Reflecting on child abuse ‘sorry business’

‘We belong to that group who have caused their suffering, and so must wait to be invited into that circle.’ Fr Brian McCoy SJ reflects on the national apology to survivors of child sexual abuse.

It was some years ago that I was first introduced to ‘sorry business’, a cultural expression used by many Aboriginal people to express sadness and sorrow when someone they know has passed away.

People gather around the family to offer their support but also to share something of the other’s pain, grief and loss. Anger can also be present, usually kept in check, if those coming believe the death of the deceased person was caused by others.

There are many different expressions within sorry business, such as the use of white ochre on one’s body, fasting from meat, the sharing of grief and tears, the shaking of hands and, at times, a personal embrace.

We show by our bodies and behaviour that we are deeply sorry for those who are in pain. There is also silence. We want to be present to those suffering when, at such times, words can seem so inadequate.

On Monday, when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition offered their apologies to the victims and survivors of institutional sexual abuse, I believe we were, as a nation, experiencing something similar to ‘sorry business’.

At the heart of this ceremony of apology were those who had been abused, their families and friends. Surrounding them were those who wished to support them, willing to share something of their pain and loss. Words were said and tears were shed. There was respectful silence. Anger was present as well.

Sexual abuse can go to the very heart and soul of a child. It can destroy or severely injure the spirit of the person who has been abused. It brings its own pattern of death and can deeply affect those who are close to that person.

Those of us who kept silent on Monday or who watched, listened or prayed could be imagined as a large circle of mourners who gathered in sorry business around those who live at the heart of that abuse and loss. The circle provided support and presence, sadness and sorrow. Anger was shared as well.

Also present was a strong, silent and shared commitment to leave that circle changed, to allow what was heard and witnessed to change hearts and minds. Not just with words but in behaviour as well.

We Catholic Australians were blessed to be able to associate ourselves with this day of national mourning for the victims of abuse. But as a Church, and at this time, we know that we must stand apart from the sorry circle that gathers around them.

We belong to that group who have caused their suffering, and so must wait to be invited into that circle. The invitation will depend on our recognising the extent, pain and evil of what was done in our name.

The recognition of sexual abuse in our Church and other institutions has not come easily. The mixture of shame, denial and cover-up has left a legacy of deep pain in survivors, often spread over many decades. It has had enormous effects on their lives, and the lives of their families and friends.

This scandal has brought much shame and hurt to others as well. It has caused people to question their faith in the Church and those who lead them. This wound can only be addressed by standing with those who have been hurt, sharing their anger and grief, so that we come away changed by a deep and lasting encounter with their pain.

Fr Brian F. McCoy SJ, Provincial

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