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Speaking from experience, a TBS reader explains how the public vitriol against the church made it harder for him to speak out as a victim.
I know nothing of Cardinal Pell’s guilt or innocence, nor do I know anything about institutional child abuse in the Catholic Church. Though not a Catholic, when I was a kid in the 1960s, I found the church was a sanctuary, a safe place.
I can, however, speak somewhat authoritatively about something the community chooses not to consider – the impact that unmitigated anger, hatred and loathing of paedophiles can have on their victims.
By the age of twelve, I had been raped by four unrelated individuals – a man with down syndrome, a family acquaintance in his late ’20s, a policeman and a psychopathic serial killer now serving life. I use the unsavoury term “rape” advisedly, to convey penetration as opposed to less invasive, though doubtlessly no less damaging, forms of molestation. That’s the history, and the response from people hearing it for the first time is invariably revulsion, followed by dutiful rage.
We hate paedophiles. I mean we really hate them, above all other criminals and abusers, and we save for them our most hateful descriptors and imaginatively violent scenarios of retribution. They are filth, the scum of the earth, perverts, slathering rabid animals and a danger to society. Everything they’re involved in has a taint about it, a suspicion of betrayals and vile acts perpetrated, of secrets kept and deceptions carefully managed.
I could fill pages with descriptions of the paedophile’s corruption, and people often do. It’s almost as if it’s every upstanding citizen’s moral obligation to trump all previous invective, as if engaged in a competition to express the greatest levels of revulsion and devise the most imaginative tortures.
Words are things of awesome power and range. They are also notoriously difficult to target precisely – doubly so in the case of words creatively assembled in the moment to convey unmitigated hatred.
I’m sure many would be horrified to learn that the unbridled hatred we express towards paedophiles can have a very negative impact on their young victims, whose minds are yet to develop sufficiently to correctly contextualise our anger.
Victims – both those whose traumas have come to light and those yet to confide in someone – may wonder why a person society identifies as the most unimaginable evil of fiends, chose them.
They may listen to the words we use to describe paedophiles – e.g., putrid filth, foul scum, insane monsters, pure evil, disgusting perverts etc – and wonder if they can ever be washed clean of the stain of their encounter with evil incarnate.
Developing minds may hear the equivalent hatred we express for those who “surely must have known” and wonder, “what is wrong with me that I did not know?”
As a consequence, they may be loath to confide in a parent for fear of being blamed and scolded, or worse.
Shortly before my first experience of paedophilia, I overheard my dad discussing the recent rape of a local girl with my uncles. Each of them expressed his outrage, and the fact there was nothing they wouldn’t do to protect their children was made crystal clear. It was during this conversation that my dad said, “I’d kill any bastard who touched my kids!” To which an uncle responded, “Sure, and then you’d end up in gaol.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said my dad. “It would be worth it!”
I suppose all this posturing should have made me feel safe and protected, and perhaps it did until I was raped a few weeks later. Then I found myself desperate to tell someone so I’d not be placed back within the paedophile’s grasp, but too frightened to confide in anyone because doing so might result in my dad being carted off to gaol for murder.
So I remained silent, and of course, the abuse continued and escalated.
This is just one example of the power of words and the lack of control we have over how they will be interpreted by frightened, still-developing minds. But it’s not just the child’s mind that can be negatively impacted by our posturing and hateful words. The community’s lack of restraint in relation to acts of paedophilia can also impact on the victim who is now an adult seeking justice.
This is amply demonstrated in the community’s denunciation of Catholicism, its priests and even Christianity itself, resulting from revelations of paedophilia and enabling in the church. We are scathing in our criticism of priests and the church, and we often cite revelations of paedophilia as proof that “Christians are bloody hypocrites,” that “the church is corrupt” or that “Catholics can’t be trusted!”
What many do not realise, nor even appear to care about, is that this is not the view of many of the victims, who, being devout and committed Catholics themselves, wish only to see the guilty few punished and systems for detection and prosecution improved, without feeling responsible for the downfall of the entire Catholic faith.
Many victims believe a reformed church has a pivotal role to play in the support of historical victims. Victims may, therefore, choose not to come forward because they loathe carrying the additional burden of giving very vocal anti-Christians ammunition with which to undermine their faith.
This effectively gags victims.
Some will have noticed I’ve used the word “victim” throughout, as opposed to the apparently more PC “survivor.” This is a personal choice and again one related to the power of words.
The person who wins the battle against cancer can be called a survivor, as can those few who miraculously walk away from a plane crash. However, while paedophilia is enormously painful and damaging, both physically and emotionally, it rarely causes death.
In my view, the term “survivor,” which tends more often to be used by advocates than victim themselves, is a reflection of the community’s revulsion and disgust for the paedophile. It’s almost as though people cannot quite understand why, having been so heinously “interfered with” and horribly soiled by a slathering lecherous pervert, we don’t just kill ourselves and be done with it.
I have even known people to declare, “I would rather have my throat cut than be touched by a paedophile!”
With the community so willing to express unrestrained loathing, disgust and revulsion for paedophiles, often to the point of being stunned that their victims choose to survive, perhaps it’s little wonder so many victims themselves believe they can never hope to recover or be clean again, and, therefore, choose suicide.
I am not suggesting for a moment we should change our views towards paedophiles or their enablers. But if we’re truly concerned about the victims we so often claim to be outraged for and determined to empathise with, perhaps we should be more mindful of our language, lest the stigma we create becomes a burden that silences the victim and inhibits justice and recovery.
Of course, many will consider this article unduly focused on mere words. I suggest such people are more interested in indulging their hatred than in the welfare of the paedophile’s victims. It is so often the case.
Finally, I asked the Editor to withhold my name, not because I fear identification, but out of deference to the surviving family members of my abusers. They are victims too, and bear no blame for events I’ve described. In sharing a little of my experience I have no wish to add to their already considerable burdens.