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Tuesday, 16 August 2016 11:06

Tears of compassion replace tear gas

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Sr Leone Wittmack rsc 150In the wake of the exposé of the Don Dale Correctional Facility, we have the opportunity to advocate for a better future, writes Sister Leone Wittmack rsc to the Northern Territory CatholicCare community in a message that also speaks to those of us outraged by this injustice.

Treating violence with violence whether it be in words or in actions never produces a peaceful and life giving solution. It only creates further anger which in most cases leads to further violence. We only have to look at the violence that is occurring in many parts of our world today where violence is used to prevent further violence, to witness and understand that.

Any of us who saw the Four Corners tv program [on the Don Dale Correctional Facility] would have been brought to tears at what we saw. From the media and community response, it would seem that many people felt the same. Could this really be Australia? The torture and the removal of all human rights for these young people being held in juvenile detention were palpable and shocking. In fact the two stories preceding the Four Corners program only added to my continued questioning of just how Australia regards the law and the declaration of human rights.

On Sunday night we saw on Australian Story the plight of a young woman now married trying to seek asylum and refugee status in our country and the absolute refusal by government to address this matter in a humane way respecting the human rights of that young woman. Not being a threat to anyone, she remains in detention. We also saw the story of an old gentleman in a nursing home being abused by a staff member and almost suffocated as he was held down with a cloth over his nose and mouth. He couldn’t escape the situation either and in a way was being held in detention. Then finally and perhaps the most shocking of all was the treatment of young Aboriginal boys being beaten and sprayed with teargas after weeks in solitary confinement; being strapped and bound to chair with a white sheet over his head and a belt around his neck all in the name of protecting this young person from self harm! I am sure it brought many of us to tears and perhaps left us ashamed that as Australians this is happening in our own country.

The shocking treatment of Aboriginal people in custody is not new. Twenty years ago there was another Royal Commission into deaths of Aboriginal people in custody and one may ask what has been the long term result of those recommendations?

As I put aside my anger, shock and tears, I began to reflect on the people who each day treat people with kindness and dignity. And in Australia there are many of those who I am sure today are equally as shocked and angered as we are. These are probably the people who are now asking: “Could I have done more? What can I do to make sure that we don’t allow this to happen again?” The people who don’t care wouldn’t be asking those questions.

I believe that for us in CatholicCare we are one of those groups of people. I believe that we can be proud of how our programs are about caring and empowering people and families both young and elderly to have a better life. The staff of CatholicCare can be proud of the compassionate way we go about our work, day in and day out, as we walk in solidarity with the many vulnerable people who come to us for support and care. This is not easy at times but the fact that we stay and come back the next day is testament to our culture based on solid and compassionate values and hopefully shows those with whom we work that we are here to stay. Our programs are positive programs that enable people to have hope and a sense of well being. Human dignity and respect, justice and equal rights, advocacy, walking in solidarity with people and promoting peace are at the core of the culture of CatholicCare and our staff are the embodiment of that culture.

A number of you contacted me yesterday voicing your concern and your heaviness of heart. In one of our Regions, you said that after debriefing with each other following the Four Corners program you made a firm commitment to go out and work even harder with the youth in your programs to prevent them from ending up in detention. In another Region you attended a rally to walk in solidarity with the families and those in detention and to voice your concerns about what has been happening to our Aboriginal youth in these situations. In another Region, some people attended media conferences which asked the hard questions. Your tears of compassion in a symbolic way certainly washed over the tear gas that we saw being used in those detention centres.

Sometimes we have a feeling of helplessness when faced with such situations. However we do have the opportunity to advocate for a better future. Director of CatholicCare NT Jayne Lloyd sent out an email to everyone in which she stated:

  • We will strongly support the reform process that will no doubt come out of the Royal Commission, in addition we would be advocating for;
  • Broader reform of the child protection system that includes an investment in early intervention, as preventing children from entering the child protection and justice systems is the biggest contribution we can make
  • Transparency in the oversight of children in statutory care and in youth detention, that is independent of government and recognises the individual needs of each child and young person
  • Repelling legislation that breaches human rights
  • Engagement with Aboriginal leadership and communities in regards to the reform process

This point of advocacy and going to work each day with a firm commitment to work with our clients to make their lives more peaceful and fulfilling is what we can do to make this world, Australia and the Northern Territory a better place for everyone - where the only tears that we will ever come across are tears of compassion. Tear gas will be no more!

Sister of Charity Leone Wittmack is the General Manager for Mission and Culture at CatholicCare NT and also served as Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) Director from 2013-2014.

This article, edited with permission from the author, was first published in its original form in the eMagazine of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) on 29 July 2016.  

Read the response of CatholicCare NT Director Jane Lloyd on the announcement of  a royal commission into youth detention in the Northern Territory.

Read more about the work of CatholicCare NT.