Yesterday, Cardinal George Pell lost his appeal against his conviction of child sexual abuse.
Children, when allowed to develop without debilitating trauma, often have an innate sense of fairness, together with a belief and the expectation that justice must be and will be made to prevail.
When you’ve been sexually abused in your childhood, this trust in the order of things is one of the first things to crumble. The disintegration continues into adulthood as you see that your abuser faces no consequences for their crimes against you, while your life is a daily struggle with traumatic stress that leaves no part of your body and mind untouched.
You often experience this loss of trust as feelings of angry hopelessness, despair even, disillusionment and bitter disappointment. Though of course you the child can articulate none of this, it’s inchoate, and black.
You might also as an adult speak of these things in the third person, when you manage to speak of them at all, because that creates some small distance from a chaos that might otherwise engulf you. The I, while recommended as a means of owning one’s life experiences and a step to empowerment, can be a bridge too far when dealing with experiences you don’t actually want to own. I use I sparingly, when I feel strong. It is empowering. I wish I could do it more often. For the moment, switching between the two persons is the best I can do.
I could not bear to hope that Pell would lose his appeal. I could not bear to deal with the blow of yet again witnessing a powerful man, backed by other powerful men and their female consorts, backed by the power of institutions and two former prime ministers, get away with it. So I prepared myself for his, their, win. That meant in the main trying not to think about it and when that didn’t work, steeling myself, calling up all my resources, so that I wouldn’t be entirely undone by yet another set of traumatic injustices over which I had no control. It meant forbidding myself expectations of anything other than our loss and their win.
When I heard the judges’ decision I was home alone. An involuntary and guttural cry, not dissimilar to the primitive roar a woman often makes in the last stages of birth, was my first reaction. It had happened. He’d lost. The institutions had lost. The powerful men and their consorts had lost. Two former prime ministers had lost. Survivors had won.
This was an unfamiliar relief, and it swept through me warm and strong. I didn’t have to deal with watching survivors lose again. You lose so much when you’re sexually abused, your losses are incalculable, this motif of crippling loss continues throughout your life and for many of us there comes a time when it is one loss too many, and we are done. A win over patriarchal power is rare and it is overwhelming. It makes you tremble, and it makes you fear that there will be consequences. How dare you defeat them?
The Pell verdict is just. It is an enormous victory yet at the same time, it changes little for individual survivors. Our childhoods remain stolen. For many of us, our potential remains curbed. Our daily struggles with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress continue. The fight for redress, in itself so horribly damaging and wickedly protracted by the guilty institutions, goes on. This is a turbulent time for survivors. As glad as we might be to see Pell fall, it is a tortuous victory when our histories, triggered by the circumstances, engulf us.
Despite my emotional and mental turmoil I am immensely grateful for this verdict. It gives me some small hope that things are changing, that abusers, no matter how powerful, can be made accountable for crimes against children. That the powerful enablers are not able to silence us, no matter how much effort they devote to achieving that end. My abuser is long dead, and I will never know the satisfaction of seeing him publicly disgraced and imprisoned. My gratitude today is to J, the man who made this possible, the man who steadfastly confronted power with truth and in so doing gave me, and many others, this extraordinary chance to vicariously experience justice.
This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.
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