Some Victorian Victims’ Comments (Or: Real Voices)


The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will resume hearings tomorrow. It will be the third “case study”, and will focus on Allan Kitchingman (see previous posting) against the background of events at the North Coast Children’s Home (see previous posting).

The commission officials need to heed the comments of victims and their supporters, following the release of the Victorian Parliamentary enquiry, which was released last week (see previous posting). While the officials admit to a steep learning curve in their own interactions with victims, the process of understanding, and appropriate responses for their future investigations, will be enhanced if they take serious note of those victim comments made last week.

Space does not permit a full listing of comments, but more will be covered in other postings where possible. Here are some of the comments on the Victorian report.

Anthony and Chrissie Foster’s daughters, Emma and Katie, were repeatedly raped by their parish priest, Father Kevin O’Donnell, at their primary school in Melbourne’s south-east, from 1987 until 1992.The Catholic Church had received numerous complaints about O’Donnell’s crimes dating back to the 1940s, but no action was ever taken. Emma Foster suicided and her sister Katie was seriously disabled when she was hit by a car, and now requires 24-hour care.

Mr. Foster commented that “There’s mixed feelings, of course, it brings back some sadness with our children. But we feel that this report has the basis for everything that we want. We need to make sure that the Church and other organisations can’t just draw a line today and say ‘we’re forgetting about everything behind and we’re on with the future and yes we’ll toe the line now’. There are some big organisations out there that are going to be trying to protect their wealth, because this has always been about the wealth and reputation of organisations like the Salvation Army, the Catholic Church.”

Mr Foster says the proposal that organisations receiving tax exemptions or funding from the Victorian Government should be incorporated and adequately insured, will help ensure that victim compensation claims will be more adequately addressed. He says the report also puts pressure on organisations to re-examine abuse claims from the past. The Royal Commission needs to take heed of these comments for application in the Federal context.

Stephen Woods, who along with his two brothers was repeatedly raped and assaulted by a priest, Christian Brother Robert Best (see previous posting), at their Catholic school in Ballarat in the 1970s, says he is hopeful the Victorian state enquiry findings will pave the way for real change in how victims of abuse are treated. Mr Woods says the focus should now be on implementing a system to care for the victims of abuse, and an acknowledgement of the ongoing suffering.

Mr. Woods feels that Catholic Cardinal and former Melbourne Archbishop, George Pell, should stand down as a result of criticisms of him contained in the report.

“Because there are so many survivors of clergy sexual abuse, that there needs to be a system put in place, organized by the Government, paid for by the organisations of the perpetrators, so that we can stop the deaths. The suicides need to be stopped. That’s critical. And we need to make sure that people are looked after on a day-to-day basis. It’s just terrible seeing the pain in so many people’s lives,” he said.

He feels that the Victorian enquiry is “just the start, another step in the change in society… so that parliamentarians and victims will now be able to potentially change one corner of society.” It gives victims and the community ‘‘power and impetus to change.”

He said he was not surprised by the recommendations, having noticed that there was a ‘‘palpable change in the mood and tone’’ of the committee members during the inquiry when victims began to give evidence. Mr Woods gave Committee member, Andrea Coote, a kiss on the cheek when she entered the lobby area and smiled: “Thank you, darling Andrea,” he said to her.

Mick Serch suffered sex abuse at the hands of a Christian Brother when he was in grade five at St Leo’s College in Box Hill, which had resulted in a life of enduring chronic depression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

He welcomed the report, but said that “the scar of my abuse will never heal. You can put a Band-Aid on it but it keeps falling off. The more of this sort of thing we have the better for everyone. It’s a great thing but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

Peter Blenkiron wants to see a fund, which would be administered by the State Government, but paid for by the institutions where abuse occurred, and has likened it to the Veterans’ Affairs Department’s Total and Permanent Incapacity model. However, he said the report was only another step in the process. He made comments concerning the recommendation for a new criminal offence of non-reporting of abuse, which he considers would “put the cat amongst the pigeons.”

“It’s about making sure there are never any victims again. It’s about accountability. It’s about protecting our children; it’s about the government saying this isn’t right. It’s about saying the deaths and suicides aren’t right, it’s about saying no more, this has got to stop. If someone else sees something again, they will think twice about letting it happen.”

Another victim, Mr Collins, said he didn’t want all the recommendations to be punitive. He added that “And they can’t all be about the past. We want to protect children into the future as well.” Mr Collins said that survivors were planning to read the report carefully, and then lobby the state government for recommendations they supported.

He feels that here are paedophiles still being looked after by the church. “They’re better looked after than people who condone same-sex marriage and are defrocked. It would have an impact on the past and an impact into the future. We want to protect children into the future as well,” Mr Collins commented.

