Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Heed the voice of the wounded child

  • 15 November 2013

The findings of Victoria's parliamentary inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in non-government institutions surprise nobody who has been listening. But they are listening to adults, not children. The truth is, we started to talk about emotional, physical and sexual maltreatment as children in the '60s and '70s, when the language and concepts of 'abuse' were developing through the research. The cone of silence started to lift a little. We know now why it did: there were just too many dirty secrets underneath.

And there were a lot more opportunities to talk about them — group and individual therapy, therapeutic and spiritual and 'self-actualisation' movements — and even newly accessible professional, medical, and free and empathetic legal services. As the wounded child within the damaged man or woman spoke, it was eventually realised that if it happened then, it could be happening now.

Unless we take children seriously as people, it will. Unless individuals within the culture of their institution see it as a duty to stick their necks out and challenge its culture, it will. Unless bishops and their helpers and archbishops and cardinals and religious supporting them in their spiritual work take personal responsibility for protecting vulnerable people ahead of protecting the reputation of their institution, it will happen again.

A report of misconduct by even a very powerful person within that institution should not lead to the expulsion of the messenger. It should bring into question the culture of the organisation, that such a report could surface decades after the reported misconduct. It could just happen again. I am acutely aware of the present day experience of Professor Patrick Parkinson, who was asked to advise one Catholic teaching order on its culture, and then withdrew, citing institutional obduracy and avoidance as making the completion of his task impossible.

Still, today, Catholic orders and institutions have chosen to rely on 'the Law' and their insurers' caveats, on avoiding admissions at the cost of empathy and pastoral care, on challenging reporters to proof of facts and liability. It is, to put it mildly, bad spirit. The dirty secrets about the misuses of power come from the structure of the unincorporated church, with its multitude of trusts and shadowed networks.

For hundreds of years, powerful men have decided who gets to talk, and who influences their exercise of authority. For a couple of thousand years the Roman Catholic Church has operated as a feudal