Tag Archives: Child sexual abuse

Hollingworth’s cowardice on display again

10 Nov



Last week, barrister Caroline Kirton QC approached the solicitor for BSG, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and witness at the child sex abuse royal commission, to change his testimony to remove all references to her client, former Governor-General Peter Hollingworth.

Kirton’s request that BSG alter his statement would “amount to having removed every reference to the name Hollingworth from my statement and she requested that I do that and submit that as my amended statement” BSG told the royal commission.

Peter Hollingworth was Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, Australian of the Year and a Governor-General appointed by former LNP Prime Minister John Howard. Hollingworth resigned as Governor-General after accusations that he failed to act on child sexual abuse crimes in his diocese, and claims that he had sexually assaulted a woman in the 1960’s.

Phillip Aspinall, Hollingworth’s successor as archbishop, ordered an inquiry, which concluded that in 1993, Hollingworth had allowed a known paedophile to continue working as a priest.

It’s a tribute to the courage and fortitude of survivor and witness BSG that he wasn’t intimidated by Kirton’s approach, instead revealing to the royal commission her attempts to persuade him to change his statement to protect her client from further public scrutiny.

Kirton clearly underestimated BSG, or she wouldn’t have made the approach in the first place. Rather than hosing things down for Hollingworth, this act of cowardice only serves to strengthen the perception of the former archbishop as weak, and interested in protecting himself and his church, before the children in its charge.

Hollingworth was in a position to protect victims of sexual assault from predators on his watch. He failed to do that. Yet he now feels entitled to request protection from the shame further public scrutiny of his failure will cause him and his family, and he feels he is entitled to request this protection from a survivor of his failures.

If only Hollingworth and many others like him in positions of power in various churches and other institutions that offered paedophiles a safe haven, had even a fraction of the courage and strength of BSG and other witnesses and survivors, thousands of children could have been spared the ordeal of sexual assault and the devastating consequences of those assaults on their lives. Many who have died might still be alive. This is the responsibility Hollingworth bears, of having the power to protect children, and failing to exercise it.

If the ordeal of shame, humiliation and disgraced resignation have been difficult for Hollingworth to bear, to the degree that he needs to attempt to silence a survivor’s testimony to protect him from any further exposure, he might spare a thought for the suffering of the young who were abused by the paedophile he allowed to continue on his path of violence and destruction, when he could have acted quite differently, and spared them.



When you can’t say no

3 Sep
The Persistence of Memory Dali

The Persistence of Memory


Long read on a difficult topic.

There’s an abundance of evidence in the literature that women who have been sexually abused in childhood are twice as likely to experience sexual assaults at some later point in our lives, than are women who have not.

The reasons for this are many: an inability to recognise and avoid predators, high risk behaviour, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug use; inability to refuse unwanted sexual contact, inability to behave assertively with a man in a sexual situation, emotional flooding and numbing when in situations of unwanted sexual activity. All these can lead to what is known as “re-victimisation,” and that in turn leads to long-lasting and high levels of psychological distress and compounded trauma, as the re-traumatising impact of the adult abuse adds to and exacerbates that already experienced in childhood.

Somehow, after years of severe CSA I escaped re-victimisation, not by any conscious effort on my part because I was entirely unaware of the perils that can be the consequence of early abuse, but because I didn’t encounter any predators. I had a suite of other significant difficulties to deal with as a result of that childhood, such as trusting people, fear of abandonment, hyper-vigilance, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and the rest, but the re-traumatisation of further sexual assault was not among the obstacles I encountered in my desire to fully live my life, in spite of my childhood.

Until last year, that is, when I became another statistic. Another survivor of CSA who experienced re-victimisation, re-traumatisation, and is now on the long, long road to getting my life back. Again.

