The trial of Graeme Lawrence, and of George Pell late last year, on child sexual abuse charges has energised what I refer to as the abuse vortex. Their high profiles have seen former prime ministers, leading clerics, lay Anglicans and Catholics, members of other churches, survivors of abuse and ordinary Australians caught up by the abuse vortex's powerful, seemingly inescapable pull.
I was first introduced to the abuse vortex not long after I first became a parish priest. I was approached for support by a parishioner who was in turn supporting her niece. The niece had been thrown out of her family by her mother a few days before Christmas. The young woman had revealed to her mother that she had been sexually abused by her father and then her two older brothers over a number of years. Her mother accused her of trying to destroy the family and told her she was not welcome in the family home anymore. The mother had become caught up in the abuse vortex.
A few years later the citizens of the city in which I lived learnt that a much-loved former bishop had become an abuser in his early days as a priest. Some responded to the news with a deep sadness. Others were angry that they had not been told the truth by church authorities when the bishop had suddenly resigned. He had been pressured to resign by senior church leaders who had uncovered the abuse. The people did not know this until the abusive behaviour become public some 20 years later.
The response I found most troubling came from some who had been the bishop's close personal friends or who had received some great pastoral kindness from him. Many of these tried to diminish the severity of the abuse, others attacked the survivor, and still others attacked the press for making the facts known. Journalists received abusive and threatening messages. The survivor was dismissed as crazy or hysterical and threatened. Some even argued that she, even though a child at the time, was responsible for kindling the relationship.
And so, one story of abuse, produced a host of other acts of abuse. The abuse vortex was well and truly in operation.
It is not uncommon for spouses, parents, congregants and friends of abusers to respond as outlined above. Having been betrayed and deceived by someone they love, they also see the revelation of the abuse as a threat and so hit out at survivors, authority figures and the press. They do this because they are desperate for the implications and consequences of the abuse to be minimised or neutralised.
In the case of the defrocked bishop, as I listened to those who knew him, I could see that they were struggling with the dissonance created by the collision of their image of the bishop with that painted by the revelations about him as an abuser. These people had enjoyed close friendships, and many had shared intimate details of their life with him and had allowed him into their inner circle during times of grief and sadness. The man they knew was a nurturer. The stories of his abuse of a young woman, and of the long-term damage done, called into question the authenticity of their experiences and their judgment. Their world shifted. Who could they trust?
Some people respond to such challenges by becoming reflective, while others are devastated, and even become depressed.
Others, however, hit out and perpetuate the operation of the abuse vortex. Desperate to resolve the dissonance as quickly as possible and to preserve the good they have known, or to protect that which they perceive to be under threat, these become active players in the drama. Over the years, I have seen such people actively strive to minimise the harm done to survivors. Some contact the alleged victim to tell them they are overreacting or to persuade them withdraw their compliant. Yet others dismiss the accuser as 'mad' or a liar or wage a campaign against them, using gossip to marginalise and intimidate them. And then there are those who join the perpetrator in conducting a crusade of disinformation or in attacking those who oversee the process of investigating the allegations of abuse.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse highlighted how many of Graeme Lawrence's supporters had been sucked into the abuse vortex in the same way; attacking bishops and victims alike. The sad thing about the abuse vortex is that it sucks the unwitting into its insatiable centre. In my experience these people often think they are being helpful, supportive and even seeking after justice. Only rarely do they come to see that they have been undermining the process.
During the hearings of the royal commission it was painful to watch as many of these people found themselves trying to defend the indefensible. In the cold light of the courtroom their actions were exposed. Little wonder that many were reduced to tears.
Over the course of these last 30 years I have come to understand that there is no such thing as an isolated case of abuse. Even a 'one-off' can create a vortex that sweeps an ever-increasing number of people into its centre. The effects are often intergenerational and whole communities can be affected. Part of our response to abuse in the church and in other walks of life is for communities to become more aware of the existence of the abuse vortex and for us to hold conversations that will enable the dynamic to be identified and its effects minimised.
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