Don’t look away
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reported today. What happens next is up to all of us.
“I know that this subject matter is very difficult, and for people with young kids it’s particularly hard to fathom, but if people haven’t paid a lot of attention to the royal commission please make sure you do this week, because it’s really important for the protection of children that we all pay attention, because looking the other way hasn’t worked. As hard as it is, watch, read, learn, and we’ll all have a better country for our children from now on.”
That was Paul Kennedy, producer of Undeniable, a documentary about those who fought institutions in order to expose child sexual abuse. It struck me, this plea, because it pointed to an eternal truth of public debate. The situations that are the most horrible, the most entrenched, are so often those that we remain determined to look away from, precisely because they are horrible, and because they are entrenched: domestic violence, racism, the treatment of Indigenous people. These are not always conscious thoughts. Much of the time it is a learned instinct for self-preservation: our minds point us away from that which might scar us and to which there seems little opportunity to make a difference. And it is in the corners that most of us refuse to look that the most devastating aspects of our world flourish.
Our public leaders are fond of saying that there is nothing so important as the wellbeing of a child; that children are the most vulnerable and must be protected at all costs. When such things are said, we nod our heads and inwardly agree. But though as individuals this is undoubtedly true, it is also clear that as a society we have failed to make it so. Today’s release of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse demonstrates that, but also gives us an opportunity to change.
The extent of abuse across the country is, I find, impossible to imagine. There are many numbers, but the proper place to start is that perhaps 60% of survivors will never say anything. The large numbers that are everywhere recited today are therefore only a part of the whole. At the royal commission, evidence was heard that sexual abuse occurred in over 4000 institutions. More than 15,000 people – survivors and their relatives – contacted the commission. Over 8000 private sessions were held. The final report runs to 21 volumes.
A lot of publicity has been given to churches and to private schools, but it’s important to recognise that child sexual abuse was embedded across the nation. One-third of survivors who gave evidence in private sessions were abused in a government-managed institution. If governments are responsible to their citizens, then citizens must to some extent be responsible for the actions of their governments.
Having said that, every institution is not equal in this. David Marr gave the eclectic list: a yoga ashram, Swimming Australia, the YMCA. But he also wrote that the commission’s “principal focus became the failings of the Catholic Church. There is no arguing with the figures. Most survivors attending the 8000 private sessions with commissioners reported abuse in faith-based institutions. Two-thirds of those were abused in Catholic institutions.”
Reckoning with the extent of damage done is only part of the problem. The crucial question now must be the extent of change willing to be countenanced. And on this the Catholic Church did not make a good start.
No senior officials from the Church attended yesterday’s final hearing, held to show respect to the survivors whose stories had made the commission possible.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher today said this was a time for “very serious self-examination”. He said that the Church had to take “very seriously” the findings of the commission about “systemic issues” relating to hierarchy, culture, practices and beliefs. “Where there are areas we can change I am ready to change”.
In the same press conference he also said this, regarding the recommendation that child abuse that comes to light during confession be reported:
“While we are yet to study what the commission has had to say about that, I think everyone understands that this Catholic and Orthodox practice of confession is always entirely confidential. I think any proposal to effectively stop the practice of confession in Australia would be a real hurt to all Catholics and Orthodox Christians and I don’t think would help any young person. If young people are to be kept safe, focusing on something like confession would be a distraction. It is extremely rare that a perpetrator comes and confesses this, and on the rare occasion they did it might be an opportunity to move them to report themselves. So killing off confession is not going to help anybody.”
Got that? We’re willing to change – but we won’t even consider changing the things we’ll find most difficult to change. We’ll read the report, but only having already ruled out some of the shifts the report recommends. We’ll engage in self-examination just as far as we deem it appropriate.
My point here isn’t about confession per se, so put aside your personal views on that issue for a moment. What is revealing about this passage is that it lays bare an attitude. It smacks of how much of the Church approached this issue for too long: as a PR problem to be managed. Fisher has the right lines, expressing the appropriate amount of good will, but also wants to control debate from the get go. He even employs that favourite device of politicians, misrepresenting his opponent’s views. Nobody is talking about “killing off” confession. It is impossible to listen to Fisher and conclude that senior members of the Church have sufficiently accepted the role of their institution in systemic, horrific abuse.
Fisher’s comments may be the most publicly egregious, but they are probably depressingly representative. All of us find it easy to say to ourselves, “The problem is worse over there.” Perversely, other institutions will no doubt look at the Catholic Church and think, “Well, at least we’re not that bad.”
But you can be sure that as the months go on other organisations will be doing their best to contest the recommendations of the commission that most worry them, just as Fisher did today. Yes, they’ll accept the majority of suggestions – but this one? Really?
The royal commission has already changed our country. It has brought some relief to thousands of survivors. It has unveiled crimes that had been ignored or actively covered up. It was announced by Julia Gillard when she was prime minister, and will be an indelible part of her legacy. The commission itself, and in particular the commissioner, Peter McClellan, have given great service to our country. And as has been widely acknowledged, the survivors themselves deserve by far the most praise for their bravery. “Bravery” is a word we often hear, but in this case it is the right one.
It is obvious to say and must be said: much of the work of royal commissions begins when they are over. Malcolm Turnbull must make the implementation of its recommendations a priority, as must the leaders who succeed him in decades to come. So must the premiers and chief ministers. So must the leaders of every institution. And it is up to all of us to make sure they do. Our instinct to look away must be overcome, not just this week, but every week.
In other news
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Tragic evidence of child sexual abuse in the Newcastle Anglican Church
“There were plenty of red flags about Father Rushton. Alfred Holland, Newcastle’s bishop from 1978 to 1992, had seven warnings about Rushton’s offending in just two years. In 1979 a parishioner, Suzan Aslin, warned Professor David Frost, her academic teacher and a member of Newcastle’s Anglican synod, that Rushton and his lover, lay preacher Jim Brown, were going on a sex tour of Europe. Brown, who was later convicted and imprisoned for 20 years for serious crimes of child sexual abuse, had groomed one of her sons. Aslin asked Frost to tell Holland. Frost told the royal commission that he contacted Holland, who asked him ‘to leave the matter entirely with me’. According to Aslin’s evidence, Holland rang her some time later and pronounced himself ‘appalled’ by what she had told Frost. But Holland did nothing.” (May 2017) READ ON
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