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Perpetrators and enablers. Abbott’s deafening silence.

28 May

Catholic church

 

Watching convicted pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale give evidence at the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse yesterday was not easy, yet his appearance emphasised, as I believe is the Commission’s intention, the reality that his crimes did not take place in a vacuum. They were perpetrated within a community, and others in Ridsdale’s community knew of them, though the offender is unclear as to how many knew what, and how much. It might be more accurate to note that it is unclear how many members of Ridsdale’s community are prepared to admit what they knew or suspected. However, it seems that his crimes were known by at least one of his superiors, who did absolutely nothing to help either Ridsdale or his victims and who bears a terrible responsibility for the suffering of hundreds of children over decades because of his lack of intervention.

Revealing his own connection with Ridsdale on Radio National Breakfast, journalist Paul Bongiornio noted that pedophiles are extremely good at hiding their activities, and hardly likely to boast about them. He made a comparison with a partner who carries on daily life with his or her spouse whilst conducting an affair: the spouse can be completely unaware of the betrayal, even while living in an intimate relationship. It’s not surprising, then, that those who like Bongiornio shared a house and a community with Ridsdale had no idea of the man’s predilections, and the extent to which he was acting them out.

It was, I have to admit, a comparison that hadn’t occurred to me but on reflection I see that the two activities have much in common: secrecy, the thrill of the illicit, the ability to behave in a profoundly duplicitous manner, the talent to present one face to those closest, whilst concealing from them powerful and secret sexual desires and acts. Obviously there are also differences, but to take Bongiornio’s point, people are infinitely capable of constructing and living double lives, and it has become a cliché to exclaim, when the next door neighbour is found to have dead bodies buried in the cellar, oh, he seemed like such a nice quiet man.

What is incontestable is that senior members of the Catholic church worldwide knew of the activities of their pedophile priests and did nothing to help and protect the victims, or to assist their profoundly disturbed clergy. They enabled priests. They created the conditions in which it was possible for the priests to continue to abuse and destroy lives.

As I watched Ridsdale I thought, this didn’t have to happen. All the hundreds of children he abused did not have to suffer, for the rest of their lives, his appalling attacks and their ongoing aftermath. Multiply that by how many thousands globally who also did not have to suffer if only, if only those who knew about the pedophile priests had not enabled them, and created the climate in which they could continue wreaking their awful havoc on the young.

It isn’t possible to overestimate the guilt and responsibility of the enablers. I have no sympathy for Ridsdale, but I did think as I watched this man, now in his eighties, attempt to give an accounting of himself to the Royal Commission, that he did deserve assistance from his superiors as far back as the nineteen sixties when his crimes first were brought to their attention. They owed him guidance, advice, treatment, and even prosecution for his crimes against children. Instead, they let him loose, shunting him from parish to parish, an out-of-control pedophile with a mind so deranged and distorted he thought his desire for “closeness” was appropriately expressed and gratified by terrifying and damaging the young in his care.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott remarked yesterday, in connection with those who leave Australia to fight in foreign wars and will lose citizenship as a consequence of their choices, that “A crime is a crime is a crime.” I continue to be astounded on a daily basis that the Prime Minister remains so uncharacteristically silent on the crimes committed by pedophile priests and the superiors who enabled them. Abbott is a staunch Catholic, and a great friend of Cardinal George Pell, who was also Abbott’s confessor. Surely the Prime Minister, who has such enviable clarity on the nature of crime, ought to be passing some comment on the crimes committed by pedophile priest and their enablers on such a massive scale over so many decades? Were Abbott not so outspoken on practically every other crime that comes to public attention, his silence on this one would seem unremarkable, however, we have come to expect his moral opinion on just about everything of note, bar the criminal priests and their enablers within his own church.

