by Phil Garland
On the 25th and 26th September I went to a conference in Galway. It was run by an organisation called MASC (Male Abuse Survivors Centre) and focussed on male survivors of sexual violence. Over the years I have attended many conferences, workshops and seminars. They have been useful to hear different speakers, reflect on different points of view, link up with old friends and make new acquaintances.
I found this conference to have been a remarkable experience. The speakers were superb, the organisation impeccable, the participants actively involved – all normal enough. But there was something palpably different about this weekend. There was, for me, something in the air. I felt different.
I was struck by the passion that each speaker had – perhaps because in some profound way they clearly spoke from a depth of experience that was challenging to the audience, yet simultaneously inviting the listener to engage with the internal emotions that were being triggered. These were for me the “WOW” moments – wondering where the thoughts and feelings were coming from as I listened and whilst my head was nodding as if to say “I get it!”
One of the speakers was Mike Lew, a psychotherapist and group leader. I spent the weekend marvelling at his insight and way of expressing it so that I could actually feel those halogens lighting up inside my head – more “WOW” moments. One of his key themes was that abuse thrives in isolation and that recovery takes place in a supportive environment. I had this sense that I was in a group of 100 people discussing abuse and the insidious ways in which it goes unchallenged within Irish society, yet we can challenge it right now in this supportive space. This was a big signpost that said “Phil, we are all in this together – let’s challenge this.
On the second day the core presentation was from Colm O’Gorman (Director of One in Four). He spoke of Sexual Violence in an Irish Context. I was particularly struck by the research that indicates that one in six men (16.2%) have suffered contact sexual abuse as a child – whether by a parent, teacher, priest or other person. I have listened to this before – in fact I attended the launch of the influential SAVI report in 2002 – but this time I heard it. Deeply I heard this.
At the same time I was struck by the media driven public perception that somehow priests are dangerous around children (I am employed by a church organisation). No thought is given to the possibility that many priests might be suffering the pain of abuse, without a safe mechanism to begin to recover. Has Irish society imposed an exclusion zone around them and compounded their isolation? Perhaps society finds it easier to point and condemn large sections of our society rather than offer support to individuals. There must be a lot of men to reach out to, and offer support.
Colm O’Gorman went on to talk about our common experiences – more “WOW” moments I am afraid. He presented that many people in Irish society have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault. Even without that direct experience, most people have experienced feelings of hurt, anger and rage. Whilst one cannot ‘fully’ understand what another person has gone through, on a human level we can access similar emotions. In essence we can feel their distress – to some degree. During the discussion that ensued I felt a deep sense of permission to get involved – to feel.
The next major turning point for me was listening to the discussion of language that took place all weekend. What words do you use to refer to someone who has suffered sexual violence? Is it victim? How about survivor? For many, the word “victim” denies the possibility of recovery. “Survivor” possibly denies respect to those who did not survive, or to those who are hanging on by their fingertips. One in Four may have a better phrase. They say that they work with ’women and men who have experienced sexual violence.’ In addition, if we define someone as a victim, does it necessarily imply that the worker or professional is one who holds power? I feel awkward at my insensitivity. I resolve to change our use of language by offering “support” rather than “victim support.”
After lunch I was having a stroll in the hotel car park and getting some air. I saw one of the participants of the conference and I wandered over to say hello. He is a man who spent time in an institution as a child. This was the biggest “WOW” moment of the weekend. I introduced myself to him and he told me his name. I pointed at my name badge that also indicated who I worked for. He declared that he had seen me yesterday and had been hostile towards me. I can’t deny that I found myself deeply upset by this. What had I done? I was just saying hello. I composed myself and we started to chat. I wanted to know how I could help move things on. We spoke of language and I told him that the word “victim” is off our agenda. He agreed. He also encouraged me to talk and listen. And then he hit me with the most remarkable pearl of wisdom. He recounted having to sit in a room with people that he hated. He found it very tough, but he started to talk and to listen, and others did too. He said “the hardest thing is sitting in a room with people you hate and talking to them. But that is where recovery starts.”
So, the weekend is over. What now? Well, my brain, emotions and body are still processing everything that happened. Somehow I feel deeply connected in a way that is real. I accepted the permission that was offered to begin to engage not just with others but also with myself. I am beginning to accept myself as one who has experienced many things in life. At times I have been on that cliff edge hanging on by my fingertips. Who am I? I am just me – trying to get through the day and thankful for the support and encouragement that is offered so freely by my wife, family, friends, colleagues and people that I meet through my work. Most weeks I meet with people who have experienced sexual violence as a child. I am sure that I will be with them in a more profound way. I am mindful that the interaction between two people in a caring way will lead to recovery in a meaningful way.
There is another level too. The concept of abuse thriving in isolation is a powerful concept. My organisation and many others are currently struggling over the introduction of new guidelines for the protection of children. The central question is whether organisations will take their place amongst responsible bodies that want to protect children, or remain isolationist and so possibly allow abuse to continue.
I am mindful of that conversation in a car park – that recovery starts when the dialogue begins. There are many organisations that have been sitting down and having the sort of dialogue that leads to recovery for many people. The challenge is for all organisations to become involved and get beyond the hostility and isolation. If, for example, the churches can join with state and voluntary organisations to have the necessary dialogue then the recovery of Irish society can begin in earnest.
Phil Garland is Director of Child Protection for the Arch Diocese of Dublin and a Senior Social Worker. He can be contacted through www.cps.dublindiocese.ie
Male Abuse Survivors Centre www.masc.ie
Mike Lew www.nextstepcounseling.org/
Colm O’Gorman www.oneinfour.ie
Statistics from www.oneinfour.org/about/irishstatistics