Rebuilding The Trust


Men's Health
Author Jack Heath

At the risk of being indulgent, this is the first in a series of pieces from the editorial keyboard. I’ll try and keep it short, sharp and relevant so if I stray, pull me into line. Here goes…
In Australia at the moment there is enormous media and political attention being given over to pedophilia. It’s been brought to stark light by the Woods Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service and the State Government’s recent actions against offending teachers.

But what is happening is by no means unique to Australia as stories of child abuse capture headlines in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

We are now starting to realise the extent to which many people were abused as children and how children continue to be abused today. This awareness is a good thing but it has led to a crisis of trust. People are asking, "Can our children ever be safe? That man over there, he might appear to be good but isn’t that the way most pedophiles come across?"

I was speaking to a friend the other day about this crisis of trust. Sam’s a father to a boy of five and twin girls who are two years old. He spent a few months off work looking after the twins when his wife went back to "full time work ". At the time, I was looking after our baby daughter and we used to meet occasionally to talk about earth shattering issues like which were the best nappies to buy as well as the wonders and tribulations of looking after children – a far cry from our heady days in the "real world". We’re both now back at "full time work" - which is much much easier than looking after children!

A couple of weeks ago Sam and his wife were at a dinner party. The young daughter of the people hosting the dinner had been pestering Sam to go and see some of her toys in her bedroom. Eventually he gave in and went off to look at her toys. While he was away the father of the young girl asked where his daughter had gone and – in one of those moments where everyone’s conversation stops simultaneously – someone answered she was in the bedroom with Sam. It filled the room. With that the father jumped off and raced off to the bedroom. It was only later that Sam understood the anxious look on the father who burst into the bedroom.

Another friend told me the story of a man who was traveling on a plane and found himself seated next to a young girl. Their inflight meal was delivered and it wasn’t too long before the girl demanded that the man give her his biscuit. When he refused she said that if he didn’t give her the biscuit she’d call the flight attendant and say he’d touched her. Feeling trapped and foolish he handed it over.

In one sense, this is where all the talk of pedophilia has taken us. It is a difficult and painful place, but perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. When alien-like demons, like sexual abuse, come up to the surface, come out into the public arena, it is invariably a messy and problematic time. But it is, I believe, a necessary stage we must move through if we are restore a deep and abiding sense of trust.

But how to do it? How can we develop a climate of trust so that when you take your daughter to the park to play people aren’t wondering if you might be a child abuser? How can we send our children off to school without staying awake at night wondering if they will be OK?

The first thing we need to do is to deal with the perpetrators of child abuse. We have to make sure that those who have abused are immediately removed from having any contact with children and are dealt with appropriately. (As to what is "appropriate" this is something Lee Hodge, our Special Adviser on men and prisons, will be addressing later next month.)

The second challenge is to create a healing environment for those who have been abused. That people who have carried their abuse for ten or twenty years – or maybe even longer – are provided with an opportunity to come forward, tell their story and begin the healing process.

This is important for a number of reasons: it’s important for the people themselves, to regain their sense of wholeness and an ability to live a normal life. It’s important so that these people can begin to deal with the great anger that sexual abuse generates, an anger that is often directed at unsuspecting and bewildered loved ones. But it’s also important to ensure that the abuse does not continue to be handed down. For while the majority of people who have been abused are able to escape the pattern of abuse inflicted upon them, a significant number will, in turn, become abusers themselves.

We are by now very familiar with the many stories of abusers who themselves were abused as children. It does not excuse what they have done but it does make it more understandable. At the same time, it highlights the need to reach out to all those who have been abused. We can’t just sit back and wait for people to come forward. We actually have to create an environment that encourages them to come forward and then it’s up to them. But whatever else we do, we can’t just wash our hands. In reaching out to these people, we’re acting to protect future generations of children.

Child sexual abuse is an insidious thing and we need to be vigilant in doing all we can to eradicate it. That said, we must be wary that our vigilance does not render us zealous vigilantes.

The third thing we need to do is to ensure that appropriate procedures are in place to keep sexual abuse out of our schools. At the same time, those procedures should be sensitive to the making of spurious and malevolent accusations. This is a difficult balance to strike and there is a real risk such procedures will be abused. And in one sense, that’s part of the price that has to be paid. Treading wisely and with compassion is paramount.

It’s also critical that educational institutions and those who run them keep the interests of those in their trust above their own reputations. If there are attempts to cover up or downplay the significance of abuse that has occurred then any attempt to preserve a reputation will ultimately prove counterproductive, twice over.

People are always appalled at sexual abuse when it occurs but often they are just as appalled at the failure by those in authority to take appropriate action. It is therefore incumbent on those in authority to develop their own knowledge and understanding of how pedophiles operate and the effects that their abuse can have on the children concerned. I’m not sure if ignorance was ever an excuse on this matter but it is certainly no longer the case today.

One way an institution can reestablish trust is to appointment an independent person or body to hear and recommend action on allegations of sexual abuse – in much the same way as Archbishop Pell has done in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. In-house procedures can leave many questions unanswered.

Finally, reparations must be made to both those who were abused and their parents. Not only is the abuse an abuse of the inherent goodness of the child but it is also an abuse of the special trust that parents place in the particular institution. The restoration of trust demands the making of proper reparations. Holding on to fears of significant financial payouts will do nothing to rebuild the trust.

So as we can see there is lots to be done. And it’s best done in partnership. If we can work together to deal with this blight then we will have a far greater chance of success than if, fearful of our own reputations, or the agendas of others, we choose to hold back.

Wisdom and compassion are needed. We must be vigilant but without becoming zealots. We need to be wary of projecting our own bad stuff onto others - after all it’s not too difficult to join in a chorus condemning pedophiles. We must temper our desire for retribution. We need to make the distinction between the person who commits the act and the act itself. That is not, for one moment, to excuse the person for what they have done but it is to say that all people are capable of redemption no matter how heinous the crime.

I know this view is not universally shared but I believe that if our driving motive is vengeance then we too can become trapped in the darkness we seek to escape.

There is a whole host of other relevant issues on this topic – pedophile registers and the like – but I’ve said more than enough and it would be good to hear from you on how you think we can start rebuilding the trust.

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