EDITORIAL: Church abuse suicides

ALL 30 are dead, probably by suicide.

All 30 were abused by clergy or other religious officials in the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese.

In some cases the link between those two factors appears clear and direct. In others the picture is complicated by time or circumstances.

The time seems right, now that a royal commission is inquiring into sexual abuse in religious institutions throughout Australia, to put the question of these troubling deaths – and many others like them – on the table for closer examination.

Some observers will ask what can be achieved by unearthing these sad stories of suicide tragedies. After all, in many cases it may now be virtually impossible to tease apart the various potential contributing factors and reach any sort of conclusion about the relative contribution of sexual abuse.

But as a series of articles in today’s Newcastle Herald suggest, there are matters worth investigating in several cases. A number of families appear anxious to learn more about the loss of their loved ones, and some others seem determined to simply have an acknowledgement from the church that the abuse may have played a part.

As Bishop Bill Wright has noted in correspondence to one of those pressing for an investigation into the suicides, it isn’t always clear what motivates somebody to take their own life.

‘‘When someone suicides years after being at school, how much weight should be put on their school experience compared to, say, more immediate things like a relationship breakdown, job loss etc, business failure, etc? People do suicide, or die suddenly, for other reasons,’’ the bishop wrote.

On the other hand, of course, it may be argued that a deep trauma such as sexual abuse in childhood can set the scene for many of these future problems by undermining the victim’s persona and sense of self-worth.

Ultimately, perhaps, the chief argument in favour of an investigation into these particular suicides might be the fact that it potentially gives a voice to victims whose own voices have been silenced by death.

Loved ones of these victims may, like other relatives of people who take their own lives, have unaddressed issues of their own that an investigation could help with.  The mother, for instance, who never knew her son had been abused until police told her, the day after his suicide, is a victim as surely as her child was.

An investigation into these deaths must inevitably add an extra layer of discomfort for the church and some of its personnel.

 But with the royal commission under way, there could hardly be a more suitable time to ask these questions and to canvass the difficult issues.

If not now, then when?

Beyond Blue  1300 22 4636

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