The conviction of Cardinal George Pell on childhood sexual abuse charges has dominated the media this week, rocked the Catholic Church and led to much public anger and confusion.
But the most important consideration at this time must be with the survivors of clerical abuse and their families.
While this conviction will provide a sense of justice and validation for many, the reactions of survivors and their families are likely to be complex and varied and may include anger, validation, sadness, loss and relief.
Ongoing psychological trauma
While not every child who has experienced abuse develops symptoms of mental illness, research shows childhood sexual abuse can have profoundly damaging effects on people’s long-term psychological and social functioning.
People’s self-identity, spirituality and capacity to trust others may be particularly impaired with clerical sexual abuse.
A key factor of psychological trauma among survivors of childhood abuse is not having their experience heard, validated or recognised. This has been the unfortunate experience of many survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy.
Survivors and their families rightfully feel a sense of rage at the abusers, and at the institutions that protected them.
The Catholic Church has only recently begun to recognise the extent and reality of clerical sexual abuse, most evident in their summit on clerical sexual abuse at the Vatican in the recent weeks.
How survivors might feel now
At a time like this, survivors may feel less alone in being a survivor of clerical abuse, or child sexual abuse more generally.
They may also feel pride in the courage of other survivors in having come forward with their experiences. The news may even motivate some survivors to consider reporting their own abuse.
Some survivors will feel a sense of justice. But they may equally feel anger at the length of time this verdict has taken, and rage at the power structures in the Catholic Church that protected these abusers for so long.
For many families who have lost their children to suicide or drug addiction, this result will not replace their pain or loss.
For survivors or families who have not had their abuse or the abuse of their loved ones recognised, or had their abusers convicted, this may stir up further feelings of rage and frustration.
The media plays an important role
Previous research of mass media exposure of large-scale trauma events has shown that intensive media exposure can increase PTSD symptoms in the short-term, particularly in those who have experienced previous trauma.
For many survivors who have ongoing PTSD, media reports may trigger reminders of their own abuse, leading to an escalation in PTSD symptoms including intrusive memories, nightmares and sleeping problems.
The media must carefully consider how they cover these events. While it’s important to widely report these convictions to break the silence that so often surrounds childhood sexual abuse and abuse by the clergy, the level of detail in which these events are reported may be triggering.
If you hear details about a childhood sexual assault, and you have experienced something similar, it can trigger memories of your own abuse — even if you haven’t thought of these things for a long time.
Any sexual contact with a child is abuse and violation and must be considered a serious crime, but reporting graphic accounts of these events is not necessary.
How to get help
If you are experiencing an escalation of distress, it’s important to seek positive and compassionate support from people you trust.
Try to avoid conflict or pressure, and be compassionate to yourself. Give yourself a break and accept where you are at in your recovery.
Try to keep balanced by eating well, exercising and allowing yourself time to rest.
Specialist trauma and childhood sexual abuse treatment services are available in the community. You may choose to discuss your needs with a GP who can refer you to appropriate services, such as a clinical psychologist.
It should also be recognised that many people in the Catholic and wider community will be feeling shocked, confused and disturbed by these events. Many people who have not been personally affected by child sexual abuse will still be feeling angry and betrayed.
If this is familiar, seek support from others and talk about your concerns so you’re able to process these events.
If this article has raised issues for you or you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Editor’s note: the Lifeline phone number was previously incorrect. This has now been updated.