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What is Power: Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church

Photo: Cath Piltz

Chair Janet Steele, child abuse survivor John Saunders, journalists David Marr and Joanna McCarthy. Photo: Cath Piltz

In 1996 John Saunders – author of Sexual Abuse Survivor’s Handbook – walked into the local police station and reported he had been sexually abused as a child.

In the gruelling proceedings that followed, John’s sexual abuse claim was dismissed on the basis that Saunders was made to feel special by the perpetrator, therefore enjoyed the interactions, and therefore is not considered a victim of sexual abuse.

In an emotionally charged session at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, Saunders violated every aspect of the gag order placed on him by the Catholic Church after receiving insignificant compensation.

David Marr – journalist and author – revealed that American victims of abuse are compensated $1,000,000, by the Catholic Church, whereas Australian victims receive approximately $60,000. The difference in compensation is due to the fact that the Australian Catholic Church has its assets “diabolically” tied up in property trusts.

Marr eloquently deconstructed the Ellis Defence, which the Church had relied upon, and called for Australian politicians to bring the Catholic Church into line. The Church should have the same standard of responsibility for children in their care as other Australian institutions.

In 2004, detective chief inspector Peter Fox urged police to form a taskforce to investigate and possibly uncover a network of paedophile priests in the Hunter Valley, which he believed belonged to a national “Catholic Mafia”.

Accused “whistle-blower” Fox spoke out and his actions essentially lead to the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry. Although the outcomes were less than Fox had hoped for, Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy believes his “motivations remain true”.

Newcastle Herald journalist Joanna McCarthy pushed for a royal commission. Photo: Cath Piltz

Newcastle Herald journalist Joanna McCarthy pushed for a royal commission. Photo: Cath Piltz

Around 2006, McCarthy was propelled into action following the braveness of people reporting crimes of sexual abuse. Her articles exposed the substandard response of the Catholic Church, which should have acknowledged, apologised and dealt with the claims collectively, rather than individually.

This never happened. McCarthy continued researching and writing about the silence and corruption intrinsic to the Catholic Church. People were outraged at the Church, more and more victims began speaking-up.

Individuals can shift power dynamics, explains McCarthy, both victims coming forward and The Royal Commission, launched by Gillard in 2012, have fundamentally altered the way people view the Church.

The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse was the best thing Julia Gillard did as prime minister,” said Marr.

Marr emphasised the fact that the Catholic Church – while protecting and enabling the continuation of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests – did everything in its ‘power’ to stop the decriminalisation of homosexuality from occurring in Australia. The absolute hypocrisy of the Catholic Church on this point generated laughter among the crowd.

In 2012, Pope Francis and Cardinal George Pell (who has since been promoted to the Vatican) welcomed the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, which Marr referred to as “eating the shit sandwich”. They later actively hindered the commission by prohibiting access to documents relating to Australian priests, which Marr referred to as “pigheaded obstructionists”.

John Saunders asked the audience to stand up if they had or knew someone who had been affected by child sexual abuse. Photo credit: Amanda Mead

John Saunders asked the audience to stand up if they had or knew someone who had been affected by child sexual abuse. Photo credit: Amanda Mead

Marr urged individuals, such as Saunders, Fox and McCarthy, to continue their stand against the Church, which will eventually be forced from its current “realm” status, and no longer have laws and structures of its own.

At the end of the session, Saunders asked the audience to be “courageous” and participate in an exercise. He asked for those who are, or know of, victims of sexual abuse to silently stand.

Approximately 80 percent of the jam-packed marquee stood in silence. The session was brought to the end with these statistics: In Australia one in three women, and one in six men, are victims of sexual abuse.

 

Stevi-Lee Alver is a creative writing student at Southern Cross University. 

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