By Andrew Klein
The past few months have highlighted what can only be described as a plague that has infected our communities for generations. The ‘Pell’ matter simply brought things to a head for many in our communities.
One would have to be wilfully blind or deluded to pretend that the sexual abuse of children in faith-based organizations was an aberration rather than a twisted and perverse new normal.
Hardly a day goes by without a historic case being reported by the media. Obviously not all the cases related to the Roman Catholic Church are uniquely Australian, but as the name ‘Catholic’ indicates, they are universal and they touch each and every one of us. I doubt that there are many readers of my FB wall that have not been impacted either directly or indirectly by cases of sexual abuse of children. Children either abused whilst in care of faith-based organizations or in care of those trusted by their parents, their families. Often the abusers were either seen as part of the family/community structure or were in fact related to the children concerned. In all cases, as far as I have learned over many years, this has involved both grooming and frightening as it sounds, the very tacit or complicit behaviour of those who should have been expected to act in the best interest of the child.
Volumes have been written about ‘stranger danger’ and the threat posed by external forces. Yet it seems to me at this point in time that the real danger to children came in the guise of respected members of the community and as far as I can tell, these always involved a degree of power imbalance between the perpetrator and the child and its family.
In fact, there are times when it is hard to tell the difference between the two. Churches have historically been seen as agents of spiritual and religious growth. As such clergy and laity were allowed both into the physical proximity of children and certainly into the inner reaches of the child’s mind.
Were these positive things then I might accept that there is a role for this. But the overwhelming evidence, the case after case presented, the body of evidence presented to the Royal Commission into the abuse of children in faith-based organizations makes it clear that the impacts have been far from benevolent. In fact, they have undermined communities and destroyed individuals.
We, as a society, accepted a redress scheme that allowed predatory organizations to hide the incidents of assault and abuse by the planned use of confidentiality agreements. It is interesting to note that in 1922 the Vatican changed its approach to crimes against children by concealing the facts on pain of excommunication, a punishment that was to be applied to any of the faithful who allowed knowledge of the crimes committed to become public knowledge. This too is part of the evidence given to the Royal Commission here in Australia.
My point though is that children were not only sexually abused in churches, but it also occurred in other organizations and certainly within family structures. All the places that were thought to be safe were in fact compromised and following the lead of the Roman Catholic Church, the model applied was one of pastoral care and treatment of the offenders and more often than not the victim became secondary to the rage of saving the predators and the reputations of organizations and families.
I write this today thinking of all the survivors that I have met over the years. I write this knowing now that many of them were denied the opportunity for a happy and productive life, I write this knowing now that they did complain when they were young. That often the troubled behaviour that they displayed was a cry for help that we as a community did not hear or chose not to hear.
The lies and deception, the vested interests and power imbalances that enabled and protected predators still exist.
I know what it says about the Roman Catholic Church, and I know what it says about churches in general. To me it places the burden of responsibility fairly onto the leaders of the church and those organizations that were trusted with the souls of the innocent. It also says a lot about our society, our culture and how this abuse was permitted to occur for generations. It says something about the power and control those churches exercised over the minds of the faithful, but it also speaks volumes about the families who knew about the abuse and remained silent as they were promised both a physical reward in this life and one for the life eternal.
It says much about a culture that decried the child sacrifice mentioned in the Old Testament and yet was prepared to see children belonging to less powerful economic and social groups as the less worthy, the ‘wardies’, the orphans and the bastards born out of wedlock.
These are hard and painful words, but it pains me to know that such language was used in my lifetime. It pains me to know that a large body of work dedicated to preventing child abuse is now tainted, either by association or by it being the product of wilful misdirection and of created ignorance.
I cannot look into the eyes of the many survivors that I have gotten to know over the years and offer the platitude of “I feel your pain”. I am grateful not to know that level of pain, to have grown up relatively unscathed by the machinations of those who saw no issue with using children for personal gratification. I am thankful that I was not trafficked by my family to ensure economic success or to obtain favours.
I can say that your words haunt me, that the betrayal that you suffered disgusts me and that your stories have changed my view of society for ever. I have learned that to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the past, to end the horrors of today will require vigilance and dedication by every member of the community. It will require the rebuilding of trust and safe spaces and above all, it will require a level of ruthlessness in dealing with predators that may appear to be in conflict with the pastoral care and treatment model offered to date to the many criminals who preyed on our children.
It requires a paradigm shift in our communities and cultures, one that acknowledges the rights of the child well above the rights of any organization, no matter what claims it makes.
It will require us, as a community to value parenting and mentoring far above the sperm deposit and ownership of a child response. Children are not property; their value must not be determined by class or by economic worth.
Above all, it will require all of us to act as parents if called upon and if we choose to respond to the call.
It requires boundaries that are easily understood and that are enforced if they are breached.
Every child has the right to know itself in a safe space. It is our duty to ensure that we, the adults, take reasonable steps to ensure that all children are safe. That all organizations are accountable and above all, transparent.
That we act as parents, uncles and aunties and mentors to all children and that parents who are struggling can reach out for support and guidance without being treated as flawed.
That the rights of the child are paramount simply because that child will one day be called on to be a force for good in its own life and the lives of others, that healthy and functional communities raise healthy and functional children.
Let us not repeat the historic failure of the recent past nor continue to hide the truths of child sexual abuse.
The violent society that we live in represents the violence and abuse that children were subjected to. Get your head around the scale of the thing before you pontificate on the goodness of churches.
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