THE act by parishioners of removing ribbons placed by survivors and their supporters to mark the institutionalised sexual and other abuse at churches, orphanages, schools and
elsewhere was misguided and insensitive.
Ribbons had been tied to church gates, fences and signs from Ballarat to Shepparton, Sale, Mortlake, Ararat, Sunbury, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Lancefield in a movement called the Loud Fence campaign, which began in 2015.
Then, at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat, the week before Christmas and just days after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuses handed down its report, parishioners took the ribbons down from the cathedral fence.
“It signalled what the Catholic Church has done historically. They just want us to go away. All they wanted was to get them down before Christmas,” said Phil Nagle, who was abused as a boy at St Alipius Primary School in Ballarat.
He reckoned the Ballarat Catholic Diocese should be concentrating on the catastrophic failure of leadership and the Royal Commission’s recommendations instead of removing the ribbons.
Abuse survivors and their supporters reacted predictably and put more ribbons up.
These were taken down. More were put up.
It’s easy to read this post-report activity as the church or its parishioners wiping out this public display as a past episode.
What other interpretation was possible?
Yes, the parishioners dropped the ribbons in a black box that would be kept within the church grounds. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps.
And, according to the ABC, a representative of the Catholic Diocese had said abuse survivors had requested the ribbons stay on the fence until the Royal Commission ended so the church had gone with that timing.
What it didn’t do, obviously, was to check in again with survivors.
But removing the ribbons is a bit like removing statues of people honoured in the past but who time, greater understanding and changing values have shown to be murderers or genocide-leading colonialists.
You can’t scrub history like that and ultimately the Ballarat Catholic Diocese Vicar-General agreed the ribbons could stay where they were on the fence at the front of the cathedral.
(In the very same week, domestic violence advocates called for the removal of a mural in Warrnambool painted by convicted sex offender Rolf Harris. What should happen in that instance?)
Why was the Ballarat Church’s response so disrespectful and so stupid?
Here’s an example. Phil Nagle recounted how two mates, who as boys had also been sexually
abused at St Alipius, had been unable to drive past the school for decades until they tied ribbons to the school front. It gave them power to face what they hadn’t been able to before.
“They’d taken backstreets for 30 years to avoid driving past there. One of them now does and he feels empowered because his voice is there fluttering on that little ribbon in the wind.”
Associate Professor of Australian History at Federal University Jacqueline Wilson says the ribbons gave people much more than a voice.
She argues it gave the abused survivors agency — agency against powerful institutions when for so long they had none.
Taking the ribbons down had once again robbed them of that agency.
It’s a fair assessment.
Time will tell whether the Royal Commission and the ribbons have broken the church’s hold on power in Ballarat, which, according to Assoc Prof Wilson, had spread through just about every public institution in the regional city — schools, public hospitals,
sporting clubs and in other small towns.
This sorry story tells how entire towns and communities can be held hostage by blind faith, loyalty and power.
We can all make good by advocating for the Royal Commission’s recommendations to be carried out.
The new year is a good time to start.