The fail­ures of To­wards Heal­ing.

Abuse survivor Pene­lope X, who tes­ti­fied to the royal com­mis­sion about her treat­ment at a Catholic school, re­counts the ex­pe­ri­ence of sub­mit­ting to the church’s To­wards Heal­ing pro­to­col, and the un­feel­ing homily of­fered to her by the bishop now re­spon­sibl

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Pene­lope X

Four years ago, af­ter learn­ing about the es­tab­lish­ment of the Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse, I be­lieved I was brave enough and ready to con­front the sex­ual and psy­cho­log­i­cal abuses com­mit­ted against me by a male teacher at my Catholic school. I be­lieved the ex­pe­ri­ence would help re­lease the demons of self­blame, loathing and shame that the teacher had hard­wired into my mind, and that through­out life had clung to my very be­ing. Yes­ter­day, weary and trau­ma­tised, I faced the last leg of what was an al­most un­en­durable jour­ney, in­volv­ing a num­ber of un­ex­pected con­se­quen­tial pro­cesses.

Af­ter the royal com­mis­sion, Vic­to­ria Po­lice launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the per­pe­tra­tor of the abuse. Af­ter nine ex­haust­ing and dis­tress­ing months, the case was dropped for tech­ni­cal rea­sons.

I learnt that the per­pe­tra­tor was still teach­ing and asked the Vic­to­rian Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment that my abuser be re­moved from class­rooms. This at­tempt failed. As a fi­nal at­tempt at jus­tice, I de­cided to pur­sue civil com­pen­sa­tion from the Catholic Church, the in­sti­tu­tion re­spon­si­ble for pro­tect­ing me from the sex­ual abuse. The av­enue for this process was the To­wards Heal­ing pro­to­col.

To­wards Heal­ing was de­vised by the church 20 years ago, as a method for as­sess­ing sex­ual abuse com­pen­sa­tion claims. The words “to­wards heal­ing” sug­gest a gen­tle process, im­ply­ing sup­port and the prom­ise of an apol­ogy. In due course I dis­cov­ered the op­po­site was true.

Bro­ken Rites, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that rep­re­sents sur­vivors of clergy abuse, says the pro­to­col was con­ceived to limit the church’s li­a­bil­ity. It says the process can “re­vic­timise” sur­vivors. My ex­pe­ri­ence of the process con­firms both points.

The bur­den on me to prove I had been in­jured, and pro­vide a con­vinc­ing enough case for com­pen­sa­tion, was repet­i­tively psy­cho­log­i­cally tor­ment­ing. To­wards Heal­ing re­quired me to de­scribe, not once but four times, the harm I had en­dured. It re­quired this to be done in great de­tail. The worst of it was the re­trau­ma­ti­sa­tion I en­coun­tered dur­ing two re­quired psy­chi­atric eval­u­a­tions.

Like all med­i­cal doc­tors, psy­chi­a­trists swear on a ver­sion of the Hip­po­cratic oath, stat­ing “the health of my pa­tient will be my first pri­or­ity”. Upon my ar­rival in her rooms, one of the psy­chi­a­trists unashamedly said to me, “I am not here to help you.” She then asked me to re­turn to the mem­ory of how it felt be­ing sex­u­ally abused. I flashed back to be­ing that girl in her distress and hope­less­ness, feel­ing his hands on me. I dis­sem­bled into a mess, vac­il­lat­ing be­tween the poles of hys­te­ria and dis­so­ci­a­tion. The psy­chi­a­trist suc­ceeded in pun­ish­ing the vic­tim of abuse, rather than do­ing her job, which was to as­sist heal­ing.

Like all men­tal-health pro­fes­sion­als, she would have been well aware that to ask a vic­tim to re­visit and in­habit the orig­i­nal trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences poses enor­mous risks. But why wouldn’t she at­tempt to re­trau­ma­tise me, be­ing an em­ployee of the or­gan­i­sa­tion that ul­ti­mately re­fused to ac­cept li­a­bil­ity for the acts of abuse against me? The ex­pe­ri­ence was a dis­in­cen­tive to con­tin­u­ing my mis­sion. For sev­eral weeks af­ter, I was plagued by dread­ful night­mares, flash­backs and dis­so­ci­a­tion. Dur­ing this pe­riod, I was mostly un­able to work.

