I’ve been weeping a lot over the past few days. I’m not alone.*
This morning I read a piece by Jennifer Wilson about Cardinal Pell’s response to calls for a Royal Commission into the cover-up of paedophilia in the Catholic Church. In it, Wilson wrote:
There is another group of survivors, of whom I am one, who are the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by family, friends and acquaintances. For many of us there is no hope of justice, and we have had to learn to live with this reality. I am deeply relieved that institutional sexual abuse is finally receiving the scrutiny it deserves, because my life experience is also validated by this acknowledgement, even though my story can’t be told within a commission’s terms of reference, and the perpetrator and his enablers can’t be held accountable. I want to see a profound cultural change in attitudes towards the sexual abuse of children, and I believe we are on the way at last. This is grounds enough for rejoicing.
She put into words things I’d been contemplating writing about. Thanks, Jennifer.
I, too, am a member of that other group of survivors. But in my case, the abuse is related to the Church. I was brought up a Catholic, as was my perpetrator. We were both educated by members of religious orders. The Church’s archaic attitudes towards sex helped to create the environment in which my trauma happened. It also helped to keep the truth of its impact on my life suppressed until many years later. Suppressed; but never forgotten.
When I was about seven years old, my father found me curled up in bed with a man – a well-respected teacher who was a regular visitor to our home. I didn’t understand the furore then. The man and I were both fully clothed, on top of the bedclothes; he was turned away from me; I was curled up behind his back. I wanted to be there. This man was the gentlest, kindest man I knew. He had taught me to swim at the age of three. He’d been there to cheer me on for my first day at school. Of the very few photos I have of myself as a little one, he’s in two and took another, one of only two portraits of me as a child. He was closer to me than my father. He was also a Brother of the Marist order. And he was innocent.
My father ordered him to pack his bags and bodily threw him out of the house.
It’s difficult to try to know what my father, a very intuitive but mostly silent man, was thinking back then, but he must have sensed I was being abused sexually, and wanted to protect me. From a cheerful, happy child, I’d become clingy and needy, over-sexualised, a bed-wetter. I suffered nightmares, was afraid to be left alone. My distress wasn’t seen as anything out of the ordinary; I was the eighth of 12 kids, so there was always some drama. Once I learned to read, I withdrew into a make-believe world of books, of fairy tales and goblins, of troupes of clean-cut kids solving mysteries. As I grew older, I peppered my escapist reading which true-to-life books, trying to find out why I felt so bad, why when “photo day” came at school I’d try to hide my face behind my long hair, or not turn up at all.
At the age of 12, I went to say Confession at my local church, prepared to unburden myself, to admit to the kindly local parish priest that I was filled with shame, guilt and disgust for my sexualised behaviour. Before I’d finished “Bless me, Father”, he reached through the confessional grill, took my hand and asked, “Tell me, how is your dear mother?” I stopped believing in God that day. Instead, I found relief in drugs and alcohol, a quicker way to escape than books and study. For a time they made me feel connected to the universe, and safe.
It was years before I saw that Brother again. When I turned 18, I wrote to him hoping to make sense of what had happened, wondering who he was that I had held so dear in my heart all this time. By then, I was estranged from my father, virtually homeless, going from share house to share house, living for a time in a squat with drug dealers; I was in the grip of a drug- and alcohol-dependency that alternated with an eating disorder, while somehow managing to keep up a punishing and perfectionistic high standard at university. My life, I was to discover years later, was text-book Childhood Sexual Assault survivor. Self-hatred, shame, guilt and remorse consumed me. I wanted to die, but didn’t know how. It felt like there was a great, thick glass wall between me and the rest of the world; inside it rained; outside was sunny and blue skies; but I couldn’t connect, and no one seemed to see or hear me.
The Brother, when I wrote to him, was thrilled to receive my letter. He’d retired and was celebrating the Golden Jubilee of being a member of his order, and invited me to a special dinner. Very sick and weighing less than 48 kilos, I dragged myself along and was mortified when he read out parts of my letter in his after dinner speech, including my private confession about how important he had been to me. After, when we talked, he was a stranger, nothing like the man I’d dreamed of; the one adult I’d been able to count on to hold me and keep me safe. His main concern was that I reconcile with my father. He didn’t hold a grudge for the way he’d been treated; he knew he was innocent. What he didn’t realise, and what my father hadn’t realised, is that someone else was guilty.
I was a survivor of “molestation”, which is what they called digital penetration back then, but which for a child that age legally is considered rape. It happened intermittently mostly from around the ages of five to seven, but the last episode of “interference” I remember was when I was 12, when I was alone with the same perpetrator, an adult, and he placed my hand on his erect penis. By then, I was old enough to stand up for myself and tell him to stop, but I was shaken. I felt unsafe. I felt violated. It brought back the memories of all the earlier violations. I couldn’t sleep, I was suicidal. Only alcohol and drugs gave me relief. It was the first of many attacks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that wouldn’t be diagnosed for years.
