A reader seeks advice in resolving one of the most distressing dilemmas ever tackled by this columnist. The mother of two daughters, aged one and three, habitually finds herself in the holidays in the company of a child abuser. This, at least, is what she has been told about the elderly father of her brother’s wife, who arrives each year at Christmas from interstate.
Despite claiming he abused her sexually over many years as a child, the sister-in-law maintains a relationship with her father so she and her kids can have a relationship with her mother, their grandma. Despite this, our reader says the sister-in-law “will not ever leave her own children unattended with her father. As soon as my husband and I had children, she put us on notice about her father’s past behaviour. He has never been reported or prosecuted.”
The situation has left the reader feeling “hijacked into being friendly to someone whose past actions I despise” and compromised in her capacity to ensure her daughters’ safety. What should she do? Put her foot down and refuse to attend further holiday events, forcing her kids to “miss out on wonderful times with their cousins and family” or grit her teeth and continue to watch her daughters like a hawk whenever the man is near?
Both are morally unsatisfactory options. Why should innocent children be punished by missing out on family events because of the alleged crimes of others? Why should their mother have to sacrifice her integrity to cover up and compensate for a pedophile?
She shouldn’t. Which is why, in the first instance at least, I’d advise against either and recommend a private chat with the sister-in-law. Not only might such a conversation provide reassurance about the substance of the accusations driving this dilemma, it might also allow our reader to ascertain whether continued silence about the abuse is really what the sister-in-law wants.
Parents are larger than life to their children. Where abuse was present but never acknowledged or atoned for, the adult child may still feel guilt as well as fear of the abuser, despite an intellectual understanding that they weren’t at fault and that the abuser can’t hurt them any more.
If this is the case for the sister-in-law, she may want someone to stand up and speak out. Despite being unable or unwilling to do so herself, she may yearn for someone else to confront the abuser with the enormity of his crime and demand he take responsibility for its rippling consequences.
It is hard to predict the outcome of such a confrontation, which could be done by post after the man returns home or, failing a satisfactory response, in person when holiday time rolls around again. A best-case scenario might see the man apologise and offer to observe restrictions on his access to children or, perhaps more realistically, to claim offence and huffily refuse to be in attendance at next year’s events.
Even if it goes badly – with the abuser ignoring letters or making heated denials in person – it’s hard to see how our reader could be worse off. Options of self-excluding or grinning-and-bearing would remain open, though they would be exercised in a more agitated social context.
But at least her conscience would be clear. Because unlike now she will know she did all she could to protect her children, and to refuse to stay silent about a terrible wrong.
Protection remains the paramount concern The Sydney Morning Herald