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An abuse survivor who testified to the royal commission about her treatment at a Catholic school recounts the experience of submitting to the church’s Towards Healing protocol, and the unfeeling homily offered to her by the bishop now responsible. By Penelope X.

Failures of Towards Healing

Four years ago, after learning about the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, I believed I was brave enough and ready to confront the sexual and psychological abuses committed against me by a male teacher at my Catholic school. I believed the experience would help release the demons of self-blame, loathing and shame that the teacher had hardwired into my mind, and that throughout life had clung to my very being. Yesterday, weary and traumatised, I faced the last leg of what was an almost unendurable journey, involving a number of unexpected consequential processes.

After the royal commission, Victoria Police launched an investigation into the perpetrator of the abuse. After nine exhausting and distressing months, the case was dropped for technical reasons.

I learnt that the perpetrator was still teaching and asked the Victorian Education Department that my abuser be removed from classrooms. This attempt failed. As a final attempt at justice, I decided to pursue civil compensation from the Catholic Church, the institution responsible for protecting me from the sexual abuse. The avenue for this process was the Towards Healing protocol.

Towards Healing was devised by the church 20 years ago, as a method for assessing sexual abuse compensation claims. The words “towards healing” suggest a gentle process, implying support and the promise of an apology. In due course I discovered the opposite was true.

Broken Rites, an organisation that represents survivors of clergy abuse, says the protocol was conceived to limit the church’s liability. It says the process can “revictimise” survivors. My experience of the process confirms both points.

The burden on me to prove I had been injured, and provide a convincing enough case for compensation, was repetitively psychologically tormenting. Towards Healing required me to describe, not once but four times, the harm I had endured. It required this to be done in great detail. The worst of it was the retraumatisation I encountered during two required psychiatric evaluations.

Like all medical doctors, psychiatrists swear on a version of the Hippocratic oath, stating “the health of my patient will be my first priority”. Upon my arrival in her rooms, one of the psychiatrists unashamedly said to me, “I am not here to help you.” She then asked me to return to the memory of how it felt being sexually abused. I flashed back to being that girl in her distress and hopelessness, feeling his hands on me. I dissembled into a mess, vacillating between the poles of hysteria and dissociation. The psychiatrist succeeded in punishing the victim of abuse, rather than doing her job, which was to assist healing.

Like all mental-health professionals, she would have been well aware that to ask a victim to revisit and inhabit the original traumatic experiences poses enormous risks. But why wouldn’t she attempt to retraumatise me, being an employee of the organisation that ultimately refused to accept liability for the acts of abuse against me? The experience was a disincentive to continuing my mission. For several weeks after, I was plagued by dreadful nightmares, flashbacks and dissociation. During this period, I was mostly unable to work.

Months later, I received a phone call from one of the Towards Healing “assessors”. He told me that, based on the evidence I provided and an interview they conducted with the perpetrator, they had determined I had been abused and that the man I accused had done it. This was the news I had long awaited. Still, I couldn’t help wondering why the Office of Professional Standards didn’t simply analyse my case on the basis of my police statement and the police’s conclusions, rather than go to all the trouble of employing retired policemen to do exactly what the original police had already done. That this man had abused me had already been established. The legal limitations that resulted in the criminal case being dropped did not change this fact. There is a reason Towards Healing went to these lengths, though: this overly invasive and combative process is designed to make victims back off.

Finally, the settlement conference came around. My lawyers against the lawyer employed by Catholic Church Insurances Limited, arguing over the extent of the “injury” I had acquired from the abuse. I wondered then how I could possibly make the truth of my experience heard, in contention with an organisation whose power, authority and influence is known to be impermeable. Of course, it was impossible.

The so-called non-biased facilitator, who was paid by the church, couldn’t bear listening to my narrative of abuse, trauma and ongoing suffering, and therefore could not transmit my experience to the insurance company person on the other side of the wall. At one point I begged her to show the lawyer the diary I wrote when I was 16, with dozens of sticky note-tagged pages of anguish. But she protected the purse-strings representative from reading the words of a suffering child. She didn’t understand my request for her to communicate the social and familial impacts, the periods of inability to work due to depression and anxiety, the knock-on effect of two marriages ending. She could only operate within a legal process, geared towards cataloguing line items of damages. She was clearly affronted by my being a well-educated, assertive woman who posed something “other” to her expectations. Of course, I resolutely defied the misguided formula to which she and the psychiatrists and church administrators clung. It was clearly designed to misinterpret, diminish and mishandle what was believable and well documented.

My lawyers at Slater and Gordon traded, by necessity, my “injury” and losses as bargaining chips for compensation – and we were very pleased with the outcome. The church agreed to a payout of $110,000, from which a significant amount would be deducted in legal fees. The “non-biased” facilitator was pleased that I had “achieved closure” – her words, never mine, because post-traumatic stress disorder does not jump to the finger-snapping insistence of “closure”, as she neatly described it.

Prior to receipt of payment, the church required me to sign a “deed of release”, and in doing so I was required to agree with a clause stating that the church was not liable for what had happened to me. In other words, they were giving me money for nothing.

Seven clauses in the document stated in various forms of legalese the stipulation that I was not to bother the church, its associates or the perpetrator, for any claim or matter in relation to the abuse, ever, ever, ever, ever. I was required to vanish from view. The deed did not contain a “gag order”. And so here I am, telling my story.

 

Towards Healing offers an optional “opportunity” for victims to meet with a member of the clergy from the diocese where the abuse occurred. They call this a “pastoral” session – an opportunity, I was told, for the church to provide counsel to assist with healing. This suggests to me that the church is delusional. How can authorities that collude with abusers and retraumatise victims – victims for whom they claim to hold no liability – presume to offer healing?