The Recording Angel

24 May

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Twelve months ago, I found myself in a situation that eerily replicated scenes from childhood. I had done everything in my power to avoid the circumstances, knowing the damaging effect they would likely have on me. In the initial example of traumatic repetition the matter was taken out of my hands by the other party in a betrayal of trust that continues to leave me stunned, and exhausted by the fatigue that accompanies the struggle to come to terms with events over which one has no control.

I behaved exactly as I had when a child. I became compliant. I tried to anticipate the other’s wishes. I did what I thought the other wanted me to do. I felt outside of myself, an observer rather than a participant. I fled, as I did as a child, into the persona I came to think of as the recording angel, the only part of me with any agency, the part of me that witnessed, the part of me whose role it was to remember.

I’ve watched and listened as survivors of childhood sexual abuse give their wrenching testimony to the Royal Commission. Every one of them has, like me, their own recording angel who witnessed, and remembers the events that determined the course of our lives. Every one of us found ways in which to stay alive except for those of us who didn’t, and who died of grief, and despair, and wounds that would never heal. Every one of us knows what it is to live a life in which every choice we make, every step we take, is steeped in the aftermath of our experiences and so is never free, and all too often self-destructive or at the very least, not in our own best interests. We have tainted perspectives on our own best interests. How could it be any other way?

My experience of a year ago plunged me into an ongoing nightmare of flashbacks, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, terror, self-blame, and ultimately despair that I will never be free of my history. I thought I was free, or at least as much as I could expect to be. I thought I had learned to manage the ongoing fallout from childhood. I thought that managing it was the best I could hope to achieve and all in all, that wasn’t too bad an outcome. Yet out of nowhere I encountered circumstances that released the demons; as an adult I failed to protect myself though I was certain that I had, and in a matter of minutes I found myself as powerless as I was when I was ten.

My life-long belief in my ability to manage, even overcome the damage of childhood was destroyed in those few minutes. That was the scaffolding on which I built my adult life, and it collapsed.

When survivors tell the Royal Commission their lives were stolen, this is one of the things they mean. We are never free. We never know what circumstances lie in wait that might hurl us back at the speed of light into the terror and powerlessness of childhood experiences. We cannot trust that our scaffolding will hold fast, subject as it is to the vagaries of memory provoked by unforseen reminders of hideous events.

There is what the abusers did to our bodies. There is what the abusers did to our hearts. There is what the abusers did to our spirits. And there is the recording angel, witness and testifier, speaker of truth.

To Cardinal Pell I would say, find the courage to face the testimony of the recording angels. If you wish to salvage something of your soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On entitlement and celibacy

23 May

entitlement

A sense of entitlement is listed as one of the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which seems so obvious you probably don’t need to go to the DSM-5 or the Mayo Clinic webpage to find that out.

Over the last couple of years there’s been debate as to whether or not celibacy requirements in the Catholic church contribute to the sexual abuse by priests of children in their charge. Personally, I think that theory is ridiculous and a red herring.  There are plenty of child sex offenders who are not Catholic priests and not celibate.

(How utterly awful it is to continually acknowledge the prevalence of this crime.)

It takes a particular type of psycho sexual mindset to cause a man or woman, (though male offenders far exceed female) to seek sexual gratification from the body of a child, and many offenders engage in adult sexual relationships as well as preying on children.

What is common to all of them, I’d argue, is a sense of entitlement. Child sex abusers feel entitled to gratify their desires, regardless of the effects on the life of their victim. This sense of entitlement is not, of course, peculiar to child sex offenders: anyone who acts upon another as if he or she is a means to an end is exercising a sense of entitlement that allows them to disregard the effects of their actions, and focus solely on their own gratification.

The Catholic church is unlikely to admit that it attracts narcissistic personalities, given that its  purpose and mission is service. That human paradox is of a depth and complexity greater even than the fantasies of god, faith, belief and transubstantiation.

A sense of entitlement takes many forms, feeling chosen by god is just one of them, but they all have in common a feeling of superiority, perhaps an overcompensation for deeper feelings of inferiority, if you want to use the psychoanalytic rather than the moral framework to deconstruct the narcissist.

