As A Survivor Of Sex Abuse By Clergy, Here's What Pell's Sentence Means To Me
I sat in my psychologist’s office watching Pell’s sentencing with him.
I wanted to do it in a safe environment, then have the opportunity to process it and talk about it. I knew that it would have an effect on me, and it did. It reminded me of sitting in court when one of my offenders was sentenced. My stomach was knotted, and I was full of apprehension.
I kept reminding myself that this is just a part of a legal process, and that it isn’t necessarily about justice. The judge has to weigh up a lot of different factors, and needs to explain how he came to the decision that he made. When he spoke of Pell’s character, I understand that he is bound to take this into account, and that it isn’t unusual.
When he said that Pell had not offended for more than 20 years, I understand that he means that no other convictions have been made in that period -- not that there are just none that we know of. Although I might find Pell's age to be irrelevant, the judge has to consider these things. It would be so much easier if this was like an episode of 'Law and Order', but TV justice is not real.
My first reaction was surprise. I honestly thought Pell would have received a lower sentence.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no sentence long enough to give justice to what a victim has to endure -- childhood sexual abuse leaves the victim with lifelong issues. The recent Royal Commission heard plenty of evidence to that effect, along with the fact that sexual abuse harms the developing brain, which then ends up with permanent distortions that result in problems like depression, relationship issues, health issues and a greater tendency to suicide.
The child ends up with a lifetime sentence, while the abuser gets such a short sentence.
But based upon other cases that I had seen, as well as the profile of Pell, I expected about five years before any reductions with a non-parole period of about a year. To that end I was surprised.
I have spoken to others and there is a lot of anger. Some say that it’s nowhere near enough. Some hope he dies in prison. And I have already seen posts on social media saying that it was far too long. The sentence will divide the community. Although he is appealing, all we have today are the facts that he has been found guilty and has been sentenced.
It’s a monumental step for survivors. Not because of who Pell is, but because such a powerful world figure has been convicted. The Catholic Church is probably the largest Institution in the world, and one of its highest ranking leaders has been convicted and sentenced. That sends a clear message that no longer will wealth and power protect offenders.
But for many survivors it's just another reminder that sexual abuse rarely results in justice. Today one victim and two families get some justice, but I'm sure that they will not feel it is enough. Most victims never get to a court, and of those who do, few see a conviction.
The rape and sexual abuse of children by an adult is a huge power imbalance. It is a personal crime which rarely has witnesses. And perpetrators -- be they Cardinals, priests or parents -- are usually believed over children. That becomes worse if the offender is a celebrity or is a trusted authority figure. It's easier to not report the crime, because doing so may cause more grief for the victim, and in many cases results in split families and broken relationships.
Victims usually suffer from ongoing effects and often self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. In a court, they are often portrayed as unreliable witnesses, making convictions uncommon. Today many victims will be lamenting their own lack of justice.
We also need to remember that today was just the sentencing of one perpetrator. Pell is only a symptom of the problem, and locking him away doesn't solve that problem.
But I see opportunity today, and hope.
Firstly, this is not an attack on Catholics or on the Catholic Church. Pell may be Catholic, but so are his victims -- as well as many others who have been abused. This should be a wake-up call to Catholics, that despite decades of well-meaning words from its leaders, the church has done little to clean up the problem. As long as offenders and those who covered up the abuses remain as clergy, this will never go away.
It's an opportunity for parishioners to demand immediate action and reform. Anything less is effectively turning a blind eye to the problem. Whose church is it? It's time for the lay people to step up.
It's an opportunity for our society to treat child sexual abuse as a serious crime with penalties akin to murder rather than theft. Our lawmakers and judges need to take action. As a society we can no longer turn a blind eye to the rape of children, no matter if it occurs in our churches or in our homes. Our children are our future, our most precious resource. We need to treat them as such. Child protection should be our government and society's number one priority. Perhaps it's time for a minster for child protection.
Then there are the victims. Why is it that we are outraged over children being raped, outraged by poor sentences and outraged by the number of suicides, yet nobody complained about a redress scheme paying an average of $60,000 with a maximum of $1500 counselling? And all those victims outside of institutions, like in families, get nothing. Lifelong issues, death an average of 10 years earlier than peers, mental health issues, depression, PTSD, relationship issues, more likely to be imprisoned or homeless etc etc etc. It's an opportunity to really help victims. One suicide is too many. The current rates should be a national emergency.
And finally, Pell himself. Even though his fall has been huge, even he has an opportunity. He could come clean on the whole scandal and by doing so could literally change the world. If the church changes, then the effects will flow through society.
He will never be able to reverse what he has done, but he could still do a lot of good. The time for sorry has passed, but there is still time to act.
And that's where I'm going to end today. Hopeful. Because without hope, survivors have little to cling to.
Andrew Collins is a hopeful survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and advocate for other victims who can't speak up. Ballarat.
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