Victorian abuse inquiry must be just the start

Victorian abuse inquiry must be just the start

published national times

Cathy Kezelman
April 20, 2012 – 11:15AM

Victoria’s inquiry may go some way to shattering the secrecy, tackling the stigma and addressing the denial that surrounds abuse. Photo: John Donegan

The Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse within religious organisations is to be applauded. The long overdue announcement this week by the Baillieu government has come on the back of years of lobbying by victims, their families and victims’ groups.

The report into the appalling number of suicides by victims of clergy abuse in that state has delivered, it appears, the final momentum needed for the inquiry to be announced.

To those of us who work in the child abuse arena, such statistics, while always chilling, are not surprising. A 2008 Victorian study established that survivors of child sexual assault are up to 18 times more likely to commit suicide than people who haven’t been abused.

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Child abuse is destructive. When victims don’t receive the support and validation they need, as has been perpetrated by an array of religious institutions, the quality of their lives can be badly affected. In some cases, lives are lost.

In Australia more than 2 million adults are living with the impacts of their childhood abuse. Many have described it as an epidemic that is steeped in secrecy, stigma and collective denial. In Australia, Victoria is leading the way in shattering the secrecy, tackling the stigma and addressing the denial.

It’s a start, but it’s now time for full transparency and real accountability across the board.

This inquiry must be followed by similar processes in other states and territories, supported with a national broad-based inquiry.

As has been suggested, such a process may well be better served by a royal commission or judicial inquiry. It’s a matter of what will wield greater power.

Make no mistake, this is an issue of power; the power of a perpetrator over a victim, the power of an adult over a child, the power of a person in a position of trust betraying that trust, the power of a member of the clergy abrogating their responsibility, the power of the strong over the vulnerable.

It has also been an issue of the power of religious institutions to operate by their own rules, internal rules that have, at times, put them at odds with the very laws that hold other organisations, institutions and citizens accountable.

Religious institutions are predominantly closed patriarchal systems. The more closed the organisation or institution, often the greater the investment in maintaining silence and secrecy. Perpetrators use secrecy and silence to hide their crimes and if secrecy fails, they attack the credibility of victims to try to ensure that no one listens.

We have witnessed the blaming and discrediting of victims within religious institutions, with the shame that victims feel projected onto them all over again.

These systems have their own structures and hierarchies. In the case of the Catholic Church, these structures have prevented victims from pursuing claims against that institution, and internal canon law has taken precedence over civil law.

In many religious institutions the hierarchical systems have perpetuated secrecy and denial, led by an inherent belief that the religious institution knows best and will handle the issue internally, thereby seeking to contain the shame and controversy around such crimes.

So why has it taken so long for any government to come forward and tackle this issue? Collectively, as a society we recoil from stories of abuse. Often we would rather blame the victim for making us uncomfortable and, effectively, for their own victimisation.

As a society we continue to betray those who have been abused in childhood, silencing and shaming them, minimising and negating their experiences. As bystanders we are complicit in these practices, and the shame so inappropriately adopted by victims belongs with us all.

Generations of survivors of clergy abuse have now spoken out. The time has come for us as a society to overcome our disgust, push aside the stigma and taboo around abuse and take action.

It is within a conspiracy of silence and collective denial that the crime of child sexual assault thrives. It is enormously difficult for victims to speak out, both in childhood and as adults. Silenced by shame, threats and the fear of not being believed, many victims don’t ever tell their story. And some don’t ever get the chance.

Thank you, Premier Baillieu and your government, for listening.

Dr Cathy Kezelman is the president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse.

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