For years now, the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal has worn on. For the victims in each harrowing case, it is more than just years. It’s trauma they carry forever. We don’t know their names. We don’t know their individual stories, but when the latest, high-ranking scalp fell, it reminded us all that we still have work to do. I wasn’t sure what to say about this issue, if anything at all. I didn’t want to be another voice in the din, offering nothing more to the conversation but virtue signalling. But I read a quote on Facebook this week (penned by my husband, admittedly) and it caught it all. So I’m sharing that. Because its the whole ballgame.
He said this.
“Institutional abuse isn’t just perpetrated by one person. It’s also reinforced by all of us around the victim who for years ignored the signs, then wouldn’t listen to children when they spoke up, and sided with the perpetrator when the victim spoke out. And even when years later, a conviction is secured, for a victim the trauma continues. Powerful men who still won’t face up to the truth about their hero, still stand with the perpetrator, preferring to believe the victim must be lying, rather than allow their illusion about a man be shattered. These men who still defend the perpetrator are in a sense secondary victims, because they believed in him their whole lives and he let them down. The sadness of it all disrupts all those whose life was influenced by Pell. Some of those handle it by facing up to the awful truth, and others double down on their denial.”
He was referring, of course, to the Pell sex abuse case and two past Prime Ministers offering their support or character references to the Cardinal. The media was in uproar over it, but Abbott and Howard weren’t the only ones grappling with the guilty verdict.
It seems like the whole issue of sexual misconduct is reaching fever pitch right now. It would be easy to turn a blind eye to the trauma and the fallout. In a sea of stories, it could be easy to get compassion fatigue over the whole thing.
But that’s the problem. Institutional abuse can happen because we turn a blind eye and ignore the warnings signs or cries for help. We might not want to face up to the ramifications of it all. We might not want our heroes to fall from grace in our eyes. The ugly truth may require us to look at our own participation, and ask “how can I be a better ally for vulnerable people, regardless of their age? What must I do? What am I tacitly approving of if I don’t speak up?” It may present us with some tough changes to make, but it’s necessary.
Here’s what I know:
- The abuse of children matters greatly to God.
- There is no call so great, no church so powerful, that the suffering of even one victim should be silenced.
- Abuse might not always be sexual. It may be psychological. It may be physical. It may be financial. It may even be spiritual. Every victim deserves the chance to have their story heard, to have a chance to shake off the shame that does not belong to them, to transform from victim into survivor. One day maybe, the victor even.
- Life is complex. People are complex. But our response to disclosures of abuse shouldn’t be. It should be to listen, not demand silence. It should be to help them gain healing, or help them gain closure or legal aid – whatever is needed. It should never be to cover it up.
We mustn’t fall into the trap of judging all Catholic priests as deviants, as this is not the truth. Lets also remember that sometimes sex offenders are charming, smart, and able to make positive contributions to society in many ways. The crime does not negate the good, but it makes it more complex to reflect on. It does make the abuse more confusing, and potentially more difficult to disclose. I understand that Tony Abbott and John Howard may have seen the good in George Pell and thought that because he was good in so many ways, he couldn’t commit crimes in others. I understand that George Pell may have had a positive influence on many a life. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t guilty of the crimes for which he has been tried.
Recently, a jury found him guilty – beyond reasonable doubt. He is an offender. But he is also a symbol. Even if you are at the peak of your industry or institution, even if your industry is representing God, you can’t abuse children and vulnerable people. The end does not justify the means.
It never ever does. Let’s not be the ones who double down on our denial. Things are coming to light right now, across industries and institutions. It’s a moment where we can collectively grow and learn how to be a safer, better society. Let’s lean into that evolution.