Cardinal George Pell walked free from Barwon Prison this afternoon after the High Court overturned his convictions on child sexual abuse charges. Pell was serving a six-year jail sentence after he was convicted in 2018 of sexually abusing two choirboys at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral between 1996 and 1997. The High Court’s decision means Pell has been acquitted of all charges laid against him.

There is a lot to take in, but the High Court’s judgement has an undoubtedly harrowing effect on survivors of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and exploitation.

“Today’s findings have brought up all sorts of emotions,” Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation, told P.TV. The national support service provides phone and email-based counselling to adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. “We have had people already calling our helpline feeling overwhelmed with strong emotions of rage, disgust, and horror.”

If today’s news has brought up a traumatic experience for you, Kezelman encourages you to reach out to someone in your network who can help you feel safe and heard, and to practise what you normally do to help ground yourself in the present, like breathing exercises or yoga.

“Especially now, during the COVID-19 period, even though we’re physically isolated, we can still be socially connected,” she said.

But if you prefer, you can also reach out to a hotline. The Blue Knot helpline (1300 657 380) operates 9am to 5pm (AEST), seven days a week. “It’s manned by trauma counsellors who will try and understand how you’re feeling and what it is you need in that moment,” Kezelman explained.

“They will work with you to help you feel safe,” she said. “They are there to help calm your nervous system and to make you feel more secure in yourself, to help you understand your inner strengths because many survivors can’t see the strengths they have. To acknowledge you have survived is an incredible strength.”

The Survivors And Mates Support Network (SAMSN) is a specialist support service for male survivors of child sexual abuse and their supporters, including parents, siblings, and partners who may have just been on the receiving end of a disclosure.

“We’re really just trying to provide a safe space for men to come forward and disclose,” Craig Hughes-Cashmore, the managing director and CEO of SAMSN, said. “We’ve found that if you can provide that, many men will talk about their experience of abuse and their struggles.”

If you phone the SAMSN hotline (1800 472 676) – 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday – you will have the option to talk to another survivor. As overused as the phrase may seem, Hughes-Cashmore wants you to know that you are not alone. “We have people who are available to speak to you, who would have had similar shared experiences. Real understanding without any judgement.”

If you prefer, you can also speak to a social worker on the SAMSN hotline. There’s no expectation or pressure to talk about your experiences. “A lot of the guys think that they have to talk about their story in detail, but it’s really more about how survivors have dealt with the trauma, and tapping into the resilience they didn’t even realise they have.”

The most important thing friends and family members can do is listen, Kezelman shared. “Don’t try and solve things. Hear, believe them. Validate how they’re feeling.” And if you don’t quite know how to speak to a friend or family member about a traumatic experience, gently ask around the issue.

“Ask them, ‘Is this something you would like to share with me?’, ‘Has something happened to you?’. Tell them you are here to talk, to listen,” she said. “Prodding people and digging into people’s stories is not at all advised. It’s not about the details of what happened to someone, it’s about how what happened is affecting them now in the present day.”

“So many people want to rush in and help,” Hughes-Cashmore added, “it’s a natural human impulse to do that, but I think that listening is paramount.”

Help is available. If you would like to read more about some other sexual assault support services, you can find some listed below.

1800 Respect 

If you’d like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online. The national hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Bravehearts 

The Bravehearts’ national information and helpline provides counselling and support relating to child sexual assault and exploitation. You can contact Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, 8.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday (AEST).

Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) 

The Victorian CASA Forum is the peak body of the 15 Centres Against Sexual Assault, and the Victorian Sexual Assault Crisis Line (after hours). Together, CASA is dedicated to supporting all survivors of sexual assault. You can use this interactive map to find your nearest centre.

NSW Health Sexual Assault Services

On this page you can find a network of specialist Sexual Assault Services across the state. Every local health district has a Sexual Assault Service that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Queensland Sexual Assault Helpline

You can call the Queensland Sexual Assault Helpline on 1800 010 120, between 7.30am and 11.30pm, seven days a week. The service provides support and counselling to Queenslanders who have, or thinks they may have been sexually assaulted or abused. The helpline is also open to those who believe someone they care about may have been assaulted or abused.

If you are struggling, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 if you are having suicidal thoughts. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

Image: Getty Images