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.