Depths of pain – surviving child sex abuse

By Damien Tann

I recently read Louise Milligan’s excellent book Cardinal: The Rise And Fall Of George Pell with the intention of reviewing it.

I was interested in it for two reasons: I am a Uniting Church minister in placement and I’m also a survivor of a repeated act of sexual assault perpetrated by an adult officer while I was a child in an institution.

But on Page 324 (paperback version) all thoughts of reviewing it went out the window because, suddenly, the narrative became too personal. And it only took a couple of statistics.

On Page 324, Milligan writes that 20-40 per cent of survivors of abuse develop resilience and coping strategies which allow them a relatively normal, unaffected life, leaving 60-80 per cent more adversely affected.

Before reading this book, I considered myself to be in the first group but, by the end of it – and after reading Fallen by Lucie Morris-Marr and Walking Towards Thunder by Peter Fox – I realised I was in the second, albeit at the shallow end of the pool of distress.

Over the years, I have had to swim during the times when I’ve been knocked over by unexpected waves, but I could always reach the floor with my feet and then stand with my head above the surface.

Maybe, I realised, that as a boy I didn’t act as many boys do when they’re mistreated – instead of being violent and defiant, I became sad and withdrawn.

As an adult I’ve certainly experienced depression and anxiety and have frequently made ineffective and inappropriate use of alcohol.

I continue to be angered that people who have been more affected than me have been denied justice, or compassion, because their coping strategies have left them on the edge of society.

Comments such as “well, you can’t trust his evidence, he’s a druggie” refuse to consider that the drug-affected survivor might be that way because he once was a victim.

When the High Court of Australia ruled in April on the earlier conviction of Cardinal George Pell, ruling he was not extended sufficient benefit of reasonable doubt and arguing that the prosecution case was incomplete in that regard, I was disappointed.

I wasn’t surprised, however, because my own claim for redress under the National Redress Scheme was similarly denied on the basis of a lack of sufficient evidence.

The law must do as it does; what happened to me did happen, even if I cannot prove it sufficient to warrant an official apology from the institution which let me down, and I have a letter from Canberra saying as much.

It was never about money for me, or even revenge, or even justice for that matter. For me, it was about acknowledgement, apology and, perhaps, the hope that my evidence might jigsaw with that of other boys (now men) such that a series of apparently disconnected sexual assaults might find a common link in a shared perpetrator.

My feet have touched the bottom of the pool, and one day I hope to step out, dry off, and walk away. With God’s help I shall, but it’s such a long pool and it seems I have some more swimming to do yet.

If you need help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.

Damien Tann is pastor at Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry.

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