Months later, I re­ceived a phone call from one of the To­wards Heal­ing “asses­sors”. He told me that, based on the ev­i­dence I pro­vided and an in­ter­view they con­ducted with the per­pe­tra­tor, they had de­ter­mined I had been abused and that the man I ac­cused had done it. This was the news I had long awaited. Still, I couldn’t help won­der­ing why the Of­fice of Pro­fes­sional Stan­dards didn’t sim­ply an­a­lyse my case on the ba­sis of my po­lice state­ment and the po­lice’s con­clu­sions, rather than go to all the trou­ble of em­ploy­ing re­tired po­lice­men to do ex­actly what the orig­i­nal po­lice had al­ready done. That this man had abused me had al­ready been es­tab­lished. The le­gal lim­i­ta­tions that re­sulted in the crim­i­nal case be­ing dropped did not change this fact. There is a rea­son To­wards Heal­ing went to these lengths, though: this overly in­va­sive and com­bat­ive process is de­signed to make vic­tims back off.

Fi­nally, the set­tle­ment con­fer­ence came around. My lawyers against the lawyer em­ployed by Catholic Church In­surances Lim­ited, ar­gu­ing over the ex­tent of the “in­jury” I had ac­quired from the abuse. I won­dered then how I could pos­si­bly make the truth of my ex­pe­ri­ence heard, in con­tention with an or­gan­i­sa­tion whose power, au­thor­ity and in­flu­ence is known to be im­per­me­able. Of course, it was im­pos­si­ble.

The so-called non-bi­ased fa­cil­i­ta­tor, who was paid by the church, couldn’t bear lis­ten­ing to my nar­ra­tive of abuse, trauma and on­go­ing suf­fer­ing, and there­fore could not trans­mit my ex­pe­ri­ence to the in­sur­ance com­pany per­son on the other side of the wall. At one point I begged her to show the lawyer the diary I wrote when I was 16, with dozens of sticky note-tagged pages of an­guish. But she pro­tected the purse-strings rep­re­sen­ta­tive from read­ing the words of a suf­fer­ing child.

She didn’t un­der­stand my re­quest for her to com­mu­ni­cate the so­cial and fa­mil­ial im­pacts, the pe­ri­ods of in­abil­ity to work due to de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, the knockon ef­fect of two mar­riages end­ing. She could only op­er­ate within a le­gal process, geared to­wards cat­a­logu­ing line items of dam­ages. She was clearly af­fronted by my be­ing a well-ed­u­cated, as­sertive woman who posed some­thing “other” to her ex­pec­ta­tions. Of course, I res­o­lutely de­fied the mis­guided for­mula to which she and the psy­chi­a­trists and church ad­min­is­tra­tors clung. It was clearly de­signed to mis­in­ter­pret, di­min­ish and mis­han­dle what was be­liev­able and well doc­u­mented.

My lawyers at Slater and Gor­don traded, by ne­ces­sity, my “in­jury” and losses as bar­gain­ing chips for com­pen­sa­tion

– and we were very pleased with the out­come. The church agreed to a pay­out of $110,000, from which a sig­nif­i­cant amount would be de­ducted in le­gal fees. The “non-bi­ased” fa­cil­i­ta­tor was pleased that I had “achieved clo­sure” – her words, never mine, be­cause post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der does not jump to the fin­ger-snap­ping in­sis­tence of “clo­sure”, as she neatly de­scribed it.

Prior to re­ceipt of pay­ment, the church re­quired me to sign a “deed of re­lease”, and in do­ing so I was re­quired to agree with a clause stat­ing that the church was not li­able for what had hap­pened to me. In other words, they were giv­ing me money for noth­ing.

Seven clauses in the doc­u­ment stated in var­i­ous forms of legalese the stip­u­la­tion that I was not to bother the church, its as­so­ciates or the per­pe­tra­tor, for any claim or mat­ter in re­la­tion to the abuse, ever, ever, ever, ever. I was re­quired to van­ish from view. The deed did not con­tain a “gag or­der”. And so here I am, telling my story.