Whatever the perils of enforced celibacy, and I imagine they are many, it is reductionist and simplistic to claim that priests sexually abuse children because of those vows. It takes a particular kind of attachment to secrecy, danger, duplicity, power, self-gratification, self-delusion and compartmentalisation, as well as the ability to care not one jot for the life of the child you abuse to construct the personality of the child sex abuser, not the vow of celibacy. It may well be easier for the church to look to celibacy as a cause, rather than admit that the psycho sexual dysfunction of so many who join its ranks precedes any vows of celibacy they may take.

The sense of entitlement is a scourge.  Not only as it manifests in those who abuse children, but wherever it rears its head, in all situations where people are used as a means to another’s end. Politicians can be leading entitlement practitioners, indeed, a sense of entitlement is almost entirely normalised in Western culture, to the extent that it is virtually invisible.

Whether everyone with a sense of entitlement is also a narcissist is up for discussion, though it would appear to be the most significant symptom of that disorder.

Is narcissism a necessary component of capitalism? Is patriarchy inherently narcissistic? Is the Christian god a narcissist? Do helicopter parents create narcissistic children? Are you entitled to exploit me to get what you think you need? Are we entitled to destroy the planet in order to get what we think we need to have?

If we can manage nothing else at least we have to ask the questions, because the sense of entitlement is, one way and another, perhaps currently the most destructive of human characteristics. It is not one we are born with, we are encultured into the attitude to a greater or lesser degree, damaging the sense of common vulnerability and humanity that might otherwise ameliorate narcissistic impulses.

This is what the Catholic church needs to investigate. Celibacy may well bring all kinds of challenges, but the sexual abuse of children is a deeper, greater darkness that cannot be explained away by the church denying adults a mature sexual life.

The Cardinal Pell: Slouching towards Bethlehem

22 May

Cardinal George Pell Two

 

In my experience one of the more dangerous types of human is the man or woman with an intense and unshakeable conviction that he or she is a “good” person, doing the “right” thing.

The danger is that such a person will see everything they think, say and do through the prism of perceived good and rightness, and this vision inevitably blinds them to the damage they are, like every other human being, capable of inflicting. Because they are unable to see they are incapable of taking responsibility, let alone making atonement or working towards change. So they continue on their blundering path, leaving havoc in their wake, entirely unable to acknowledge they’ve had any part in its production.

Or as Yeats puts it:  The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.

(Actually, that poem, The Second Coming, is worth a read: it seems eerily appropriate for these times. Decades before Jacques Derrida’s Structure, Sign and Play…,  Irish poet William Butler Yeats noted that “the centre cannot hold.” I find this strangely reassuring. That the poets got to it before the post structuralists, I mean. But I digress…)

The Cardinal George Pell is one such human. Indeed, the most powerful conviction I can see in Pell is his conviction that he is always innocent, always good, and always right, and he clings to these self-perceptions with all the passionate intensity of a man clinging to the lid of an esky in a turbulent sea into which he has been unceremoniously pitched from a sinking vessel. The Catholic church is not holding its centre: The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

Serious allegations of bribery and cover-up have yet again been made against George Pell at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse. The Cardinal, strategically parachuted into a leading role in the Vatican’s finance department when things got a little hot for him here in Australia, responded with a written denial, fully supported by his good friend and failed priest Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott, who has a moral point of view on everything, is strangely reluctant to offer one on this matter, saying only that it is up to Pell whether or not he returns to face the Commission’s questioning.

I cannot recall a conversation I had forty years ago, declared the Cardinal, however, for those who were traumatised by such conversations they remain unforgettable. The Cardinal has the luxury of forgetting what continues to haunt and torment victims to this day. For this alone one would expect him to express some gratitude.

It is difficult to imagine that a conversation in a swimming pool change room in which Royal Commission witness Timothy Green informed the then Father Pell that boys were being sexually molested by pedophile Brother Dowlan could have been invented by Mr Green forty years later, in an effort to further discredit George Pell.

