Telling Stories with Ribbons

Ballarat, Loud Fence and the Aftermath of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

Dave McDonald, University of Melbourne

In May 2015, colourful ribbons began appearing on a number of sites throughout the Victorian town of Ballarat. At the same time, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was conducting public hearings into the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat. Throughout the course of these hearings, 17 adult men gave evidence of their abuse at the hands of Diocesan officials. Ten were abused while students at St Alipius Boy’s School, and seven were abused while students at St Patrick’s College. The truer figure is far, far higher.

The placement of ribbons occurred in this context. Although knowledge of child sexual abuse in Ballarat institutions predated the Royal Commission, its public hearings brought its scale into the open. Prompted by the accounts of survivors who gave evidence, these ribbons came to represent a visual statement of solidarity by the community at large. Becoming known as Loud Fence, this phenomenon has gone on to become national in its reach, and at times international.

My project investigates how Loud Fence can be understood as a practice of acknowledgment. Since the 1980s, institutional child sexual abuse has been ‘discovered’ as a widespread social problem. This has been met with a number of high-profile public inquiries internationally, alongside other official responses such as redress, litigation and apology. These official state responses rely overwhelmingly upon oral histories of abuse. On the other hand, Loud Fence comprises a perceptibly simple visual gesture in which sites associated with abuse are marked as such. Through this, colourful ribbons have come to transform institutional fences from metaphors of silence into canvases onto which responsibility is projected.

By attending to issues of visuality in the stories we tell concerning institutional child sexual abuse, I seek to offer new ways of thinking about collective responsibility in the wake of mass harm.

Dave McDonald is a Lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His research examines quasi-legal practices of justice, particularly in the context of institutional child sexual abuse.

Images: Ribbons outside St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat. Photographs © Dave McDonald