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Cardinal Pell needs to answer: could I have done more?

A governor-general once resigned because of his failure to deal with sex abuse claims. Is there a parallel to be drawn with Cardinal Pell?

I have been following with a heavy heart the testimony being given by Cardinal George Pell before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The questions being asked and the experiences being discussed have taken me back to 10 years ago when I was representing a courageous woman who reported suffering a life of serious sexual abuse by members of the clergy, and other organisations in the Ballarat region.

Annie Jarmyn is a name that may be familiar to some. Her name will always be linked with the demise of our governor-general at the time, Peter Hollingworth.

I first met Annie in 2002. I had just started with Shine Lawyers as a new solicitor during a time when the firm was heavily involved in representing survivors of sexual abuse as they struggled to obtain some sort of justice for what had happened to them many years ago.

Annie's story was a harrowing one. After being made a ward of the state, she was fostered to a family with close connections to the Anglican clergy. Annie described horrific sexual abuse from the age of 10 to 13, at the hands of representatives of the Anglican Church, saying she had been "passed around" between church ministers and officials in and around the Ballarat region.

Annie tried to speak out back then, but with no one willing to believe her and step up against the church and high-profile people in Ballarat, she was disbelieved and treated as a liar.

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In 2003, Annie gave us instructions to lodge a claim in the Supreme Court of Victoria against the Anglican Church for the sexual abuse that she had suffered over a number of years at the hands of many.

Again, as was common for the time, few people were willing to believe her. Hers was a story declared "too tragic". She was a person deemed "too troubled". The stories she recounted of being an orphan girl passed around like a sex toy between members of a church paedophile ring in Ballarat were dismissed as "too far-fetched".

I was fortunate to spend a significant amount of time with Annie in 2002 until her tragic suicide on April 22, 2003. I believed her. The descriptions that she was able to provide, the corroborating evidence that we were able to find, and the physical pain she felt when recounting the events all supported her instructions to us.

The stories that have emerged from the royal commission in Ballarat are tragic and heartbreaking, with so many survivors unable to move forward after the horrendous nature of what they endured. I have read with sadness that the Ballarat region's suicide rate is "through the roof" as a result of the area's toxic legacy of child molestation.

The evidence being heard is consistent with Annie's story that there were paedophile rings in the area and a culture of sexual abuse.

I think to myself, there's a bit of vindication for you, Annie. Perhaps people will now see that your story is no longer far-fetched. Perhaps your life was really as tragic as you said. Perhaps you were telling the truth about Ballarat all along.

Then governor-general Hollingworth stood aside from his role following Annie's claims of sexual abuse. Ultimately, he was forced to accept that he could have done more to protect survivors of abuse and resigned from his role.

His handling of child sexual abuse claims during his time as Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane was severely criticised by an inquiry. Specifically, the inquiry was critical of Hollingworth for letting a known paedophile continue as a priest.

Now 12 years later, the spotlight is on Pell, and questions are rightly being asked as to his role in what went on for years in the region.

There may be a parallel to be drawn between Hollingworth and Pell. Hollingworth knew that as a result of his failure to deal with sexual abuse allegations, his position as governor-general was untenable. Now, like Hollingworth, Pell has questions to answer. If his answers are found to be unsatisfactory or there is evidence that he failed to act on reports of sexual abuse – his position as Australia's highest ranking representative in the Vatican and in the Roman Catholic Church, must also become untenable.

In my experience dealing with hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse, these people do not come forward with compensation as their primary motivation. They come seeking acknowledgement, validation and a sense of justice. They often just want someone to believe them, and to stand with them as they fight for justice. Unfortunately, many of these people have been disbelieved in the past when they have tried to speak out about the abuse.

Annie Jarmyn had a profound effect on me, as have all of the survivors of abuse for whom I have been privileged to act. Their stories often involve terrible suffering, but also incredible courage as they stand up against the powerful institutions that allowed the abuse to occur, and to ensure that no other child is harmed.

I think we all have a duty to do all we can to ensure history does not repeat itself. For the survivors of sexual abuse, I am in awe of the courage they possess when coming forward and telling their stories. When someone shares this information with us, we have a duty to listen, to respond, and to protect.

Annie did all she possibly could to fight against the evil. That fight took her life. I hope the commission's findings mean she can finally rest in peace.

Lisa Flynn is the national legal partner for Shine Lawyers, a firm specialising in sexual abuse litigation.

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