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domenica 2 aprile 2017

Abuse survivors praise commission for shaking institutions

Anthony Foster shows a photo of his two daughters, Emma and Katie, outside the Quirinale hotel in Rome, where Cardinal George Pell was giving evidence to the royal commission. Photograph: Riccardo De Luca/AP
Anthony Foster, an outspoken advocate for child sexual abuse victims and survivors, noticed a glaring absence from the hearing rooms during the final week of the child sexual abuse royal commission.
There has not been one representative from one religious institution present,” says Foster, whose daughters Emma and Katie were sexually abused by a Catholic priest.
Not one. And all of the survivors have noticed it.
The absence of senior religious leaders and other high-profile institutional representatives was particularly jarring to Foster, given the closing week of public hearings focused on the nature, cause and impact of child sexual abuse, and prevention and responses.
On Monday, the chair of the commission, Justice Peter McClellan, revealed that children were sexually abused in more than 4,000 Australian institutions.
“The non-attendance of the representatives of those institutions this week is palpable,” says Foster, whose own evidence in 2013 highlighted the gross flaws in the handling of sexual abuse cases by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. “It has been such an important, enlightening week.”
The royal commission’s public hearings have been streamed live on the internet since they began three-and-a-half years ago, with transcripts uploaded daily and royal commission staff tweeting about the proceedings live. More than 1,200 witnesses have given public evidence, including victims and survivors of abuse and their families, perpetrators, those who failed to protect children, institutional representatives and experts in the field.
Foster and his wife Chrissie gave evidence about how two of their three daughters, Emma and Katie, were sexually abused in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s by paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell. They described the trauma they and their family continue to suffer after Emma took her own life in 2008 when she was just 26, following years of self-harm and depression. In 1999, aged 15, Katie was hit by a car after drinking and is now in a wheelchair with permanent brain injuries. Drinking was one of her coping mechanisms.
These and other testimonies have been scrutinised by commission staff along with more than 1.2m documents and information gathered from 6,500 private sessions with survivors and witnesses, held away from the public glare. Some sessions were held at the bedsides of elderly people in hospitals and nursing homes, speaking for the first time and determined to tell the commission their stories before their death.
Another 2,000 private sessions will be held before the commission hands its final report to the governor general on 15 December. The public hearings have been broken down into 57 case studies examining different institutions and aspects of abuse.
The Fosters have attended more than 100 of the 400 days of these public hearings, travelling from their home in Melbourne to Sydney and regional towns. They have listened to hours of evidence from the commission’s webcasts and have read through hundreds of pages of transcripts. When Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pellgave evidence from the Vatican in Rome in February last year, Foster was there, giving more than 60 media interviews over five days.
“It’s been a very long process,” Foster says. “There has been financial costs of course, and we have supported ourselves through all of the attendance, but it’s something we wanted to do. We thought it was necessary, and we felt it was important.”

‘There must be people like us bearing witness’