I’m reminded here of the Twitter hash tag “ Not all men.” Intended to counter generalisations about men’s behavior, the phrase has been criticized for deflecting conversations from uncomfortable topics, such as sexual assault. Whenever women write and speak about our negative experiences with men, someone inevitably chimes in, “Not all men are like that.” I’ve said it myself, because I’m wary of the stereotyping that is inevitable with gender-based arguments, and I don’t like it when it’s used against women. At the same time, there’s no doubt the phrase is used to derail and distract. Instead of a discussion about sexual assault it becomes a brawl about “not all men do it.” I don’t know how we circumvent this, unless we replace the word “men” with “predators,” when we’re talking about male perpetrated violence against women.

There’s no doubt that not all men are predatory, and the men I encountered for decades posed no threat to me.


Eerily, the circumstances of last year’s sexual assault almost exactly replicated scenes from my childhood. I continue to be tormented by the possibility that the man had sufficient knowledge about my history to make this deliberate, rather than coincidental. I have written about my childhood in some detail on this blog, and in my PhD, which is online and easily accessible. In fact, at our second meeting the man asked me about my childhood abuse, and it was after I’d briefly answered that he made his first sexual overture.

I’ve never found it easy to speak of those childhood events. Writing, though, is another experience altogether. Writing allows me to make some kind of order from the chaos of that time, and bring the fragments of myself back together into something approaching a whole. We are nothing if not story, and the urge to have our story make sense to us is a powerful one. There’s a necessary discipline in autobiographical writing that allows the author to stand back from the immediate rawness of her own narrative. She becomes an observer and recorder, a witness, bearing testament to her own self. These are skills I acquired to help save myself from annihilation by the dark magnitude of sexual abuse. Stepping back, while at the same time never letting go of her, that child who couldn’t say no.


The assault last year took place in a car parked in a secluded area, one of my stepfather’s settings of choice when I was a child. I had gone to considerable lengths to ensure that situation, one that had occurred with this man on two previous occasions, was not repeated. The present-day experiences had left me struggling with a crippling distress I didn’t recognise, couldn’t analyse, and had no desire to repeat. I told the man I had been distressed by the sexual encounters in the car, and I didn’t want to do it again. He responded by assuring me that he never wanted to do anything that distressed me, and that the manner in which we next met was entirely up to me. He agreed when I said our next meeting would be in public, and there would be no intimate contact. I resolved that I would use that meeting to end the relationship.

Unfortunately, the man did not respect our agreement, and without any attempt to renegotiate the terms of engagement, drove me to a secluded place. I think it was when I realised he was unnecessarily driving me somewhere that I first began to feel a vague unease. But I had no reason to distrust him. Rather, I distrusted my own feelings.


Traumatic events can lead to extremes of remembering and forgetting. The events may be remembered with intense vividness, or deeply repressed. Often there’s a combination of both. Traumatic events can remain fixed in the memory just as they occurred, their intensity unassuaged by the passage of time and experience. The extreme emotional arousal experienced in such a situation may account for the unique nature of traumatic memory, as the body’s chemical response to terror interferes with normal memory function.

I had never experienced flashbacks to do with the specific childhood circumstance of my stepfather’s car, though I have over the years struggled with them in other settings. They became increasingly infrequent, until I almost never experienced them at all. The emotional scaffolding of traumatic memory was, I believed, sufficiently disassembled after years of hard work in and out of therapy, and I was free.


I didn’t like how I’d felt about the sexual encounters in the car with the man. They felt demeaning, but I initially attributed those feelings to the adolescent and unsatisfactory nature of such encounters that I wouldn’t expect, as a mature woman with a long and satisfying partnership behind her, to enjoy.

However, I had not in my life thus far experienced anything that might trigger memories of my stepfather’s sexual assaults on me in his car. I remember on one or two occasions in my life being a passenger in a car with leather seats. The smell of those seats nauseated me, and caused me a strange emotional discomfort, but it wasn’t until years later I remembered my stepfather’s car had leather seats, and I was able to make the connection.

