I was raised Catholic and am appalled by the behaviour of God’s servants and the church’s response to the horrendous abuse of children in its care. But my husband was not abused by a priest. He is not Catholic. He was abused by a scout master as an 11-year-old boy.
He is lucky he didn’t remember the abuse until just before he turned 50. Something in that boy locked the horrific memories away for decades. That probably saved his life. He has been suicidal and has periodically self-harmed, trying to live with the shame of those memories. He has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a fractured sense of identity and fundamental undermining of self that’s most often the consequence of complex childhood trauma.
It is hard enough to find a way to live with it as an adult, with a loving wife, a close community, a nice house and professional success. If my husband had always remembered, I have no doubt he would likely have become an alcoholic or a drug addict, forever trying to keep the memories at bay.
He might well have been one of the many other victims of childhood abuse who are over-represented in jail and on the street. Instead, he ran, for years and years, immersing himself in demanding work, keeping busy, not able to be still, until the terrifying spectre of this dark, deeply buried memory finally caught up with him.
I have watched my husband wrestle with the impossible, still trying to make sense of the inexplicable, doubting himself and his memory. How is it possible that this could have happened? That a trusted, respected adult could have raped him when he was an 11-year-old boy?
Now he must live with the knowing – a dirty persistent feeling that makes him want to die.
Even as a cognitively capable adult, he was besieged by the same confusion of guilt and shame that other victims say stopped them from speaking out at the time and often for decades afterwards. A child often can’t make sense of what’s happened to them, or doesn’t even understand the sexual act. A child tends to believe they must be at fault. These murky emotions conspire to silence many victims. Devastatingly, those who did speak up were rarely believed. The perpetrators were rarely punished, more often being «moved on» to another parish or another school.
On Tuesday, one of Pell’s victims released a statement which said, in part: «Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle. Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact on my life.
«At some point we realise that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.»
It’s tempting to characterise the majority of child sex abuse as being inflicted by celibate Catholic priests and certainly the Catholic Church assumed the majority of cases heard by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But raping a child is not a natural response to celibacy and paedophilia is not limited to Catholic priests.
My husband was raped in a secular setting – by his scout master. He was not the only one in his troop to be the victim of this man, who was jailed for his crimes. He is free again now. Perhaps the most shocking thing for me, as a spouse, who knew nothing of my husband’s horrific childhood until well after we were married, is how widespread child sex abuse is in our society, across socio-economic, religious and cultural lines.
To his enormous credit, my husband has openly discussed what happened to him and the consequences, partly by way of explanation for his long illness and apparent absence from professional and social life but primarily to drag these horrors out of the darkness, to force us all to confront this reality, in the hope that talking about it, educating parents, might safeguard another child’s innocence.
Bernadette Nunn is an experienced journalist who has reported on child sexual abuse.