“I had no one to turn to…”

By Penny Mulvey

 I cannot tell anyone exactly what it is that you actually go through with sexual abuse. It’s not just something that has an impact on you at the time; it’s something that lasts forever. (Philip Constable)

Mr Constable is a former student at Geelong Grammar. His statement was one of several presented as part of Case Study 32 at a Melbourne sitting of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Mr Constable was sexually abused almost daily whilst in boarding school, aged 8-10 years from 1956-1958. The emotional and psychological scars are permanent and life-long.

This aspect of child sexual abuse has been a recurrent story as survivors have come before the Commission – people do not ‘get over it’. The Royal Commission has just released its Redress and Civil Litigation report, a lengthy and considered document with 99 recommendations.  Recommendation 9 outlines principles for counselling and psychological care through redress, including that such care should be available throughout a survivor’s life, with no fixed limits and be available on an episodic basis.

Some people can walk away from traumatic experiences. In this case I cannot and nor can other kids who were sexually abused. I am stuck with this for the rest of my life.

The report states that redress should be survivor focused, providing a process that includes monetary payment; personal apology/acknowledgement; access to counselling as outlined above and also assurances that steps have been taken by the institution to prevent similar abuse in the future.

The Royal Commission’s preference is for a national scheme, providing an independent assessment of redress and equity of access and response.

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia Stuart McMillan has welcomed the Redress and Civil Litigation Report.

“We are pleased that the Royal Commission’s Report recommends that a process for redress must provide equal access and equal treatment for survivors,” Mr McMillan said.

Royal Commission Chair, the Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM was a keynote speaker at the National Council of Churches in Australia Safe as Churches? Conference in Sydney last month.

He told delegates that in August one of the Commissioners conducted the Royal Commission’s 4,000th private session. They have heard 4,000 stories as painful and confronting as Mr Constable’s, and there are currently more than 1,500 other people waiting to be heard.

Justice McClellan said it is the primary way for the Commissioners to bear witness to the abuse and trauma inflicted on children who suffered sexual abuse in an institutional context.

He addressed the key question of how the Commissioners determine which institution will become the focus of a public hearing.

“Decisions…are informed by whether or not the hearing will advance an understanding of systemic issues and provide an opportunity for institutions to learn from previous mistakes,” Justice McClellan told the Safe as Churches? conference.

“In many cases the issues explored, and the lessons to be learnt, will have relevance beyond the individual institution being examined.”

I have lived in fear of everything for my whole life: the health inspector at the bakery, the local council, driving my car parking and leaving the car, will I be in trouble? or even the rubbish collection getting me for putting the wrong garbage in the recycling bin. I can’t live my life in peace, I am tormented every day by the possibilities of some authority getting me for “THINGS” or Everything.

Justice McClellan outlined the diverse range of topics being considered by the Commission including what he referred to as ‘the “why” question’.

“The societal norm that ‘children should be seen but not heard’, which prevailed for unknown decades, provided the opportunity for some adults to abuse the power which their relationship with the child gave them,” Justice McClellan said.

“When the required silence of the child was accompanied by an unquestioning belief by adults in the integrity of the carer for the child, be they youth worker, teacher, residential supervisor or cleric, the power imbalance was entrenched to the inevitable detriment of many children.”

I had no one to turn to so I used to crawl under the floor of the Boarding House with all the spiders and cobwebs.

The Federal Government also released the Royal Commission’s final report on Working with Children Checks in August. Justice McClellan said the current state-based system, with a lack of consistency and integration, has meant that children are being afforded different levels of protection depending on where they live.

He said the report’s 36 recommendations, including the establishment of a centralised database, are designed to remedy these problems.

Uniting Church President, Stuart McMillan, stressed the importance of implementing child safe policies and procedures.

“I urge all Uniting Church institutions – big and small across the country – to continue their efforts and vigilance to make our Church the safest place for children it can possibly be.”

We all have a part to play in ensuring that there are no Philip Constables now and in the future who would have a reason to say these heartbreaking words:

I don’t really know how to convey the absolute sense of being unable to escape this hell for three long years. As a little boy, that length of time seemed like an eternity. There was no light. It was like being buried alive.

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