Let the Tears Flow for a Pain that is too Great to Ignore 

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Late yesterday I received a phone call from a contact.

It was short and to the point.

‘‘Get to a TV NOW,’’ was the message.

Which is why I was standing in the office of Newcastle Herald editor Chad Watson when Julia Gillard came on screen and started talking about child sexual abuse.

And I don’t mind saying I crumpled, and cried, and cried, and so did Chad, and news editor Jason Gordon, and every journalist who walked in that room.

Out on the editorial floor more people cried, and hugged, and stood speechless, and then the phones rang and text messages piled up from across the region, the state and interstate.

This newspaper has reported on this issue for years. The people we have interviewed are real to us. 

They are not quick grabs to sell newspapers.

They are people we know. They are people you know. And some of them have died because the damage caused by child sexual abuse, often under horrendous circumstances, has caused too much pain.

The rush of relief, disbelief, happiness, sadness, grief, and so many other emotions was felt across the country, and was certainly felt across the Hunter.

Many, many people cried with that announcement, which provides a good indication of how significant the issue is in our society.

We are a fair people, we know an unfair fight when we see it, and in this region people recognised this was an unfair fight a long time ago.

In August the Herald ran my comment piece under the heading, ‘‘Too much pain to ignore anymore’’, in which I wrote, and the newspaper endorsed, the statement that, ‘‘There will be a royal commission into the Catholic Church’s handling of child sex abuse because there must be.’’

And with that statement we took on the responsibility which victims and their families have shouldered for years, largely on their own, and against the might of the church, to achieve justice.

We did not make that statement lightly because to have done so would have betrayed the trust of too many people, and they have already had their trust betrayed too many times.

It was the shifting of that responsibility from the media to government which led to the flood of relief and tears yesterday when Julia Gillard said her words.

The federal government has recognised, only days after the NSW government recognised, that responsibility for achieving justice should never have been left with victims  in an appallingly lopsided battle with churches and institutions.

The prime minister has recognised that for too long the institutions that caused the crimes, harboured the criminals, and then tried to cover up for them, have been left with responsibility for dealing with complaints and providing ‘‘healing’’.

That does not occur with any other category of crime.

This has been a  drawn-out affair, and the Herald has remained clear about its responsibilities – to report the truth, to challenge people in positions of power, to believe the victims and support them in being heard.

And at a certain point it became very clear that only a royal commission would provide justice.

The Hunter region has done an extraordinary thing, of global significance.

Very few governments in the world have investigated child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church, and Australia is one of them. The BBC in London recognised the Herald’s role in that last night by emailing for a phone interview, and so I told the BBC audience what the Hunter region had achieved on behalf of child sexual abuse victims across this country.

One of the people I phoned last night for comment was Peter Gogarty, of Vacy, who protested until Pope Benedict apologised to Australian victims of child sexual abuse when he was in Australia for World Youth Day in 2008.

He cried yesterday until he gave a triumphant whoop.

‘‘Strike one for the little guys,’’ he said.

‘‘I was dumbfounded, absolutely dumbfounded that after so many years and all that pent-up anxiety it happened so quickly,’’ he said.

‘‘Just to hear Julia Gillard say those words, that there was going to be a royal commission, all of that anxiety went in an instant. We’ve done it.’’

Mr Gogarty was a victim of paedophile priest Jim Fletcher.

The prime minister’s announcement was a victory for people who took the position that ‘‘sometimes you’ve got to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing’’, he said.

‘‘The good thing is there are many people like that in this region. I think the Hunter region does own this, and we can be very, very proud of that.’’

I spoke with Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, whose first thought on hearing Ms Gillard’s statement was to phone another of Fletcher’s victims, Daniel Feenan.

Chief Inspector Fox hit the nail on the head about the significance of this announcement.

‘‘For most child sex victims, all they ever want is to be believed. With Julia Gillard’s announcement they received a very strong message from the leader of this country: you are believed.’’

I received so many calls last night, and everyone was crying.

And that, for me, is the reason why I kept on crying on and off, even while writing this article.

I know many victims of child sexual abuse. The number is now at least 200 people. And their families, and friends, and workmates.

But there are many people out there, across this country, who I don’t know, who have been sexually abused, who also would have been crying from relief that finally they know their lives are important enough for the government to act.

And I am profoundly, overwhelmingly gratified on their behalf for that.       

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