The suicide death of clergy sex abuse victim John Pirona has devastated an entire community in the Hunter region of NSW, and saddened and enraged his fellow victims around the country.
The news was made all the more tragic because John disappeared nearly a week before his body was found, leaving room for hope. But with knowledge of his history as one of dozens of victims of a notorious paedophile priest, and the existence of a suicide note telling of the overwhelming pain of his abuse, it was hard to see any other outcome of the search for John Pirona this week.
Until his body was found, we could cling to even the tiny chance of finding him alive, and avoid facing the fact that another innocent had been cut down by this awful epidemic. But as the terrible news broke yesterday, many were unable to hold back tears, overcome by his needless suffering and preventable death.
As his family struggles to cope with the lifelong loss of a beloved husband, father, son and brother, questions must be asked about the criminal conspiracy which sacrificed John’s safety, his entire human potential, his family’s happiness, and finally his life.
John did not have to die. His abuse did not have to result in a suicide note and a search for his body. He could have recovered. He could have become a survivor and lived to see his kids grow up.
But the fact of his abuse threatened the interests of the secretive, wealthy and influential catholic church. A callous, self serving institution ruled by a hierarchy that routinely sacrifices innocent children’s lives, while proclaiming its superior understanding of love and compassion.
An institution claiming moral leadership and demanding generous tax concessions for its commercial enterprises, while systematically engaged in crimes against humanity, while imposing upon all its members a conspiracy of silence and while hiding behind a criminal coverup of serious child sex crimes.
With the right help, it is absolutely possible for most child sex victims to overcome the effects of their abuse. These efforts are made easier if:
the abuse is stopped and does not continue for years
the child is supported and offered help as soon as possible after the abuse occurs, or as soon as they report the abuse
the child is treated with respect, understanding, sympathy and consideration, and is listened to, believed and taken seriously, and action is taken to hold the perpetrator responsible for their crimes
the child is helped to feel that they have no reason to be ashamed of or feel guilty for what happened to them
the child is helped to feel less powerless and worthless and to rebuild their life, including learning techniques to deal appropriately with ongoing effects of the abuse such as PTSD
In Australia few victims of any child sex crimes receive the best possible help. In many cases nothing is ever done to help them. Our society simply does not take this crime, or the hidden damage it inflicts, seriously enough. It is a tough topic to address and we prefer to avoid it, to allow it to stay hidden, to consider victims somehow “wrong” rather than looking for what has caused their damage, to not believe or help victims so we can go on pretending it doesn’t exist in epidemic numbers in all sections of society.
Unfortunately that attitude only ensures plenty more children will suffer abuse in the future, and struggle to recover for most of their lifetime.
But of all the victims of child abuse, those little children preyed on by predator priests not only don’t receive the help they need, they all also suffer an ongoing and devastatingly damaging campaign of re-abuse by a huge and powerful organisation, that makes their job of recovery so much harder. And in the case of far too many courageous innocents like John Pirona, it becomes impossible.
In the catholic church no one lifts a finger to protect the children and get them out of harm’s way, instead leaving them to endure regular abuse for years. It is common for responsible adults including priests, bishops, teachers, principals, in some cases even parents, to be aware of or told of the child’s suffering, but instead of helping, ignore this knowledge or even punish the child, and send them back for more abuse.
This abandonment is often accompanied by emotional manipulation or threats to prevent public knowledge of the abuse, which are devastating enough by themselves, and doubly so in conjunction with sexual abuse.
With victims, families and witnesses under enormous pressure to remain silent, very few of these dangerous criminals are ever reported, tried or convicted, which means serial child sex predators continue to convincingly pretend to be trustworthy and respectable, and exploit the community’s trust and respect in order to ruin as many lives as possible.
The children find themselves utterly alone, unable to tell those supposed to care for them, or betrayed by them in the most devastating manner. Somehow, traumatised and disconnected, they make it to adulthood, and one day, often decades later, are able to or forced to face their abuse.
This is the stage most likely reached by John in 2008, when he spoke out about his abuse. While dealing with the lifetime of buried pain that emerges as part of the healing process, survivors can sometimes feel stronger than ever before, but are also extremely vulnerable and fragile. They need plenty of support. But they also need to learn how to stop being a victim, how to properly care for themselves, how to live and how not to be drawn relentlessly towards self harm and death. Even at this stage it is possible to overcome abuse and re-abuse. This is made easier if survivors are listened to, believed, and if they find justice, truth, and an acknowledgement of their experience, if they know their abuser is facing responsibility and serious consequences for his crimes, and are reassured that concrete changes have been made that will prevent anyone else suffering as they have done.
It is not a lot to ask.
