JOANNE MCCARTHY: National apology to victims of child sexual abuse arrived with an elephant in the roomOn 09/10/2019 by admin
APOLOGETIC: Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during an address to survivors in the Great Hall after the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen THE elephant in the room made an appearance as Prime Minister Scott Morrison neared the end of his apology to thousands of Australians sexually abused as children in institutions over decades.
A man in the public gallery stood up and displayed his sign -“Fix Nauru then apology”–in a direct line of sight from Mr Morrison on the floor of the House of Representatives.
“Too right,” said the man sitting next to me, wearing the royal blue t-shirt of a Care Leavers Australasia Network member, whose childhood included sexual, physical and mental abuse in an Australian children’s home.
Security removed the man with the sign with practised efficiency.
In the GreatHall after the speeches Mr Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had Nauru hurled at them again by adults who disclosed their own sexual abuse as children, so that children in future couldbe protected.
“How can we have all this for children sexually abused in institutions and be blind to what we’re actually still doing with the children of asylum seekers?” said sexual abuse survivor and retired Hunter Uniting Church leader Wes Hartley, who did not yell at the political leaders but understood those who did.
“It’s a different style of abusebut people realise, how can you do all of this -the royal commissionand the national apology–for all these known victims of child abuse, living and dead, but we as a nation are still allowing these things to happen on Nauru because it’s a political inconvenience?”
READ MORE: Abuses of power don’t occur in a vacuumIn the half hour before the national apology Denison MP Andrew Wilkie and Mayo MP Rebekha Sharkiespoke to a sea ofempty seats on the floor of parliament, after giving notice of a private member’s bill tobring children and their families on Nauru to Australia for medical treatment.
The witnesses were survivors, their families, the child abuse royal commissioners and others who had filed in to take their places before the formal proceedings.
“I would hope that everyone in this place would understand and agree that you don’t play games with children’s lives,” Mr Wilkie said.
“You don’t use them as pawns in some political debate in this place. You don’t use them as some sort of deterrent against people smugglers. You don’t have a punitive arrangement like we obviously have, as much to punish people for daring to think they could flee for their lives and seek refuge in Australia.”
In other words, you don’t put child protection second if you’re a government with responsibility for children’s lives, even if it’spalmed off to a smaller nation.
The overwhelming response to the formal speeches was relief.
FAMILY TIES: Ross Eatt affixes a ribbon for his sister to a tree sculpture on the front lawn of Parliament House. Lifeline: 13 11 14; 1800 RESPECT National Sexual Assault and Family Violence Counselling Service: 1800 737 732. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
“I thought they were good,” said abuse survivor John Ellis, who sat in the public gallery just days after NSW Parliament passed legislation to abolish the so-called “Ellis Defence” –the 2007 legal decisionby which the Catholic Church blocked child sexual abuse survivors from taking legal action, namedafterMr Ellis’ unsuccessful compensation case. The royal commission later condemned the church for fighting Mr Ellis despite acknowledging his abuse.
Mr Morrison’s tone was solemn andmeasured, the booming former tourist chief’s voice mercifully left outside. His emotion was genuine while describing his meeting with Victorian woman Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were sexually abused by a Catholic priest and whose late husband Anthony became a champion for abuse victims.
“I also met with a mother whose two daughters were abused by a priest the family trusted. Suicide would claim one of her two beautiful girls and the other lives under the crushing weight of what was done to her,” said Mr Morrison, his voice breaking.
“As a father of two daughters, I can’t comprehend the magnitude of what she has faced. Not just as a father but as Prime Minister, I am angry too at the calculating destruction of lives and abuse of trust, including those who have abused the shield of faith and religion to hide their crimes, a shield that is supposed to protect the innocent, not the guilty. And they stand condemned.”
His speech brought anumber of Labor MPs to tears.
Bill Shorten’s speech punched when it was clearly informed by direct contact with survivors and their testimony to the royal commission.
“Coaches, scoutmasters, priests and pastors, predators and manipulators, they all knew the buttons to push with parents. It was that flattery of attention, the praising their particular child’s potential, to secure more private time. If you were in an orphanage or foster care, or an Aboriginal child on the mission, the machinery of state was geared against you,” he said.
“Some of these people were supposed to be the pillars of our community. They had the power, the status, the authority – but they wielded these as weapons.”
In the public gallery, not far from where the man with the Nauru sign was ejected, two women held each other and sobbed quietly.
Shorten’s speech also hit home with the reminder that “too many Australian children are still living unsafe lives, at risk”.
The national apology became a surprisingly democratic day, in spite of therules, procedures and security checks of the Federal Parliament building that reminds visitors their tenure is temporary. For a short while the building on the hillreflected the aim of architect Richard Thorp, who said: “We built an example of democracy where the people who visit the place are as important as the politicians within.”
In the House of Representatives Mr Morrison and Mr Shorten delivered their speeches and there was respectful silence. The House then rose,politicians left the floor and the public galleries emptied.
But later in the Great Hall the two leaders were roughed up by many of the hundreds of survivors who yelled their views across the speeches.
“Why do the institutions still get public money?” yelled a man as Mr Morrison talked about the need for politicians to do better.
Mr Shorten was heckled by survivors throughout hisspeech, never more so than when he ventured “We use a lot of words in this place, and you can be forgiven for thinking words are cheap.”
The two men responded to the yelling by not responding, and gracefully conceding the floor to people who for so long had been denied power.
It was Australia’s first woman prime minister Julia Gillard who earnedcheers and standing ovations as the leader who established the royal commission.
“I do want to take this opportunity to record my thanks to all of you for your courage, your determination, for your stoicism. It took many years to get to this moment but we are only at it not because of me, but because of you,” she said.
The national apology was a long time coming. And in the heckles and jeers survivors got to speak truth to power.