Australian institutions show a shocking callousness to the welfare of children in its care, writes Alex McKinnon.
“It’s a sad story, and not of much interest to me.”
Back in March, that’s how Cardinal George Pell recalled the crimes of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale. That throwaway comment, given during testimony to the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, resonated so profoundly for more than its apparent callousness. For abuse survivors and their loved ones, it perfectly encapsulated the culture of silence, blame-shifting and sheer apathy among church and secular authorities that allowed men like Ridsdale to commit their crimes in the first place, and operate unchecked for decades.
Watching Peter Dutton’s 7.30 interview with Leigh Sales last week, after the Guardian Australia’s release of the Nauru Files revealed in horrifying detail the extent of abuse, assault, and mental anguish inflicted on asylum seekers in Australian offshore detention, those words came to mind again.
Dutton labelled the Nauru Files “hype”, tried to downplay their significance by highlighting the most innocuous reports rather than the most serious, suggested that asylum seekers are deliberately self-harming and making false complaints to try and get to Australia, and repeated the frequently-heard and risibly misleading refrain that because these things happen on Nauru, they’re not Australia’s concern.
In other words, as he has done for years now when confronted with overwhelming evidence that he presides over the sexual and physical degradation of vulnerable people on an almost industrial scale, Dutton’s response was to minimise, deflect and dismiss.
That same frame of mind was on display in the aftermath of Four Corners’ shocking report on the Don Dale youth detention centre three weeks ago. Like Dutton and Pell, the Northern Territory government’s first reaction to the public revelations of horrific abuse on their watch was not to own up and admit culpability, but to do the bare minimum while shifting the blame by lashing out in every direction it could.
While John Elferink was stood down as Corrections Minister by NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, Elferink retains the titles of Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and, most insultingly of all, Minister for Children and Families. Giles later said that Elferink should be “applauded” for his handling of juvenile detention in the NT, before bizarrely accusing Four Corners of trying to rig the upcoming NT election. His government, meanwhile, decided to counter-sue two of the boys tear-gassed at Don Dale for $160,000 in damages from an earlier, unrelated escape attempt, although Giles promised to halt the suit a short time later after public backlash.
"They’re emblematic of a frightening willingness among Australian authorities to ignore or actively suppress the abuse of people in their care"
The atrocities Four Corners, the Guardian, and the Royal Commission revealed (and continue to reveal) can’t be viewed in isolation. Taken together, and with an understanding of the wider contexts in which they transpired, they’re emblematic of a frightening willingness among Australian authorities to ignore or actively suppress the abuse of people in their care, especially non-white people, if it’s politically convenient.
As the Royal Commission has shown us, it’s exactly these conditions that allow predators to thrive. There are Gerald Ridsdales in offshore and youth detention—people in positions of immense power and authority who are able to carry out their desires to hurt and degrade people safe in the knowledge that their superiors are looking the other way. People hired or contracted to run Australian detention centres of all kinds have repeatedly made headlines for delighting in their power to inflict suffering on their charges, especially on the children in their care.
According to the Files, security guards have allegedly laughed at girls sewing their lips together, hit children on the nose, bounced children on their laps while whispering in their ears, and offered extended showers to children in exchange for watching them. One eyewitness account details how a guard hit a five-year-old girl in the back of the head “so hard it lifted her off her feet and sent her crashing to the ground”. Another child complained that a guard grabbed him by the throat, twice slammed his head into the ground and threw a chair at him. Human rights groups are even calling for the child sex abuse Royal Commission to investigate the allegations that have been raised on Nauru.
"They are playgrounds for sadists."
Footage from Don Dale, meanwhile, shows guards laughing as they tear-gas a boy, with one of them encouraging his colleagues to let the boy approach them so he could “pulverise the little fucker”. In the days following the Four Corners revelations, a photo emerged of Don Dale guards bragging about their newfound notoriety on Snapchat, with a caption boasting “4 corners crew” and featuring the hashtag “#spithood”.
The kind of people who do these things can only operate when they’re not scared of getting caught. As the Catholic Church and other institutions did for decades, our youth and offshore detention systems and the people who run them provide evil people with everything they need to go to work. They are playgrounds for sadists.
Speaking about the Nauru Files on Insiders last week, Barrie Cassidy said it best: “What happened in the abuse cases in institutions throughout Australia? What was the biggest problem? When kids complained, the adults didn’t listen. These kids may not be Australians, but they’re children. And the adults are not listening.”
Sad stories, to be sure. But not of much interest to us.
Alex McKinnon is a journalist based in Sydney. Most recently he served as political and opinion editor of pop-culture website Junkee and editor of the Star Observer, Australia's longest-running LGBTI newspaper.