My own post-truth news world

This morning I reached for my radio's off button when I heard the beginning of a news story on ABC NewsRadio. It was that Queensland scientists have confirmed that this year's mass coral bleaching event has resulted in the largest die-off of corals ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef.

News story of Great Barrier Reef record die-off
It has become a habit of mine to tune out when the news is bad. When it's good news I will consume it repeatedly.

Of course I'm not alone in wanting to know only good news. It's human. There would be something wrong with me if I had a taste for bad news.

Different people react to particular news stories in their own way. For me, it's specifically the destruction or decay of cultural or natural heritage, the harming of cultural minorities such as the genocide of the Yazidis, and particularly egregious stories of the exercise of policy cruelty to asylum seekers to drive home a political point. I get emotionally distressed.

I was first conscious of my feelings about the news in 2001, when the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up and destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. I was upset and found myself resenting that there was so much coverage of this event on the BBC World News TV channel. I wished they would give content warnings before broadcasting stories on the Bamiyan Buddhas. I was resentful that they didn't, almost as if they were playing with my emotions.

My avoidance of bad news includes events that will impact on what upsets me, such as the coverage of election counts. On Wednesday 9 November, I found myself feeling very grateful that my attention from US election counting news coverage was diverted by an appointment I had that afternoon, for nearly 90 minutes.

That was the most decisive and painful part of the coverage. When I switched off my smartphone, everything was going as expected for a HIllary Clinton victory. But when I turned my phone on after the appointment, my eyes fixed in disbelief on what was by that stage the hopeful headline in the New York Times app that Hillary still had a narrow path to victory.

So much had happened in 90 minutes, so much that would have been very painful for me to follow blow by blow. It was as if I'd been having surgery and been under general anaesthetic for the duration of the turning point in the vote counting. I was certainly disappointed and distressed at the now almost certain result. But in a way that was quite bizarre, the feeling of desolation was almost eclipsed by the consolation of being spared the slow drawn out pain of learning that Clinton had fallen short.

It's tempting to digress into thoughts about Trump and all the post-truth politics we've been exposed to this year. But my point about how we feel about what we hear in the news is in some ways more important though related. It reflects my own myopia and my own post-truth world. It's not reality but it's something to be acknowledged rather than dismissed. Because feelings about anything, including the news, are real.

New body to test Church resolve on Professional Standards abuse

Yesterday I watched last week's Four Corners episode 'Broken Homes' on the child protection system for children in residential care. The moment that stayed with me, and no doubt many others, was former Victorian children's commissioner Bernie Geary talking about the case that affected him the most - 'the child who said "I'm not special in the eyes of anyone"'.

The program was about vulnerable children who need to be removed from their parental homes for their protection. But Bernie Geary's words in particular were also relevant to children from loving homes whose care is entrusted to institutions, such as Catholic and other boarding schools.

In effect it established this as a criterion for determining whether a child is or was receiving adequate care in the institution, or whether he or she the victims of abuse. I believe that abuse does not have to be active interference with a vulnerable individual. To fail to make a child feel special is neglect and abuse.

This is relevant to yesterday's announcement of the establishment of Catholic Professional Standards, an agency set up to monitor and report on child and vulnerable adult protection standards.

The media release suggests that the new body's responsibilities are broad - 'the protection of children and vulnerable adults across Church entities particularly in areas where there are no current relevant standards'.

It does not indicate that Catholic Professional Standards will have a remit for redressing past non-compliance. But it is very encouraging that it acknowledges that the body will give particular attention to areas where standards are lacking. The lack of standards is effectively lawlessness and a significant source of vulnerability and abuse for many young people in the way that civilian populations are subject to the whims of warlords in Somalia, Yemen, and other failed states.

What I like most about the announcement is that the body's attention is not confined to sexual abuse because much, or most, of the abuse in Catholic and other institutions was not specifically sexual. Last week I wrote about my own experience of what I called the 'culture of disrespect'. I think that Bernie Geary's criterion of a child being made to feel special - or not - is the obvious gold standard that should underscore everything else in the new body's standards checklist.

