Inside the Numbers: the Child Abuse Royal Commission

The mind has difficulty processing numbers that are too large. Earlier this week the Royal Commission heard that members of the Catholic Church allegedly abused 4,444 children between 1980 and 2015. The abuse of so many children is, as Dan Box of The Australian said, “criminality on a scale previously unimagined.” With numbers that large, you have to constantly remind yourself that each of those four-and-a-half thousand digits is a little child.

Image: Billy Cooper/ABC News

Image: Billy Cooper/ABC News

According to the data, the typical victim of abuse was a young boy, age 11. Gail Furness called the accounts of the abuse “depressingly similar”: typically, the boy would have had great trust for the clergy, likely inherited from his parents. That trust was violated in the most grotesque and criminal of ways. Perhaps the boy told his parents, but probably he didn’t – the Commission heard that the average time between the alleged abuse and the survivor coming forward is 33 years. In the intervening years, the child would have grown up ashamed and mistrustful, unable to form meaningful relationships, unsure how to act around children.

And, as Francis Sullivan (of the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council) reminds us, “let’s not forget the ripples of abuse”. For each child alleging abuse – each of the 4,444 – there are family members, friends and partners who have had to share in the darkness with the survivor. Some victims didn’t survive; they turned to alcohol and drugs – some couldn’t go on living.

Furness goes on to detail further similarities: “Allegations were not investigated. Priests and religious were moved. The parishes or communities to which they were moved knew nothing of their past. Documents were not kept or they were destroyed. Secrecy prevailed.”

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has, time and again, proved its worth. This latest evidence is another testament to the value of this Commission. The scope and complexity of institutionalised abuse (such as that perpetrated by the Catholic church) is its own best cover; only a sustained focus will be able to appreciate the extent of the abuse. The Royal Commission has provided this focus, and its work ­– and the work of Commissioner Peter McClellan – should be praised in the highest terms. As citizens, we must match the effort of the Commission, and do our best to comprehend the size of this abuse. Understanding such large numbers will be difficult – on the brain and on the heart – but for the sake of each of the 4,444, we must not look away.

Survivors can contact the Survivors & Mates Support Network on 1800 472 676 or www.samsn.org.au.

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