Many of the survivors and victims spoken to by Guardian Australia say one of the most important aspects of the commission’s public hearings has been to help people grasp the lasting impact of childhood sexual abuse.
Time does not always heal, and abuse is not something survivors “get over” or can “put behind them” once they become adults, an overwhelming amount of evidence presented to the commission has shown. Life moments that others treasure – getting married, having children, finding love, watching their children grow up – can trigger flashbacks in survivors, the public hearings have revealed. It can take decades for survivors to come forward, for numerous reasons.
An expert witness, psychiatrist and senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in the US, Dr Bruce Perry, told the commission on Thursday that sexual abuse during childhood had such a pervasive effect on physiology that survivors have an increased risk of heart disease, major depression, schizophrenia and failed relationships.
His evidence was a profound moment for the Fosters.
He described randomly a case of a five year-old being raped by a priest and what that did to her brain,” Foster says.
“He didn’t know he was describing our daughter Emma. He didn’t know us. We were crying. We have gained a greater insight into what happened with her, but it’s really hard.
“It’s hard, but we feel there must be people like us hearing this and bearing witness to it. Hearing that abuse of a young child causes brain damage, something that hasn’t been widely known, changes the whole paradigm of the answer to: ‘Why can’t people just get over this?’.”
Some of the most difficult moments for survivors at the hearings have been watching on as the commission, armed with dozens of testimonies and pages of documentary evidence, questioned former institution staff, only to be met with responses like “I don’t recall” or “I don’t remember”.
Abuse survivor Manny Waks says it raises questions about how serious some institutions and their representatives are about admitting fault and embracing transparency.
But Waks says the public hearings and dogged questioning from McClellan, his team and lawyers representing victims and survivors, mean the implausibility of many of the denials is at least evident for the world to see.
Waks’s evidence to the commission was crucial in exposing abuse within Yeshivah centres, the headquarters of the Orthodox Chabad sect of Judaism.
“The leadership were cross examined, and they had nowhere to hide,” Waks tells Guardian Australia from Israel, where he now lives. “People saw right through that.
They saw these leaders could recall hundreds of commandments, they could recite religious passages, yet they couldn’t recall whether a victim told them that they had been sexually abused?
“That impacted and shook so many of us, that there were people who could not recall that a student under their care had been brutally raped. But because of the royal commission, their credibility was shot.”
As a result of the commission’s work dozens of senior figures have resigned from institutions, and child abuse policies and procedures have been overhauled.
But in some cases, institutions and religious communities have sought to discredit the testimony of survivors.
Part of the reason Waks left Australia was due to shunning from the Chabad community in Melbourne, he says. This month, the bishop of the Anglican diocese in Newcastle, Greg Thompsonannounced he would stand down because of bullying. He said he had to deal with harassment and threats from members of his own church as a result of his testimony to the commission about his own abuse and his exposure of institutional failures.
But McClellan proved to be a chair intolerant of disingenuity, and made it clear that status could not buy immunity. He challenged senior church figures, including Pell, over claims they did not know abuse was occurring. McClellan also initially refused a request from Pell to give evidence before the commission via videolink from Rome rather than in person, demanding medical evidence and saying he would wait until Pell was well enough to fly to Australia. That moment never came, prompting dozens of abuse survivors to fly to Rome for Pell’s testimony.
The tip of the iceberg
Dr Judy Courtin is an advocate and lawyer who has supported, interviewed and represented hundreds of abuse survivors.
She says the royal commission has not only identified known and alleged paedophiles, but has held to account those who knew about the abuse, but said or did nothing, or protected perpetrators.
“If you look at what victims want in terms of justice, one of main things they want is criminal accountability of the hierarchy for covering it up,” she says.
“Because the law is so stuffed, it will be very difficult to get prosecutions for that. “The hierarchy responsible for cover-ups continue to enjoy impunity, and we know from the research that impunity causes profound harm.”
But the commission, she says, has at least highlighted the endemic scale of this concealment and the extraordinary lengths institutions went to to protect their own, from sending perpetrators overseas to bullying survivors and their families.
“It’s been a commission which has finally, finally listened to victims and their families and which has taken them seriously, and I think what it has done is highlight that justice consists of not just financial redress, but criminal accountability of the sex offender, and accountability of the institution for covering that up.
“I hope the final report addresses all of these elements of what justice means.”
She says some institutions have said the right things under oath before the commission, but then failed to take meaningful action to change their practices and acknowledge survivors away from the commission’s gaze.
We need to ensure there is accountability after the public hearings end,” Courtin says.
Research from the Victorian Law Reform Commission has found that a maximum of 10% of people sexually assaulted as children would ever report to police, she says, while Victoria police have estimated only 8% per cent of victims of the Catholic clergy will ever come forward.
“It’s extraordinary to think that what the royal commission has found may just be the tip of the iceberg,” Courtin says.

