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The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse

Monday, 4 March 2013  | Monique Lisbon

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel wrote, ‘What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.’[1] Whilst these words sprang from Wiesel’s firsthand experience of the Nazi Holocaust, they are applicable in the context of any totalitarian regime which, in rendering its victims powerless, rules out the legitimacy of observers claiming ‘neutrality’. For, as Wiesel also stated, ‘We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.’[2]

When it comes to the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, it would be difficult for anyone in Australian society to refute the timeliness and importance of such an initiative. Even those in power within institutions with the most to lose have claimed publicly that they will ‘cooperate fully’ with the process.

But what does it really mean for the Christian church to ‘take sides’ against oppression perpetrated behind its own closed doors? Is it just a matter of agreeing to cooperate with investigative processes which will inevitably weed out the ‘guilty’ within its midst?

I believe the call to ‘take sides’ means something far more radical than simply cooperating with processes which will identify and name sexual abusers within the church. Rather, taking sides involves an active embracing of the processes that highlight our own complicity in allowing abuse to exist and flourish in the first place.

The focus of the terms of reference for the Royal Commission on the systemic contexts in which child sexual abuse occurs, belies the common misconception that abuse occurs in a vacuum, perpetrated by depraved individuals who are ‘different from the rest of us’. The positive effect of focussing on systems of abuse is a deeper understanding of the broader dynamics of complicity and collusion by those who might otherwise escape scrutiny.

Put simply, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse ‘shines a light’ (to use the Prime Minister’s phrase) on the ‘silent bystanders’ as much as on the ‘cruel oppressors’.

When a light is shone in dark corners, one possible way to respond is to scurry like a rat into tiny crevices of defensiveness and denial.

Another possibility is to embrace (and be embraced by) the light, acknowledging that there is nowhere to hide, begging for mercy, and learning anew what it is to live honestly within the light rather than in the deceptiveness of dark places.

Through the Royal Commission, God is calling us all to choose which way we will respond to the light. The Commission provides the opportunity for ‘bystanders’ within the church to face their own acts of omission, just as much as the acts of commission by the sexual abusers within its ranks. It encourages the honest examination of a culture in which the abuse of children has been so prevalent and uncontested, and the acceptance of responsibility for having built or enabled such a culture in the first place.

As with any act of repentence, this understanding of our past actions and acknowledgment of sin also entails a commitment to positive change.

Rather than signaling the beginning of the church’s demise, I believe the Royal Commission has the potential to strip away the dross of our institutional existence, clearing the way for God’s Kingdom to be built up in its place.

It is ironic that it has taken a political agenda to force the church to live out its own mandate of acknowledging sin and repenting and, in so doing, embracing a stronger commitment to enacting Kingdom values of freedom for the oppressed and release to the captives (cf. Luke 4).

The devastating response of some church leaders has not been an embracing of the light but, rather, minimisation, denial and finger-pointing. Cardinal George Pell’s protestation that the Catholic Church is not ‘the only cab on the rank’ and his blaming of the press for ‘exaggerating’ the extent of abuse within the church are just two cases in point.

It is never comfortable to acknowledge our sin. In fact, I suspect many faithful church-goers would balk at my description of a lack of focus on issues of abuse in the church as ‘sin’.

When the outcome of silence and inaction about abuse is the compounding of damage to those who are victimised in the first place, can we really afford to deny our sins of omission and complicity?

Many of us pray regularly: ‘We have done wrong, and we have failed to do what is right… Have mercy on us… Bring forth in us the fruit of the Spirit that we may live as disciples of Christ.’[3]

Could the Royal Commission be God’s answer to this prayer?

Monique Lisbon, Living Hope Resources (www.livinghoperesources.com.au) is an author, musician and public speaker whose work grapples with the challenge to find authentic hope amidst suffering and abuse.

[1]      Elie Wiesel, “Introduction”, The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, ed. Carol Rittner and Sondra Mayers (New York: New York University Press, 1986), p. 3.

[2]      Elie Wiesel, Acceptance speech on the occasion of the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, 10 December 1986.

[3]      An Australian Prayer Book (Sydney: AIO Press, 1978).

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