Courage to heal a cancer of the soul
Phillip Aspinall. Weekend Australian. Canberra, A.C.T.:Nov 18, 2006. p. 26
The Anglican Church is reaching out to victims of abuse, writes Phillip
LAST weekend a newspaper headline said I had "failed to act" on sex abuse. That
is not true. The headline accompanied a story on Robert Sharwood, a priest
jailed this month for having abused a boy in the 1970s.
In January 2002, within 24 hours of the victim making a complaint against
Sharwood, the matter was reported to police. Sharwood was immediately stood
aside. He was sacked after an assessment found the victim's report was true.
After becoming Brisbane's archbishop in February 2002, I called an independent
inquiry into allegations of past mishandling of abuse complaints and opened
more than 150 cases for re-examination.
Last weekend, in discussing the 2002 actions taken, at no stage did I want to
deny the victim's pain or add to it. Rather, I wanted any remaining historic
victims of church abuse to know basic actions that the church and I took.
That the church took decades to take appropriate action in this case cannot be
forgotten, however. I entirely regret that church leaders who were told of this
abuse in the '70s didn't tell police and that proper action against the
perpetrator wasn't taken.
I regret that this no doubt deepened the pain of the victim and his family. And
I regret that trust has been so damaged as a result.
A decade or more of revelations made by victims has brought into focus the
damage inflicted by child abuse and the tragic failures of past practices in
many churches, government institutions and community groups. Thankfully, there
has been radical change.
The first decade of this new millennium has been a period of sackcloth and
ashes for all institutions soiled by historical abuse. While responses have
improved enormously, we have to accept that another consequence of past abuse
is loss of trust between church and the community. Victims shouldn't be asked,
and cannot be expected, to forget that the church got it very wrong in the
past. While the large-scale and ongoing changes to our procedures show our
resolve to tackle abuse, they give us no automatic right to victims' trust.
Some victims may be too hurt and angry to trust us again. That is sad but
understandable, even when proper actions are being taken now. Certainly the
Australian community wants us to prove we've changed.
I recognise that there will be times when even the best processes, applied with
the utmost goodwill, sometimes break down. Such failures don't mean the system
has failed or that the bad old days have returned. They do show human beings
But the true test of change, I believe, is not that mistakes don't happen but
that church leaders are prepared to do what we can, when we can, to remedy
Church workers giving all they have to respond properly to victims of abuse can
despair in the face of unfounded criticism. When it feels to them as if nothing
they do is ever enough, I remind them that continuing suspicion is another
legacy of past abuse.
The fact perpetrators hide behind facades such as popularity, good works and
community achievements can lead to deep conflict within church communities.
There is a small, albeit significant, number of church people, including
priests and senior laypeople, who believe I have been too harsh in dealing with
people accused and found guilty of abuse. My staff and my wife have been
shocked and hurt by some attacks. This is another element of the complex and
far- reaching effects of abuse.
The bravery and dedication of victims to reveal the truth has been a godsend to
the church. That is not to say it is without pain but to acknowledge publicly a
long-held private belief. Were it not for victims' courage, abuse probably
would have continued, a cancer in the soul of the church.
Those who have revealed abuse, and persisted when ignored, have enabled a slow
process of healing to begin for themselves and for our institutions. As we
heal, we become fitter and better able to assist others, including Australian
families, where most abuse occurs.
Like most people, both within and beyond the church, I have travelled a steep
learning curve this past 10 years. I've been humbled by victims' stories. I've
seen the manipulations of pedophiles and learned that the most dangerous thing
is that they keep their crimes secret, that they hide behind a facade that
appears good, caring and trustworthy, and that they often have many victims.
Things in the church have changed greatly and are continuing to change for the
better. Our protocols in handling child abuse cases are good, are working and
are being improved. Many complaints have been dealt with. The number of old
complaints still emerging has dramatically reduced.
I hope the openness of recent years that has helped so many historic victims to
come forward may continue to encourage any remaining victims to do so as well.
We will continue to work at increasing awareness, at healing past hurt and at
protecting today's children and tomorrow's.
Phillip Aspinall is the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane.
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