Tardy redress would hurt victims more

The testimony given to the royal commission sitting in Ballarat provides further insight into the unconscionable human cost of child sexual abuse. The inquiry has revealed that 12 boys have died, allegedly by suicide from a single class of 33 at St Alipius school and 40 suicides related to child sexual assault have occurred within the Ballarat community. This community has been crushed to its core.

Silenced survivors have shown courage coming forward. … To not promptly address their needs would not only be soul-destroying but also life-threatening.

One after another, victims are continuing to come forward courageously breaking their silence. It has been asserted that there were schools in which no child was safe, with periods during which every teacher was an alleged sex offender.

With no safe place or person to tell, these children lived in constant fear of the next assault, powerless and helpless, as those charged with their care abused their power and betrayed them time and again. The possibility of “fight or flight”, a normal physiological response to danger was not available. Where was their community of nurture, care and compassion? And why did no one intervene to protect them?

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These survivors, now men, have related heartbreaking stories of lives ruined by disability, welfare dependency, mental illness, substance abuse and relationship breakdown. Many of those who have not paid the ultimate price are living a life sentence imposed by the predatory behaviour of paedophile priests and sealed by a system which protected its own at all costs.

The leadership of the Catholic Church in particular, is now under intense scrutiny. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is prising open a previously secretive and closed network. The silence is being shattered.

Throughout the royal commission we have seen a series of entrenched systems previously accountable only to their own internal intransigence publicly examined and we as a community have been shocked. That so many once revered systems could so conspire to betray their charges, not once but repeatedly, over decades and across leadership structures, is not acceptable.

The royal commission will release its interim recommendations around redress and civil litigation at the end of June. The recommendations will lay the foundations for a fair and just response for victims, including those now providing testimony in Ballarat. Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) calls on state and federal governments in Australia to respond proactively. They must immediately move to put in place frameworks and structures to implement the recommendations.

Silenced survivors have shown courage coming forward. They have trusted the commission and its processes as well as the governments that have supported it. To not promptly address their needs would not only be soul-destroying but also life-threatening.

When the recommendations are released, the immediate response should provide optimal possibilities for survivors to access much-needed support and redress. For many it will be too little; let’s not make it too late for all.

It is time for institutions to be brought to justice and held accountable. It is also time for true leadership, the sort of leadership seen within the commission, and it needs to come not just from all of the institutions paraded before the commission, but also from governments across Australia.

Dr Cathy Kezelman is the president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA)

Help and support for adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse is available from the ASCA professional support line on 1300 657 380, 9am- 5pm Monday-Sunday.

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Cardinal George Pell – his personal appearance – a real opportunity

Cardinal George Pell withdrew from his much-awaited personal appearance by at the public hearing into the Melbourne archdiocese and Ballarat diocese this week, due to a sudden exacerbation of long-standing heart condition. The move frustrated not only victims and advocates, but also the very process of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Call me naïve, but I am struggling to retain a fundamental belief in the moral rectitude of our institutions, and the compassion of those in a position of power and responsibility within them. The wealth of contentious evidence and damning allegations uncovered makes this a primal challenge, and one in which I believe I am far from alone.

Failure to respond to systemic child sexual abuse is not restricted to religious institutions; nor to the Catholic Church alone. However, allegations have been mounting about the role of the then Archbishop Pell, the integrity of the Catholic Church process, in particularly The Melbourne Response, further challenged in the recent 60 Minutes segment. Searing testimony during the last week’s public hearing into the Ballarat diocese, makes consideration of the Church’s actions, in general, and Cardinal Pell’s role, in particular, pertinent and topical.

As the President of Australia’s national organisation, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), and, as a child abuse survivor myself, I am struck by the contrast between the tenacity of victims seeking to be heard and acknowledged, and the apparent ongoing disregard, for their welfare by some of the powers that be.

The decision by Cardinal Pell, prior to his ill-health intervening, to cross-examine victims runs the very real risk of re-traumatising survivors.

The Melbourne Response, established by the then Archbishop Pell, was established as an independent body to efficiently respond to victims, lessen their suffering and provide support, compensation and justice. According to Cardinal Pell, the three main components – the Commissioners, the counselling arm and the Compensation Panel – of The Melbourne Response, were independent from the Archdiocese.

Under the scrutiny of the Royal Commission, its processes, goals and outcomes are being brought into question.

Firstly, it has been alleged that the ‘Independent’ Commissioner, Peter O’Callaghan QC, appointed in 1996, shared his instructing solicitor with the Archdiocese. Secondly, the Royal Commission’s public hearing in May heard that Peter O’Callaghan never, in his role as Commissioner, reported abuse to the police. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the Commission’s sensitivity to the need to optimise survivor psychological and physical safety, Peter O’Callaghan interviewed victims in his chambers, a daunting physical space for anyone, but especially for victims of abuse.

The role of Professor Richard Ball, the psychiatrist appointed for clinical services to victims of Church abuse, also highlights the question of independence and trust. Recent allegations about two letters allegedly written by Professor Ball on the same day, one to the paedophile priest, Father O’Donnell’s lawyer, and the second to a sentencing judge, providing conflicting information is clearly a matter of the utmost gravity.

The personal appearance of Cardinal Pell before the Commission would provide a long-awaited opportunity for him to prove that the needs of victims for justice, compassion and support are his primary concern.

One only hopes that Cardinal Pell’s ill-health will improve and he will have the opportunity to respond to all allegations made to the Royal Commission, and so right the record. If he fails to do so, one could be forgiven for believing that minimising financial and legal risk and accountability were, and still remain, key drivers for the Church, and for him, as Vatican treasurer.

If my faith, and that of so many others, in this institution and in institutions more broadly, is to be restored, the needs of victims as well as genuine compassion must dominate the words and actions of all leaders.

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Help and support for adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse is available from the ASCA professional support line on 1300 657 380, 9am- 5pm Monday-Sunday