What was necessary for the trigger to become fully operational was that the experience be forced upon me. The unease that started up as the man drove away from where we were supposed to be, became the silent terror I endured when my stepfather picked me up from my boarding school and drove me somewhere I did not want to go, to do things I did not want to do. I was unable even to ask the man where he was going. Already I’d lost touch with the present, and the process of being engulfed by the past had, unbeknown to me, begun.


Trigger. There’s a term with its fair share of controversy. Last year, in the US, there were demands across many university campuses for trigger warnings to be attached to all manner of texts, so that students would know in advance that some of them contained material that might cause distress. The term “trigger warning’ first appeared in feminist spaces to alert women that topics such as sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women were discussed in these spaces, at times graphically, to give them the opportunity to choose not to go there. Fair enough. This makes sense. However, things got rather out of hand, for mine, when students demanded The Great Gatsby be marked with a trigger warning, and various other kinds of, for mine, silly demands that, like the “not all men” claim, serves to derail and distract from the very serious matters of discussions of violence against women, and the provision of opportunities for women to speak out, in detail if we wish, about what has been done to our bodies, our minds and our hearts. There is a dark world of difference between feeling uncomfortable or disturbed by confronting scenes in literature, and experiencing a flashback.

What is a trigger, then? It’s smell, sight, sound, taste, touch, a circumstance that particularly evokes the memory of a past traumatic event. It results in a flashback that returns the victim to the original trauma, with all the intensity and immediacy of the initial experience. Obviously, triggers are unique to the individual survivor.

A flashback can be visual, when traumatic events are vividly re-seen by the mind’s eye. It can be experienced entirely in the body, with no visual component. The body has its own memories, stored in all its secret places.

The flashback can consist entirely of feelings, with no images attached to them. For me, it is generally the latter, accompanied by bodily sensations. I rarely visualise. I am flooded with overwhelming and chaotic emotions that make no sense in the present, and that paralyse me. I feel a sensation of extreme cold in my belly, and I tremble at my core. My legs feel unusually weak, and I fear they won’t work. Terror dominates, and keeps me physically locked in place. All this is concealed. There are no overt manifestations. As a child I knew I couldn’t show any fear or resistance. I had to comply, while inside me the terror roared and swirled.

These are the things that happened to me last year with the man in the car. It was as if the two earlier encounters were preparatory rumbles, and this third one, compounded by the shock and disbelief of his profound betrayal, his abduction of me against our agreement and my firmly expressed wishes, unleashed the full force of traumatic memory. I could do and say nothing. I couldn’t refuse, and I couldn’t resist. I complied.

The intensity was such that eventually I became numbed, and dissociated. I watched myself take his penis in my mouth and suck until he came, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I saw the leaves of the trees through the windscreen, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I felt nothing, and I felt, chaotically, everything. He moaned, like my stepfather. He even said, repeatedly, “We’re not really doing this,” a phrase so reminiscent of my stepfather’s order that I forget what had happened and tell no one that to this day, I feel shaken by the coincidence.

I told no one for almost twelve months.


My stepfather, though a violent man in other areas of family life, was never violent with me sexually. Rather he wanted to be a lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. The man was not violent either. He wanted to be my lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. They wanted me to enjoy them, and to enjoy myself. I’ve often thought that this deeply corrupted message of “love” and apparent consideration for my enjoyment in circumstances that make enjoyment inconceivable, has messed with my head to such a degree that I will never entirely clear myself of its corruption. They walked softly, and carried the big stick of love and harm made one. They saw me only as a means to their end.

This is characteristic of predators. They are unable to distinguish between love and great harm, and so they perpetrate the latter, while proclaiming the former. There is no firm ground left for you to stand on, once you’ve encountered ambiguities of that complexity.


