Lay lead the way in child abuse lament

By Helena Kadmos
Eureka Street
December 18, 2017

Participants are prepared and purified at Day of Lament.
Photo by Doug Miles

A small group of lay Christians in Perth, including myself, were so worried that our institutions might not wholeheartedly embrace the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse that we decided not to wait to find out.

On Saturday 9 December, ahead of the full release of the commission's findings, 130 people accepted our invitation to gather on the banks of the Swan River to express our gratitude to the commissioners, survivors and their families.

Day of Lament was an ecumenical picnic and liturgy organised without any clerical input by lay people of different church backgrounds, including Catholic, Anglican and Uniting, the Salvation Army and an Independent Community Church. Our group comprised teachers, a pastoral practitioner, psychologist and community worker. We sought input and feedback from survivors and organisations representing survivors.

Planned over several months, Day of Lament grew out of a determination to express unequivocal support for authentic justice for survivors, at whatever cost. Lay people might not hold the purse strings of our churches but we are the living hands and feet that comprise it. Through our physical presence in a public space we aimed to make a stand that was five-fold: to lament the silence surrounding child abuse in our institutions, acknowledge the pain suffered, say sorry, pray for healing, and commit to justice.

We accepted that we could not hope to grasp the full complexity of the impacts of child sexual abuse on everyone affected by it, and therefore we made no claims to represent anyone other than ourselves. But our invitation was open to people of the same, different or no faith backgrounds: If you felt as we did, you were welcome to join us.

Local Nyungar and Yued Elder Ben Taylor Cuiermara welcomed us to the riverside and he and other Indigenous leaders led us through a smoking ceremony to purify and ready us for our task. Musicians on keyboard and cello drew us into a prayerful space, and acclaimed singer, songwriter and guitarist Rose Parker transported us in song.

Parker is also an ambassador to the Blue Knot Foundation which works to improve the lives of the five million Australian adults who are survivors of childhood trauma, including abuse. Day of Lament was proud to support this work, and that of Broken Rites Australia, who conduct research and provide advocacy for survivors of church abuse.

"Those of us on the banks of the river that day weren't prepared to allow the hierarchy to have the first, let alone final, word."

We concluded the gathering with a monetary collection for these organisations as both practical and immediate action, and symbolic message to our institutions that we must, and want to, pay. As Mark, one of the organisers said before passing around the buckets: 'By committing to justice we commit to following these stories with the knowledge that the breadth and depth of these painful experiences could not have been caused by a single hierarchy, individual or culture, and that therefore any response must come from all people of faith: laity as well as clergy.'

Following Friday's release of the Commission's final report, the Australian writer Tom Keneally asked if the Church leaders 'really get it … Will the hierarchy acknowledge these facts, in humility and penitence?'. Journalist and commentator David Marr isn't hopeful it will, given the grip Rome — 'an old, shrewd and complicated institution that has never quite abandoned its role as a world power' — holds over every aspect of the Australian church.

Those of us on the banks of the river that day weren't prepared to allow the hierarchy to have the first, let alone final, word. What couldn't have been clearer to us looking out over the gathered is that we were the church. There, together in the open air, on that luscious grass, under a life-giving sun.

As much as the hierarchy, the laity have to face up to the truth of our failings to protect children. We do not have to wait for direction to do what is right.



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