Did you ever have a fear of the looming dark as a child? Did you ever think there were monsters lurking in the shadows on the wall, or hiding under the bed or in your wardrobe? What did you do if a large angry dog barked at you – even from behind a fence as you passed that house on your way to school?
There is a whole field of children’s books that deals with fears, mostly of the unknown. Adults are attracted to the crime and horror genre, and if you want to get published that is the best way to go. They sell well because they meet the common need to exorcise fear and see a happy restoration to order and safety.
On two days this month, I had my schedule cleared unexpectedly. I considered the messy cupboards and the cluttered shelves, but then decided to take a while to decide what best use I could make of these free gifts. That is how I ended up watching the live streaming of The Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse. It was Case Study 28, the one set in the Catholic world of Ballarat.
Although you may think it odd, I thought that I could be a witness to all that pain and suffering. Those courageous men and women who were standing up to tell their stories will probably never know that I watched, but they deserved to have my attention to honour them. There is no way I can adequately describe their courage: to dredge up so much humiliation, fear and anguish, and to give voice to it in front of an audience and cameras and in the formality of the court process. Whole lifetimes of grief were spilt out there, grief for people’s own lost lives, and for those of others. Each person recounted the deaths of other people who did not make it through the despair, and it seemed to me that they had a community of love between themselves that left me with awe and trembling.
It was hard to listen and to watch, and it drained me. My intention to stay was not changed though. It became more intense. If they had had to live through this horror, as vulnerable little children, then the least I could do was ‘stay and watch a while’, to listen without defensiveness and understand what I was hearing – accepting that this knowledge would change me.
So now I ask: Did your parents comfort and reassure you that there was nothing in the shadow or under the bed? Have you ever comforted and reassured a frightened child – your own or someone else’s? It is an adult human reaction to protect the child, surely…surely?
What though, when there was no comfort? What then, when the monsters were real and they didn’t go away or shrink to size? Even worse, what when you were young and in terrible pain and torment, and you hoped so desperately for it to stop that you tried to ask for help – and were punished for asking? What happens inside you when, after risking everything, you were raped again and again by other people – even the ones you asked for help?
What if the people who did this to you were in your eyes, and in all your training, the voice and representation of God?
What if you were the parents, when you realize that you had been unable to protect your child from people you trusted totally and revered? It breaks a parent, that. Witnessing the destruction of your child destroys you too.
I wonder how the survivors are going to cope with the after effects of their public disclosures. When every vestige of safety has been ripped away from the foundational core of your identity, as an adult this exposure – even when chosen in an act of freedom – takes you into the very area of danger in which you were so powerless. When survivors talk about PTSD, this is what they mean: life is always a constant fight to retain an even keel, and the past pain and terror can suddenly come alive and overwhelm without warning, as if it were happening again. They can’t be offered a few sessions of counselling and then it will be over for them. Only they can say what they need to rebuild the rest of their lives, as best they can.
The church as institution has the responsibility to open its heart and provide for these needs. In the realm of theology this was called having ‘a firm purpose of amendment’ wasn’t it? Didn’t we say ‘restitution and reparation’ and link that to forgiveness for our sins?I don’t recall anything about ‘what we can afford’ or ‘what that will cost us’ being in there at all.
I hope their courage will bring them freedom, but to have that freedom they need to have the affirmation that they are heard and believed. They need witnesses who stand up and say so. It isn’t ‘nice’ and it isn’t impolite to talk about it, although I have been clearly given the message that I am hurting the church by doing so, and in some way disloyal.
I have discovered much about secrecy, lies, Canon Law and the desire to protect an image: a desire that is twisted in and out of culture and history until it is eating the heart of what it was developed to serve. It is time to see that the glow of vestments in candlelight can either uplift to the transcendent, or hide naked emperors and corrupt systems of power. It is time to stand in the shoes of the survivors and see the whole story from their point of view. It requires a complete and permanent change of mind and heart, and nothing else will suffice.
It cannot be done to ‘save’ the church so that it can reclaim its effectiveness. It can only be done because it is the right thing to do. If the church has started to learn anything surely it has learned that motives matter.
The witnesses who have voluntarily returned to this trauma and stood up in court, are not making an act of revenge. It is a decision to stand in their own truth. The teaching of Christ is that the truth will set you free. Opening our hearts to freely accept and understand the full dimension of that awful truth, and take on all its associated challenges, is the only way we can stand in ours.
This is a collective act of truth, a collective act of justice taken by heroes.
Holy truth and holy justice.