PUNISHMENT, HEALING, AND PREVENTION by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, recommended by Tom Doyle


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By Bishop Geoffrey Robinson


There are three reasons why the organisers of this conference have asked me to speak to you today.


The first is that as a young teenager I was sexually abused myself, and that is the major perspective from which I look at the entire issue.


The second is that in 1994 I was appointed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to their Professional Standards Committee, with the task of coordinating the response of the Australian Church to revelations of sexual abuse.  Among other things I was the leader of the group that produced the document Towards Healing as a process for responding to victims.


The third reason is that six years ago, having become increasingly disillusioned with the response of my own church to abuse, particularly at the Roman level, I retired as a bishop and then published a book entitled Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. The book met with the severe disapproval of both the Vatican and a number of Australian bishops because it is a book by an insider that asks uncomfortable questions.  Thus I do not speak to you as in any way a spokesperson for the Catholic Church, but as one who would be seen as a rebel.


At the conference yesterday I spoke about a number of things I believe the Catholic Church must confront.  Today, therefore, I wish to go beyond the church and look at sexual abuse across the whole of Australian society and ask whether it is possible to think in new ways in order to confront it.


In all work in the field of sexual abuse there are three objectives: punishment of the offender, prevention of future abuse and assistance to victims to regain their lives.


It is important to be aware that these objectives can at times come into conflict with each other.


For example, one of the things our committee arranged was the setting up of a treatment centre for offenders in the hope of preventing or at least minimising future offences.  Then this centre received a summons to produce any documents it had concerning one of its clients.  Our fear was that, while these documents might well assist in obtaining a conviction against that one individual, the price to be paid was that no one else would ever come for treatment again because of the fear that anything they said would immediately be placed in the hands of the police or the courts.  Here the desire to punish offenders had come into conflict with the desire to prevent abuse by means of treatment.  For reasons unknown to me the matter was resolved by the summons being withdrawn.


So we need to have priorities.  In my own life I decided that the only real solution to abuse is to prevent it happening in the first place, so the prevention of abuse will always be my first priority.  My second priority will be to assist victims in any way I can.


I insist, however, that it does not follow that I see the punishment of offenders as unimportant.  I have never protected an offender and I never will, for I do not have to look beyond myself to know the harm an offender can leave behind.  Sexual abuse is a serious crime, and offenders deserve the punishment they receive.  I will never seek to protect them, but I make no apology for giving an even higher priority to the other two objectives of healing and prevention.


The priority of both society at large and the media is often that of punishment, but it should always be remembered that for survivors this is by no means always true and the priorities of healing and prevention can be higher.




The Criminal Courts

From my very early days in this field I learned that many, indeed most, survivors of sexual abuse do not wish to bring a case before a criminal court.  There are many reasons for this, but I suggest that there are two major ones.  The first is that abuse essentially happens between two individuals in secret and it is most difficult to prove the fact beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal court.  This is so serious a problem that the percentage of offenders who are reported to the police is very small, and the percentage of this percentage who is then convicted is also very small.


The second is that victims have deep fears of the court process itself, especially of being cross-examined by a barrister in court.  They feel that, in even making a first approach to a police officer, they may be committing themselves to something that they cannot control, and that may leave them more damaged than they were before.  In saying this I am not in any way criticising the police, but that does not change the fact that the fears are real.


The criminal courts need to be there, but they will always cater for only a modest percentage of offences, and I do not see how they will ever be able to do more than that.



Unacceptable Risk


There is one idea, however, that I believe deserves further investigation.  The idea of a person being an unacceptable risk for any form of work that would bring them into contact with children has been accepted into Australian law.  Civil libertarians might protest at the removal from office of someone who has not been found guilty in a criminal court, but I believe that the community accepts that the protection of the vulnerable is a very high value before which other values, even important ones, may at times have to give way.


Allow me to use a story that I admittedly know only through hearsay from one of the mothers involved.  A retired bank manager offered to assist a few different schools with the keeping of their financial records.  Some time later four different girls between the ages of six and eight in different schools spoke to their parents of seriously inappropriate touching by this man.  The mother reported to me that he had been twice arrested and taken to court, but each time it was his word against that of a small girl and on both occasions he was acquitted.  The concept of unacceptable risk enables the four cases to be considered together and then it is easy to conclude that the man is an unacceptable risk.


I am on more certain ground in telling the story of a priest who was found not guilty in a criminal court, but within a brief time after that acquittal no less than three other families separately approached the bishop to tell him that their sons had also been abused by the same priest.  All three refused to go to the police and gave as their reason the cross examination of the victim that had taken place in the criminal court.  The bishop immediately removed the priest from all pastoral office, but this created serious difficulties for him, for the only public fact he had was that the priest had been acquitted.  The process to establish unacceptable risk needs to be one that the other three families could be persuaded to approach without the fears that they would have in a criminal court.


I know that action can be taken in this State under the heading of unacceptable risk and it enables the community to take action to protect the innocent in a significantly greater number of cases than is possible through the criminal courts.  I would like to see the idea more widely known and more systematically used, and I would like to see the process as user-friendly as is consistent with justice.



