Here's How I Explain Men Like George Pell To My Kids
Cardinal George Pell has just been sentenced to six years in prison for the sexual abuse of two 13-year-old choirboys after a Sunday mass in 1996.
It’s been a tough week for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, myself included. No matter which way we turn, we cannot escape the headlines of both Michael Jackson and Cardinal Pell. No matter which way we turn, we cannot escape the reminders of our own abuse. We are pulled back into our emotions of anger and grief and injustice; emotions that have often been the only constant in lives otherwise so shattered by the trauma that still follows us everywhere we go.
I go about my week; pretend the headlines don’t affect me. But I’m unfocused, edgy, irrational. I’ve barely slept the past few nights. Long-term chronic pain has re-flared. A loud noise startles me and I burst into tears. It’s weeks like this I no longer want to be part of the human race; this place where evil men steal the lives of innocent children. Even worse, men who claim to love and serve God. Men who preach love. Men in positions of authority and power. Men we are taught to trust only to discover we should have feared.
I’m tired; I’m so damn tired of being part of a world where I am re-traumatised every time I switch on the news and the evidence of yet another victim of sexual abuse surfaces. I want nothing more than to look away. But I can’t. Because I have four children who see these headlines too; who are left confused and unsettled by something they don’t understand. They need more from me. They deserve more from me.
But how do we do this -- how do we explain to our children that a trusted and honoured leader of the Catholic Church is being sentenced to prison, and the reasons why?
I’m far from an expert but have found in my own life I’ve never hidden from my children that I had a traumatic upbringing, but I’ve also never given them more information than I feel is age-appropriate or necessary at any given time, and I feel this is key.
As we talk to our children about Pell, we need to be mindful to only give details that are pertinent to their understanding the situation; too much detail beyond what is appropriate for their age will only create unnecessary confusion and fear. The language I use with my teenagers when discussing Pell (who sexually abused two boys) is going to be vastly different from the language I use when discussing Pell (who hurt two boys) with my 10-year-old daughter.
If there are further questions, we can take the opportunity to reiterate inappropriate touching of body parts from an adult to a child, but I’ve also found it’s important to allow our children’s questions to lead the conversation. Some children may be satisfied with a simple explanation, others may need to ask more questions. Every child is different and we need to remain sensitive to this as our children process in their individual way.
However, I also think details should be kept as less of a focus and, instead, use the situation with Pell to propel further discussion on the subject of abuse. Talk to them about the ways abuse can happen; what grooming looks like, what is appropriate touch and what is not, how an adult may try and gain the trust of a child, how it can often be someone we know and trust, the warning signs to be aware of, etc.
Ask them questions -- what would they do if an adult they knew bought them gifts? Told them repeatedly how special and beautiful they were? Invited them to their house for ice cream? Asked them to keep a secret? It’s vital we have these conversations with our children; not to scare them but empower them with the knowledge of how to stay safe.
But also use this situation as an example of the power in their voice; to not be afraid to tell a trusted adult if anyone ever tries to hurt them -- promise them they will be heard, and believed, and kept safe. Remind them Pell is going to prison because people were brave enough to tell the truth, no matter how hard. That Pell is going to prison because he needs to be responsible for causing harm to other people; because this is justice, and deserved.
Our children need to know the world isn’t a perfect place. There are people who hurt others and dangers to be aware of. We cannot sugar-coat the reality of our world to them, nor can we turn away from evil and pretend it doesn’t exist because it’s too damn hard to deal with ourselves.
But the most important thing our children need to know is they are secure and safe. The world is far less frightening if this is part of their fundamental truth.
Hold them close and tell them no matter what happens in this world, they will always be heard and loved and protected. That we will never allow another person to hurt them. That we will always be their safe place to come home to.
Be everything for them that so many of us once desperately longed for ourselves, but never had.