Opinion Piece by B. Phillips
Yesterday it was revealed that a portion of funding from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was shifted over to the inquiry into the home insulation scheme. Savings that had arisen as a result of one aspect of the child sexual abuse inquiry coming in under budget.
For the record - I'm relieved that the home insulation scheme was canned before any more damage could occur. This is an area that can be regulated and subjected to close scrutiny. For the future - tragedy is avoidable. Can the same be said about child sexual abuse? Particularly in our educational institutions?
I come from a background where we grew up in relative isolation. The community was strong but there weren't enough kids to warrant a local high school. Our parents had a choice. School bus for a couple of hours (morning and night) or away to a bigger town or city to board. Almost every child went away to boarding school.
A couple of years ago, in the midst of the Blaxell Inquiry, my Mum told me a story. She told me that one night, a huge number of parents from the community attended a meeting at the local town hall. It was conducted by a man called Dennis McKenna, warden at St Andrew's Hostel in Katanning. My Mum, an intelligent woman, said she clearly remembers him as being engaging, caring, and extremely convincing. My parents, along with many others from the local community, very nearly sent their children to board at Katanning. Mum and I, with tears in our eyes, expressed deep, deep relief that didn't occur in our family.
As it stood, when my older brother was born my parents had decided that he - we - should be educated in Perth. They saved their meager income to give us what they thought would be the best possible opportunity in terms of education and future life.
12 years old. Bags packed with essential items. Fears wrapped tightly inside minds and hearts. Goodbye to childhood homes, families, friends, innocence.
I am so fortunate to be able to say that my boarding school experience was good. Sure there was bullying, but I probably gave as good as I received. I walked away with a good education and a positive outlook on life.
My brother attended a school that generations before had been too. The family considered it reliable, safe, highly commendable. With cousins and other boys from the local community, they entered boarding life.
For some they entered hell.
Yes I am talking about bullying. But more specifically, I'm talking about ongoing, systematic abuse. Abuse which varied in nature. Overlooked and tolerated by the 'responsible adults' who were supposed to care for these boys. I'm not talking about isolated incidents. I'm talking long-term, repeated abuse. The kind of things that leave deep emotional scars and forever change a person's life. In the book Boy On a Wire, Jon Doust injects a degree of humour and bravado into his boarding school days. Sebastian Faulks' novel Engleby offers a much darker view on the topic of all-male boarding school life.
I married a man who went to the same boarding school as my brother, cousins, so many other people I've known. At this point my own emotions swell too greatly for me to write any more. In this case the emotional scars were far, far beyond any form of healing.
These things take time to be revealed. For some, it takes many years of disharmony and unrest before finally they come to understand why it is that life is so hard to cope with. For others, they keep those fears and experiences inside forever.
In a previous working life - and a previous town - in assisting with another matter I discovered a woman I was trying to help had been sexually abused at high school by a staff member. When still in school she had approached the police, who had launched an investigation. For some reason, some completely unfathomable reason, the investigation was blocked. This could never be verified but some suspect that the insistence to stop the investigation came from within the school. From the principal. Today, that woman would not be 30 years old; the same principal is still head of the school. What does all of this mean?
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse aims to "improve the response to all forms of child sexual abuse in all contexts". Those contexts may not yet be fully revealed; they are ongoing and provision needs to be made for the present and the future as well as the past. Where money is not spent in one aspect of the inquiry, an excess will undoubtedly be required in another.
Our children are too precious. There is too much evidence of the life-long damage caused by abuse. Prevention now may save hundreds of lives in the future. This is not a matter that should be subject to short-term outlook and snap-decision budget shifting. This matter requires long-term commitment, sincere consultation, honest and sincere connection to those who are already affected.