Last week we heard the announcement that Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of sexual assault of a minor. He was the highest ranking member of the Catholic church to be found guilty of this crime. He maintains his innocence and will appeal.
The finding of guilt in this case has a symbolic meaning well beyond the acknowledgment of the experience of his victims. Many were overcome with grief, rage, sorrow, and in some instances, disbelief. Others were preoccupied with the legalities and politics of this turn of events. For cohealth, it’s always about impact.
This has a particular meaning and resonance for us at cohealth, because of the indisputable relationship between trauma, abuse and poor health. People with an experience of childhood sexual abuse and particularly institutional abuse, are overrepresented in services for those who use drugs, have criminal justice experience, are experiencing homelessness and have poor mental health. These are our people.
The experience of institutional abuse also falls disproportionately on particular communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for whom colonisation created a legacy of incarceration. Low-income families with an increased risk of welfare involvement. People with disabilities in so-called ‘care’ settings. People from these communities carry a legacy of trauma and an experience of disadvantage compounded by stigma and discrimination.
The monstrous and homophobic narrative that George Pell has vociferously declaimed, deliberately conflating homosexuality and paedophilia, must surely now be seen for what it was. A brazen public misdirection from one’s own crimes. As truly shocking as this is, it is dwarfed only by the unimaginable damage done by these falsehoods to the LGBTIQ community over time.
What these experiences have in common is the consequent toxic shame that makes seeking help, access to therapeutic support and recovery, exceptionally difficult. This is the work we do; creating models of care that take this into account and aim to ensure connection. Assertive outreach, street work, mobile care in buses and dedicated services for stigmatised populations. This is how we connect with, hear and learn from people who find it hard to trust – and with good reason.
There have been many expressions of rage and revulsion toward Cardinal Pell over this past week, as well as some support from those who seek to downplay the seriousness of his crime. I am more interested in bearing witness to the experience of victims – survivors. For me, these are the heroes of this watershed time, the many who have survived and come to thrive, those still struggling and those who didn’t make it. I would like to honour the families and significant others who have supported people on their journey and the wonderful practitioners who every day do the work to illustrate there is a better world beyond the horror of the abuse of institutional power.
If you’ve been sexually assaulted, you can get help and support.
National support services
Blue Knot Foundation – Call 1300 657 380 or visit www.blueknot.org.au
Helpline hours: Monday-Sunday, 9am-5pm AEST/AEDT
1800 Respect – Call 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800respect.org.au. 24-hour telephone and online crisis support, information and immediate referral to specialist counselling for anyone in Australia who has experienced or been affected by sexual assault, or domestic or family violence.
Lifeline – Call 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au. 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention.
Kids Helpline – Call 1800 55 1800 or visit kidshelpline.com.au. Free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people.
Care Leavers Australasia Network – Call 1800 008 774
Support and advocacy for people brought up in care homes.
Child Migrants Trust – Call 1800 040 509
Social work services for former child migrants, including counselling and support for family reunions
Child Wise – Call 1800 991 099
Trauma informed telephone and online counselling for childhood abuse. Training and organisational capacity-building on child abuse prevention.
For a list of support services by state, visit the information page of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.