Last year’s Academy Award for Best Film went to Spotlight, a true story of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and an attempt to cover it up by the Catholic Church in Boston.
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse last week cast a spotlight on the the Newcastle Anglican Diocese. The public hearing showed some of its senior clergy and lay people were part of a equally heinous paedophile network which turned a blind eye to perpetrators who continued to wreak havoc on the lives of vulnerable children and adults.
Paul Gray and Phillip D’Ammond horrifying testimonies exposed the silent victimisation in the Newcastle Diocese, not by ‘stranger danger’ or ‘monster predators,’ but by those we most admire, trust and love. We heard of victims overdosing on drugs and alcohol to deal with the undeserved shape and a pain no one cared to believe.
What’s unfathomable and unrelenting is the ‘conspiracy of silence’ by certain senior clergy and lay men that helped it fester and propagate in the darkness for decades. Nobody seemed energised to follow up on any allegations and, for the most part, denying any disclosures occurred.
It took three insiders, Michael Elliot, current Director of Professional Standards, appointed 2009, John Cleary, the Diocese Business Manager and, Bishop Greg Thomson, current Bishop of Newcastle, appointed 2013, to see the seriousness of the issue and, take steps to bring child sexual abuse into the clear light of day even when many stood against them and made it nearly impossible to find.
So how is it that men knew and did nothing? Part of the answer is that most men do not want to stand out from the crowd; to break ranks and, many are bad at whistle-blowing. This can be a good thing. Men are stronger together. They have each other’s backs. The problem lies when they band together to conceal abuse; to look the other way; to keep the code of silence.
If there is any good news to come out of the Royal Commission it is this – ‘that child sexual abuse is preventable.’
The first step begins by people recognising the pressures that cause passive bystander behaviour, such as diffusion of responsibility like ‘It’s not my problem. I’m too busy. I’m not an expert. It’s not our job to cope with this. I might make it worse. Or, fears of various consequences, for example, of acknowledging betrayal by a trusted and respected person, of being wrong, of being right, even of violent retaliation.’
One particular view that I hear often from people is this: ‘I would speak up if I thought a child was being sexually abused.’ Most are certain they’d recognise abusive behaviour if it were happening. What I say is, ‘No, not necessarily. I want to get you in touch with the ‘pressures’ that cause passive bystander behaviour. Then when you feel those pressures, I want that to be a cue that you may be failing to recognise abuse when it’s staring you right in the face.
The ultimate goal, is of course, to help men and women to effectively and safely call each other out; to confront abuses when they occur. Our Active Bystander Workshops offer skill-building opportunities – helping people to a point of having many options for action with only one wrong answer – and that is ‘to do nothing.’
Below are a list of referrals providing Australians with access to expert advice from trained counsellors and an opportunity to speak up about child abuse.