Honestly, I don’t know where to start this piece, this is the fourth first sentence I’ve tried and the fact that it got this far is making me stick with it. It seems every week there is another case of child abuse by a Catholic priest finally being heard courtesy of the royal commission into institutionalized child abuse. And the news is never far away. If you miss it on the TV, you’ll catch it on the radio, in your social media feed, or overhear it at a coffee shop.
Child abuse. Those two words stick out for me. They hang in the air like, ‘dead sister’.
Child abuse is part of the reason my sister is dead. She was not well, had been mentally ill since her early twenties, all the various medications took a toll on her health, as well as her circumstances. It’s hard to get the best care you’re your mental and physical health if you’re under resourced.
My sister, Libby, was a ragged survivor of child abuse. Me, too. It has taken me nearly thirty years to turn my view of what happened from, nothing because I’m nothing, to victimhood, to survivorship.
For Libby, and me, abused by our grandfather in the cave-like bathroom under his house, Catholicism, the confessional, the men, the idea of us being sinners, was perfect.
Try to think of a confessional from the point of view of a sexually abused seven year old. It’s dark, you have to lock yourself in there, you’ve got to kneel and lean into the little wooden window. There’s a curtain. You know you have to be there for a while because your mum is ages when she goes in, though you can’t imagine what a an angel like your mum could possible be saying to the man. I mean, what has mummy ever done wrong? She’s not like me, a bad person who just wants to be good. So your knees get sore, and you grasp away at things to tell the man you can hardly see. You tell him about tantrums, and fighting with your sister, and that you stole a biscuit when nobody was looking. And you never, ever, ever, tell the man about the bad thing you did because it’s a secret, and anyway, he knows already. Because although you’ve never said it, and never will, you already know everyone sees that you’re bad. It’s in your skin. And that’s confession.
When you come out, you say your ten Hail Mary’s and ten Our Father’s and you add on extra for the thing you didn’t say. Yep, you are a sinner, alright.
Libby and me were unclean, it fit that we needed the church. The whole thing, our child abuse and our Catholicism, blended.
It’s hard to for me to explain, my mother is Catholic and her upbringing within the church was different from ours, she found warmth, God’s love, family. I guess plenty would have had mum’s experience of the church. As much as my mother can’t relate to our experience we couldn’t relate to hers.
You tell a kid who feels bad about herself already that she’s a sinner, needs to confess, that the Devil is only a step away, then she’s going to believe it.
I grew up thinking I was dirty and unworthy of the love my friends and family gave to me. It has taken years to understand that people who may like my company aren’t all idiots. Libby grew up thinking she was evil. My beautiful sister, now and then, would freak out saying she was the Devil and to get away from her, it was scary and real and I will never forget how sad it was.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately, Catholic priests everywhere you look, it’s hard not to.
Of course I know not all Catholic priests commit child abuse, the same as not all scout masters do, or male teachers, or grandfathers. And organized religion can do a lot for communities, and a lot for just people. I don’t go to church but I did in the end, by the time I stopped going, find comfort in the rituals and the singing, especially in the singing.
But Confession, the way sin is latched onto, and how you’ve got to latch onto the church to get rid of it, can get a child abuse victim into a nasty circle of dependence. I’m bad because I’ve sinned and I’ve sinned because I’m a sinner. Nowhere in that circle does the perpetrator get a look in.
If you tell people they are unworthy, they don’t have to be victims of child abuse to believe it. I don’t think anyone is unworthy. Especially a kid.
homemade haircuts, paramilitary uniforms,
sisters, not sinners. i love you, libby.