The news today Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest ranking Catholic and the former Archbishop of Melbourne has been charged with a number of historic sex offences has rocked the country. Those who have followed this story from the beginning knew that this day might one day come. There’s no reason to speculate about what the charges are or what the outcome will be. It’s time for the law and the judicial process to do its job.
The more important thing to think of when our nation’s fabric is ripped by horror of this magnitude – and it is a horror, all of it, the entire sorry history of clergy sex abuse in Australia is one that should make us all weep – are the survivors.
Not necessarily any alleged survivors of possible abuse by Pell himself. But the thousands of survivors who endured torture and abuse at the hands of all of these powerful men over decades. They are part of our national story and we should never forget what they endured.
They were babies. Young boys and girls whose families put their faith and trust in these men of god. Small kids – often they were around 8, 10, 12 years old – who were brought up to believe that you did what a priest or brother told you to do without question.
Trusting, frightened children who sat in Mass every week and heard men read sermons about good and evil, right and wrong. And who were then led, confused and cowed, into the predatory clutches of these very same men. Their instincts and bodies told them that they were being subjected to true evil – the very sins that these men had condemned from their lofty pulpits. But their conditioning told them that these men set all the rules. They were lambs to the slaughter.
Last year I travelled to Ballarat to sit in on some of the hearings for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, the body that has helped bring the enormity of this abuse into the public consciousness and hold those responsible accountable. I didn’t go for work. I certainly didn’t go for pleasure. I went to witness some of the suffering for myself. I had an overwhelming urge to see the faces of these men and women – the grown-up little boys and girls who had suffered so much. I wasn’t there to interview them or intrude. I simply felt a powerful compulsion to acknowledge them. To silently say, I hear you, I feel you and I believe you.
I’ve always tried to hear survivor stories – whether through interviews in a professional capacity or by reading and watching their stories in print, social media or TV. They never leave me. There was the woman I interviewed whose parents regularly had their local, revered priest to dinner in the family home – her mother fussing with a special lamb roast, dad making sure Father’s favourite whiskey was stocked in the pantry. And Father would wrestle with her on the floor – she was no more than 10 at the time - touching her small, unformed breasts and running his hand under her skirt. In full view of her parents. They were too entranced by the enormity of having someone so important in their home to notice.
I remember hearing the words of the odious criminal Father Gerald Ridsdale describing how a small boy in one of the boarding houses he used as his own personal hunting ground wet the bed. So this blight on humanity brought the frightened child into his own bed for the night. And molested him. May he die in jail for his cruelty.
I think often of the daughters of the proud and stoic Anthony and Chrissie Foster, Emma and Katie, who were raped by the monstrous Father Kevin O’Donnell in Melbourne in the 1980s. Emma suffered from eating disorders and drug addiction for the rest of her life, and died from an overdose at age 26. Katie became a binge drinker as an adult and was left incapacitated by a drunk driver in 1999, now requiring 24-hour care. Anthony Foster – a tireless and heroic advocate for survivors - died from an accident earlier this year. I think of him today, crushed that he didn’t live to see Pell brought to his knees.
There are so many more. You probably know some of them, or know someone who does. Sometimes it’s hard to understand their stories, because they are older now – in their 50s and 60s. Many are ravaged by the ongoing effects of their abuse, that so often manifests in drug and alcohol abuse, broken relationships and despair. But they are those children. Children exactly like your children. Whose innocence was brutally stolen from them by a cabal of paedophiles who didn’t see them as humans, but rag dolls to be used and abused.
Cardinal Pell will face justice – and his Maker, if you believe in that sort of thing – in Melbourne in July. The Royal Commission continues its dogged, careful work, documenting these harrowing narratives and slowly bringing the men responsible for them to account. We won’t know just how hard the Catholic Church will have to pay for some time. Any and all vengeance will be sweet. Any and all compensation to these survivors will never be enough.
But one thing we can do is listen. Take some time today to find a survivor’s story. The Royal Commission has recorded some and you can listen to them here.
A simple Google or Twitter search will find many more.
Listen. Read. Feel. Care. Talk about it to your friends. Tell your own children about it when they’re old enough. It’s a tiny gesture, but it is a way to embed these brave men and women - those little boys and girls - into our national psyche. A way to honour that frightened child from years ago who no one helped at the time of their abuse, but who we want so very much to help today. Take the time.
They must never be forgotten.