Processes within Various Bodies


Beyond this, the only means of punishment appears to be through the processes that many different bodies within the community have put in place for dealing with accusations against personnel within their own institution.  They cannot put people in prison, but they can remove them from office and deprive them of any privileged position they have held, and this can often enable much healing to take place.  These processes can achieve much and I believe that there is much to learn from them, but I must also have my reservations.


Complainants who approach them should always be informed of what the process can and can not achieve, what powers it does and does not have, and should be told of their right to approach either the criminal court or the process to declare unacceptable risk.  It should be clear, if necessary by legislation, that, even though the name of the complainant can not and will not be given to the police without their consent, the name of any accused person and essential details of the accusation will always be given to the police.


Such processes are not available in all institutions and perhaps there should be legislation to ensure that they are more widely available.  There is a wide variety among them and there perhaps need to be some common guidelines and criteria that they should all follow.  Some need to be at a greater distance from the body or institution that established them, so that justice may both be done and be seen to be done.






The First Interview


The very first requirement of survivors is for someone willing to listen to them, for there can be much healing in this fact alone.  They will come forward, however, only when they believe that the person listening to them will listen to their story in a sympathetic and non-judgemental manner.


Years ago I saw a tape of an interview with an offender who said that he had stopped offending when one boy he was grooming  responded by punching him hard in the nose.  Ever since that time I have struggled with the idea of why I didn’t punch the man who abused me.  In telling my story, the last thing I needed was someone who shared the belief that I should have done more to resist.  I needed someone who was well aware of the difference in power between the child I was and the offender, and who could and would reassure me.


I believe strongly that the less formal this first interview can be, the better.  It should occur in a place where the complainant feels comfortable, and the interviewer should not be someone seen as an authority figure, no matter how sympathetic and no matter how well trained.  It is most important that the complainant should not have the feeling that, as soon as the story has been told, power over it will pass out of their hands.


At the same time, as full a record as is possible should be made of the story, for a complainant should never be asked to tell the same story over and over.  They may later have to confirm the story under oath and may have to answer questions concerning it, but they should not have to repeat the story again and again.


The interviewer should of course keep in mind that the story may later be used in a legal context, and yet legal requirements must not so dominate the interview that they get in the way of a sympathetic listening to a story told by a person who may have all sorts of reservations about even being there.





If I may use my own story again, for me there was a gap of over fifty years between the abuse and my being able to look it in the face and talk about it to others.  It was never a repressed memory, but there had been no counselling available at that time and I had been unable to deal with what had happened.  It was only through counselling that I was finally able to understand the effects it had had on me.  In this sense it was only after the counselling that I was able to tell a coherent story.


It was also through the counselling that I came to understand that throughout those fifty years I had not been coping nearly as well as I had thought.


The offer of counselling is frequently made only after it has been proven that the abuse did take place, that is, that someone has been guilty of abuse, but I suggest that there needs to be a rethinking on this point.


Experience has shown that the number of false claims of abuse is quite small.  Proof of guilt is needed before an offender can be sent to prison and before large compensation can be imposed, but does it follow that this proof of guilt is needed before counselling can be made available?  Those falsely seeking financial compensation would either not be interested in counselling or would fear that their fraud would be quickly discovered in counselling, so those actually wanting counselling would overwhelmingly be genuine complainants.  So overwhelming is this probability that it would seem to justify the provision of some preliminary and provisional counselling soon after the complaint has been made, before guilt has been established, and indeed even in cases where guilt cannot be established.



Money versus Other Needs


I have always found that victim/survivors of abuse have two major needs.  Firstly, they want someone to say sorry in the strong sense of that word, that is, they want someone to tell them that what happened was wrong, that someone abused power and authority, that they were not responsible, that a whole large organisation had not taken proper care of them.


Secondly, they want an assurance that the abuse will not happen again.  In the first place this is an assurance that all necessary steps have been taken to ensure that they themselves will not be abused again by the same offender.  In the second place it is an assurance that all steps have been taken to ensure that no one will be abused again, by that offender or by any other offender within that organisation.  For this assurance to have any weight, it can never be words alone, for words are easy, and it is actions alone that are the proof of the sincerity of the words.


I have yet to meet a survivor who does not feel these two needs, and they both express the need for healing.


This brings me to the delicate matter of the relationship between these two needs and the question of financial compensation.  Let me introduce it by returning to my own situation.  The man who abused me is almost certainly dead.  Even if he is alive, I do not know his name and I would not recognise him.  So I cannot have expectations of anything from him.  But imagine that I were told that he is still alive and could be identified, and that I were asked what I most wanted from him, financial compensation or an apology.  I would immediately reply that I wanted both, for I deserved both, and the financial compensation would be some proof of the sincerity of the apology and some tiny, minimum response to the harm he had caused.  But if I were forced to choose between the two, I would want the apology, the admission that what he had done was very wrong, that he had abused my powerlessness; I would want his recognition of the serious and lifelong harm he had done to me.  I would put this first because there is more healing in it.  Ultimately money is only money; it cannot undo the past or heal the wounds and that is still what I want before all else.


