OPINION: Every abuse survivor must have a voice

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard last month announced the terms of reference for what will probably be Australia’s largest and arguably most important royal commission.

In doing so, she said she wanted to send a very clear message to child sexual abuse survivors.

‘‘For too many, the trauma of abuse has been compounded by the sense that ... their nation doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about what they’ve suffered,” she said.

‘‘To those survivors of child sex abuse, today we are able to say we want your voice to be heard, even if you’ve felt for all of your life that no one’s listened to you, that no one has taken you seriously, that no one has really cared.’’

With these words, the Prime Minister made it clear that finally, the secrets kept by so many for so long, the suffering they have endured mostly in silence, the sense of shame and loss, is no longer their burden to carry alone. 

My own reaction to the announcement is very positive.

A great choice of commissioners who reflect our geography and gender diversity, as well as a skills mix ideally suited to the task.

The terms of reference reflect all the things that victim support groups and individual survivors have been calling for, and it appears clear that the government is serious about this royal commission.

 I was particularly pleased to hear the Prime Minister use the words “Shine the Light” since this is the phrase that the Newcastle Herald and the Hunter have used in leading the way on this issue.

I have only one reservation about the royal commission.

Since the Prime Minister made her announcement in November last year, I have spoken to a number of abuse survivors who were pleased, relieved and supportive but who indicated that they probably would not make a submission themselves.

Their reasons were predominantly based on their belief that their own stories were not important enough, or that they felt they lacked the confidence and or skills to make a submission. 

“I wouldn’t know where to start”, was a common response. Others had very good reasons why they wish to stay anonymous.

Adding to my concern, a friend in Melbourne recently told me that some people were paying third parties an hourly fee to help write submissions to the Victorian child abuse inquiry.

Given this concern, knowing how helpful it can be to get one’s story off one’s chest, and reflecting the Prime Minister’s desire that everyone have a chance to be heard, I want to urge every victim of child abuse – whether they be a direct victim or an indirect one, to find a way to tell your story to the royal commission.

If you need your story to remain private, then make an anonymous submission. While the call has yet to go out for submissions to the commission, it’s worth remembering that March 1 is the deadline for submissions to the NSW inquiry.

If you do not know where to start, then talk to a support group, your doctor or a trusted friend and have them help you. 

Start by asking yourself these questions. What happened to you? When and where did it happen? Who did this to you? Did you ever tell anyone about the abuse, and if so, what happened? 

What would you like the royal commission to achieve?

How has your life been affected?

Survivors deserve to know that their story has been heard and understood.

Finally, I acknowledge that the process of telling one’s story, even the unfolding processes of the royal commission itself, will be painful for many people. Please do not do this alone. 

Get some support and always remember Lifeline is available 24 hours a day – call 13 11 14.

Peter Gogarty was  a victim of Hunter paedophile priest Jim Fletcher, and is the founding member of the Hunter-based Clergy Abused Network. The group’s phone number is 1300722689.

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