By Brian Mark Hennessy

I was born in 1946. We always think that the start of our life is that specific moment of our birth, but of course it is not precisely.

Conception is the true moment of our creation and earthly existence. Our development in the womb takes place in the safest and most secure environment that we will ever experience in our lives. My conception took place at the most destructive time that is known to humanity. It was when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has always perplexed me that I was given life at the very moment when so many other lives perished. I was, of course, unaware of that devastating moment in human history when I was safe and secure in my mother’s womb.

Our actual date of birth denotes the moment of the awakening of our awareness of the world around us, but it also denotes the moment of ever increasing consciousness that we are helpless in the perilous world into which we are born. For years to come we remain dependent on those around us for our safety and survival. Until the time of adulthood we will continue to need care and protection.

It is a poignant thought for me personally that when I was born the world was in ruins. I was aware as an infant walking to school that every other house was a bombed-out shell or hole in the ground. Even later as a young teenager, from the steps of Portsmouth’s destroyed Guildhall, I could still see a full square mile of Blitz rubble in front of me. Since the end 1946, the year of my birth, however, humanity was already striving in earnest to create a better world for children – and UNICEF, the United International Children’s Emergency Fund, as it was then called, had been created under the umbrella of the United Nations.
More than seventy years later we think of most children as being safe – and it is true that most children are – but it is not a moment for complacency. UNICEF reports in our world today are not just saddening, but alarming and all adults need to take stock of what is happening around them – not just in a general global sense – but in our very own neighbourhoods. There, unseen and often unheard, children are suffering. UNICEF reports that:
“Three quarters of children aged from 2-4 are regularly subjected to violent discipline by their parents or caregivers. Worldwide, half of all school-age children live in countries where corporal punishment at school is not fully prohibited, leaving 732 million children without legal protection. Bullying is experienced by 1 in 3 students between the ages of 13-15. That is close to 130 million students worldwide. Columbia, Honduras, Brazil, El Salvador and the Bolivian Republic of Venezuela had the highest homicide rates among adolescents age 10-19 as of 2015. Nearly half of all adolescent homicides occur in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Of the 59 school shootings that resulted in at least one reported fatality in the last 25 years, nearly three quarters of them happened in the United States”.
“Violence against children in all its forms, from the slap of a parent to the unwanted sexual advance of a peer, is harmful, morally indefensible and a violation of every child’s human rights. Every five minutes a child dies as a result of violence. Millions of children live in fear of physical, emotional and sexual violence. All children have the potential to be happy, healthy and successful, but witnessing or experiencing violence erodes that potential and affects a child’s health, wellbeing and future. The effects can stay with them for life. It is for all of us to stand up and speak out to end violence against children, recognise it and report it.”

For the Victim, however, we should also be aware that the destructive effects of child abuse, in whatever shape or form it was inflicted upon them, does not necessarily cease when they reach maturity – and nor will the pain automatically cease with the Victim’s own adult acknowledgement of the facts of the abuse that they suffered in their childhood. Their resolution of the damage done to them can be so severe that the effects of the abuse can – and most probably will – cling to them in their adulthood in the same way as would the inheritance of a physically destructive and progressive disease.

The psychological destruction caused by childhood abuse can be made worse if those children in later adulthood are unlucky enough to have been abused by someone in a powerful organisation such as the Catholic Church. Despite all the pronouncements of the Vatican, local Bishops and the leaders of Religious Institutes, the rightful cause of seeking acknowledgement from those responsible for the day to day monitoring and governance of offenders of abuse can be harrowing.
Of course, it would be most wrong of me to generalise and there are many within the Catholic Church, both clerics and laypeople, who feel both horror and shame at the flagrantly egregious and devastating effects of the failure of some elements within the Church Hierarchy to embrace victims in their own community. Just today, one such victim of child sexual abuse said to me:
“You have no idea what it has been like. It has been years of pure hell. Birthdays, Christmases and holidays have passed by with the sword of Damacles hanging over me. It has led me to sickness, both physical and mental. I have had work problems, family problems and relationship problems. The Religious Order of the one who abused me even threatened that if I proceeded they would ruin me financially and leave me in penury for the rest of my life. It is all too much”.

UNICEF – like me – is 71 years old now, but the need to protect children will, most regrettably, never cease. The work to eradicate one of the world’s most injurious evils – which is the infliction of ill treatment, sexual molestation and psychological harm upon children remains with us today and it will be there in the future.

Those of us who are the Survivors of sexual abuse by members of the Comboni Missionary Order have also learned another lesson from our own experiences. That is that in this world, there are institutions that claim for themselves the moral values of exemplary righteousness, but, in reality, they use a facade of ritual, vestments and Biblical mutterings on one day of the week – only to expend their energy on the next six days on the concealment and denial of a history of callous physical and mental injury to children.

This forum, entitled “The Comboni Missionaries – A Childhood in their Hands”, was founded specifically to assist and open up a “space” for those sexually abused by clerics of the Catholic Religious Institution that was founded with the name of “Comboniani Missionari” – sometimes also known historically as the “Verona Fathers”. Those survivors of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of that Religious Institute – extend a welcome to all those who were abused as children to use this space to express their pain and anxieties. We understand you in a way that others cannot – and in a way that many others with manifestly irrefutable accountability for the abuse, like the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy, will deny to you.

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