It would perhaps be fitting for Pell to emulate the crucified Christ, who died in agony for the sins of the world even though according to the mythology he committed very few if any of them himself. Of course I’m not suggesting a literal crucifixion for the Cardinal, rather a metaphorical sacrifice of self on the altar of the Royal Commission. A written statement from his luxury accommodations in Rome does not, contrary to Prime Minister Abbott’s view, seem nearly sufficient. George Pell needs to front up, and not simply for himself, but for the victims and for the Catholic church, if he wishes that institution to retain any last shred of credibility.

The extent of the sexual abuse of children in institutions, and in the family, is almost beyond comprehension. The frequency with which it is and was committed, and is and was covered up by people who consider themselves “good,” reveals an epidemic of psycho-sexual dysfunction that has been repressed and suppressed to a degree that is also incomprehensible. This denial has occurred at the centre: the centre of institutions, the centre of families, the very centre of our culture and our society.  The reality of the margins is confronting the fantasy of the centre, and the centre is no longer holding.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Funeral music

15 May

I’ve spent much of today compiling a playlist for the funeral of a member of my extended family who died suddenly on Sunday night.

I wanted songs like I did it my way by the Sex Pistols.

Give over, they said.

So next I thought of Amazing Grace by the Dropkick Murphys

For god’s sake, they said.

Hey, you get off of my cloud I suggested.

I’m coming up soon, get the party started. Pink’s version? I asked tentatively.

Another one bites the dust. Queen?

We’re sacking you as musical director, they threatened. I never asked to be anyway, I retorted, stung.

So they went with:

You raise me up. Il Divo.

I first and last heard this at very loved one’s wedding. The bride’s mum asked for it. The officiating priest was drunk as. The quartet, dependent on his erratic cues, got themselves right out of sync. The bride docked the priest ten dollars from his fee for every mistake he made, and twenty dollars for asking the groom if he wanted to marry himself.

At the reception the good father spent much of his time on his mobile, betting on the horses. Then he danced with me and said, Jennifer, I’m a better drinker than dancer, and I was forced to agree. There are photos of me holding him up. It was the best wedding any of us have ever attended.

Bridge over troubled waters. Johnny Cash

Come Healing. Leonard Cohen. (If they refused Leonard Cohen I was done with them. Forever.)

Thank you for the music. Abba. A good metaphorical note to go out on, I think.

 

As for the Sex Pistols, and the Dropkick Murphys – they’re on my funeral playlist.

And this one:

 

Vaya Con Dios, R.N.

 

 

 

 

Abbott’s latest attack on women: “rorting and fraudulent mothers”

14 May

 

 

PPL2

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, aka The Minister for Women, has a long history of disparaging, degrading and disrespecting women, as well as substantiated allegations of violence against one woman who got in his way.

Abbott’s latest attack on women is his government’s declaration that there are women who are double dipping, defrauding and rorting paid parental leave schemes, in spite of the fact that there is nothing in the least fraudulent about women accessing available support from both employers and government when they give birth.

This is a new low in Abbott’s misogyny. When the leader of the country allows his ministers to use language such as rorting and fraudulent about women who are acting entirely within the law, we’re in a hostile and dangerous environment.

There is the issue of how the Abbott government’s latest variation of PPL will affect women. Then there is the separate issue of how the Abbott government describes women, from the “women of calibre” lauded by Abbott in his first attempt at creating a PPL, to the allegedly fraudulent and rorting female schemers attempting to take allegedly illegal advantage of both employer and government generosity when they give birth.

How much longer are we going to tolerate these tired, dishonest variations on the old madonna/whore dichotomy? Women are either of calibre (good women) or fraudulent and rorting (bad women). Language matters. Language is revelatory and what is revealed by the Abbott government’s latest linguistic attack on women is contempt, an utter lack of understanding, and a despicable willingness to exploit us and our babies for short-term political gain. Just how far have we come, when our government can describe us in such derogatory and debasing terms? Not much further than Euripides, it seems.

