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Dr Sally Talbot: The plebiscite will stigmatise innocent people

Sally Official Headshot LargeOPINION: Dr Sally Talbot MLC

The 2012 Special Inquiry by Hon Peter Blaxell into child sexual abuse at St Andrew’s Hostel in Katanning shed light on the extent to which the legal and social environment of the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the misery of boys who were being sexually abused by men in authority.

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It is quite startling to be reminded that until quite recently the law failed to distinguish between homosexuality and paedophilia. But as Blaxell notes, right up until 1990 laws that prohibited homosexuality in WA effectively treated male homosexuality and paedophilia as falling into the same category of crime.

Blaxell did an outstanding job of documenting the effect of such legal and social bigotry on male children who were sexually abused by men.

While the criminal code certainly included penalties for sexual crimes, our legal system defined the majority of those crimes in relation specifically to girls.

So in 1975, for example, the only charge which could be brought against a male sexual abuser of boys was indecently dealing with a child under 14. Because sex between males was illegal, there was effectively no “age of consent” for males.

The result was that “the law tolerated sexual conduct with a boy who was 14 years or older, unless it could be proven to have occurred without the boy’s consent…”.

The dreadful fact is not just that boys were largely unprotected by the laws relating to sexual crimes but that in many circumstances boys were actually viewed as accomplices. The effect of this, as Blaxell concludes, was that boys “were at risk of being prosecuted for the same offence of which they complained.”

As recently as 1982, law students were taught that: “A boy under 14 years of age upon whom the offence [of sodomy] was committed and who, in fact, has knowledge of guilt, may be an accomplice.”

The Blaxell report extended its inquiry to include a second WA hostel in Northam and made a series of recommendations about what still needs to be done to ensure children are protected from sexual abuse and its consequences.

Four years later, the national child abuse Royal Commission has given us an even broader context for viewing Blaxell’s findings, with Cardinal George Pell’s recent testimony from Rome sending a chill through our community.

The detachment and at times breathtaking lack of empathy shown by Cardinal Pell prompted me to reread Blaxell’s observations about the legal and social environment of the decades leading up to 1990.

Contemplate for one moment the implications of adding criminal culpability to the toxic mixture of pain and horror faced by the child victims of the crimes perpetrated by Ridsdale, Searson and numerous others and it begins to feel like a miracle that anyone survived let alone found the courage to face George Pell and others who failed to intervene.

What becomes shockingly plain with hindsight is that the way the law worked in those decades served not only to protect the abusers but also to effectively silence the children, parents, teachers and other carers and community members who tried to put the horror into words and pursue those who clearly had the power to stop that horror.

There’s a lesson here about how much care we have to take to ensure that our laws and political processes do not act to increase the sum of human misery and suffering. In the case of both the St Andrew’s Hostel Special Inquiry and the current Royal Commission, we have been confronted with our past.

If those inquiries into historical abuse are to benefit us today, it will be because they shine a light into the dark corners where we have allowed evil to breed and help us understand that too often the effects of enshrining prejudice in law is that innocents suffer and the guilty are shielded. A more blatant example of the legal environment promoting unjust outcomes is hard to imagine.

I am not suggesting that those who supported the laws that existed in the 1970s and 1980s necessarily knew they were providing legal camouflage for paedophiles. It will be to our shame, however, if we pretend that the bigoted beliefs reflected in the laws discussed by Blaxell vanished once the law was reformed.

OUTinPerth readers know only too well that LGBTI people regularly find themselves coming face-to-face with that bigotry that stigmatises homosexuality.

That sad fact leads me to conclude my reflections of Blaxell on a thoroughly contemporary note. If the Turnbull Government gets its way, we will embark at the end of the year on the process of holding a non-binding plebiscite on marriage equality.

Judging by the experience of other countries that have held electorate votes on the issue, that process will entail extended debate which will include the expression of vigorous objections to allowing all Australians to marry.

While I accept that not all opponents of marriage law reform are homophobic, the kind of arguments proffered by some marriage equality opponents clearly contain more than vestiges of views that stigmatise homosexuality.

Better, surely, to show that we have learned from past mistakes. Laws and legal processes that provide camouflage for bigots and that stigmatise innocent people and practices are bad laws and processes. So let’s not risk giving a platform to the arguments that delayed the legalisation of homosexuality for so many decades in the last century.

Instead, let’s ask our federal parliamentarians to scrap the plebiscite option and simply debate the amendments in Parliament. That way we will be sure that when we end the contemporary ban on marriage equality we will also be removing some of the last remnants of a time of which we should all be ashamed.

Dr. Sally Talbot, MLC

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OUTinPerth reguarly publishes opinion pieces by members of the community. Contact editor@outinperth.com 

Image: (Front Page) Henderson Photographics

 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Tragically, the shockwaves are already being felt. I live in an electorate where the recently appointed Liberal member has been outspoken in his (pig ignorant) criticism of the safe schools program and his (pig ignorant) insistence that parents (including bigots) know best. Subsequent to his (pig ignorant) comments, I am reliably informed, there have been 7 suicides of school age kids. Of course, that information is not made public – because of fears of ‘copycat’ suicides. Sadly, whomever makes that call, hasn’t heard of social media.

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