‘This is serious, life-saving work’


With the royal commission yet to complete its work and its report not due until December, McClellan and commissioner Jennifer Coates have declined requests for interviews.
But survivors have nothing but praise for the commissioners and the hundreds of staff working behind the scenes.
“[Former prime minister] Julia Gillard picked the right team for the job, bloody oath she did,” Leonie Sheedy tells Guardian Australia. “We must never forget that if it wasn’t for Julia Gillard this royal commisison would never, ever have occured.”
The head of the Care Leavers Australia Network, a support and advocacy group for people brought up in government-run institutions, Sheedy has travelled to 56 of the royal commission’s 57 case studies.
She and other Clan members, whom Sheedy affectionately refers to as Clannies, have held placards and protests outside hearings from Rome to Ballarat. In between hearings, Sheedy has driven and flown hundreds and thousands of kilometres to meet Clan members and support them, including helping them dig up paperwork about their lives and their families.
She has embraced survivors and advocates across institutions, including Waks and the Fosters, along the way.
But she admits it took her a while to have faith in the commission and McClellan. When she first met him, Sheedy was unimpressed by McClellan’s status, given that those who had abused and covered up abuse against children were among the most powerful in governments and the church.
She warned McClellan, “‘If I don’t trust you, thousands behind me won’t trust you either’.”
But she changed her mind when McClellan asked to meet Clan members at their headquarters. About 40 members crammed into a tiny garage next to the Clan building in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown to hear what he had to say.
“And one of our 80-year-old members said to him, ‘What should we call you Sir?’”, Sheedy recalls.
“And he said, ‘You call me Peter’. And then he stayed with us in that garage for hours, answering all of our questions. How many judges have done that?”
When she found a seat cushion emblazoned with the logo of McClellan’s favourite AFL team, Melbourne, in an op-shop, she bought it and presented it to him as a gift from Clan.
“And one day at a round-table meeting I had to deliver some papers to him, and I went up to a table where he was sitting and there was the cushion,” she says. “He carries it with him to the hearings all around Australia.”
Sheedy says she is on a first-name basis with the security guard who stands outside the hearing doors, and has been treated with kindness and respect by the hundreds of staff behind the scenes.
“The nation owes them our deepest appreciation and thanks,” Sheedy says.
“And I want the prime minister to have a farewell for everyone who worked on it in a public ceremony at parliament house on December 15 when McClellan hands in his final report.
“This is serious, life-saving work work they have done.”

Reaching beyond Australia


Waks has similar sentiments. He says his dealings with commission staff meant he had “no hesitation” in suggesting to others that they could feel safe coming forward.
“It really is difficult for me to express in words how I think and feel about the commission and the staff,” he says. “The impact of their work has stretched far beyond Australia.”
The webcast of the commission hearings into Yeshivah was watched by Jewish communities around the world. And millions followed Pell’s evidence from the Vatican in Rome, not least due to a public campaign calling on him to return to Australia.
“I don’t want to be too dramatic,” Waks says.
“But the public hearings, for me, were lifesaving. We were being intimidated and harassed, not just by our community but also in orchestrated campaigns often led by the leadership of institutions.
“Suddenly there was unequivocal evidence of bullying, harassment and intimidation, and we couldn’t be dismissed as disgruntled victims any more. The commission proved, publicly, that what we’d been saying was true all along.”
Waks says he has gained lifelong friends and supporters due to his involvement in the hearings. When Pell gave evidence from Rome in March last year, Waks felt compelled to fly from Israel to Rome to be with Catholic survivors for the last day of his evidence.
“I was watching online and all I wanted was to be there with them and show that the Jewish community that I represent stands with them. I was embraced by so many Catholic survivors, including Anthony and Chrissie Foster, who I am very close with.
“It was so powerful for me, and I’ve maintained contact with too many people to name.”
It has also given him the strength to continue representing survivors and holding leaders to account.
“Many wouldn’t have believed us if not for the royal commission,” Waks says.
“It’s as simple as that.”

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