 

 Good woman:bad woman

 

 

 

The freedom to offend

13 May

 Freedom of Expression

 

This morning I’m thinking about Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson’s infamous “Occupy Melbourne” tweet; this piece I wrote about Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tyrannical demand that public servants “dob in” workmates they suspect of speaking ill of the government, and the fantasy of the “freedom to be heard.”

Wilson’s Timsplain on the “civilising” and “regulating” goals of curbing freedom of speech, specifically in employment contracts, can be read here.

The tweet:

@timwilsoncomau Walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters … send in the water cannons

While sending in water cannons certainly serves to “regulate” behaviour, it is not in itself a civilised reaction to citizens exercising their right to speak freely about the principles and actions of governments. It still disturbs me to know that the Australian Commissioner for Freedom advocates state violence to suppress what he regards as “time-wasting” dissent, and considers such action “civilised.”

There is no such thing as the freedom to be heard. It’s impossible to make someone hear if he or she doesn’t wish to hear: they may give all the appearance of listening, but that doesn’t mean they’re hearing. It’s part of the vulnerability of being human that we can’t make anyone hear us, we can only hope that the other will care enough to bother.

Exercising the freedom not to hear is not a license to forcibly silence, whether by the use of water cannon or by implementing laws designed to protect those who don’t want to hear. For example, if Mr Wilson doesn’t want to hear protestors he doesn’t have to: he can take an alternative route, turn up his iPod, ignore news reports, in short, he can take responsibility for protecting himself from what he doesn’t want to hear, rather than depending on the state to do it for him.

While there is no right to freedom to be heard, there is no right not to be offended either. The increasing demand for the state to protect individuals from what is regarded as “offensive” across the entire spectrum of human behaviours is alarming, and crippling. It is paradoxical that conservative politicians and public figures make much of their desire for “small government,” while simultaneously seeking to prescribe state enforced restrictions on a wide range of attitudes and behaviours in their attempt to establish a society in which no one behaves in a manner determined by them to be “offensive.” To “offend” someone has become a significant, well, offence.

It goes without saying, one imagines, that to commit any crime against another is inherently offensive, and our laws already have crimes covered. Offence is subjective: I am offended by Mr Wilson’s use of social media to advocate state violence against protestors, however, even if I wanted to, I have no means available to me to turn the water cannon on him because he does not have the freedom to be heard. I can ignore him. Block him on social media. Complain about him on my blog. In other words, take responsibility for regulating and civilising my own world without calling upon the state to do it for me.

The only citizens the state will protect from “offence” are those with whom it is in agreement. All others it will seek to silence, one way or another. Even in a liberal democracy such as ours, the state will and does seek to silence dissent. It is in the nature of political power that those who have it seek to retain it, by any means available. The courts are hog-tied by whatever legislation the government of the day manages to implement.

For an insight into this demand for protection from the “offensive” on a popular cultural level, it’s worth reading Helen Razer’s piece on how difficult it is to be a “bad girl,” and the effort now required if one is to be at all transgressive, and why.

Transgression is impossible without causing offence. Transgression is by its very nature offensive to someone. A society that punishes what it considers offensive, making the offensive a crime in itself, is a society in which transgression of all kinds  is increasingly curtailed and silenced. The current dearth of satirical political comment in this country is but one example of this curtailing of transgression on the grounds that it is “offensive” and, as Mr Wilson would have it, uncivilised.

There is no human right that promises the freedom not to be offended. It is to say the least extremely unfortunate that we have in this country a Commissioner for Freedom who advocates turning water cannon on those who offend him. The protestors did not attack him. They did not threaten him. They merely spoke what he did not wish to hear. If we are entering or have entered a period in which another’s free speech is just cause for advocating state violence in order to silence them, we are in very dangerous waters indeed.

(I just looked out of my bedroom window to see snow falling. Ah.)

 

 

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