OPINION: Evolutions of thought, revolutions in deed

I was watching Compass  on ABC television the other night and it prompted me to consider the enormity of the task that faces the Royal Commission and its implications, not just for the present but for  the history of Australia.

At the end of one interview, and at the close of the program, one of the victims of childhood sexual abuse said they had kept their faith and  just wanted the church to be safe again. 

The word “again” stuck in my mind as it may be that some mistakenly believe that abuse is a more contemporary issue when undoubtedly all types of abuse stretch back, not just decades but centuries.

Given that abuse has always existed, it may have not been addressed because of the communities’ quite passive acceptance of what was a normative practice.

For instance, the Australian Defence Force has just invited serving and previous members to make submissions in respect of harassment, bullying and sexual physical assault they may have suffered.

Having served many years with the army, I am sure that most people recruited prior to the 1980s can recall episodes of  torment, of bastardisation, of bullying and physical – as well as psychological – pain inflicted, supposedly to toughen us up.

Today this is totally unacceptable and rejected by the broader community, yet it was accepted practice in those days. 

This did not just start with my generation, but of course it was even worse for many generations in the now long-forgotten past.

Institutions themselves at times endorsed what we now regard as repugnant, cruel behaviour.

Likewise, in my youth in the 1950s and 1960s child protection was often just simple instructions whispered by parents, for example, that one shouldn’t be alone with uncle so and so.

The majority of sexual assault and violence then and now occurs in the family.

It wasn’t, of course, only sexual, but physical, even sadistic abuse, and having received ‘‘cuts” at school, I might add, that this was not strictly a metaphor because quite often caning would cause a break in the skin. 

Most, but especially males, can remember the terror of standing outside the deputy principal’s office to receive six “cuts”, ironically referred to as “six of the best”. 

Many fathers in those days simply responded, “well you must have done something to deserve that”. 

There were also those parents who then dished out further punishment for misbehaviour at school.

Things have radically changed and there came a generation, which I like to think I was part of, that started to say no.

However it took some while for there to be a change in how institutions responded. In fact, legislation was necessary, and while corporal punishment in schools was abolished in the 1980s and the reports of sexual abuse increased over time, it wasn’t until 1998, when the Child Protection Act was introduced, that the law caught up with community sentiment.

Steven Pinker, surely an American national treasure, in his book Angels of a Better Nature indicates that violence has actually declined in Western society.

Reading this book is inspirational. We are living in the most peaceful times, where violence is considered an abhorrence.

What can and will continue to change is how we, as a society and community, respond.

We will now embark upon an assessment by way of the Royal Commission of how we, as an entire community, which includes our institutions, responded and even participated in the abuse in the past. I am not sure how far back this will take us but clearly our parents and our grandparents, and great-grandparents, in the main remained silent. 

It would have been impossible for them not to know such abuse happened. 

In fact, in all likelihood, this occurred far more frequently than it has in the last one or two generations, where finally there have been consequences for the perpetrators.

It could be argued that institutions represent no more than the public norm. This does not excuse the institutions of those days, but to respond to the 1950s through to the 1970s based on 21st century standards is dangerous.

Crucially, we have now established that future generations will say no to any form of violence. 

I am unsure of what is to be gained by rediscovering the past, when it’s today and tomorrow that counts. 

Roger Peters is a Newcastle consultant psychologist

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