My fear was that Catholic Professional Standards would have a remit to focus on sexual abuse exclusively. But it's much broader. However there's not enough in the announcement to reassure me that it is interested in institutional reform rather than merely eliminating the 'bad eggs'. In other words scapegoating pedophile priests who, in many cases, are just as vulnerable as the children they abuse. I've often felt that putting them in prison is akin to jailing those suffering from mental illness. A convenient distraction from having to take responsibility for the source of the problem.

Relevant to this is a post on the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission at John Menadue's blog. Catholics for Renewal Chair Peter Johnstone gets it right when he insists that 'the Church’s institutional leadership must publicly acknowledge that its dysfunctional governance was at the heart of its immoral response to the abuse of children in its care'. He compellingly spells out the nature of this dysfunctional governance and suggests that any attempt to address abuse in the Catholic Church will be a waste of time unless its dysfunctional governance is corrected.

The claim in the media release about the new Catholic Professional Standards body is that it is an 'independent' agency, operating at arm's length from the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. If that is really the case, we can expect that Catholic Professional Standards will comprehensively address the Church's dysfunctional governance, and do all in whatever power it has to correct this. Anything less than this and it will be plain for all to see that Catholic Professional Standards is about no more than window-dressing and the Church is not serious about ending abuse.

Sharing my story at the child abuse Royal Commission


Yesterday I had my private session at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It was about 'Sharing your story' and open to those who felt they had something to contribute to the Commission's findings and registered before the September deadline. 

I'd always thought that my experience of sexual abuse was too slight to be considered at the Royal Commission, but a staff member I know encouraged me to participate, and it turned out that I had much to tell the commissioner about the aspects of institutional life that fostered sexual abuse, and he and his team were certainly interested listeners to what I had to say in the one hour that I was allocated.

I spoke about the 'culture of disrespect' of the institutions I attended as a child in the 1970s, and how it takes a lifetime to get over the poor self-esteem you can have when you emerge from the institutions. I was part of the culture, which means that not only was I was bullied, but I too bullied when given the chance. Teachers and fellow students alike participated in the intimidation. 

I noted that there was very little actual sexual abuse I knew of at my Jesuit boarding school, although the effects of the bullying and other disrespectful behaviour could be just as traumatic and enduring as those we hear about in the horrific stories in the media. That was my experience. I was the only student I know of in my class who was at the receiving end of what can be technically classed as 'sexual abuse', although I feel that I was much more affected by the non-sexual abuse I experienced at the time. 

Paradoxically my abuser - whom I feel inclined to call my 'so-called' abuser - was also the teacher whom I feel treated me more respectfully than any of the other teachers during my years at school. However I'm open to the possibility that I have subconsciously edited my memory of the (one-off) event because I liked the priest who abused me and at times I've felt he was treated harshly in action taken against him by his other victims and their advocates. 

But I can also accept that it's just as likely that I have let him off lightly because any sexual abuse is a serious matter that cannot be excused at all. I bought the line of the Jesuit official whom I first mentioned it to, who minimised the incident by calling it 'low-level sexual abuse'. However a few years later, another high-level Jesuit argued that there are not degrees of sexual abuse and that I should treat the incident as a very serious matter.  

I also told the commissioner about a Christian brother from my primary school years who is currently serving a prison sentence for child sexual abuse. I described my feeling of elation when I heard of his conviction, a sense that justice had been done for me as well as all the other victims of his sexual and non-sexual abuse. There was nothing sexual about what I experienced, but his cruel and sadistic behaviour towards me had diminished my fragile self-esteem, and I'm not sure that I have ever recovered from it.

The Commission is encouraging me and the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of others who have shared their stories to write a brief account for a book to be placed in the National Library as a permanent memorial. I'm very much supportive of this, and I note that it flies in the face of the 2008 statement of the now Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, who castigated those who were 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds' caused by sexual abuse in the past.