To­wards Heal­ing of­fers an op­tional “op­por­tu­nity” for vic­tims to meet with a mem­ber of the clergy from the dio­cese where the abuse oc­curred. They call this a “pas­toral” ses­sion – an op­por­tu­nity, I was told, for the church to pro­vide coun­sel to as­sist with heal­ing. This sug­gests to me that the church is delu­sional. How can au­thor­i­ties that col­lude with abusers and re­trau­ma­tise vic­tims – vic­tims for whom they claim to hold no li­a­bil­ity – pre­sume to of­fer heal­ing?

Even so, I de­cided to meet with the bishop, with the ex­press pur­pose of ask­ing him to ex­plain his ac­count­abil­ity for me and for the chil­dren in his dio­cese. What steps had he taken to en­sure that the royal com­mis­sion find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions were be­ing im­ple­mented in his schools? Were staff be­ing trained to recog­nise groom­ing be­hav­iours? What av­enues ex­isted – ex­ter­nal to the school com­mu­nity – for chil­dren to dis­close and teach­ers to re­port? I needed to hear that he was

as­sertively in­sist­ing upon these mea­sures, be­cause this is his pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity. Even if only for the pur­pose of up­hold­ing the church’s rep­u­ta­tion.

The bishop had noth­ing to re­port, other than that he ex­pected his schools were check­ing off the ba­sic re­quire­ments of the gov­ern­ment’s Child Safe Stan­dards. He told me I could ask the di­rec­tor of Catholic Ed­u­ca­tion. Was I to feel con­fi­dent that a bu­reau­crat in Mel­bourne would know more than the bishop in coun­try Vic­to­ria re­spon­si­ble for those schools?

As an aside, he re­marked that the ban on teach­ers and clergy hug­ging chil­dren had gone too far. Ap­par­ently priests have told him that they feel the same way. To shore up his own pro­pri­ety, the bishop in­formed me that in group pho­tos at con­fir­ma­tion cer­e­monies, he makes sure that he holds the crozier in his left hand, so he’s not seen to be in phys­i­cal con­tact with chil­dren.

He ex­plained to me that sex­ual abuse is com­plex, and that preda­tors op­er­ate in a man­ner seek­ing to con­ceal, as if I wouldn’t know that. Then he re­marked, “We need to be care­ful that we don’t set our­selves a goal that is unattain­able.” He thinks child pro­tec­tion is unattain­able? Yet 50 ev­i­dence-based preven­tion re­ports writ­ten by the royal com­mis­sion are in wide cir­cu­la­tion.

These have been for­mu­lated based on the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment im­per­a­tive that more ef­fec­tive mea­sures to pre­vent child sex­ual abuse in in­sti­tu­tions must be im­ple­mented.

The bishop be­gan to close down our con­ver­sa­tion, firstly by de­liv­er­ing me an un­called-for and un­wanted homily, by way of an anal­ogy, to de­fend the po­si­tion he holds. That po­si­tion, it seemed to me, is that at­tempts to pre­vent child sex­ual abuse have gone too far.

The homily went like this: Dur­ing a bike ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram at one of his schools, the only child of “over­pro­tec­tive” par­ents re­ceived a mi­nor in­jury af­ter fall­ing off his bike. The par­ents “over­re­acted”, made a scene and lodged a com­plaint, and this re­sulted in the pro­gram be­ing re­moved from the school. So, one child’s ac­ci­dent has pre­vented the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents from learn­ing how to keep safe while rid­ing bikes.

Let’s insert into this anal­ogy the sce­nario of a sex­ual abuse in­jury. If, by hap­pen­stance, a child is sex­u­ally as­saulted by an em­ployee of the church, then overly re­ac­tive re­sponses would likely prejudice the nat­u­ral rights of all the other chil­dren to re­ceive un asked for cud­dles from adults. And, you know, a mi­nor sex­ual abuse in­jury will be fine if a Band-Aid is ap­plied. Let’s not al­low “overly sen­si­tive peo­ple” to ruin the fun for ev­ery­one, okay?

Thank you, Bishop, for that very re­li­gious in­struc­tion about the nu­ances of in­sti­tu­tional en­vi­ron­ments. Of course, what would I know, be­ing a woman who was sex­u­ally abused in ex­actly that con­text?