Manny Waks made comments on behalf of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse within Jewish institutions. Since the enquiry, three cases of historical sexual abuse of children in Jewish-run Children’s Homes have been acknowledged, adding to the cases at Yeshiva College (see previous posting). He feels that, once people actually understand how prevalent child sexual abuse is in society, they’ll understand the response needs to be a serious one. “There are many other alleged victims who are still out there suffering.”

Mr. Waks said that he “would like to acknowledge and thank the Victorian Government for launching this Inquiry. With today’s publication of the Inquiry’s report, we can of course celebrate a milestone in a long journey but we should also reflect on the significant work that still lies ahead. I hope that the momentum that has been generated as a result of this Inquiry will be maintained. We must implement policies and reforms that will ensure the safety of the most vulnerable and precious within our society: our children. We must ensure that justice is achieved. We must ensure that what has happened once will never happen again.”

Commission of Inquiry Now (COIN) advocacy group spokesman Bryan Keon-Cohen said it was a “thorough and worthwhile report that had made valuable recommendations. The recommendations are, I think, a genuine attempt to come to grips with a difficult problem and an appalling history of neglect and abuse, particularly by the Catholic Church in Victoria.”

Andrea Lockhart, a senior counselor at the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault, said that survivors are “anxious about the findings.” And that, “There’s a lot of anticipation and anxiety and the expectation that nothing will change. There’s the fear and the hope mixed, I guess.” Ms Lockhart says police should be better resourced to handle historical investigations into sexual abuse in the area. She says that she wants “tougher rules on reporting abuse.”

Clare Leaney, of the victims’ advocacy group, In Good Faith and Associates, said she would like to see organisations open a fund to pay for counseling and compensation for victims. She also wants the ombudsman to review previous compensation cases. “We’re getting a lot of complaints that previous settlements have been paltry and unfair in many eyes and this process has been described as combative, not helpful,” she said.

A victim, known only as “John”, who was abused in the 1950s at the Queen Street Primary School, said that he had suffered a lifetime of consequences. “I’ve had a lot of issues with relationship problems, in particular workplace difficulties. It affects your whole life. It affects your decisions with your family, with your children, with your society. In every way, it affects your life forever”.

His abuser was never brought to justice, and this made the chance to tell his story all the more significant. “I’d made complaints to the State Education Department and the Victoria Police previously and neither of those bodies took any action on my complaints. I, like all abuse victims, find isolation and nobody was willing to listen so to go to, to hear of the parliamentary inquiry was a fundamental path for me to have my voice included,” he said.

“I’ve seen many people over the course of this last 12 months since the inquiry has been conducted, and they are very damaged people. For them, to now be heard will be a very important day in their life that hasn’t been recognized before. Worse, it’s been denied by people in positions of authority. As for compensation, John says he’d like to see the institutions such as schools or churches “pay for the crimes of their employees.”

Dr Cathy Kezelman, from the Adults Surviving Child Abuse group, says the inquiry’s report is “substantial and hard-hitting,” and “hopes it can clear the path to compensation for abuse victims.” She commented that “There have been a lot of blocks to the system, structural blocks in terms of institutions that can’t be legally sued. There have been statute of limitation blocks and of course a lot of survivors as a result of their abuse don’t have the capacity to negotiate difficult systems so what we do need to see is an independent body that can help support survivors through this process so that people can find justice. We can’t wait any longer for the changes to be implemented – children need to be protected now.”

Broken Rites spokesman, John McNally, said the committee’s report had “nailed it”. He called it “a real milestone in this journey.” And claimed that it “validates that the victims are not guilty in any way and the church, through their neglect of their duty, are the ones at fault.”

An interesting comment, although not from a victim, is worthy of inclusion, and comes from Olivia Monaghan, a Ph.D. student in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She recommends that enquiries, like the Royal Commission, should treat the church “like a corrupt police force.”

She writes that the churches have “created a morally corrupt organizational culture that promoted turning a blind eye and upholding a ‘cassock of silence’. It is precisely this organizational culture that the recommendations of the Victorian inquiry aim to target. Success thus lies in an ongoing commitment by the government to prevention and education efforts. This will ensure that individuals feel confident in making allegations of abuse; just as members of the public need to feel that their allegations are taken seriously, so too do whistleblowers.”

Francis Sullivan, head of the Catholic Church’s grandiosely-named “Truth, Justice and Healing Council”, better known at the “Catholic Church’s PR Unit” (see previous postings), commented that “the public should judge us on our actions.”

[Postscript: Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has triggered controversy by defending Catholic Cardinal, George Pell, against criticisms by the Victorian enquiry report. Mr. Abbott is a former Catholic seminarian and close friend of Cardinal Pell.]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: The third case study

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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