A sorry excuse for a Royal Commission

As a distraction,  the Commission of Inquiry into Sexual Abuse in Institutions has already bestowed its maximum benefit on our Prime Minister, briefly deflecting attention from questions of fiscal abuse in Canberra and allegations of criminal activity concerning her connection with a lover and trade union figure while still a Melbourne labour lawyer.  The Romans gave the people circuses when times were bad  and, like the Royal Commission, circuses can be entertaining in a barbaric kind of way, though they don’t really help anything very much.

Here are the three principal issues which will exercise the commissioners’  minds:

1. Sexual abuse is a terrible and an immensely cruel thing. This can rarely be overstated.

2. It occurs in institutions and is perpetrated in secret. It is illegal and immoral.

3. Where possible, offenders, institutions and their processes that covered up or permitted wrong doing should be exposed and punished.

Do we need a Royal Commission to establish the first point or the second? No, these things are already known. Indeed, they are well known, extensively so. Institutional child sexual abuse is not hidden and no-longer a secret. Indeed, it hasn’t been secret for a long time. Perhaps it has been covered up institutionally  ‘after the fact’, but most intelligent people already know of the barbarity that can dwell in such institutions.

Does it matter that the sexual abuse of children is more common in families? Whilst institutional abuse is more viscerally repugnant, it is neither more common nor necessarily more psychologically damaging than the comparably dreadful physical abuse and neglect that goes on suburban homes? Such a thought will not trouble the Royal Commission. 

As psychiatrists we have seen deeply traumatised individuals who were, as children and sometimes as adults, subjected to cruel psychological and physical abuse in religious schools and as members or trainees of religious orders. Perhaps the Royal Commission is intended to enlighten people who don’t know that dreadful things can happen in such institutions.

Then what about point #3? Well, yes, a Royal Commission has powers to compel witnesses and documentary evidence and so forth, and to that extent it may uncover formerly unknown cases and perpetrators, as well as accomplices who allowed or directed cover-ups. It is hard to argue that this exposure would be a bad thing. What the Commission cannot do, however, is tell us about the prevalence of abuse by simply chronicling its plethora of sad stories. 

In the end, perhaps years from now, the Commission will find:

1. Sexual abuse occurred to children in institutional care.

2. Vile and sometimes troubled people committed the crimes.

3. Otherwise decent people sometimes covered it up because they were ashamed or thought it the best thing to do, or because they were incompetent or poorly advised.

4. Sexual abuse is very hard to talk and hear about.

We don’t need a Royal Commission to tell us any of this. They have been known for a very long time. Is the Royal Commission for people who didn’t know these things occur?

So, maybe, this is really about an attack on the Catholic Church. That would certainly seem to be a factor, going by initial press coverage. But if you pay any attention to the news media, the Commission’s overarching  purpose is very clear: victims and survivors want a public hearing and a public healing. The point of those goals, beyond the craving for them, is not clear to us.

The simplistic appeal of the Commission is understandable, but the process is surely not so straightforward. Public healing comes with its own language: “having a voice”, “telling (my) story”, “getting closure” and “a chance for healing,” even “truth telling.” As hearings and deliberations proceed, the language of modernity will probably ensure the lexicon of victimhood will be supplanted with the language of “survival.”

The desire to tell one’s personal and deeply painful story in the public domain is reasonably new. But who is listening? In therapy, the therapist is listening, but the listening is of a different kind. Who listens when such accounts are related on public stage, and why do they listen? Can we have “symbolic” or “public” listening? Can you listen on my behalf?

And what is “closure?” In this particular case, does it imply the end, or even a diminution, of psychological pain because personal suffering is made public? Not often, in our experience.

‘They will at least and at last have a voice,’ one expert has already trumpeted, clearly not believing that victims had a voice for all of this century and half the last. Are witnesses to change their vocal productions?  If so, will it be a change in flow, content, cadence, or pitch? It will be none of these, of course. Rather, it will be recitations before a captive audience. Why should we suppose this is good?

The survivors will expect “validation”, perhaps catharsis and maybe an apology and compensation. Is any of this worthwhile beyond the survivors feeling better, if indeed they do?

The Commission comes with an expectation that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, something will be learned and action taken to make sure such outrages never happen again. Just like war, we suppose.

No matter how tirelessly and fearlessly the Commission roots out the evil of institutional sexual abuse, and long before it can begin to formulate its conclusions, wise minds will be pessimistic that omnipresent institutional malfeasance can ever be eradicated.

