I almost choked on my Weetbix. There, in the newspaper, Gary Featherstone, music teacher, was facing charges for multiple counts of child sexual assault. Gary Featherstone had taught my daughters piano for years.
Ashen faced, I asked my daughters if anything untoward had occurred during their private lessons with Featherstone, at his home. Both turned to me, clearly bewildered. No, they said, nothing. They liked Gary and he had never done anything that had made them feel either creepy or unsafe. I showed them the headline in the paper and both girls immediately denied that such events were even possible.
‘What will happen if they find him guilty, Mum?’ asked the youngest.
‘He will go to jail,’ I replied, and both girls burst into tears.
‘But that will kill him,’ said the oldest, ‘He’s such a piano teacher.’
‘And he had such a nice cat, Treble, and he loved it so much. Ohhhh, what will happen to Treble, Mum?’ howled the youngest.
That was a couple of years ago, and we have been quietly following the case. Gary Maxwell Featherstone pleaded guilty to 12 counts of child sex abuse and, two weeks ago, was jailed for 17 years. We long ago accepted that he had committed the offences against the four boys who accused him, and my girls have tried to reconcile their memory of the kind and gentle piano teacher they knew with the monster they were presented with in the press.
When we read about his sentence, we did not dispute the justice of it, or the seriousness of the crimes he had committed. We did not shrink from recognising the full horror of what he had done to the young boys in his care, but nor could we pretend that we did not feel genuine pity for Gary Featherstone too whether he had been publicly declared a monster or not.
Because the modern day monster is the paedophile, it seems he is without redemption, forever condemned, the ultimate pariah.
The troubling case of John Lewthwaite is another example of our difficulty in dealing with our horror of the abuse of children. Lewthwaite, when a severely emotionally disturbed teenager, committed a truly ghastly crime: brutally murdering a five-year-old girl, while attempting to kidnap her brother. He went to jail for the crime and served 25 years.
In jail Lewthwaite received psychiatric treatment and was a model prisoner. He claimed to have come to terms with both his homosexuality and his crime. Despite the understandable objections of his victim’s family, he was eventually released on parole and lived quietly and law abidingly in the community for many years. Recently he was arrested for lewd behaviour on Wanda Beach and was convicted on Monday. As a parolee, he risks returning to jail. He claims he was merely nude sunbathing with his life partner of many years.
The current NSW Government is struggling with the fall out from a Minister being accused of child sex abuse, and the recent Democratic triumph in the American mid-term elections is believed to have been influenced by a similar scandal involving a particularly righteous Christian Republican, Michael Foley, and his behaviour with congressional pages.
Many mainstream churches are still reeling from revelations of decades (possibly centuries) of priests guilty of such abuse often covered up by those in power without, it seems, any regard for the vulnerable and innocent victims. Most of us will never forget the sight of our then Governor-General, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, blaming a 14-year-old girl for her abuse by an Anglican priest.
Indeed, until the 1980s, our response to such accusations was often to punish the children for telling terrible lies. I have a friend who fled to South Australia to escape the molestation of the dentist she worked for as a teenager. Her parents simply refused to believe that their old friend could possibly take such advantage of their daughter. Rather, they believed their daughter to be a wicked and pathological liar. We still see this mentality in action in the current scandal on Pitcairn Island, where many still accuse the young girls claiming to have been abused there of being liars.
Things are indisputably better now we understand that it is exceedingly rare for children to lie about such things, and that we recognise the responsibility for abusive behaviour always lies with the adult and never with the child. This recognition has enabled us to teach children to say ‘No’ to adult behaviour that makes them feel uncomfortable and to tell someone they trust about it immediately.
And yet our previous state of denial about such behaviour has now, it seems, flipped into a persecutory rage. A rage perhaps fuelled by guilt about our past desire to protect ourselves from facing the awful truth. We are so angry with the monstrous paedophile, perhaps, because we are also angry with ourselves.
But these men are not monsters, they are human beings like the rest of us. Most of them are the adult manifestation of an abused or traumatised child. A child who obligingly kept his own trauma secret as we expected him to. And so, he is also the victim of our denial.
A psychiatrist who specialises in such behaviour once explained to me that because the sex drive is the most powerful impulse in men, any psychological damage that occurs in youth will often express itself as a form of sexual perversion. The severity of the original abuse and the age at which it occurred will predetermine the severity of the perversion in adult life. If a boy is traumatised at age nine, he will often grow up to fancy nine-year-olds. If he was traumatised pre-verbally, he will sometimes grow up to be the kind of psychotic serial killer that so fascinates popular culture.
These men, looked at in this light, are examples of societal failure, a failure to protect them or believe them when they were vulnerable children, which then led them to exact (unconsciously, of course) a terrible revenge.
Gary Featherstone, in other words, was probably once as much a victim as the boys he has since abused. To their credit, they have dealt with the abuse, not by hiding it, but by having their abuser tried and convicted. They probably will now have no need to act out their trauma in a warped and covert fashion because they have broken the silence, exposed the secret, and ended the inheritance of pain.
Would I feel this sympathetic if my daughters had also been among Featherstone’s victims? It is a fair question. I suspect I would not. But some people have been able to. Gary Lynch, Anita Cobby’s father, has publicly refused to be consumed by hatred for her brutal killers. He exemplifies a calm intelligence and the grace of forgiveness.
The father of the four young women who were slaughtered by one girl’s schizophrenic boyfriend has followed a similar path, wishing nothing for their killer but that he be kept out of harm’s way. Bud Welch, whose daughter, Julie Marie Welch, was killed in Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing, became a public advocate against the death penalty — another parent who did not react by baying for blood.
In their example lies our only hope.
It is so deeply human to feel compelled to lash out after we have been hurt that, if we are too small and powerless to do so at the time, then we run the great risk of growing up to repeat the same abuse on others equally small and powerless later. In the face of a justice system and a press howling for retribution and vengeance, even the biggest and baddest of abusers must re-experience the very feelings of powerlessness they felt as a small, victimised child.
And maybe, tragically, that was the whole point of the horrible exercise.
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