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Some who survived abuse as children have waited a lifetime to be heard, and the royal commission has given people like John Ellis that opportunity. AAP/Jeremy Piper

A small act to give abused children a voice

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is shifting its attention from Brisbane Grammar to St Paul’s School. In two weeks’ time, the commission will return to issues in Melbourne and Ballarat. Anglican, non-denominational and Catholic institutions in different states are being scrutinised.

The adults who survived the abuse finally get the opportunity they were denied as children: to describe the abuse, after years of being silenced, and to identify the perpetrators and those who failed to listen and protect them.

Other adults are called to explain what they did, if anything, to protect the children and to stop the offenders. They will be asked about what was done to silence the children and to protect the institution. Some of these people are important – for example, Cardinal George Pell and former governor-general Peter Hollingworth.

The silencing of children has as long a history as child abuse itself. So many myths are used to silence children and minimise crimes: children were said to lie, fantasise and be seductive.

Neerosh Mudaly and I wrote a 2006 book about children’s experiences of abuse and professional interventions, The Truth is Longer Than a Lie, which has now been adapted for a play of the same name. Its premiere is in Melbourne on November 11.

Even when prosecuted, crimes are still minimised

Prior to a speech last week by the chair of the royal commission, Peter McClellan, The Australian reported that almost 800 cases of child sexual abuse had been referred to police, with 23 prosecutions begun.

Sadly, even when children are listened to and prosecution of the perpetrators begins, the minimisation of the crimes continues.

As Mudaly and I have written, when prosecutions occur, the crimes may be “cloaked in euphemisms”. A man who repeatedly sexually assaults a child may be charged with “maintaining a sexual relationship” with that child, not multiple rapes. Imagine the outcry if a man who repeatedly raped a woman was charged with “maintaining a relationship” with her.

Other language and other professions continue the minimisation, the silencing of children. The child rapist may be called a “paedophile”, originally meaning “lover of children”. Imagine the response if a man who raped women was called a “gynophile”.

State and federal governments join the law and other professions in obstructing justice for children who have been abused. In our report, They Count for Nothing, we noted that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) used a public health model to develop a National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. The first step in such an approach is to gather quality child abuse and protection data. Unfortunately, high-quality data are not available in Australia.

I gave some examples of this in my appearance before the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. Even the definitions of “child” vary. In New South Wales, for example, the mandatory reporting obligation does not include young people aged 16 or 17.

Every year, there is extraordinary variation in the substantiation rates. In the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, Child Protection Australia 2013-14, the rates of sexual abuse vary from almost 20% of all substantiations in WA to only 2.4% in the NT. Neglect comprises only 5% of cases in Victoria, compared to almost 50% in the ACT.

Peter McClellan has identified ‘bearing witness’ and ‘truth telling’ as central to the royal commission’s work. AAP/Dean Lewins

In his speech, McClellan referred to the analysis of almost 2800 private sessions conducted by the royal commission (I supported a victim in one of these). In arguing for a national redress scheme for victims, he argued that “survivors would be treated equally regardless of the institution, or place in Australia, in which they were abused”.

Justice for children demands this, whether the abuse occurs in the family or in an institution.

Why listening is the key to protection

Those of us who have worked in child protection have powerful, painful memories of the silencing of children. Some children were silenced because they were too young or too damaged, like the boy I saw in hospital dying of skull fractures too numerous to count.

There are also memories of conversations with children. The child in the back seat of the car, only her eyes visible in my rear-view mirror, as I drove her with a colleague to foster care:

You know what he does to me, don’t you?

Then there was the teenage boy rescued (not a fashionable word now) from a brutal household after being repeatedly beaten by his mother and stepfather. A small, fragile young person, stroking a formidable, stamping, snorting racehorse, proud of his new job as a stablehand, while I cowered behind the half-closed stable door. “You know what I like about this job?” he asked me, as I half-listened, very nervously. “Horses can’t hurt you.”

The greatest insight into the failures of child protection and the silencing of children came from the interviews Mudaly undertook with children who had been abused. Addressing the ethical issues, balancing our belief that children have a right to be heard but also need to be protected from further harm, meant that the work took several years to complete.

It was a 12-year-old girl who so clearly defined for us what a professional’s role should be in working with children. She told us that they:

… are supposed to listen, they’re not supposed to sit there and tell you what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling …

The girl went on to give us the title of our book, and now the play by Kieran Carroll, as she reflected upon her experiences in the child protection system:

… that’s always the problem with these people. They don’t want to believe the truth, they just want to believe the easiest side … so then they get paid and go on to the next one and just pick the simplest out of that. They don’t want to hear the truth because the truth is much harder to understand and so much longer than a lie about the truth.

The ongoing royal commission daily demonstrates that not listening to children costs us all very dearly and that, in every part of Australia, the truth about child abuse is longer than a lie.

Monash University/Type Faster Productions

The play, The Truth is Longer Than a Lie, is being staged at the Richmond Theatre in Richmond, Victoria, from November 11 to 22.

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