MARGARET O’CONNOR. Institutional reform following the Royal Commission on child sex abuse is women’s work.

Apr 26, 2018

Women – from those who quietly brought pressure on parliamentarians through to the Prime Minister and Governor General – brought about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Yet the response to the Commission is being handled as if it is all blokes’ business.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has forced a huge range of confronting issues into the public consciousness, and the dust won’t settle on them for a long time yet.  I’d like to offer a few thoughts here in relation to how women made the Royal Commission possible, how they will be the key to future long term institutional reform, and how this mustn’t be overlooked.

What makes my blood pressure rise a notch (okay, to stratospherically unhealthy levels) is the risk that in about five minutes, it will be overlooked. Two excellent articles explore these themes of female anger, and the magical sleight-of-hand that disappears our middle-aged achievements.  Jenny Éclaire perfectly captures the rising levels of grumpiness that seep into your bloodstream as you settle into your fifties. And the title of Zoe Williams’ article, ’What’s the Best Way to be Written out of History? Be a Middle Aged Woman’ speaks for itself.

The examples she quotes, commencing with the bizarre exclusion of Mo Mowlam from a photo of the main architects of the Good Friday Peace Accord, made me bark “you’re kidding??” before stomping off angrily to my garden, that ancient haven of annoyed women everywhere. Tellingly, with the exception of Mo Mowlam I had not personally heard of any of them before reading the article, and how completely that proves its whole point.

Australia definitely has form here. Consider the career and legacy of Christine Nixon, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police from April 2001 to February 2009. Police reform is an awfully tough nut to crack, but during her tenure she tackled it head on, ordering a review of the drug squad’s operation shortly after her appointment, which she then took decisive action to disband. She took on the organisation’s  management structure, taking the first steps away from the entrenched hierarchical model and towards a more collaborative one. She made a significant contribution to reforming family violence law and policy.

Many Australians are unaware of this, due in no small part to the sustained vitriol heaped on her by elements of the Australian media (and others too). Google the key words ‘Christine Nixon’ ‘reform’ ‘management’ and ‘police’ and, if you can bear it (life is short) check out the flurry of articles that hammer away, undermining and smearing her as being an incompetent waste of time and space.  And they are skilled at what they do (years of practice I assume); blending a vicious sink-the-boots-into-her tone with one of patronising finger wagging pomposity. It’s curious, to put it mildly, given her undeniable courage at taking on entrenched organisational issues.

Then there’s that other tough nut reform issue, that of Australian institutions which have demonstratively failed in their duty of care with respect to children.  An inexhaustive list of women who were pivotal in bringing about the Royal Commission includes advocates such as Chris MacIsaac from ‘Broken Rites’ who helped educate the Australian public about institutional child abuse, specifically the many failures of institutional Catholic Church in this regard, and provided advice to survivors. Ann Ryan and Carmel Rafferty (in the Mortlake and Doveton Parishes respectively) took on Church authorities, and shouldered the personal stress and trauma sadly synonymous with the term ‘whistle blower’. Journalists such as Joanne McCarthy at the ‘Newcastle Herald’ and Melissa Cunningham at the ‘Ballarat Courier’ were recognised by their peers for their great reporting of abuse issues and clerical cover-ups.

It was women in their delegations as Prime Minister and Governor General who formally established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in early 2013. And during the hearings themselves, Gail Furness, Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission extracted evidence from and cross-examined senior clergy. Individuals such as Leonie Sheedy from Care Leavers’ Australasia Network (CLAN) provided a direct connection to people on the ground who survived sexual abuse in care organisations and encouraged them to tell their stories to the Commissioners. More broadly but still on the theme of Catholic Church institutional reform, Kathleen McCormack recently served on the Vatican Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and testified to the difficulties created by the commission’s underfunding, infrequent meetings and cultural barriers.

Yup, it’s been women every step of the way, and now, in a post – Royal Commission Australia, CLAN will be monitoring the progress of church and state authorities with respect to the implementation its recommendations.  Reforming a 2,000 year old global institution like the Catholic Church is a fantastically daunting prospect which will be dead in the water without women’s capacity to speak truth to power.  Hence the Australian Catholic reform movement is fighting tooth and nail for greater participation by women at all levels of the Church, especially in governance and leadership, including the appointment of a female Co-chair of the Bishop’s 2020/21 Plenary Council (plus, there’s the fact that this is the 21st century as opposed to the 11th).

Sadly, it appears that this point is lost on the mainstream media which upholds the tedious tradition of anointing Blokes as authorities on all things Faith and Church (such as the silly 2012 ‘debate’ between Richard Dawkins and George Pell) and by extension, Church reforms. On panels and chat shows and in conferences, wall to wall men analyse the entrenched nature of patriarchy in the Catholic Church and (with no apparent sense of the irony) how it excludes women from having a voice. Famous male commentators opine away in their podcasts and articles in ‘The Guardian’ and, on twitter, in a kind of cyberspace version of the Victorian era smoking room, talk amongst themselves about specific cases they know very little about, emerging briefly to mansplain something to someone. Over on ‘Insiders’, Gerard Henderson and David Marr sit around and Pontificate on Church matters with an air of weighty masculine authority, occasionally arguing with Paul Kelly if a wildly different perspective is called for. (They’d all be a little more convincing if they referenced a few Royal Commission witness statements.)  How do you counter patriarchy in the Catholic Church? Clobber it with yet more patriarchy, apparently.

These constructs bear no relation to the reality of how this momentous inquiry came about: the courage of the abuse survivors in unregarded and overlooked country towns and care institutions and the tenacity of their supporters, the women and men who cared enough about them to work long and hard to bring about a Royal Commission and everything it entails. You’d think by the way the male commentators talk that this heroic work is all theirs: the campaigning, advocacy, support for survivors, reporting, whistle blowing and speaking up, legal hard yards, compiling the evidence, holding institutions to account, making them safe for children.

No, on many occasions, that’s been the work of middle aged women, thank you very much indeed. Like other great female reformists throughout history, will these Australians be largely forgotten over time and their massive contributions airbrushed away?

Not if I can help it – and others too. It’s like Jenny Éclair says in her article. Fury can be such a positive driving force.


Margaret O’Connor is based in Canberra. Her interests include music, history and sustainable living. She tweets at: (at)MargaretOConno5

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