We all bear shame for predator culture

Before sexual abuse can be stamped out, we must be made painfully aware of how it is happening and how we should react.

It's been a humiliating week for the Marist Brothers and the Royal Australian Navy, each associated with terrible abuse of young people in their charge, and forced, in public, to confront the fact that all too little was done about it, whether at the time, or after its existence became clear and the devastating effects were obvious. 

The shame washes over more than the perpetrators. It also goes on  those, including myself, who had some inklings of what was going on and did all too little about it. Who played some role in cultures of denial, or who, in relation to physical abuse, sometimes even pretended that it was character-forming or bonding. 

The royal commission into child sexual abuse has provided an opportunity for many victims to describe what happened and to give witness to their suffering. But its focus has been equally on how abuse became to a degree institutionalised, and how, sometimes, even ordinarily good men and women were in denial of the problem or its impact, covered up to protect the reputations or assets of the agencies concerned, treated victims as enemies, and, often, unwittingly or otherwise, allowed known violators the scope to carry on violating more and more victims.

In the cold light of day, it often emerges that perpetrators were themselves victims of just such abuse as they later inflicted upon others, or that there were aspects of their physical, social and moral development that help explain, without excusing, the enormities of their behaviour. It was sometimes embarrassing, over recent weeks, to hear authority figures from the Marist Brothers seem abysmally ignorant of matters sexual, and completely inept in discussing or dealing with it. Some of this seemed like prevarication and probably was, because that order, like others, behaved for a while shamefully. But, I suspect, some of the institutional deafness, blindness and silence arose from religious cultures simply unable to cope with and confront human sexual imperfection, however much it was inured and experienced at dealing with other aspects of the growth and development of children and adolescents.

I spent six years boarding at a Marist Brothers school. I was not sexually abused, and was mostly blissfully ignorant of the fact that a few of my classmates - I have no idea how many, but there were some - were the objects of the sexual attentions of a number of the brothers. Perhaps, in some cases, there was some element of consent, but in the particular environment, that could have provided no defence whatever to the fundamental impropriety on the part of the brother, at once a teacher, a person in a position of authority over a minor, and, in any event, a member of a religious order who knew (as did the victim) that sexual relationships of any sort in the places concerned were illegal, forbidden and deeply sinful. I can understand claimed ignorance about the prevalence or incidence of the problem, and (perhaps as a result) some early failures to make much more difficult such sexual contacts, already intrinsically furtive, shameful and probably deniable. 

I thought I had some reasons to doubt that it had been a big problem at my particular school, at least at my time. The first was that school discipline and efficiencies, not least the task of managing 1000 boarders at a time, meant that we tended to be treated, outside the classroom, rather more en masse than individually. There was a strong anti-bullying culture  that led to restrictions on the capacity of older boys to mix with younger ones. There were very limited opportunities for predators to isolate prey, and there was, in any event, very little privacy.


Moreover, while there was an obvious imbalance of power, the scales were not all in one direction because an accuser who pointed the finger would, at least in my school environment, during the 1960s, have been believed by at least some people, including classmates. I think, in this context, I misunderstood at the time how much some of my fellows lacked self-confidence and assertiveness. 

To that, I should add that the culture of the school was extremely homophobic (and, for that matter, misogynistic), and that an amazing amount of the passing conversation consisted of the airing of suspicions about the sexual orientation of teachers. Oddly, as it turns out, few who we now know to have been perpetrators (perhaps 5 per cent of the staff) were among those on whom suspicions were focused.

Though sexual abuse stood apart, or ought to have, it lived, and perhaps thrived, in an environment of far greater physical abuse than would ever be tolerated anywhere today. It was not merely one of regular corporal punishments - for some reason, I received a good deal more than most, but of any amount of hazing, bullying, fighting and intentional infliction of hurt on others, if particularly in "controlled" and disciplined ways, such as on a rugby field. There were some checks and balances - not least ones designed to stop the targeting of the weak or manifestly unequal, as well as those who were younger. But the school tended to glory in a stoicism and indifference to pain, hurt or the expression of feelings. The general level of brutishness was far higher everywhere 50 or 60 years ago, but we Christian gentlemen, up to a point, revelled in being thought tougher and rougher than nearly everyone else. It was no coincidence that the vernacular slang of the school closely matched that of the Royal Military College at Duntroon, even if that was a place, then, where bastardisation and hazing were raised to fresh levels.

Accounts of the hazing at HMAS Leeuwin reported last week - of boot polish applied to genitals, brooms to rectums, gauntlets, "hoovering" and sundry humiliations in which more senior people bullied, abused and exercised power over more junior recruits - were familiar enough, indeed much the same, as in other closed institutions, including schools, jails, and military formations, including Duntroon.

In military circles it was thought to have an actual virtue - that it was part of a process of "bonding", "toughening up", and baptism into a new environment in which people became mates utterly able to depend on each other because of shared adversities and a them-and-us culture.  Submission was a ticket of entry into an elite brotherhood, and submission without complaint tended to show that one had the right stuff. Naturally, the process also tended to establish who had dominant characters - and these were rewarded and praised, as people able to bring order out of a rabble. Not a few people in high public office in Australia came out of such cultures and are still defensive about it.

The physical bully, like the sexual predator, is highly aware of the victim. They home in on disadvantage, weakness, lack of self-confidence, a want of fit with others. The bully is cruel and pitiless, and the torment is sharpened and perfected by the nature of the response. At institutions, bullies claim that the "teasing" was "good-natured",  "only a joke", and "meant no harm''. They think privately and defiantly that those who cannot take it are weak, and whingers, and they devote much more time and energy to denial, effective denial, justification and the visitation of group punishment on "dobbers" and "dogs'' than ever in amending behaviour. Generally, the bully is as hard to reform as the paedophile.

One feels for Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, Chief of the Navy, in apologising to a set of the sort of victims his navy was routinely creating years ago, just as were the army and the air force. He can hardly say that news of such toxic cultures has come as a shock to Russell Hill: many of his predecessors, in all services, were steeped in such systems, and not a few still seem to think that it was generally OK, even if it sometimes went overboard, unfortunately.

Pretending we didn't know is not the answer. If things are to change, we must all be made awfully aware, indeed, have our noses rubbed in it. Not so as to feel morally superior to those who did it or, or so as to excite a more activist empathy for those who suffered. But to have some awareness of how a general culture allowed such things to be. It's time it was killed off, but it will not be simply by shaking our heads and moving on.