Reflection: Problems of identity

This has been a bad week for me, mental health-wise. Such a bad week, that I want to write it as BAAAAAAAAAAAAAD. That’s how bad it has felt. In one way it’s not a surprise. My experience of clinical depression is that no matter how well I look after myself: how healthily I eat; how much I walk; how carefully I take my medication – there are days when my brain rebels, the fog descends, and life becomes temporarily unbearable. Fortunately, my experience of clinical depression is that if I wait my brain will re-balance, the fog will lift, and I can keep going. But the pain is hell while it lasts.

I can point to the trigger for this week’s depression, something that I can’t always do. This week my normal mental fragility interacted with an article in The Age on the Victorian Inquiry into child abuse to throw me off balance. If I was a nicer person, it might have been my sympathy for the abused children that triggered my depression. But because I’m not a particularly nice person it was the headline of an article written by The Age’s religion editor Barney Zwartz: Abusers may be at large, says church.

Members of the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania appeared before the Victorian Inquiry this week. The article reported that in the last fifteen years there had been seven cases of child abuse in the church, all of which had been referred to the police. That might suggest that the Church’s current procedures work. But that wasn’t what the Inquiry, or the media, was interested in. Instead they were concerned that the church hadn’t kept records of abuse accusations or reported cases to the police before 1998, and so “some child sex abusers might still be among Uniting Church clergy”. That was the opening paragraph of the article.

The Inquiry, and the media, was also concerned that the Church had paid out compensation to victims without reporting the abuse to the police. Apparently since 1998 the church had paid two million dollars to 63 victims who had been abused from the 1940s to 1986. That is, the abuse had occurred fifty to a dozen years earlier. I imagine that that delay, and the difficulties it would have caused in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting the perpetrators, might have been the reason the Uniting Church paid compensation without referring cases to the police. That didn’t, however, seem to be acceptable to the Inquiry.

As a member of the group ‘Uniting Church clergy’ the article made me feel sick. Again, as I said, not because of the pain of the victims, because I’m not a naturally nice person. But because the subtext of the article seemed to be that clergy are more likely than the general population to abuse children, and that parents should be concerned about the potential predations of ordained people. From reading this and other media articles it appears that being a minister has gone from being a reason people can trust someone like me with their children to a reason for people like me to be kept away from children.

So the depression was triggered by the suggestion that two central elements of my identity are incompatible. I am a minister. Being a minister in the Uniting Church isn’t a job for me; it’s a vocation in the original sense of the word. I feel I have been called to this role by God. In some jobs people can separate who they are from what they do; as a minister who I am is what I do. It’s one central element of my identity. It’s at the core of the story I tell the world about myself. And another central element of my identity is something that could be summarized as ‘being good with children’. As a single woman without children one of the ways I understand myself is as someone able to care for, communicate with, and support children to whom I’m not biologically related. I feel that God has called me to be ‘another person’ in the lives of children, someone who’s not a parent, possibly not even a family member, but who takes them seriously; basically someone on whose love they can rely as they grow up. It’s a role that ‘maiden aunts’ have always played, and I’ve always happily identified myself as that type of maiden aunt.

But I’m an ordained person. I’m a single ordained person without children of my own. I’m not male, but apart from that I am the absolute epitome of someone from whom parents now need to protect their children. I’ve been reassured by numerous people that of course no one would think that I as an individual would abuse children. What triggered my depression was the impression that people would worry about me as a member of a class of potential child abusers.

So, that’s why this week’s been bad. I know it’s absolutely self-indulgent of me to write about my feelings when the topic under discussion is child sexual abuse. My response is absolutely irrelevant when it comes to protecting children from abusers. But I’ve had to write it all out myself in order to understand what I’ve been feeling, and why a simple article in The Age left me marooned in my ‘depression pit’. Now I know. I hope that working out that my trigger is the suggestion that two essential elements of my identity are in conflict will mean that I don’t fall apart over the issue again.

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2 Responses to Reflection: Problems of identity

  1. Bob Faser says:

    Avril, I think there’s one factor that makes you a non-epitome of a threat: your gender. Every case of child sexual abuse of which I’m aware involves one shared factor: a male perpetrator.

    • avrilhj says:

      Bob, even in the case of sexual abuse perpetrators aren’t all men: “Although males clearly constitute the majority of perpetrators, a review of the evidence for female sex abusers (McCloskey & Raphael, 2005), suggests that females do abuse in a small proportion of cases. Data from the US National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) showed that males made up 90% of adult child sexual assault perpetrators, while 3.9% of perpetrators were female with a further 6% classified as “unknown gender” (McCloskey & Raphael, 2005). In a study comparing male and female perpetrated child sexual abuse using data from the 1998 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (Peter, 2009), 10.7% of child sexual abuse incidents were found to be perpetrated by females. McCloskey and Raphael (2005) argued that female perpetrators of child sexual abuse could be much higher as many cases go under-reported.” From http://www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/sheets/rs7/rs7.html

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