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Unsubstantiated Tongues


Personal Essay

Published in Enough is Enough: Artists and writers on gendered violence, by Perimeter Editions x CoVA (Centre of Visual Art at the University of Melbourne), Melbourne

October 2023

This publication was conceived on March 15, 2021, when more than one hundred thousand people marched across Australia in a series of March 4 Justice protests calling for gender equality and justice for victims of sexual assault. While these protests were motivated by anger at the lack of response by the Australian federal government to current and historic rape allegations, they were part a larger global movement that was gathering momentum. Edited by Vikki McInnes and designed by Kim Mumm Hansen, Enough: Artists and writers on gendered violence comprises creative responses to the issues highlighted in these protests. Responses are subjective, poetic, cathartic, and as fiercely political and deeply personal as the issues they address.

1621_Michel Lasne after Claude Vignon, Sancta Clara monilum exemplar_French, c. 1621-1667_

Saint Clare, cutting from a missal, c. 1425–1475

When I was eleven, I was told to pick my patron saint. I wasn’t Catholic, but I was permitted to partake in the sacred sacrament of Confirmation by default of attending the local Catholic school—the best school in the area, so my parents told me. I am not sure why, perhaps management hoped it would prompt a conversion, or perhaps there was a socially conscious teacher who knew of the pathologies of teenage children and therefore also knew it would serve the cause of unity to allow all to be included. I picked Saint Clare, whom I can remember nothing of except that I liked the sound of her name next to mine and that I am quite sure she appealed to me because she beheaded her husband. I look for evidence of this on the internet now and, while I can’t find it, I believe it to still be true. It’s the kind of memory you trace the origins of and when doing so look back and see your politics pulsing through you before you even knew to call them that yourself. 

I picked Saint Clare at the first Catholic school I attended, the one that preceded the second I attended, within which a teacher would hand us an A5 slip of pink paper with the accompanying warning that if we had partaken in any of the acts listed upon it, we had committed sin. Reading a horoscope, check. I wondered what kind of hell the girl who had just given my friend a blowjob in the chapel was destined for. Years later, I would remember one of my two favourite teachers and be able to distinguish in her the struggle of pretending to uphold the word of the Lord in a class where she was employed to uphold the word of my own religion, that of literature. A few years before that, moments after graduating, I would get an email from another old teacher asking me to meet him at a pub. 

The myth of Catholicism is this: we are allocated the position of liar upon the utterance of testimonies that are labeled ‘unfounded’ by the very people who live according to the ultimate suspension of evidence. I don’t deride this in itself. If Catholic school taught me anything it is an understanding of the meaning of faith, something that atheists, of which I am one, still need to understand if they think an appeal to rationality is the way through which to unravel the church. It is not about fact. But when it comes to accusations of sexual assault, it is a requirement by law that there be evidence, one demanded in public forums and political speeches by men who sanctimoniously live according to another law completely premised on the total suspension of that very thing. Surely they must know this themselves, how tightly woven that web of faith is, how insecurely it hinges on upholding its own myth, as evidenced when they subjected me to three rounds of interviews as an eleven-year-old in order to determine whether I would be granted entry into the castle walls. Not Catholic: shame on me. Myself and the other 5% of students who weren’t Catholic were reminded of this monthly, when we were denied the Body of Christ in front of the whole school, who, in turn, opened their mouths and swallowed it whole. 

Archbishop George Pell would bowl the ultimate ball of shame some years later when I was seventeen and freshly elected as captain of Chisholm House—one of two school houses named after a woman in a sea of men. Caroline Chisholm was a woman who became a saint because of her commitment to immigrant women and family welfare in Australia; an association with a Catholic accolade I am now happy to stand behind. At the time, I was proud to be the captain of the house that had won the athletics meet the past three years running, and not the one named after a woman who spent her life upholding other women. I hadn’t been taught to value her for anything other than her commitment to the ultimate He, God himself. 

