Thursday, 23 June 2011

Are abuse victims only in it for the money?

If you saw the television programme "Abused:Breaking the Silence" on BBC1, then you would have come to the conclusion that victims are not in it for the money at all, but that if the confession and apology system breaks down and fails, then compensation is all that the victims are left with.

The program was a fascinating insight into abuse by various priests at two preparatory schools in England and South Africa, owned and run by the Rosminian order of Catholic priests to which various boys from all over the world - Australia, South Africa, England - were sent. They were the Grace Dieu school in Leicestershire and St Michael’s school in Soni, in what is now Tanzania. Each one of them, unknown to the others, was abused by various priests, both sexually and physically. Their lives were each ruined by depression, and psychological distress. Even though they lived at different corners of the world, many years later, due to the wonders of the internet, they managed to reconnect with each other, and started talking again. Gradually the subject of their school experiences came up, leading to the mention of one of the abusive priests. This then led to them all doing their own statements of complaint, and sending them to the leader of the Rosmanian order in London.

It is important to emphasise that at this stage they were not after compensation at all, but rather an explanation as to why, instead of being sent to school to learn and be cared for, they were subjected to abuse by their carers. The reaction of the head of the Rosminians was genuine revulsion and sorrow for what had happened. It was obvious at that stage, that he hadn't been advised by lawyers, because he arranged for each of the now elderley abusive priests to write confessions addressed to the boys after he had read the detailed statements of allegations of abuse. Sadly the confessions were not frank and genuine enough for the victims. The letters from the priests were also carefully worded not to actually confess to anything directly, but were full of religious sounding platitudes.

The victims received different sounding letters from different priests. One decided that he wanted to meet the priest who abused him. His travel costs from Australia were paid by the church. Amazingly he found the meeting, although somewhat bizarre and other worldly, quite satisfying, as the reaction he got was one of genuine sorrow and remorse. He said that it had brought him some closure, and that for the first time he could sleep easily at night when he realised that never again would he be depressed.

Other victims, however, got letters suggesting they remembered nothing but were none the less objectively sorry. These victims wanted a meeting, but decided to seek out their abusers rather than wait for an invitation. Amazingly, one of them took in a secret camera to record the meeting. The priest decided to deny everything, which had the not suprising effect of causing abject rage in the victim, who had travelled all the way from South Africa.

Right up to this point in time there had been no talk of compensation. All the victims wanted was a genuine apology, and a reassurance that something would be done to ensure that the same sort of thing would never happen again. Because they didn't get what the head of the Rosminians had genuinely planned for them, they decided to form a Group Action, and seek compensation. Once the lawyers got hold of the Rosminians, all those early genuine platitudes and wishes for apologies disappeared, and were replaced with denials, and words of no comment. The TV company's request for an interview was not surprisingly denied.

Our experience of litigation at Abney Garsden McDonald solicitors, against the Catholic church is that, whilst they make grand gestures about offering counselling, and helping the victims, according to their new policies on child abuse, the process is somewhat contrived, as evidenced here. Once lawyers come on the scene, and litigation is in the offing, platitudes are replaced with hard fought contested court proceedings, pushed to the bitter end, on the basis that the victims will be so worn out by the process, that they will accept an offer of a pittance. One of our group actions, for instance, has been dragged out for 14 years.

So, fascinately, and uniquely, we had, in this programme, good evidence, that all victims are interested in are psychological closure, a genuine apology, and some recognition by the abusers and their employers that what happened in the past was not the fault of the victims, which is what they all think. and will not happen again. Sadly, although in this case they got close, this ideal was not achieved. We don't know what will happen, but in all likelihood what they will be left with is the empty gesture of mean amounts of compensation.