That we doubt the psychological and practical validity of the Royal Commission relates in no small part to its historical context in the pantheon of symbolic public apologies, following on, as it does, from the apologies to the Stolen Generation and to the victims — or is it survivors? — of forced adoption. That these were tokenistic and sanctimonious, the national equivalent of a tepid bath in fatuous sentimentality, may be to some degree offset by the very real observation that these gestures made people who were treated very badly feel very good, at least for a while. That’s not a bad thing is it?

We would be rightly outraged if a head of state were to say: “We, as a nation, hereby apologise for anything that was ever done wrong to anybody in the past before we were born.” We would be outraged because we know the speaker does not mean it. So why is it any more meaningful if we break down into smaller groups those who were the victims of wrong-doing and provide each with a ceremony to go with it. Logic and justice demand it is the wrong-doers who must make these apologies and reparations.

Let’s imagine how this must work. The victims of institutional child abuse or their families come before the august commissioners. Their stories will be truly awful. They will be a great deal of prurient interest for a while, but this will pass from the public mind as quickly as that of the survivors of forced adoption — unless, perhaps, someone important gets the PC terminology wrong and calls them “victims” or uses the words “relationships”, implying perhaps that it was not all about power and sex. Some survivors will speak publicly and some will speak privately to one or two Commissioners. This is apparently a new process with a certain internal logic.

But what will these Commissioners say?

I hear you.” Surely not!

I’m sorry this happened.” What?

You should never have had to endure that.” Oh, really!

Or what about:

Please take your time, we know this is difficult. Do you need a tissue?” Probably!

Remember, these commissioners are retired judges and other learned folk, not therapists. They will, of course, be advised by experts who have apparently warned the Commissioners that they will be able to listen to only a certain amount of this sort of thing before becoming traumatised themselves. This is almost certainly true. Which witnesses will they tell, politely of course, to go away because they have heard enough? Is it on yours and my behalf are they “hearing” these sad stories. As therapists, we have heard too many. Maybe you, members of the public, have not. 

This is not the same as saying that no-one should hear it. But there has to be a point to hearing it.

And what of the army of therapists who make their livings out of this sort of thing? Will they be on hand to mop up the pain? How may times will the expressions “safety”, “validate”, “believe”, “shame” and “not to blame” be used by people who mistake being enamoured with a sense of their special loving-kindness with being effective and genuinely helpful?

You see, the popular conception is that, when a therapist “listens” and “believes” in "a safe space”, things always get better. Perhaps all this listening and healing can be worked through in half-a-dozen Medicare-funded sessions.

Of course, decency demands a “sorry” at the end of the process. Who will say sorry to the victims of institutional child abuse?:

The Commissioners? Surely not!

The Institutions? Some have. Some won’t.

The Prime Minister? Probably.

And here we get to the heart of why this Royal Commission is only looking into institutional sexual abuse. We say with some evidentiary backing that it is in the institution of the family that the majority of neglect, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse occurs. The depredations visited by family members and associates upon children in the form of "religious" instruction, political persuasion, and educational brain-washing of a perfidious nature is often presented by perpetrators to victims as being ‘for your own good.’ It is well known that abuse within the family and associated with religious reasoning for the abuse results in the most heinous of long-term consequences. It is also the hardest to treat.

For the institution of the family there is no-one to say sorry and no public ceremony to be had — no catharsis, no closure, no "hearing" of voices. Nor are institutional villains to excoriate on the public stage. Other sorts of abuse are much less exciting, and far harder, to put into words. It is because this Royal Commission has been conceived in a political context that its authenticity is compromised. It is about easy pomp and ceremony, the lure of public display, and its appeal will be to both excite and mollify our collective feelings. Its brief is short on ideas, long on emotion.

Is sexual abuse so terribly much worse than years of parental neglect, either through delinquent and chaotic parenting, absentee workaholic parents, or endless child-minding. Children who know they are being abused can at least be angry and distance themselves, eventually, from the abuser and the abuse.      

If, as we suspect, this Royal Commission is severely compromised and, at its heart, is about a staged and phony “public healing", then it is not worth the time, expense and effort itr will consume. We say this with a great deal of sadness to the people who want to tell their stories.

Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if the Commission emerges as having as little authenticity and relevance as a raconteur of diverting stories on the public stage — a performance which the audience can watch or ignore as it pleases, indulging in vicarious emotion as the mood takes it?

It would, in other words, be no more than emotional entertainment, and those who have suffered would once again be left hard-done-by.

Dr Murray Walters and Dr Alston Unwin are pyschiatrists in Brisbane 

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