Here’s a piece of news you won’t get from the ABC or the ex-Fairfax press. It concerns the gold-and-wool-rich provincial city of Ballarat in Victoria’s Western District, portrayed for years now by the media as the nearest thing in Australia to Sodom and Gomorrah on account of the volume of real or alleged child sexual abuse that took place there. This shameful reputation, oddly, is something the locals seem almost to take a perverse pride in not allowing you to forget. There can be scarcely a church or a school in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat, which stretches out to cover the whole of western Victoria, that isn’t all decked out like the county fair in Oklahoma!, its gates and walls a-flutter with brightly coloured ribbons – ‘loud fences’ they are popularly called – put there by lapsed and even practising parishioners to show ‘solidarity’ with the ‘survivors’ of abuse (why ‘survivors’ as though they had narrowly missed going down with the Titanic?). Ballarat, in other words, in the popular mind, is Abuse Central.
Except that it’s not. For the news you won’t hear is that for more than 20 years there has been not one single reported allegation of abuse anywhere in the Ballarat diocese. Not one. A new bishop, Peter Connors, was appointed to Ballarat in 1997 in succession to one who had been inclined to brush abuse allegations under the carpet. Connors retired in 2012 without having been presented with even one complaint of abuse from anywhere in his huge diocese. And there have been none since.
It would seem at least probable that this pattern is true of other Catholic dioceses in Australia. If so, it means that as far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, clerical abuse of children belongs to the past. It is important to note this, because particularly during the royal commission, the Catholic Church was quite unfairly and inaccurately presented in the media as the single most abusive institution and this image remains indelibly imprinted in the public’s mind.
This is not to say that child abuse itself is a thing of the past. What goes on in the family, where statistics concur that more than 90 per cent of abuse takes place, is anybody’s guess, though a cynic would suggest that all those mums’ boyfriends and older male relatives, like wicked Uncle Ernie in the rock opera Tommy, are still at it, undisturbed by media witch-hunts, police ‘trawling’ or the confected outrage of hypocritical ideologues privately delighted that child abuse has kneecapped the hated Roman Catholic Church.
Child abuse is wicked and its victims have undoubtedly suffered sorely. But at the risk of saying the unsayable, is it uncharitable to admit to a lingering suspicion that some have exaggerated the consequences of their molestation, with financial compensation in view? How many have sought – have been encouraged by interested parties – to connect the vicissitudes of an unfortunate life – nervous breakdowns, physical and emotional ill-health, drink and drugs dependence, unemployment – with experiences of sexual abuse in childhood? How many have been tempted to locate in an admittedly disgusting act or acts the fons et origo of difficulties in later life which might possibly have beset them whether they had been abused or not? And leaving compensation out of the question, how many victims have sought to justify to themselves their misfortunes or their lack of ‘success’ in life by referring their present circumstances back to an instance of abuse? To put it truly brutally, why does one never hear of brain surgeons or QCs or billionaire property developers complaining of being abused at school? Statistically some of them must have been. Is it that they have just got on with their lives and put the abuse behind them? We all know life is unfair and perhaps for some abuse victims their subsequent existence has been so dispiriting that they need the abuse narrative to explain it.
That said, the question is rhetorical because we have no means of knowing the answer, and in the absence of objectively reliable evidence, victims must be taken at their word and amends made, which, there being no way of undoing history, means compensated financially. (If apologies were cashable, victims would be tycoons.)
The royal commission envisaged that compensation would be paid through the National Redress Scheme, set up at its own recommendation and with the participation of churches and other organisations. But the scheme is falling out of favour with victims and their ‘advocates’, partly because of the way it assesses abuse and appropriate compensation. A federal parliamentary report earlier this month called for its ‘major reform’, describing the scheme ‘in its current form’ as ‘at risk of failing to deliver justice to survivors’.
A demonstration of 100 or so abuse victims and their supporters in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago (which the ABC publicised as though it were a mass rally) heard a lawyer who is also a ‘victims’ advocate’ describe the scheme as ‘appalling’. In her view it doesn’t pay enough, partly because compensation is capped at $150,000. (Though the ABC didn’t say so, SBS reported that the advocate, who runs a ‘no win/no fee’ law firm representing ‘victims of institutional sexual and other abuse’, actually organised the rally). One of the speakers, who, according to SBS, ‘had previously signed a deal where he pocketed about $69,000’, described the $150,000 cap as a ‘slap in the face to any survivor’. ‘Make them pay,’ chanted the demonstrators. The ‘them’ was unspecified, but the glitter of what a lawyer has called the ‘extraordinary wealth of the Catholic Church’ has certainly not passed unnoticed.
‘Make them pay’. That’s the way the wind is blowing in what looks like becoming, just while the cause of the institutional abuse crisis recedes into history, a thriving industry in extracting higher levels of compensation for past misdeeds. And as the demands roll in, victim ‘advocates’ will be able to tell us whether from their point of view it’s an ill wind blowing no good.
Yet watch any of those victim interviews on television and you can’t help feeling that it’s not the money that these unfortunate and ill-used people need most but compassion and someone to put an arm around them and tell them they are worth something just as they are.