Monday, 6 June 2011

“No More Silence” by David Whelan - a review

The job of reviewing books about child abuse for a child abuse lawyer can be a bit like selling sand to the Arabs, in that it can become too much like a day’s work in the office rather than a pleasurable read in my own time. My clients often want to tell their story, usually for unselfish reasons. The psychology of the process probably drives the victim to tell their story in order to embarrass the authorities, and draw attention to how appallingly they were treated, in the hope that no other poor child is put through the same grief ever again. Needless to say “No More Silence” did not fall into the same traps that other similar types of book can.
David tells us his life story over nearly 300 pages in paperback. Considering the many events which took place, the skill of the writing cannot be underestimated. We are taken along a journey from a neglected home life as one of five children in the desperately poor areas of Glasgow through a delightful foster home in the far flung Scottish island of Uist, to life as a waiter both in upper echelon hotels, to sea, back to London, then through the trial of his abuser. The main plank of the book revolves around the time he spent at “Quarriers”, a self contained village for children in need of care a short distance from Glasgow.
The irony of the idyllic surroundings, with its own school, medical facilities, supermarket, church, fire brigade, and cottages where children lived, on the one hand, yet on the other hand abuse of a magnitude that is almost unimaginable, grabs the reader by the throat immediately. The almost pious nature of a seemingly Presbyterian Scottish community, is made all the more shameful, by the abuse which took place. David’s abuser committed some his offences, even more ironically, in the bell tower of the church at the centre of this Christian community – Mount Zion Church. David refers to him as the “beast”. A more fitting title there could not be.
I read the book during my lunch hour over a few months. Not the most ideal way to engross yourself in the story line. It is a testament again to the writing that I was able to pick up immediately where I left off. Indeed once or twice I was late for work, as I could not wait to read another chapter. They are short yet absorbing.
I was apprehensive about the way in which the gritty details of the actual abuse would be handled. I need not have worried. Child Abuse is such a dark subject, that it can put off readers, because of the subject matter. I was assured by David in an email that the difficult bits were told sensitively, but without so much detail as to put the reader off. He was right. On the one hand the reader knows exactly what went on, but on the other hand we are spared the gory detail. To maintain this fine balance is incredibly difficult, yet David achieves it in spades.
I am not embarrassed to say that this book brought me to tears (not easy in a café) on three occasions. So moved was I that I immediately went back to the office and congratulated David on his achievement. The secret of surviving as an abuse lawyer is to admit that the subject matter affects you, and not internalise your feelings. I am sure, however, that any reader will be moved by some of the things which happened.
The sections that brought a lump to your throat for me were not the abuse, but the emotional family reunions of children and carers that have been separated for many years then reunited. One of the happiest periods of David’s childhood, was when he lived with a childless couple on the island of Uist beyond the shores of Scotland. He was cruelly separated from them, when his inept mother decided she wanted to try again. Years later he was then reunited with the help of his sister Jeanette. He describes the tears of joy when he met Morag again. Films can do this more easily, I think, than books, because the scene is graphically displayed in front of you. For a book to do this, speaks volumes for the subject matter, and writing style.
So why does this book grab your emotions so fully? First of all David Whelan is a rare breed – someone who, despite his neglected childhood, then abuse in institutional care, goes on to be a success. He initially works in prestigious hotels, then builds a successful business as a recruitment agent providing staff for same top flight events that he used to work at. Everything is going well until the abuser’s wife contacts David many years after the abuse, to ask him to be a character witness for “the Beast” against whom there are many allegations of abuse. David’s world crumbles, as he struggles to cope with the multitude of forgotten memories. He survives after the trial, and forms a support group for the victims of abuse at “Quarriers”. One can empathise completely with his emotions, feelings, and admire the incredible journey he goes through. The story is almost circular.
The book sells through Amazon, which encourages reader’s views online. This opinion is only mine, of course, but a real testament to what a wonderful book this is, can be found in the countless euphoric opinions you will find on the Amazon site, and indeed elsewhere. Does it avoid the fatal trap that books on abuse can fall into – self indulgent misery – absolutely. My advice as a child abuse lawyer – go out and buy it – NOW!