Daryl Higgins: What the Prime Minister’s apology needs to do

Christ Blessing the Children by Nicolaes Maes, 1652-1653.

Let the children come to me, said Jesus 2000 years ago as he challenged the religious authorities of his day.

What would he have to say to us now? How would his piercing stare change our view of what it means to keep children and young people safe and respond appropriately to allegations?

Today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will make a national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse at Parliament House in Canberra.

As a nation, it is important for us to hear this apology which – for the first time – provides formal acknowledgement of the thousands of people who suffered immense hurt.

If Morrison provides public acknowledgement of the harms, and hopefully a commitment to ensuring the highest standards of prevention, it not only recognizes the suffering victims continue to endure but ensures their suffering was not in vain.

Today’s national apology acknowledges that this harm spread across myriad organisations. From a public policy perspective, it shows that governments, faith-based and other community organisations failed to value children and their right to safety.

For faith-based organisations – the national apology needs to be accompanied by a recognition of how our institutions must change.

As Patrick Parkinson said more than 20 years ago in his book Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches, there are three steps to forgiveness: recognition, repentance and reparation.

For this apology to be real in the lives of churches and church-based entities, all Australians including past victim/survivors, and the current crop of young people we serve want to see recognition of not only the failures of the past but also of a response that is not just defensive.

They want to hear that we are genuinely sorry… and not just for being found out.

Victims of institutional child sexual abuse need to hear that churches, schools and care organisations are now more concerned about preventing child sexual abuse than they are about preserving their traditions, and the fundamentals of their adult-designed systems, rituals and practices.

They need to hear that these organisations are doing everything within their power to speak up and challenge concerning behaviour.

For five years, we followed the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which led to the release of its final report with 189 recommendations in December 2017.

The findings highlight the significant failures of institutions, and the steps needed to keep children safe in organisations in future.

Morrison needs to outline the concrete actions that will provide redress for those already harmed for the apology to be meaningful.

It is not just financial compensation although for many, that’s an important way of redressing the financial, social, physical, and psychological harm.

Reparation should also be about finding ways of restoring spiritual hope and healing.

We need to ask ourselves what unconventional ways can disrupt the cliched views of churches as resistant to change. Jesus was anything but a conservative.

We need details on how church leaders are leading the fight to provide children with necessary human development and relationship information to equip them with knowledge about appropriate and inappropriate touch.

We also need to offer creative options for healing: youth-led healing programs for victim/survivors for example, or an opportunity for personal interaction and apology from current leaders for the failures of their predecessors.

Grooming and sexual abuse thrives on silence. We should be ashamed of the actions that have gone in faith-based organisations. But we should not be ashamed talking about sexual wellbeing and safety of children and young people.

It is the time to start building a child-informed, youth-led culture change that puts sexual safety on the front page, equipping parents and children with sexual abuse prevention knowledge and strategies to support child safety.

Environments within organisations can be changed though policies and practices to make children safer by providing training, and equipping adults with information about how abuse can occur, signs to look for and how to interrupt grooming behaviour.

To ensure the mistakes – and the trauma – of the past are not repeated, organisations that serve young people must undergo a cultural change to value children and create a culture of safety.

Our children are created in God’s image and we should rather a millstone be placed around our necks (Matt 18:6) than sit idly by while children are placed at risk.

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