Sex abuse stories from royal commission in Ballarat all too familiar for some

By Konrad Marshall
May 20, 2015

The stories being heard in Ballarat are gruesome and humiliating and raw, and have been described by one victim as "the unseen carnage."

But that characterisation is not true for everyone – and certainly not for the front-line workers who deal with sexual abuse in this community every day, all year long.

Definitely not for Shireen Gunn, manager of the Centre Against Sexual Assault in Ballarat.

Gunn has listened to the first two days of testimony at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, and the sadness is all too real – and sadly all too familiar.

"This is what we have witnessed for the last 20 years. They are survivors of war – of abuse they could not escape," she says. "This inquiry is the external realisation of what we already know. But the fact that these guys can get up and give these graphic details and tell their stories – it's just a huge achievement."

Gunn grew up here in a large Catholic family. Her dad was a horse trainer, and her mum a mother to seven children. The girls went to Mary's Mount and the boys to St Patrick's. She started her career as a primary school teacher.

"I was interested in the world children were in," she says, "and making sure it was safe for them."

That interest soon led   her to switch to child protective services, where parents often presented with mental health, violence and drug abuse issues. "But invariably, in their past," she says, "the underlying issue was sexual assault."

In this dominant Catholic culture, she notes, children would walk from one lair into another. Primary school boys would be freed of one notorious cluster of paedophiles, only to move to a high school where the Christian brothers were even worse.

CASA has been working with the victims for years, and they are a "resource-intensive group". But they deal with issues around employment, housing and relationships through strict case management and therapeutic counselling.

Yet working with male victims of sexual assault is different from working with female victims.

"Women are more used to making connections and talking to people, retaining their children and friends, whereas men tend to be isolated. They're often fearful or mistrustful of other men."

In their childhood, she notes, corporal punishment was seen as a normal part of any male upbringing but it was, of course, at times cruelly enhanced and twisted into torture by the perpetrators.

"The culture of physical violence and older males dominating younger ones went along with the sexual abuse, and it means that the men often grew up and acted out a lot of that anger, whereas women turn inwards."

Since the first Victorian parliamentary inquiry two years ago, there has been a steady increase in the number of people coming forward and telling these tales. "There's more to come out," Gunn says. "Even this week we've had more contacts – the hearings are a trigger."

And as for her home town. Will it still be known again simply for its gold and its cold – or will the gleaming regional centre be forever stained with the clergy abuse scandal?

 "I'm always an optimist," she says. "I would hope Ballarat will be known for the way the community came out and dealt with this, acknowledged the stories of those who suffered, and offered support to all the survivors."



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