Outrage could end up sidelining victims again
THE DECISION to bar victims from attending the briefing announcing the publication of the Ryan report said more about our attitude towards abuse survivors than any amount of soul-searching or calls for justice ever could.
That a decision could be taken to exclude those most affected by institutional abuse from the event is shocking but, as any victim will tell you, not particularly surprising. After all, when it comes to abuse, whether it be at the hands of priests, nuns, or other individuals and groups, we continue to prefer not to have to see the victims up close.
Much of the discussion after publication of the report is long overdue and if it leads us to a greater understanding about the hurt felt by those who were abused, then our society will be the better for it. However, a more likely outcome is that those at the heart of this horrific episode will be quickly sidelined again once we’ve successfully worked out our collective guilt over the events that took place.
Already it seems as though we’re close to forgetting the very people who actually experienced the abuse. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard the debates and seen the pained expressions on people’s faces as they join queues to sign books of condolences on behalf of abuse victims. I’ve no reason to believe that the feelings of outrage voiced by many are not genuine but they’re quickly drowning out the voices of the abused.
We have been here too many times before. Whenever a major report on abuse is published, victims are wheeled out to reveal their most shameful experiences before being dropped like hot potatoes once the issue no longer dominates the headlines. For most people the story moves on and is quickly forgotten but for those who were abused it continues to linger with many left feeling that they’ve been used once again.
Right now we are conscious of the abused – their voices emerge raw and shocking from the report – but in a few weeks’ time we’ll go back to ignoring most of them as they settle down to sleep in doorways, beg for change at Luas stops and shuffle silently down side streets. Even those victims lucky enough to have managed to salvage a life of some kind will face rejection as others flinch when they hear mention of their past experiences. It is almost as though their experiences embarrass us so much that we prefer to forget they exist.
As a journalist invited to the commission’s briefing I saw first-hand the victims’ anger at being barred from an event at which their darkest secrets were unveiled. I also witnessed the dignity these same individuals showed while being refused access. However, it was the realisation that this wasn’t a one-off scenario, but that this rejection was a daily occurrence, which most touched me.
I wasn’t abused at an industrial school but I, too, know how it feels to experience abuse first-hand. Seeing these people’s exclusion from the press briefing served to remind me once again of how much those who experience abuse are sidelined. If you’ve been abused, a belief generally forms that you are never on an equal footing with others. You tend to accept that your experiences preclude you from sitting at the big table and experiencing the many joys that life holds. You learn to accept that some people will turn away when they learn about what you’ve endured. Of course, some of this is self-inflicted negative thinking, but unfortunately it is also a fact.
The truth is most of us are embarrassed by abuse victims. We are grateful that it wasn’t us who experienced such events and yet also feel a sense of guilt that in some way we were to blame. We understand that many of those who survive abuse go on to live half-lives with addiction, homelessness, broken relationships and suicide becoming the norm for many. Therefore we opt to ostracise those who already feel left out and further strengthen that belief that they are unwelcome.
This is not to suggest that some kind of recovery from abuse isn’t possible, but to acknowledge that in order for it to take place, society must come to accept those who have experienced it, wherever it took place.
It is not necessarily memorials or further compensation that victims of abuse require or want; rather, it is to be treated as equals by their fellow citizens and not to be continually pushed away. Until we learn to do this then those who weren’t listened to when they first cried for help will continue calling while we pretend we can’t hear them.
Charlie Taylor is an Irish Timesjournalist who recently completed training as a psychotherapist