Australia was supposed to be a much safer place for a child. Were we really listening?


In the opening sentences of an excoriating 2013 Quarterly Essay on clerical sexual abuse, David Marr writes a brutally cold opening line.

"When young Father George Pell moved his things into the presbytery in 1973, that corner of Ballarat was one of the most dangerous places in Australia for a child."

These revelations and the many investigations that led to then Prime Minister Julia Gillard calling the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse were staggering: thousands of children abused, in churches, sporting and religious organisations and youth groups.

We learned an awful lesson about ourselves and our history and the commission's admonition that we place the child and the welfare of the child at the centre of any institutional policy was meekly heard.

But maybe not so much. Let's fast forward through this week's predictable aftermath of Louise Milligan's shocking 4 Corners expose of St Kevin's failure to support a victim of sexual grooming — silence, stonewalling, outrage, resignation, belated apology, promises to do better — and get to the point.

This stuff wasn't supposed to happen anymore. Australia had collectively endured a wrenching and exhaustive (and expensive and exhausting) ordeal through the commission, to come to a recognition that the institution had so often come before the child.

The grooming and the school's controversial letter of reference for the convicted sex offender, Peter Kehoe, took place right in the middle of daily national reporting of evidence to the commission.

Australia was now supposed to be a much safer place for a child. Were we really listening?

I keep thinking about institutions, and the reflex to protect — at any cost.

I keep wondering at how some of us manage to look past individual pain and powerlessness to somehow believe that the status and reputation of a name, a brand, an order, a building can be worth more.

Are we cowards? Are we unfeeling?

What I know for certain is that some of us have learned nothing, and that vigilance and scepticism will always be the price we need to pay for the safety of our children.

This week Lise Floris offers the perfect example of those who defied one of the most powerful and repressive institutions on earth, the Chinese Communist Party, in order to have the children they desperately craved.

ABC News has an incredible interactive for you to step through in the aftermath of our bushfires, and the music legend and enigma that is Peter Green — founder of Fleetwood Mac and one of the greatest guitarists you've never known — steps out of the shadows. It's a fabulous piece.

Have a safe and happy weekend — don't forget that the award-winning documentary, The Australian Dream, screens on ABC TV and iView this Sunday night at 8:30pm.

It uses the inspirational story of Indigenous AFL legend Adam Goodes as the prism through which to tell a deeper and more powerful story about race, identity and belonging.

Play this by Luke Daniel Peacock while you're preparing dinner in front of the telly and you'll be in a good place.

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