As a child I found solace in books, and in music. Later, I found writing. Against all odds I became a reasonably accomplished pianist, I think because when I sat at the piano in some unaccountable way my body became mine again, through the music I made. At every possible opportunity I hid myself away in a practice room, and played. There was an ageing nun at my boarding school who liked to sit beside me, and knit black mittens while she listened. Her presence was comforting, though we rarely spoke more than a few words.

A few weeks ago, struggling with after-effects over which I have little control, I felt a powerful desire to play the piano again, as I haven’t for years. In a fine piece of serendipity a woman round the corner had a piano she didn’t want anymore, and now it’s mine. I have much of my old music, kept since girlhood. When it arrived, I approached the instrument with a great deal of trepidation. What if I couldn’t play anymore?

My fingers are stiff and inflexible, compared to how they used to be. I’m starting with scales and arpeggios. Yet even as I fumble I feel the return of the mysterious force that moves through my fingers and connects my body to the source of sound. I hear the musical possibilities in the mundane and repetitive notes of a scale. I feel the joy of making sound, the satisfaction, humble as the sound I make is. I can’t resist attempting to play a simple piece, though I hear my teacher’s voice telling me I’m not ready yet. A sweet arabesque, and to my delight the fingering comes back to me, it’s still there after all these years, another kind of memory triggered by an altogether different set of circumstances, a welcome memory, a memory that reminds me who I am, and what I can still be.

When you can’t say no, you have no freedom, no agency. You’re anybody’s victim. When you write, when you play music, when you read the text you act with agency, you exercise your freedom. You are a human being, no longer only a means to another’s end.


Next week, we are expecting our newest family member, who we already know is a little girl. Today I bought pink rompers for her, then I said to her mother on the phone, I had to buy just one pink thing, I don’t know why, I don’t believe in all that stupid stuff, I’m not buying one more pink thing, I swear, just this one.

I want to be here to help teach her everything she needs to know.

I want to be here to read to her.

I want to be here to teach her how to play the piano, should she be so inclined.

I want to be here. That is all.



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.

When abuse is just another news story

16 Apr


I was driving home from my appointment with my shrink, with whom I’m attempting to unravel the mystery of how events of the past inescapably determine the present (“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” George Santayana. Remember it) when I heard on ABC Radio National’s The World Today this report of evidence given at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse.

The report was preceded by a warning of “disturbing” content.

The content is disturbing. It might make you weep. It might make you remember. It might make you rage. It might make your heart break.

But what is even more disturbing is the manner in which this disturbing content, like all other disturbing content, is transmogrified from a heartbreaking, terrifying, rage-provoking account of one man’s childhood into nothing more than another news story in a busy news cycle, the majority of which is comprised of disturbing content of one kind or another. In other words, as soon as this disturbing event is reported we move immediately onto something else, as is routine, as is expected in a media-drenched world where news is barely considered interesting unless it’s disturbing. The need of comfortable people for the thrill of vicarious disturbance should never be underestimated.

What we should have had after Mr David Owen’s story is a minute’s silence. What we should have had is a minute to absorb the magnitude of his suffering. What we should have had is a minute to reflect that Mr Owen’s story of childhood sexual abuse is repeated and repeated and repeated, perhaps a billion or more times around the globe.

What we also should have had is the opportunity to reflect that while it is on the one hand a “good” thing that these matters are now public, it is also possibly a “bad” thing that they are treated as one more story in the news cycle, and that as a society we are becoming so inured to disturbing content that we can be momentarily appalled then move on, within seconds, to the next piece of news without as much as a moment to catch our breaths and reflect upon what we have just heard.

Everything is a damn hashtag. Everything.

It is unrealistic of me to want a minute’s silence after reports such as that on Mr Owen’s childhood suffering. Yet I was outraged by the manner in which his account of the details of his abuse was slotted between other items of interest to the ABC’s midday audience, and I was infuriated by how we are expected to lurch from stories of such atrocities to something Tony Abbott said with nary a second to catch our breaths. How can atrocity become anything more than wall paper when it’s doled out on the hour in sound bites? And what is this doing to us?

