Sex abuse 'culture of shut up' has to go

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sad girl Photo: Getty Images

Trigger warning: discussion of child sexual abuse.

Like much of Australia, I have watched with the Robert Hughes trial with morbid interest.

I watched as he strode with confidence into the courtroom, day after day, watched as he clutched the hand of his wife, Robyn Gardiner, and watched as she, steely faced, clutched him right back. 

News reports of the trial made uncomfortable viewing, as did the testimonies of children aged between seven and 15 at the time of the assaults. Last week Hughes was found guilty of two counts of sexual assault and seven counts of indecent assault against children. 

In the days that followed, his former fellow cast members spoke out about a cover-up on set. They said that they had gone to the producers with their misgivings, and were told to keep quiet. Cast member Simone Buchanan referred to it as the “culture of shut up”, as the young actors had been warned off saying anything because careers were on the line.

We can only hope that the high profile of this case and the subsequent conviction of a person with a significant public profile can begin to change this “culture of shut up” – because adults cover up the heinous crime of sexual abuse against children all the time. 

When I was a child, my mother took me into the lair of a known child predator. A member of her family, he lured her to his roadhouse in a remote part of the Northern Territory. He said he couldn’t get workers, and she was in need of a job. He was cunning,and wiley, and a sick man in the body of a normal looking one. Because he didn’t need my mother at all; what he really wanted was me.

Most people don’t remember much of what happened when they were six years old, but I remember it all. I remember the layout of the building, the bar, the red gingham tablecloths in the diner, and I remember the walk-in fridge that was often used as a venue to molest me. 

I remember the tension in my mother, night after night, as the perpetrator asked to take me into the shower with him. She kept saying it wasn’t appropriate – after all, he was a man in his 40s, and I was a small girl. 

Most of all, I remember the night she gave up. Her shoulders fell, defeated, and she left me with him. I remember looking at her back as she walked away, and with her she took all that I could have been if I had not had to endure what came after.

In that moment, she destroyed us both. 

As an adult, I have spoken out about the abuse that I endured as a child, abuse that continued long after that stint in the desert, as my mother continued to allow him into our home to prey on me again and again. It continued until I was 11, when the onset of puberty meant that I was no longer of any interest to him. 

None of this came out into the open until after the death of my mother. She was plagued by mental illness that I’m sure was worsened by what she let happen to her child right under her nose. I’ve been lucky that the members of my family believed me, as not everyone who speaks out is so lucky, but it still makes people squirm with obvious discomfort. When I tell people, most want to play it down and say that I turned out okay, and that I should just put it behind me now. 

As much as it soothes people to believe that not too much damage is done, no survivor of childhood sexual abuse is ever okay, ever again. We have to navigate our way through primary and high school with other children and adults, who wonder why we are so sullen and withdrawn and can’t fit in. We have to find our way in a world that often finds us “different”.  We have to learn to form adult relationships with people who remind us of our abusers simply because they are the same gender, after one violated us at a time when our biggest concern should have been what cartoons were on Saturday Disney. 

And then we have to raise our own children in a world where we don’t just think there are bad people – we know it. We know there are predators who walk around with regular people, who look no different from them, and we worry about who everyone might be behind their normal-person façade. 

Since becoming a mother, I have watched four little girls blow out six candles on their birthday cakes. Each time, I’ve looked at them and can’t even imagine allowing something so dreadful to befall them, at this age of skipping ropes and trampolines, dress-ups and joyful innocence. 

Most of all, I have looked at them and mourned the six-year-old me, the little girl who died that day, but continued to breathe. 

Child sexual abuse is the systematic destruction of a human being. We can’t keep covering it up as adults, because we fear that it’s too distasteful to speak out against. 

The high profile case of Robert Hughes has been satisfying in that it has seen a predator convicted of a crime that, inconceivably, often goes unpunished, even if it is reported. We can’t let an opportunity like this be lost. We must continue speak out, and so must the adults who turn their backs on our torment.

If you have been abused and need to talk about your experience, contact Lifeline

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