Yesterday I was honoured to be amongst the 400 invited guests in the Great Hall of Parliament House Canberra to hear the National Apology to the Victims of Institutionalised Child Sexual Abuse.
Just getting here was a difficulty. I was told I could not attend because I was a so-called “religious” person. The distrust the victims have for religious institutions is palpable and the mere thought of somebody coming in that category was enough to cause a lot of hurt.
I persisted saying how for the past almost fifty years I have been taking their stories to the authorities and demanding action from people whose moral compass should have made them behave better.
I vividly remember working with one little Aboriginal girl who I later took to the Royal Commission. She had been repeatedly raped by the authorities and church people who were supposed to look after her. She believed she was being raped because of the colour of her skin and so would rub her body against stone walls trying to get the blackness off.
It was my involvement with kids like her that made me determined to be there. Ultimately the authorities agreed.
As the apology got underway I sat next to a survivor I knew. We held hands, hugged and cried together for the whole time and I could feel her body shudder at the memories.
Surprisingly, many of the victims did not respond well to Scott Morrison’s speech. Some even cat-called. Perhaps they thought he was too close to the churches? I personally felt the Prime Minister was treated unfairly as he was obviously moved and at times he seemed close to tears.
However, the hero of the day was definitely Julia Gillard. You might remember that she, as prime minster, ordered the Royal Commission. The survivors gave her a standing ovation.
There was a lot of pent up emotion in the room and every now and then it would spill out in spontaneous shouting. “What about abuse in the military?” one person kept shouting while another lamented the fact so many had died before they heard this apology. In the many familiar faces I noticed sitting in the room with me I vividly saw the sense of anger and betrayal they felt at the hands of those they were supposed to be able to trust.
Now though, it is time for the follow up. All the churches need to be part of the reparations scheme and make it easy for survivors to access. Unless they do so the apology will be meaningless.