I don’t know what purpose was served by the ABC reporting Mr Owen’s evidence, in all its aching detail, in little more than a sound bite. Fair enough if some time is dedicated to the topic. Fair enough if some respect is accorded to the man, and to his experiences. But to sandwich it between Abbott and the jobless figures is a step too far.

While everyone ought to know what happens to far too many children, and the aftermath, it isn’t a sound bite. Mr Owen is a man of tremendous courage and resilience. His story isn’t fodder for the news cycle.

Don’t blame the victim for society’s failures

2 Apr

New legislation introduced in Victoria makes not reporting child sexual abuse a criminal offence, however, some victim support groups fear women in a domestic violence situation whose children are being sexually abused by the violent partner may be charged and imprisoned if they do not report that abuse.

At first blush the legislation appears to apply primarily to organisations, however support groups are concerned criminal charges could be laid against individuals within the family who have knowledge of the abuse and do not report it.

News Limited journalist Joe Hildebrande today added his opinion to the discussion: “Frankly to say that you’re going to not report a case of child abuse or child sex abuse by your partner because you are scared for your own safety, I’m sorry it’s not an excuse,” he said.

In my own family, my mother took no steps to protect me from sexual abuse by her husband for over five years. She was also violently abused, and the situation was at times so dire we both feared for our lives. I’m fairly certain that my mother’s fear was not just that she would be harmed if she reported her husband to the police, but that he would seriously damage or kill our whole family.

For many years I was unable to understand why my mother did nothing to protect me, and after having my own children, I found it even more difficult to understand. I also understand the state of mind of a woman who is subjected to ongoing physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse by her partner, and that one of the consequences of this is an inability to take any positive action at all. Obviously, this state of mind is not easily understood by people who have never experienced it, hence the all too familiar question, why doesn’t she just leave?

Much as I still struggle with having been unprotected by my mother, I can image little worse than her being charged and imprisoned for that failure.  Neither do I regard her fear for her safety, and mine, as an “excuse” for her lack of action.

I am very, very weary of the moral judgements made against women who live with violent partners. The main reason women do not just leave such situations is that there is nowhere safe for them to go, and apprehended violence orders are not worth the paper they are written on. Unless society is willing to provide many, many more safe houses for women and children, and far more support in terms of rehousing, finance and protection, women and children will not “just leave” and cannot “just leave.”

What there is no excuse for is domestic violence and the sexual abuse of children by perpetrators. Victims cannot prevent these crimes. Society can have a far more powerful impact, if there is the political will. Minister for Women, Tony Abbott, has so far had nothing to say on the topic of domestic violence, which is to my mind the most pressingly urgent matter in women’s and children’s affairs.  Some leading feminists are, unfortunately, focused largely on the lack of female CEOs and each to their own, however, when we consider that after some four decades of feminism the domestic violence statistics have not improved one iota, I have to wonder exactly what are women in positions of power and influence actually doing about this?

What I do know is that to blame and punish women such as my mother for not protecting children such as myself is to my mind an admission of defeat, and a victory for every perpetrator. A woman who is already suffering horribly, who is aware that her child or children are suffering horribly and is too afraid for their safety or lives to speak out, is not the problem here. The perpetrator is the problem here, and the society that by its despicable lack of adequate action allows these horrors to continue.


On the “unforgivability” of child sex abuse

3 Feb

Mandela ForgivenessOn the weekend, Dylan Farrow published a piece in the New York Times recounting her experience of childhood sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by her mother’s then partner, Woody Allen.

There was, predictably, an explosion of views on the matter. What caught my attention were the many observations that child sexual abuse is ‘unforgivable.’ As one who has lived through childhood sexual abuse, I find that assertion offensive, ignorant and entirely unhelpful, and I’m about to explain why this is so.

