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To Pell and Back

by Meshel Laurie
The Stick – Episode 1

Here’s what the Dalai Lama never told me about altruism – it’s bloody terrifying.
Since 2006, when I read his book The Art of Happiness at work, I’ve made altruism my one true goal. More than generosity, more than kindness and compassion, altruism is about concern for the others, and concern is very difficult to switch off.

In 2006, it was a handy tool in dealing with dead shits at work. It helped me to find some common ground with them, because there were lots of things we could do together that made all of us happy. From buying a round of café coffees once a week to suggesting we chip into each other’s favourite charities at Christmas, everyone got in on the act and altruism actually did what nothing and no one else had been able to do: it bonded us as a team.

Since then, though, altruism has at times become a very heavy weight on my shoulders; at those times I have to hear the warning bells. I have to accept I’m not applying wisdom to my altruism, and in fairness to the Dalai Lama, he most certainly has mentioned the importance of that.

I happened to find myself recently in a situation in which I could help some people who’ve been woefully under-assisted since their childhoods, Ballarat’s survivors of sexual abuse by clergy. I phoned one of the men in the group to ask if he’d let me interview him for my podcast, The Nitty Gritty Committee. My call interrupted a rather busy afternoon in which he and other survivors were trying to figure out how to raise money to get themselves to Rome so they could witness Cardinal George Pell’s final appearance before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I won’t go into why the men wanted to attend because I can’t really know the many complicated reasons, and also because frankly, I don’t care why. I just knew from the moment the wish was expressed that I had to do anything in my power to make it happen. As it turned out, it didn’t take much to get the money together, just the establishment of a GoFundMe page and a lot of social media call-outs got the ball rolling. We thought we needed about $55,000 – but within a day and a half we’d raised $70 000 – and that was before Tim Minchin got involved.

Tim’s song “Come Home” brought all sorts of attention and lots of donors who wouldn’t have heard about the campaign otherwise, but it also made the whole exercise controversial suddenly, and that was the first time I got frightened.
It never occurred to me that anyone could find a negative in the idea of supporting survivors of child rape and yet there they were in print, on TV and radio. Andrew Bolt, Amanda Vandstone and others, finally with an excuse to publicly support their mate George Pell. They claimed he was the victim of a lefty lynch-mob, no less.

The twitter trolling began suddenly and I couldn’t understand it, until a friend in Sydney phoned to let me know we’d been discussed at length on AM talkback that afternoon. Some went to the trouble of finding my website and leaving angry comments for me, accusing me of everything from Satanism to lesbianism with equal condemnation. It was truly bizarre.

All the while, the survivors were sitting in a courtroom in Ballarat, listening to old men’s lies and wondering if the Commission would choose a venue in Rome that would enable them to go and witness the testimony of the one old man with the power to end it all.

Those men began to fracture, and by the time the commission announced they could go, I was almost certain that I didn’t want them to.

I’ve never been more afraid in my life than I was when those men boarded the flight to Rome.

They were accompanied by clinical staff and each survivor had supplied documentation from doctors and counsellors to say they were strong enough to handle the trip, but the responsibility of it all weighed very heavily on me that afternoon.

The suicide rate among survivors is heartbreakingly high, as is the incidence of drug and alcohol dependence. I felt like I had sent these people into the lion’s den, Rome, the seat of Catholicism with all of its symbolism and authority, and I really had no idea if they could handle it. I would be a long way away if it turned out they couldn’t.

That’s incredibly arrogant, I know. I’d be the least helpful person to have there in an emergency but such was my feeling of responsibility, of concern. The warning bells were deafening. My concern for this group of people had outgrown my usefulness. It had also impeded my usefulness to others who rely on me.

I had to find some wisdom, and fast!

I took myself on a little weekend retreat, and I found the peacefulness I needed to walk away, not on a personal level, but on an altruistic level from the survivors of Ballarat. I’ve done what I could, and I know I’ve done a great job, but I know too that it’s time for me to melt back into the background now, just another of the supportive masses who donated to show love and support for a group of people who thought no one wanted to know.

In the end, the GoFundMe campaign raised just over $200,000. The trip cost just over $70,000, by the time we had paid for travel insurance and transfers, on top of which we offered a food allowance, as some of the survivors have been unable to work for years. The remainder goes to existing mental health services in Ballarat, to help them cope with the ramifications of the sexual abuse by clergy that will be felt in the community for decades to come.

To the survivors, thank you, all my love to you, and thank you for an opportunity I will never forget. Thank you also to Gorgi Coughlin, Michelle Nicol, Megan Williams and Tim Minchin, without whom, for various reasons, the trip would not have been possible.

The Stick Critter - Shaun Tan

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