I’m sure I’m not the only Catholic – lapsed or otherwise – who sees God not in the cardinals or bishops but in the broken men of Ballarat.
The story of Christ is one of suffering and struggle and so it is in the stories of survivors. I stopped preparing breakfast – heart in my mouth – as I listened to survivor Stephen Woods tell his story to Fran Kelly on ABC radio last month. He suffered abuse in the Ballarat diocese at St Alipius Parish School and then St Patrick’s Secondary School in Ballarat, west of Melbourne.
“The beatings, the bashings, the straps, the sexual humiliations – I had to stand in front of Brother Best and strip for him in his little room, I was 11 years old … while he masturbated behind his desk. And Brother Dowlan, the next year at St Pat’s College, would send [me] down the back of the room, and would molest [me] while he berated my family.
“The next year – of course I started to have problems of identity and sexuality, questioning myself – my self- esteem was shattered … So I went and saw a priest as a good Catholic boy would do and, lo and behold, Father Ridsdale was at the presbytery at St Pat’s College and, within half an hour of going there, he was raping me in the toilets around Lake Wendouree. I was 14 years old.”
This was Ballarat in the time of Cardinal George Pell. If you were a child like Woods (or his two brothers who were also molested) there was nowhere to hide and nobody to protect you.
A third of those in a grade four photo from St Alipius Parish School in 1974 are dead, believed to have committed suicide.
Forty years later, Woods was part of a campaign to raise money to send survivors to Rome, and be present while Pell gave evidence at the royal commission of inquiry into child abuse.
They needed to raise $40 000; they raised $200 000 in a matter of days.
A formidable force of ‘broken men’
As a child, I knew of Ridsdale when he was a parish priest in our diocese and Best when he taught family members and my friends at the Christian Brothers school in Warrnambool. I was at the sister school up the road.
The full force of abuse had been felt in Ballarat but it was, of course, a stain that spread throughout the diocese, decades on, as paedophile priests and brothers were moved.
“Did you know? Did you suspect?” and, more tentatively, “Did anything happen to you?” were questions we asked each other after the arrests.
At the time – the 1990s – there were weird things muttered by the boys. Best was an old perve, you had to be careful around him, he rubbed himself up against the desks.
Not many of my friends from that time are still practicing Catholics, at least not in the way our parents were.
Pell’s cold response is unlikely to attract us back to the church. “It was a sad story and of not much interest to me … I had no reason to turn my mind to the evils Ridsdale had perpetrated,” he said.
Yet there is something deeply affecting in the survivors and their stories. There is, in the men, a sort of grace. Survivor Peter Blenkiron, who arrived in Rome wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of himself as a child, told reporters he bore no malice against the church and was thankful that the royal commission was seeking out the truth of those in charge.
Peter Blenkiron wears a photo of himself as a boy. (Filippo Monteforte, AFP/ Getty)
“I was born a Catholic and I know some good Catholic people and I’m friends with good Catholic people. I just struggle with the whole institution,” he said. “I believe there is a God by many different names and I find solace in meditation, which is a form of prayer.”
Survivor Andrew Collins, who was sexually abused by numerous priests, said the group in Rome was “made up of broken men, but together they were a formidable force”.
Struggle stories create compassion
The stories they have had the courage to tell have unleashed compassion on a national scale: the ribbons round the fences, the money raised, the level of scrutiny of Pell’s evidence.
Compassion arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. It’s a Christlike word, used in the New Testament in stories of suffering, healing and renewal (Matthew 14:14: “When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.”)
In feeling compassion, Jesus was moved to remove the suffering of others. In our own lives, compassion comes through hearing the stories of others or witnessing their pain. We’re hard-wired for it. It’s one of humankind’s great painkillers. There can be no true connection between people without compassion running between us.
American social scientist Brené Brown spoke to a sell-out crowd in Sydney. Building on her wildly popular TED talk about vulnerability, her theme – Rising Strong – was about how telling our stories of struggle creates compassion and empathy, and ultimately healing. With true empathy we are much less likely to inflict the same misery on others.
She wrote: “We’re wired for story. In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there’s a surprisingly simple reason we want to own, integrate, and share our stories of struggle. We do this because we feel the most alive when we’re connecting with others and being brave with our stories – it’s in our biology.”
The stories of the Ballarat men feel authentic and real. They connect with us. The same cannot be said for the testimony of Pell. – © Guardian News & Media 2016