OPINION: Sex abuse survivors want to be believed

Why didn’t the victims say something years ago?

In most situations, children are groomed for sexual abuse by the perpetrating priest, brother, teacher etc over a period of years.

Their family is also groomed by the perpetrator, who becomes a close and trusted family friend and, sometimes, a spiritual adviser and confidant. The family feel great pride at the special attention they are being paid.

The perpetrator has spent years building a trusted and respected community profile. He makes the child believe the child has invited the abuse and enjoyed the relationship.

At first, the child enjoyed being special to someone so important.

The perpetrator tells the child no one will believe the story of abuse or he tells them something bad will happen to those he or she loves if the child speaks up. 

Let’s remember the child believes this person is God’s representative on earth. Their family believe this too. The perpetrator makes the child feel ashamed and guilty as well as ‘‘special’’.

It is the shame, guilt and fear that keeps children quiet, and which lasts well into adulthood. 

Some survivors repress the experience in order to cope and only remember years later when something triggers their memory.

We have met survivors who have waited 30 or 40 years to speak up. Coming forward for them takes great courage and how they are treated at this time is vitally important. 

Why didn’t their parents tell the police?

The child may never have told their parents for reasons outlined above.

Sometimes, children told their parents and they were not believed. It may have been too hard for the parents to reconcile the child’s story of abuse with their view of the trusted priest they believed they knew so well.

This experience made the child shut down further and less likely to speak up again, particularly if the child was not only disbelieved, but punished for ‘‘saying such a thing’’.

Sometimes, however, when children told their parents, the parents believed them and wanted something done. Where would a devout family go for help with such a matter? Very likely they went to their bishop or another member of the clergy for advice.

Very likely they were told the church would handle it, and they believed this. The guilt many parents of survivors now feel at not going to the police or not believing their child is palpable. 

Would the police have done anything anyway? Would they have listened?

Perhaps the police would not have acted on the complaint and may have minimised the experience of the survivor. We do know there have been instances of this sort of response historically. A belief that police will not want to listen is not an excuse for not reporting a crime. It is motivation for an inquiry into why police behaved this way.

This is one of the reasons for the NSW inquiry, to investigate such instances and to ensure systems are in place to act on all complaints. 

We welcome the inquiry’s outcomes with regard to police systems.

Do survivors want revenge?

The rage felt at the total violation experienced and the disbelief survivors have faced when they come forward provokes a wish for revenge for some but not all survivors. Our experience tells us this group represents a minority of clergy abused survivors.

Do they hate the Catholic Church?

Many believe those who come forward are outsiders with a deep-seated hatred of the Catholic Church.

We know that, on the contrary, most survivors came from families who were devout members of the church. This is what made them vulnerable; the belief that God’s representative on earth could do no wrong.

They don’t hate the church. They grieve for the loss of trust in an institution they have loved.

Do survivors believe all priests are either paedophiles or guilty of covering up?

As people who have more than likely been raised within the church and who have believed profoundly in its structures and practices, this is not a belief generally held by survivors. Certainly, those who remain enraged and desperately hurt find it hard to forgive and trust and are wary of all clergy.

Many survivors, however, have close friendships with clergy, seek their counsel, still go to Mass and sometimes choose to work for the church. 

Aren’t they just after the money?

No amount of money can adequately compensate for the experience of child sexual abuse. No amount of money can ‘‘take the pain away’’. In NSW, the current legal situation means that seeking financial reparation has many technical barriers. 

Going to court can be a lengthy, arduous, invasive, humiliating and retraumatising experience that no one would willingly put themselves through. If court proceedings are not defended by church authorities and damages are awarded, compensation is significantly limited by legislation introduced following lobbying by the insurance industry in 2002. Claims for psychological injury following child sexual abuse do not result in survivors getting ‘‘millions of dollars’’. Similarly, the NSW Victims Compensation scheme includes many often insurmountable hurdles for anyone seeking redress for ‘‘historical’’ abuse and has a cap of $50,000.

Yet, to date, seeking financial redress has often been the only way survivors could try to address the wrongs against them. This is the way our society approaches compensation for all types of personal injury.

The Catholic Church has its own redress scheme called Towards Healing. Many survivors have reported this process as unhelpful and retraumatising.

Many survivors would like to see meaningful alternatives to financial settlement offered to them.

They would, however, like to have input into the design of these alternatives, rather than have them decided for them.

Don’t they really just need restorative justice?

We have not met any survivors of clergy sexual abuse who have come to us seeking restorative justice, which usually involves all stakeholders negotiating a solution through meeting together to resolve past hurts. It is a worthwhile and meaningful solution to many conflicts where each party has been hurt. It is not a solution for situations involving clergy sexual abuse, where a powerful imbalance of power puts the survivor at great risk of retraumatisation.

Sexual abuse of children is a serious and heinous crime. Even when they learn ways to cope with their feelings, survivors can remain traumatised for the rest of their lives. Recalling details of abuse is a source of retraumatisation.

Meeting the abuser again is unthinkable for most.

What’s the main issue for survivors?

There is no “one real issue” for victims of child sexual abuse by clergy or church personnel.

They want justice, by all means.

They want past wrongs righted.

They want awareness raised.

They want children to be protected.

They want the broader community to understand the enormity of these crimes.

They want society to have sufficient understanding to be able to resist the power of grooming by perpetrators.

They want to not be blamed and reviled for speaking up.

They want healing.

They want to feel whole again.

They want to trust.

They want to feel more in control and less powerless.

Many want to find their faith again; a faith and community they were cruelly robbed of along with their innocence.

They want to see the church accept responsibility for its actions and address the power structures that allowed abuse to occur in the past, and allow abuse to continue in the present.

Above all, they want to be believed.

A royal commission and the state inquiry offer a vehicle that can potentially deliver all of these things.

Bob O’Toole and Lindsay Gardiner are executive members of the Clergy Abused Network, a support group for those abused by clergy or others in religious contexts.

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