Even so, I decided to meet with the bishop, with the express purpose of asking him to explain his accountability for me and for the children in his diocese. What steps had he taken to ensure that the royal commission findings and recommendations were being implemented in his schools? Were staff being trained to recognise grooming behaviours? What avenues existed – external to the school community – for children to disclose and teachers to report? I needed to hear that he was assertively insisting upon these measures, because this is his primary responsibility. Even if only for the purpose of upholding the church’s reputation.

The bishop had nothing to report, other than that he expected his schools were checking off the basic requirements of the government’s Child Safe Standards. He told me I could ask the director of Catholic Education. Was I to feel confident that a bureaucrat in Melbourne would know more than the bishop in country Victoria responsible for those schools?

As an aside, he remarked that the ban on teachers and clergy hugging children had gone too far. Apparently priests have told him that they feel the same way. To shore up his own propriety, the bishop informed me that in group photos at confirmation ceremonies, he makes sure that he holds the crozier in his left hand, so he’s not seen to be in physical contact with children.

He explained to me that sexual abuse is complex, and that predators operate in a manner seeking to conceal, as if I wouldn’t know that. Then he remarked, “We need to be careful that we don’t set ourselves a goal that is unattainable.” He thinks child protection is unattainable? Yet 50 evidence-based prevention reports written by the royal commission are in wide circulation. These have been formulated based on the Australian government imperative that more effective measures to prevent child sexual abuse in institutions must be implemented.

The bishop began to close down our conversation, firstly by delivering me an uncalled-for and unwanted homily, by way of an analogy, to defend the position he holds. That position, it seemed to me, is that attempts to prevent child sexual abuse have gone too far.

The homily went like this: During a bike education program at one of his schools, the only child of “overprotective” parents received a minor injury after falling off his bike. The parents “overreacted”, made a scene and lodged a complaint, and this resulted in the program being removed from the school. So, one child’s accident has prevented the majority of students from learning how to keep safe while riding bikes.

Let’s insert into this analogy the scenario of a sexual abuse injury. If, by happenstance, a child is sexually assaulted by an employee of the church, then overly reactive responses would likely prejudice the natural rights of all the other children to receive unasked-for cuddles from adults. And, you know, a minor sexual abuse injury will be fine if a Band-Aid is applied. Let’s not allow “overly sensitive people” to ruin the fun for everyone, okay?

Thank you, Bishop, for that very religious instruction about the nuances of institutional environments. Of course, what would I know, being a woman who was sexually abused in exactly that context?

Let’s consider other possible explanations for why the bike safe program was removed from the school. Maybe the principal made a poor decision based on concern about bad publicity, parents en masse removing their children from the school, and the school losing government funding? No, let’s not go down that track. It feels better when we blame the victim and his overly sensitive parents.

The bishop’s homily is a revision of a truth that most community members want upheld. No child in an institutional environment should be harmed by another human, least of all a powerful adult. The bishop’s diatribe is the stuff of backyard conversation and talkback radio, stuff people think is harmless but isn’t. This bishop made a veiled attack upon me, and it hurt.

Let’s not passively accept the untruths that keep us all complicit with abuse and suffering. Evil pervades because its source is as banal as the bishop’s twisted analogy.

The conversation between the bishop and me was long and exhausting, with interjections from a facilitator, whose bias was evident. I was cut off every time I tried to convey the import of what I had been through and what I had learnt from my awful experiences. I told the bishop that it was thanks to the church that I lost my faith as a teenager. He implied that I just didn’t work hard enough at it. He didn’t care to hear that if specifically designed measures aren’t implemented, then history will repeat. I left my pastoral appointment feeling as though an awful toxin had penetrated my skin.

Royal commissioner Justice Peter McClellan remarked recently at the conference of the Australia and New Zealand Association of Psychotherapy in Sydney that many sexual abuse survivors reported to the commission how important it is for them to experience a sense of justice, including a “genuine apology from the institution … an acknowledgement of the abuse and its impacts, and a clear account of steps the institution has made to prevent such abuse happening again”. This is precisely what I’d hoped for, perhaps over-optimistically considering my cumulative experiences of Towards Healing.

In my case, the bishop did not acknowledge my victimhood, offered no apology and showed no future regard for me, nor the students, parents and parishioners who attend his church services.

It is now my intention to remove myself from the legal and bureaucratic frameworks that I have been tied to these past four years, and cleanse myself of the residual muck that has infected my being.

I accept that parents reading this article, whose children attend Catholic schools, may feel dejected by news of an intransigent and uncaring leader, and of systems that are designed to punish victims. Yet I hope they know that the power for real change lies in the members of parish and school communities. We live in a global environment, where old models of leadership are failing, and unprogressive systems are groaning and crumbling. The bishop of the diocese I was raised in is a shallow and callous man, who like many others of his ilk was groomed to uphold the old ways. He lives in a bishop’s “palace”, has people who feed and clothe him and like all politicians has advisers who ensure he holds the party line. He’s not in the real world. And the real world knows this.

In this light, we must create and be the change we want to see. We can model caring, empathic and protective behaviours in every corner of life. We can speak up when we intuitively know something is wrong. We can use what we know to educate others.

As American psychologist Tara Brach says, “True resilience isn’t about bouncing back. It’s about letting stressors grow you.” This rule applies to community.

 

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 1800 099 340

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Nothing real can be threatened". Subscribe here.

Penelope X
is a psuedonym.

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