But the catholic church begrudges even this to victims of its crimes.
It is not just that the church never considers the human lives it is sacrificing when it protects child rapists and keeps them out of jail and free to rape, and imposes them on unsuspecting communities, blessed with a disguise which makes their horrendous crimes frighteningly easy to commit.
It is not just that the church denies, dismisses, minimises, excuses and shifts blame for these crimes, and in every possible way undermines victims’ already fragile self worth and ability to survive the emotional and psychological devastation wrought by the abuse, and encourages them to feel ashamed and guilty about what happened to them.
It is not just that the church keeps victims in the dark about this incredibly personal issue, and buries the truth under a mountain of lies and excuses.
It is not just that the church never offers any form of help to victims in their efforts to recover, in order to discourage all but the strongest, most vocal, or best supported from ever coming forward, and so ensuring the majority of victims suffer in silence, and do not challenge church lies about the scale of this problem.
It is not just that victims must somehow find the strength to face the church’s determined obstruction of any police investigation, or the heroic defence of dangerous criminals they know to be guilty, brutal treatment of victims in any court proceedings, and use of a range of legal loopholes and technical defences to comprehensively deny justice to the majority of victims.
It is not just that the church will not even pay for the most basic form of support such as counselling, unless victims submit to either an aggressively antagonistic mediation or civil court process, or a biased, misleading, in-house system which pretends to be designed to help victims, but serves primarily to protect the church’s reputation, and to minimise publicity and financial compensation.
It is not just that the church makes ludicrous claims to have child protection measures in place when no measures exist to limit the crimes committed by the child rapists already protected and enabled by the church, and the only efforts consist of feeble attempts to limit the number of new rapists entering the priesthood, plus a PR campaign to promote a misleading facade of safety to lull catholics into complacency around this issue.
It is not just that the church manipulates politicians and lobbies ferociously against any law reform or judicial investigation that might actually improve child protection or force the church to be held accountable for its actions, or be forced to comply with the law, all the while making fallacious claims of willingness to co-operate.
It is not just that many church personnel treat survivors with a thinly veiled mixture of resentment, suspicion, contempt, condescension, disbelief and hostility, and act as if survivors are unpredictable and childish aggressors being humoured by the grown ups and guilty of attacking an innocent and unfairly victimised church.
On top of all those huge challenges the church conducts an aggressive campaign of PR stunts and media statements which paints a completely false picture of this issue, claiming to already be doing the very things victims most want to see, but inflicting devastating additional harm on large numbers of victims every time they are quoted in the media, as victims know from painful personal experience that church leaders are lying, while survivors’ voices trying to tell the truth are undermined or drowned out by the aggressive and manipulative church PR machine, and rarely heard.
Put together, this overall treatment of victims results in devastating re-abuse, serious impediment to, if not total prevention of healing, and an almost insurmountable obstacle to leaving the pain of the past behind and getting on with their lives.
John Pirona did not die simply because of his abuse. He died because the way he was treated by catholic church leaders compounded the effects of his abuse and made him feel too powerless and worthless to live.
It is completely unacceptable that John Pirona and so many others were killed by the catholic church in this tragic, tragic way.
It is completely unacceptable to allow the catholic church to kill any more victims.
There is no question that if this issue involved any other organisation there would have been exhaustive police investigations, arrests and convictions. We cannot trust the catholic church not to try to circumvent our democratic system of government and dictate public policy so that they can continue to commit their crimes in secret and remain above the law.
Many other victims are devastated by this loss, whether or not they had the privilege of knowing John. Many are thinking of the times when their own despair at their treatment by church leaders led them to contemplate suicide. They know “that could so easily have been me”.
There is no time to wait. We cannot allow church leaders to cause another death.
Our politicians for years have flatly refused to come to the aid of victims of this brutal organisation. But support of the catholic church is fast moving towards becoming electoral poison.
Either we move directly to desperately needed law reform.
Or immediately put in place a Royal Commission to investigate these crimes and make recommendations for law reform.
Make a commitment to end the deaths and relieve the suffering.
To do nothing is to admit we are happy to live in a totalitarian theocracy by stealth with no respect for truth, justice, human life or human dignity. Or the law.
For the sake of my own recovery I try not to wallow in anger about the abuse and injustice I have suffered at the hands of the catholic church.
But I am very, very angry that another victim has had to die while we wait for even a semblance of justice.
We cannot bring back the loved ones already lost.
But we can refuse to let them kill any more innocents.
It is time to write to your politicians and demand change. My next post contains a draft letter for those who would like help to do this.
Stay safe everyone and if you feel you are not coping, promise me one thing.
Ask for help.