As I write this, from the safety of my inner-city home, two little Australian-born girls are held on Christmas Island with their Sri Lankan-born parents, desperately awaiting some flicker of insight, common sense, common decency, act of mercy that’s most unlikely to come.
Do we need to analyse Peter Dutton’s striking lack of affect or rationality when it comes to the people who arrived – legitimately seeking asylum – six years ago by boat? Should we analyse also the motivation and conduct of the Prime Minister who believes “stopping the boats” is his greatest claim to fame? Or the so-called journalists or commentators who unstintingly support this prolonged hostility and cruelty? Perhaps no analysis is needed. There are many in this country strongly inclined to disbelieve “victims” – whatever the evidence of their trauma and extreme suffering. This is true of victims of our Government’s toxic campaign against asylum seekers. And for decades, centuries, it has been true – manifoldly true – of victims of child sexual abuse.
Here on Pearls & Irritations, and with his focus on the legal complexities, Ramesh Thakur wrote to say that he finds George Pell’s guilty verdict – upheld in Victoria’s Court of Appeal – “troubling”. Thakur is not alone. Many powerful people – used to the free exercise of that power – and many faithful Catholics (Thakur is not one) find it “troubling”. Yet it seems equally if not more legitimate to suggest that this “trouble” in accepting the experiences of a child against the word of a man – and most particularly a powerful man – is central to the fear, even terror that many victims have about speaking up?
“He couldn’t have done it…Father would never…How could you think such a thing…How could you make up such filth…YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED.” Is there a sexually abused child/adult alive who has not heard such words from others? And who has not, in the deepest reaches of their own being, agonisingly doubted themselves? “Father”, of course, may not have been a priest. He could have been a trusted older brother, an uncle, a family “friend”, a neighbour, grandfather – or the victim’s own stepfather or father. Is it worse when it is a priest? Or when it is your own father? There’s no worse here; only worst.
When any child anywhere is sexually abused, it is not their body only that is penetrated or “interfered with”, it is also their soul, their psyche, their boundaries and most fundamental sense of self. Their innocence and trust are trashed FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S PLEASURE. They become a “thing”, an “object” without rights, without individuality, without self-hood. In an instant, the world becomes a frightening place. And their inner world becomes a place of ever-repeating nightmares.
Many children cannot survive this. That any children survive it is a miracle. Children instinctively know they have far less power than adults: physically, emotionally – in every possible way. They also know that they have significantly less power still than men, and virtually no power at all when it comes to “powerful” and protected men.
Whenever children are abused, it’s a flagrant abuse of power itself. Our greatest adult moral responsibility is, surely, to protect, to heal – and not harm? That abuse of power is not always exercised sexually. It can be cultural. Or political. Deliberate, calculated cruelty of any kind shocks, traumatises, injures – often for a lifetime. It is the very powerlessness of the child – or of the truly vulnerable – that allows offenders to offend. These are never men who take their desires to harm or humiliate to their equals; they do not. The children who are now (now as I write) guarded and held on Christmas Island, Kopika, aged four, and Tharunicaa, aged two, have been woken in fear and moved in extreme fear with their parents in the early hours of the morning – surrounded by Serco guards – not once or twice but three times; not with care or compassion but with profound disregard for their dignity and humanity; not with any restraint, but with a public parading from Dutton, “See, I can do this.”
When any form of abuse of children is taking place out of sight – or with other children only as witnesses – the devastation may well take longer to emerge. Children may well dissociate, “split” internally; how else can they continue to function or even breathe? What is frequently left, though, is an indelible stain of guilt, shame, self-disgust. All of that belongs to the perpetrators, of course. NONE OF IT “BELONGS” TO THE VICTIM. Yet the perpetrator may internally disown their guilt, leaving the child-victim to carry it. And when the child is not believed? When the child knows that to speak up would risk disbelief…or risk seeing their own self-disgust registering in the disgust, the disbelief, the rage and outrage of others….what then?
For cultural and structural chance to occur, we need to look far more closely at the rights of children – of all children regardless of race or social class – to safety and self-worth. In my years as therapist and minister, I have witnessed many stories from adult survivors of years of anguished self-questioning and self-shaming. This takes indescribable courage even to begin to heal. And perhaps this is the ugliest wounding of all. That ANY victim should carry ANY shame or guilt fills me with sorrow. It also fills me with rage that so-called grown men could be protected – in any walk of life – if they have abused their power and made children their victims. I need hardly add that the more power an individual has, the greater his responsibility is, not least to observe the culture in which he lives, moves and legitimises his choices?
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and interfaith minister. Readers wishing to understand more about the effects of childhood sexual abuse on a survivor’s later life could begin with Gunnur Karakurt and Kristin E. Silver’s paper, “Therapy for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors Using Attachment and Family Systems Theory Orientations” (2014). Much work remains to be done about state-sanctioned trauma of refugee children. You could begin with Molly A. Benson et al, “Trauma Systems Therapy for Refugee Children and Families” (2018). Such therapy is, however, unavailable on Christmas Island.