OPINION: We can't look the other way

Cartoon by Peter Lewis
Cartoon by Peter Lewis

AUSTRALIA’S treatment of asylum seekers – and particularly children in detention – makes me feel like a hypocrite.

How can I write about the abuse of children in institutions in the past, and stay silent about children detained by our government today, in our name, and where there are credible and serious allegations of sexual abuse and mental harm?

How to write about churches attacking people in the past for raising credible child sex allegations, when Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton launch extraordinary attacks on Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs for raising credible allegations about abuse of children today?

The treatment of children in detention centres makes hypocrites of us all.

We cry tears as we shine a light on abuses in the past at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, while children are spirited to Nauru under cover of darkness.

Their treatment reduces our tears for victims of offences decades ago to empty hand-wringing, and pity.

David Owen, Graham Rundle, Peter Gogarty, Bob O’Toole and thousands of others who live daily with the consequences of child abuse – what Mr Owen calls ‘‘the stain on the brain’’ – don’t want pity.

They came forward to bear witness at the royal commission, to ensure children are protected in future.

They want Australians to act.

If the royal commission has demonstrated anything after more than two years of harrowing testimony, it is that abuse occurs when powerful institutions tasked with the care of children rank that care below other considerations.

When the status of an institution, the ambition of individuals, job security or simple indifference take priority, children are abused.

When political expediency takes priority – a government and opposition in a race to the bottom for votes – children are vulnerable to abuse, and will be abused.

What difference is there between a government that places children on an island, prevents media scrutiny, silences whistleblowers with threats of jail, attacks people for raising credible allegations, refuses to answer questions because of ‘‘operational reasons’’, and offers nothing but ‘‘Trust us’’ to community concerns, and the Catholic church isolating children at Neerkol orphanage outside Toowoomba in Queensland, or the Salvation Army at Eden Park orphanage in South Australia?

We trusted the Salvos and the Sisters of Mercy back then, as well.

David Owen was assigned a number and locked away at Neerkol. Graham Rundle was assigned a number and locked away at Eden Park.

They were dehumanised, powerless and voiceless, and they struggle  with the consequences every day of their lives.

The most common question asked after shocking revelations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is: ‘‘How did this happen?’’

The answer is in front of us – at Nauru and other centres where children are detained.

This is how it happens.

What we don’t know about – by excuse or government design – we don’t care about.

Which is why there’s a groundswell of anger from the victims and survivors of historic child sexual abuse, their partners and families.

They fought churches, politicians and governments for a royal commission, and will fight for their voices to be heard on children in detention today.

How does abuse of the most vulnerable and powerless among us occur, whether in institutions, in homes by family members, or in detention centres?

It occurs when we look the other way.


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