But before I do, there ought not to be any expectation for anyone to forgive injury. Forgiveness is an action that, if embarked upon, can take years to complete. It may never be completed. It may never be begun. I’m writing about my own experience as it has unfolded over many years, and what I needed to do for my own well-being.

What is meant when people talk about forgiveness?  The philosopher Charles Griswold, in his 2007 book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, states that forgiveness should be understood as:

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal) are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation.

I am in complete disagreement with this definition. Many situations of  injury are such that it is impossible and/or entirely unwise for an injured party to communicate with a perpetrator. Many perpetrators never concede their actions have caused harm. Griswold’s paradigm excludes many from the possibility of engaging in the process of forgiveness, as he admits:

When none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed;sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive.

My own perspective is a secular one, and I think of forgiveness as perhaps belonging in the human rights discourse rather than the religious, or any crypto-theological morality such as that espoused by Griswold.  When I have foresworn all desire for revenge, and any of the other abuses of resentment, I have forgiven. It is irrelevant if the perpetrator knows this or not, unless it is important for me that he/she does.

I don’t believe forgiveness requires the perpetrator’s remorse. I don’t believe an injured person needs to confront a perpetrator, or continue any association with him or her, in order to forgive them. Most importantly, I don’t believe forgiveness is first and foremost for the benefit of the perpetrator, but rather it’s a state of mind that can finally bring relief and freedom for the injured party from cripplingly painful and destructive emotions.

Which is not to say there’s anything amiss if an injured party chooses to confront their perpetrator. Only that this is not necessary for forgiveness.

I see forgiveness as a human rights matter because acts of revenge that cause suffering to another are always a human rights matter. …Using the suffering of a person or persons to satisfy oneself is morally objectionable, because it amounts to the treatment of wrongdoers as a means only, failing to respect their human worth, writes Trudy Govier in her book Forgiveness and Revenge. At the height of extreme pain caused by injury, it’s difficult if not impossible to think of the perpetrator as having any ‘human worth,’ however in order to inflict injury on me, the perpetrator has already used me as if I have no human worth. Am I to become like him/her? How will that help me?

While it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to say ‘I would find that injury unforgivable if it were inflicted on me,’ it is not acceptable to apply that judgement to another. The state of non forgiveness is a horrific state in which to spend one’s life. Having been grievously injured by an abuser, is one then expected to suffer the agony of everlasting hurt and desire for a revenge that cannot possibly ever be commensurate with the injury? The desire for revenge, the inability to forgive (if we understand that term to mean the relinquishing of such desires) fixes the victim in their trauma and denies her or him the possibility of a life free from the aftermath of injury. The victim is trapped in a relationship of horrible and unwanted intimacy (for abuse is always intimate) the only escape from which is to forgive. Why, then, would anyone cruelly claim there is such a thing as an ‘unforgivable’ offence?

I will never forget, but I must, if I’m to have any life at all, forgive. The injurious act, as Hannah Arendt points out, is irredeemable, it presents us with …the predicament of irreversibility. This is but one of the challenges facing an injured person. The injury cannot be undone, the life-altering impacts cannot be undone, one is forever changed by the experience of being injured, the life that might have been, perhaps should have been is stolen, and one will never forget. As well as grieving the injury, I grieve the loss of who I would have been had this injury not occurred, a particularly difficult process for those injured while children, who can feel their childhood was destroyed by the actions of an adult.

Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, The Spinoza Lectures, suggests that …it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human. Commensurate punishment or revenge dehumanises the victim of injury, however what humanises her/him is the opportunity to develop ...a model of ethical capaciousness that understands the pull of the claim, and resists that pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.

What I understand Butler to be saying here is that in the space of uncomfortable tension creating by opposing claims (to punish or to abstain from punishing) the injured party has the opportunity to learn to live with powerful and irreconcilable desires and in so doing, move beyond the ‘unforgivable’ into a life free of revenge and its abuses.

