As moderator, I have been attending settlement conferences with survivors of past sexual abuse – particularly those who were wards of the state in the 1950s and ’60s. The experience has challenged me to think deeply about the significant physical, emotional and spiritual impact on those abused.
During the sessions, various lawyers painstakingly articulate the abuse. There is no glossing over – every sordid word and detail is spoken. This includes very distressing accounts of violence and sexual abuse.
My responsibility is to listen and be available to offer an apology on behalf of the Church. I wait patiently for the opportunity. Throughout the whole process the survivor is out of sight, in another room.
As I sit in silence and listen to the lawyers, I find a great sadness invariably rises up in me – pushing through all my defensive layers. Quite suddenly, I become acutely aware of the presence of God – alongside me and the person I cannot see, yet who somehow feels part of me.
When I get back to the office I feel drained – conscious of the decades-long trauma endured by survivors of institutional abuse. Often, the person is not willing to meet with me, and I can understand this. I can empathise, but I can never really know the experience he or she has been through and continues to endure.
The emotion of the day remains with me as I walk home. Sometimes I become aware of the ‘void’ in being unable to apologise personally on behalf of the church. I try to draw comfort from the words of Simone Weil (who suffered a great deal). She said, “It is grace that forms the void inside of us and it is grace alone that can fill the void.”
Grace can indeed lead to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of helplessness and, in turn, it can lead us out of it.
Easter is just such a time in the Christian calendar.
On Easter morning, women came to look for the body of Jesus and all they found was emptiness and void. This is often the very space we try to escape from – but when we avoid darkness, we are probably avoiding God who is working in the darkness.
Easter brings the possibility of change – in me as an individual and in all of humanity. But this possibility depends on our own understanding of the cross.
Rowan Williams has written that we need to begin by seeing the cross as the cross of our victim. When we see the cross in this way, we can begin to recognise that pain and violence is something that we ourselves are capable of causing. And when we manage to concede this, we can’t make-believe that violence is something we can do nothing about.
Let me put it another way. Many of us would be familiar with the response, “And also with you” when we share ‘the peace’. Well, when I enter the ‘void of darkness’ in contemplating all this violence, I sometimes imagine that God could well be saying to me, “and also with you.”
In other words, when I condemn, exclude or oppress anyone, I am setting myself up as a judge. This applies even to those being seen to be providing an inadequate response to the Royal Commission, notwithstanding the consequent and undeniable distress this is causing survivors.
May this Easter be a time when a great many of us manage to see in this light, and realise that our involvement with violence is most damaging when we are least aware of our ‘self’. For if we can manage to maintain this awareness, I believe that ignorance will eventually vanish as a reason to accept great wrongs.
If you have experienced child sexual abuse or know someone who has, you can contact a confidential Uniting Church phone line: 1300 789 374
Contact details for the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse
Within Australia call 1800 099 340
From overseas call 61 2 8815 2319
Open Monday to Friday between the hours of 8am and 8pm AEDT.
TTY call 133 677
Speak and Listen call 1300 555 727
Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS)
Call 131 450 for assistance
Mail: GPO Box 5283 Sydney NSW 2001