I say all of this because I feel that in recent years there has been a trend to separate financial compensation from the field of healing, place it squarely in the field of punishment of the offender, and make this the primary focus of the entire process.  I am totally in favour of the use of financial compensation as part of the punishment of an offender, either an individual or an institution, but I fear that this trend has placed punishment before healing and has often got in the way of healing.


I feel that there is greater healing when there can be a mediated meeting between a survivor and a person representing the church or school or other organisation involved, and there can be a discussion of the greatest needs of the survivor and of the financial assistance that would meet these needs.  Punishment is not absent in this process, but the focus is on healing and this is more healthy.  Yet again it is a question of priorities, and I believe it is unhealthy when punishment is so much the priority that healing and prevention are harmed.


I suggest again that it is often people other than survivors who put punishment in first place.  I certainly cannot speak for all survivors, but I believe that many, indeed most of them will want to put in first place that which brings them the most healing.





Fear as a Preventive


Within the Catholic Church all the evidence we have been able to gather would indicate that there has been a dramatic drop in the number of cases of sexual abuse by priests or religious actually occurring today when compared with the past.  I have to add immediately, however, that the reason for this drop is most probably not a rise in virtue, but a rise in fear.  Potential abusers are deterred by the fear of being publicly named and exposed and put in prison.  In other words, this fear has been by far the most effective force in preventing abuse.  It is particularly effective in the many cases of regressive or situational paedophilia.


Our task today, therefore, should be to do all we can to encourage this fear.  And this in turn means assisting survivors to break through the fear that the offender has imposed on them, so that they can turn the tables and place the fear on the offender rather than themselves.  The turning of the tables on this crucial matter of fear can bring a sense of liberation and so contain much healing.


I suggest that the best way of doing this is the one I have already mentioned of providing the easiest possible access to a non-threatening person in a non-threatening environment who will listen to their story.  This is the essential first step.


The second step would be to break out of the mould of thinking solely in terms of the criminal courts and investigate new ways, within the law and with full respect for the rights of all parties, in which the simple telling of these stories can be used to induce fear in the minds of abusers and potential abusers.  I suggest that all people involved in this field pool their ideas on how to increase this fear.


For example, if we are imaginative in getting people to come forward to tell their story, there could be publicity about the rising percentage of those who do, and this could hopefully increase the fear that, with every day that passes, people are less and less likely to get away with abuse.  At the very least there could be the idea that, “whether you can be prosecuted or not, we know who you are and we are watching you.”


It is here, too, that the idea of unacceptable risk can help greatly.


Personally I would like to see the government set up a system of persons who would be trained to listen to initial stories, make a proper record of them, and then assist complainants to decide whether to take the story to the police, or to a process designed to look at the question of unacceptable risk, or to one of the processes set up by various bodies within the community, or, indeed, not to proceed with any formal complaint.  If it were publicly known that this service was available, I believe it would attract many survivors.


It would also be good if the person who listened to the story had some authority in obtaining at least preliminary counselling for the complainant before any final decisions were made concerning further steps.





In many professions there is today a periodic appraisal of the performance of each of the members.  This appraisal covers all aspects of their activity, but also includes any signs of unhealthy activity.  If such an appraisal were obligatory for all persons who need a police clearance for work with minors, there could be a mandatory requirement of the reporting of unhealthy activity, and this would enable the community to be aware of a problem at a much earlier stage.


While there was resistance to the first introduction of appraisals, in many professions it is now simply part of the furniture, so the introduction of a requirement of appraisal would not be a radical step.


In addition, I believe that it would be good if we had uniform laws and practices across the entire country in relation to such matters as mandatory reporting of abuse and license to work with children.




Our experience with the treatment centre we established has been very positive.   I admit that, no matter how good the treatment, it is impossible to give a guarantee that an individual offender will never offend again.  However, if many people are given treatment, it is possible to give a strong guarantee that the number of future offences will be significantly, even drastically, reduced.  It would seem, therefore, that treatment of offenders should be part of any attempt to prevent abuse from happening.


There is one element that needs to be added, for it again concerns questions of priorities.  I have advocated fear as a strong preventive of abuse, but must add that fear is not the best agent of change in therapy.  If fear of shame will prevent abuse, fear of shame in telling a story in therapy will prevent healing. This is a matter for the clinicians, but it is good that there be dialogue between the clinicians and the community, so that fear is used in a way that prevents abuse without harming therapy.


Sexual abuse occurs so often that it is a truly massive social problem.  At the moment it is still largely a hidden problem, and far too many of our fellow citizens are carrying a heavy and unnecessary burden.


If some of the ideas I have put forward would cost money, we should always remember that sexual abuse is already costing the community vast sums of money through government budgets on matters such as criminal justice, social welfare, health and education.  If we can combine our forces to confront abuse in a more global and concerted way, then costs in one field can be offset by savings in other fields.


I suggest that the time has come for a review of the overall response of our community to sexual abuse and a concerted plan that would assist the whole community to confront this evil.


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