In so doing, I am empowered. In contrast, if the injury done to me is deemed ‘unforgivable,’ I am condemned to a life of ongoing disempowerment, in which my actions are forever governed by my desire for revenge, and my bitter hatred of the one who has done this thing to me.

Commensurate punishment of a perpetrator may frequently be impossible. However, forgiveness …becomes possible from the moment it appears impossible. Its history would begin… with the unforgivable…what would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable? asks Derrida.

Forgiveness must rest on a human possibility – I insist on these two words… he continues. Injury is a human action, the rape of a child takes place in the realm of human affairs. Monsters do not sexually abuse children, humans do. Forgiveness arises in the recognition of our common humanity, and the terrifying capacity for injury and destruction that humanity contains.

So this is why I object to child sexual abuse being described as ‘unforgivable.’ If I tell you I have forgiven, do you then tell me I’m deluding myself?

Do you tell me it is impossible for me to forgive what was done to me, and I don’t know what I’m talking about? Do you disempower me yet again with your opinion? Do you know better than I know myself what my life’s struggle has been? Would you have me lose my life to emotions that destroy my freedom, while affecting my perpetrator not one bit?

If I decide that what was done to me is unforgivable, though I may, at times of great distress, use that term, I am terminating all hope of freedom. Forgiveness is a mystery, beyond the reach of justice and punishment, both of which can be, and often are, incommensurate with the injury inflicted.

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

Cardinal spin

14 Nov

Happier times: Abbott & Pell breaking bread

In his press conference yesterday, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell gave a compelling display of belligerent bafflement as he wrangled with reality to spin his institution’s appalling record of child sexual abuse as a smear campaign by the media against the church.

It is all an exaggeration, the Cardinal protested, a breathtakingly disingenuous stance given the church’s record in the Hunter Valley alone, which goes something like this:  Four hundred known victims. Eleven clergy tried and convicted since 1995. Six Catholic teachers convicted since 1995. Three priests currently on trial. First priest charged this year with concealing the crimes of another. Twelve priests involved in compensation claims. 

As the conference progressed it became increasingly clear that a significant reason  for Pell supporting the proposed Royal Commission is because he believes it will exonerate the church by proving its clergy are no worse than any other institution’s employees when it comes to sexually assaulting children. “We are not the only cab on the rank,” the Cardinal huffily claimed, and went on to demand that the police check their stats and tell us just how many of the total complaints of child sexual abuse received are made against the Catholic church, because that’s the only way the church will get any justice and by gods, the church deserves justice, for the church has been persecuted.

It is an indication of the morally parlous state the Catholic church is in, if George Pell is its most senior member, and the best spokesperson they can come up with. The man obviously has no grasp of the magnitude of the problem and is blinded by his loyalty not to his god, but to his institution. If ever there was a time a bloke should ask himself what would Jesus say, this is it for the Cardinal.

Just what the Royal Commission will achieve is an unknown, however what the promise of a commission has already achieved is validation of the suffering of survivors of institutional childhood sexual abuse. The offences against them are being acknowledged as serious enough to warrant outrage, and there is overwhelming support for a public accounting.

There is another group of survivors, of whom I am one, who are the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by family, friends and acquaintances. For many of us there is no hope of justice, and we have had to learn to live with this reality. I am deeply relieved that institutional sexual abuse is finally receiving the scrutiny it deserves, because my life experience is also validated by this acknowledgement, even though my story can’t be told within a commission’s terms of reference, and the perpetrator and his enablers can’t be held accountable. I want to see a profound cultural change in attitudes towards the sexual abuse of children, and I believe we are on the way at last. This is grounds enough for rejoicing.

If the Australian Catholic church wants to get on board with this change, they first need to get rid of George Pell as their leader. His sickening whining is a disgrace. Pell is yet another example of the angry ageing Anglo male who just doesn’t get it. Like the rest of his ilk, he’s a boil on the arse of progress.


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