And I didn’t tell anybody.
When, decades later, I did finally find the courage to speak up, I was horrified to discover this same perpetrator was a serial molester. I’ve had to live with the guilt and sadness of knowing that, if I’d said something earlier, I might have saved others the fate I’d suffered. But I’d assumed I was the only one. He has made amends, of sorts, and claims to have repented and to be living a celibate life; but even this, to me, feels warped. His attitude towards his own and others’ sexuality has been permanently twisted by the Church we both grew up in. After I confronted him, he asked me what he could do to make reparation, and I told him to read some research on the effects of childhood sexual assault on survivors, just so he’d know and take responsibility for the harm he’d caused. He refused. He asked me what right I had to judge him as I was an adulterer: I’d married a man who had been previously married and therefore I was “living in sin”. God would be our judge, he said. Meanwhile, another male, one who also grew up in this same religious system, accused me of ruining my perpetrator’s life by speaking out and exposing him, and warning the next generation.
Long ago, I stopped being sad and self-destructive, and I learned ways to channel my anger productively by becoming a contributing member of my community. Through my work as a counsellor and mentor, I’ve been able to console and acknowledge the suffering of other women and men. Over the past year, I’ve also supported Australian women’s writing through the AWW Reading and Reviewing Challenge, inspired, in part, because I know what it means to be dismissed, to set myself up for dismissal, and to stop myself from speaking. I have learned that we have more power than we realise, especially collectively: none of us has to remain a victim.
One of the few things I’ve had published is a poem called “Silencing”; in it, I describe a tongue on a plate. As a sign and symptom of sexual abuse, cutting out the tongue dates back at least to the ancient Greeks and the story of Philomela: after she was raped by her brother-in-law, he cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anybody. Perpetrators don’t literally have to cut out our tongues to silence us; we do it ourselves. Some of us do it by escaping into reading, often into fairy tale and myth, fantasy, romance and horror. In these, we tell ourselves stories of suffering as well as hope, love and forgiveness; the tales we choose are often deliberately oblique as we try both to find and give relief. We create happy, safe worlds, as well as confront dark threatening ones, rarely asking ourselves, or our readers – or our perpetrators – to confront the unembellished realities of our distress. Such escapes are valid; for some of us, they have helped us to survive. But there’s a time when we need to speak out.
The problem of childhood sexual assault (CSA) is more extensive than institutionalised sexual violence. If we look to add reasons why women and girl children in particular underperform, lack confidence in their abilities and lack self-esteem – even become narcissistic and self-obsessed – we don’t have to look far. It’s likely that the incidence of intra-familial and community sexual violence against girl and boy children has been hugely under-reported and its ramifications are probably more far-reaching than the incidence of clergy-based CSA rightly decried this week. Today’s Nature magazine has an article on the effect of early trauma on girls’ brains, and their weakened ability to cope with stress and anxiety in teen years (boys tend to “act out” more in conduct disorder). The effects of CSA are long term and can be seen everywhere. But things can change.
Jennifer Wilson writes: “I want to see a profound cultural change in attitudes towards the sexual abuse of children, and I believe we are on the way at last. This is grounds enough for rejoicing.”
Amen to that.
One step toward that goal may be for survivors to speak up and expose the archaic beliefs and attitudes, the hypocrisy, denial and shaming behaviour of members of the Catholic Church. There are millions of men and women who were sexually assaulted as children, who have lived silently with the consequences of that abuse, not wanting to bring shame to their families, friends and communities, and silenced by those they have tried to confide in. We have been told to forgive and forget; turn the other cheek; let he who is without sin cast the first stone. We have learned, by example, to feel sorry for our abusers and we are reluctant, in our humanity, to subject them to the shame, guilt, remorse, humiliation and degradation that have been our daily bedfellows since our abuse. We have more compassion and empathy for them than they showed to us. We are doubly their victims.
But our silence serves nobody well. It doesn’t help those many male and female perpetrators whose minds have been twisted by the Catholic Church’s teachings about sin, about their own bodies and desires, about the threat of being judged and going to hell. By pointing to the deep indoctrination of such beliefs and attitudes I don’t mean to offer an excuse for sexual predation; but I do see it as part of an explanation. It’s also something we, as ex-Catholics and as a community, can help to change. These archaic beliefs have to be exposed for what they are: self-serving attitudes which have helped to foster hypocrisy, self-justification and denial in the perpetrators and to silence the abused.
Speaking out won’t stop the assaults – the problem is too widespread and complex for that. But it may help.
*If you are distressed by the contents of this post or recent media coverage of childhood sexual assault, there is 24-hour crisis support available through Lifeline.
P.S. The following is a video of a song written by two performers I met in the UK a few years ago. Their song is called Jenny’s Mermaid – another survivor’s story couched in folktale.