Let’s con­sider other pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions for why the bike safe pro­gram was re­moved from the school. Maybe the prin­ci­pal made a poor de­ci­sion based on con­cern about bad pub­lic­ity, par­ents en masse re­mov­ing their chil­dren from the school, and the school los­ing gov­ern­ment fund­ing? No, let’s not go down that track. It feels bet­ter when we blame the vic­tim and his overly sen­si­tive par­ents.

The bishop’s homily is a revi­sion of a truth that most com­mu­nity mem­bers want up­held. No child in an in­sti­tu­tional en­vi­ron­ment should be harmed by an­other hu­man, least of all a pow­er­ful adult. The bishop’s di­a­tribe is the stuff of back­yard con­ver­sa­tion and talk­back ra­dio, stuff peo­ple think is harm­less but isn’t. This bishop made a veiled at­tack upon me, and it hurt.

Let’s not pas­sively ac­cept the un­truths that keep us all com­plicit with abuse and suf­fer­ing. Evil per­vades be­cause its source is as ba­nal as the bishop’s twisted anal­ogy.

The con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the bishop and me was long and ex­haust­ing, with in­ter­jec­tions from a fa­cil­i­ta­tor, whose bias was ev­i­dent. I was cut off ev­ery time I tried to con­vey the im­port of what I had been through and what I had learnt from my aw­ful ex­pe­ri­ences. I told the bishop that it was thanks to the church that I lost my faith as a teenager. He im­plied that I just didn’t work hard enough at it. He didn’t care to hear that if specif­i­cally de­signed mea­sures aren’t im­ple­mented, then his­tory will repeat. I left my pas­toral ap­point­ment feel­ing as though an aw­ful toxin had pen­e­trated my skin.

Royal com­mis­sioner Jus­tice Peter McClel­lan re­marked re­cently at the con­fer­ence of the Aus­tralia and New Zealand As­so­ci­a­tion of Psy­chother­apy in Syd­ney that many sex­ual abuse sur­vivors re­ported to the com­mis­sion how im­por­tant it is for them to ex­pe­ri­ence a sense of jus­tice, in­clud­ing a “gen­uine apol­ogy from the in­sti­tu­tion … an ac­knowl­edge­ment of the abuse and its im­pacts, and a clear ac­count of steps the in­sti­tu­tion has made to pre­vent such abuse hap­pen­ing again”. This is pre­cisely what I’d hoped for, per­haps over op­ti­misti­cally con­sid­er­ing my cu­mu­la­tive ex­pe­ri­ences of To­wards Heal­ing.

In my case, the bishop did not ac­knowl­edge my vic­tim­hood, of­fered no apol­ogy and showed no fu­ture re­gard for me, nor the stu­dents, par­ents and parish­ioners who at­tend his church ser­vices.

It is now my in­ten­tion to re­move my­self from the le­gal and bu­reau­cratic frame­works that I have been tied to these past four years, and cleanse my­self of the resid­ual muck that has in­fected my be­ing.

I ac­cept that par­ents read­ing this ar­ti­cle, whose chil­dren at­tend Catholic schools, may feel de­jected by news of an in­tran­si­gent and un­car­ing leader, and of sys­tems that are de­signed to pun­ish vic­tims. Yet I hope they know that the power for real change lies in the mem­bers of parish and school com­mu­ni­ties. We live in a global en­vi­ron­ment, where old mod­els of lead­er­ship are fail­ing, and un­pro­gres­sive sys­tems are groan­ing and crum­bling. The bishop of the dio­cese I was raised in is a shal­low and cal­lous man, who like many oth­ers of his ilk was groomed to up­hold the old ways. He lives in a bishop’s “palace”, has peo­ple who feed and clothe him and like all politi­cians has ad­vis­ers who en­sure he holds the party line. He’s not in the real world. And the real world knows this.

In this light, we must cre­ate and be the change we want to see. We can model car­ing, em­pathic and pro­tec­tive be­hav­iours in ev­ery cor­ner of life. We can speak up when we in­tu­itively know some­thing is wrong. We can use what we know to ed­u­cate oth­ers.

As Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist Tara Brach says, “True re­silience isn’t about bounc­ing back. It’s about let­ting stres­sors grow you.” This rule ap­plies to

• com­mu­nity.


Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse 1800 099 340

PENE­LOPE X is a pseu­do­nym.

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