The appointment as captain of Chisholm House meant, among other things, that I had to go to the annual St. Patrick’s Day mass, held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral itself. Elected student representatives from all of Victoria’s Catholic schools sat in that church, a sea of grammar students and then some like us, from a suburban Catholic school in an area known to be one of the main producers of crystal methamphetamine in the state. In Watsonia you would go to the library because teenage boys skated there without fail, and you could sit and watch as a young teen yourself, eating chips and gravy from the charcoal chicken shop that ‘went downhill when the Asians took over.’ That was Watsonia, and yet there we were in the cross-shaped cathedral, the one that stands as the pinnacle of Catholicism as far as the borders of Victoria can tell you. And there I was, crossing my arms across my chest, admitting to the head of the Catholic Church in Australia that I was not of faith and that I couldn’t receive the Body of Christ but would instead deign in mock-gratefulness to his blessing, he in turn absolving me of the ultimate sin of not being Catholic in the first place. He shook his head as he did it, I remember it so vividly, like that pink A5 slip. And I sat back in my pew knowing I hated him completely, tittering now that within the sacred walls of St. Patrick’s Cathedral I learnt to feel hate. 

It was a particularly painful piece of evidence years later when Pell would be accused and convicted of five counts of child sexual abuse. And it would be a confounding moment when he would argue, as many would attempt to do when faced with an accusation within the law, that there was a complete lack of evidence; that he never touched those kids. I am sure he has said at some point during his time on earth that he has felt the Lord pass through him, that he has been touched himself by the Lord, and I am sure he told his congregation this and I am sure they believed it. It is (not even) interesting whose personal testimony counts and when. If you’re a victim, there is inadmissible evidence. If you’re the accused, there is the ‘honest word’ of a man of God—a word treated favourably when it comes to parole hearings, prompting many to ‘find God’ while incarcerated, their quasi-quest for his absolution itself admissible evidence. 

The same hypocrisy can be waged against that Pentecostal man, who perhaps hasn’t said that the Lord passed through him but who has certainly received, according to the teachings, the Holy Spirit proper. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who, in blind faith—not having even looked at the word, this time the police report—believed his male friend Attorney-General Christian Porter on the grounds of a logic no different from women saying they believe women. Except of course, when considering the track record of men everywhere, the immeasurable number of female testimonies and, as is specific to this case, the track record of this particular friend. This contradiction in the meaning of faith sits at the heart of a society that claims to be structurally secular but which still says a prayer at the beginning of every parliamentary sitting and which elects male prime minister after male prime minister on the backbone of his nuclear family and his tangible commitment to a belief in God. When it comes down to it, it is always a denial of the pillars of my faith—of both believing women and believing in their potential—that keeps the structures intact. 

The thing is, we all know this by now, and we are organising through an intergenerational faith in each other. I believe that Christian Porter’s televised press conference was an instance of divine intervention, summoned forth for us as a turning of the tide by none other than Saint Clare herself, the patron saint of television and computer screens. And I believe it is no coincidence that the anonymous letter accusing Christian Porter was sent to Senator Penny Wong, chosen in particular for her historical commitment to the rights of women. In Penny there was faith. And I also believe that in Penny there is a history of other women senators, such as Senator Susan Ryan, who—just like Caroline Chisholm and Saint Clare (who, I now know, penned the first set of monastic guidelines written by a woman)—was a woman upholding other women in a sea of men. Ryan indefatigably created and lobbied for the Sexual Discrimination Act of 1984, on which we can lean for support to this very day. 

And yet, while living according to a set of teachings founded solely on the suspension of evidence—in the strength of faith—within these white Christian men who lead our country there ironically remains a faithful disregard in the word of women, who speak, apparently, in unsubstantiated tongues. Unfortunately for these men, we are a chorus and, on the backs of Clare and Caroline and Penny and Susan, we are compelled into crescendo by religious fervour. Together we speak up, the hymn of our faith in each other only getting louder.

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