preventative step by walking away from the grooming and silencing that still goes on in the church. What will bring about a restoration?

Alex Nelson | 18 November 2014  

Field hospital? More like a bomber dropping napalm. And the bomber actively and accurately trained its guns on the M.A.S.H. units so that the sound of holy self-interest and lawyers' cash registers drowned out the cries of "Incoming!"

Alistair P D Bain | 18 November 2014  

Vic O'Callaghan deserves to be strongly supported in his passionate desire to support the victims of child sexual abuse. However I looked in vain for recognition of the other victims: those falsely accused arising from counsellers who fail to differentiate between genuine victims and those whose horrible fantasies have been the result of suggestive counselling. In these instances the falsely accused have usually been denied the right to engage their mislead children in discussion of the source of the accusations which simply are untrue.

Grahame Forrest | 18 November 2014  

To endorse Mr. Forrest's solicitude re falsely accused clergy: http://www.themediareport.com/2013/11/26/false-accusations-catholic-priests/

Name | 19 November 2014  

re 'FALSE REPORTS" of clerical sexual abuse: At the recent Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry Mr O'Callaghan QC, the "Independent Commissioner" for the Archbishop's Melbourne's Melbourne Response told the Committee*:- "… there is very little fakery in respect of sexual abuse. At the time of my appointment, because money was involved, I had the perception that there may be a number of bogus applicants, and that has not occurred at all. I have no doubt as to the veracity of the complaints which have been made. People do not, for obvious reasons, simulate or make up that they have been sexually abused, ..." * Betrayal of trust Vol 2 P401

Jim Boyle | 20 November 2014  

Thank you Vic, for your thoughtful article.

I agree, the religious institutions were dragged kicking and screaming to the various commissions.

And restorative justice has not been achieved, rather, the survivors, their families and other well meaning people of faith, have all been re-traumatised. Why did the former Archbishop of Sydney not look John Ellis in the eye and deliver a human heartfelt apology from the soul? How demeaning was it to have the Cardinal look down the lens of the cameras haughtily protesting that “we are not the only cab on the rank.”

What does it do for us to have the Archbishop absurdly liken victims of clergy sexual abuse to reckless hitchhikers, and the church to a trucking company? How traumatising is this for victims and how distressing for good people of faith?

The time is well overdue for a Catholic Spring of the kind outlined by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson?

MARK MEEHAN | 21 November 2014  

Child sexual abuse is a dark subject, an experience that never goes away and leaves the abused with a deep sense of shame and guilt. Institutions by their very nature tend to 'package' solutions and design policies. But, in so many ways, they are dealing with that still vulnerable child, even after a number of decades. In Pope Francis' description of the church as a 'field hospital', maybe there's a need for care that listens intently and unconditionally. And doesn't 'expect'.

Pam | 15 January 2015  

Stil no accountability re psychologists who gave bishops clean bill of health for pedo priests

Father John George | 15 January 2015  

Similar Articles

Tonti-Filippini's intellectual quest undaunted by physical pain

  • Zac Alstin
  • 12 November 2014

Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer paid tribute to his friend and intellectual nemesis Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, who died last Friday after suffering pain and discomfort for much of his life. The majority of Tonti-Filippini’s influence on bioethics in Australia took place out of the public spotlight, including has work as chair of a govenment committee on the care of people in an unresponsive or minimally responsive state.


Which bishop is challenging the bank on fossil fuels?

  • Jill Sutton
  • 11 November 2014

There has been an avalanche of divestment, including from the Rockefellers and the ANU, as they discern a lack of concern for environmental, social and governance issues. Shareholders attending Wednesday’s Commonwealth Bank AGM will hear a resolution requesting more transparency about the bank’s fossil fuel investments. But the bank’s response can seem like a game whose rules only become clear to its participants as they play it. Banks and other powerful organisations can still exploit any lack of clarity.