The Academy award-winning movie Spotlight depicted appalling cases of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston. While the Australian movie industry is not as hegemonic as Hollywood, it is an important part of the cultural landscape.
Alongside a national inquiry by a royal commission, Australians are beginning to tell their stories of having endured abuse. Don’t Tell is a courtroom drama based on one woman’s story of abuse by a teacher in an Anglican boarding school.
The central character, Lyndal, was a shy country girl who was pleased to be singled out by a popular and talented teacher. But she was being groomed for abuse, and ended up suffering many rapes. At the heart of the abuse was the teacher’s injunction to keep it a secret. When the teacher was confronted with the evidence, he committed suicide.
As depicted in the film, Lyndal (played by Sara West) is not a likable young protagonist, and the movie shows this well. She is a hard-smoking, hard-drinking rebel with few morals or social graces. But, as the story makes clear, this is a natural response to her years of trauma.
After the abusive teacher died, there could be no just punishment for him. But Lyndal insisted on having her day in court by suing the school, and hence the church, for negligence.
At so many points in the story, Lyndal threatens to go under. Indeed, the movie begins with the suicide of another victim. Lyndal’s parents are baffled at how to best support their daughter, and the actors give beautiful performances showing their near-mute despair. Lyndal faces pressure from her legal team — and the church’s well-heeled silks and pompous bishops make classic villains.
It’s hard to watch, but the story is really well told, and the film has been acclaimed in many circles.
About 30 percent of Australian children are educated in non-government schools, and most of them are church schools. Anglican schools are mostly high-fee, exclusive institutions — charging about $25,000 per year. Historically, boarding schools offered a first-class education to the children of wealthy farmers. Most church schools are financially independent. The school in this story was wholly owned by the church, so when Lyndal sued, the diocese was also liable.
But there was an even bigger twist: at the time of the court case, the Most Rev. Peter John Hollingworth, Archbishop of Brisbane, had been appointed governor general of the country, the highest office in the land. The public response to his perceived mishandling of this case and similar cases forced his ignominious resignation.
Beyond the movie, the Anglican Church in Queensland, and indeed throughout the country, set up inquiries. Thorough rules and protocols have been enacted in schools so that potential abusers find it much harder to slip under the radar. For example, Anglican schools in Queensland now have trained child-protection officers on staff, and there are background checks for all potential employees, and regular audits. Any allegation of abuse are referred straight to the police.
Most important, the culture has changed. The church has stopped blustering and encourages victims to report to independent professionals who handle all reports appropriately.
A spokesman for the Anglican Church in Queensland summed it up. “The school has adopted a culture where children and parents are believed when they raise concerns,” he told TLC. “We are hopeful that Lyndal’s story encourages other brave survivors of abuse to come forward to receive the care and assistance they deserve.”