“Don’t forget the children,” says artist
New exhibition to reveal the hidden world of church sexual abuse victims
For the past four years, artist Adam James K has been immersed in a dark world, channelling the pain and suffering of child victims of sexual abuse by priests.
During that time, the Blue Mountains-based artist has produced 400 works, mostly charcoal drawings that powerfully depict the abused children’s anguish and horror.
He also has completed a painting of himself in the guise of a pedophile priest.
“I wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget what the children had been through” – Adam James K
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His exhibition, entitled Public Stoning of a Pedophile Priest, opens at the May Street Gallery, St Peters, in Sydney’s inner west on September 1. The Exhibition will run until September 10, before a planned national tour. The works are for sale, but James K says he doesn’t expect to sell any: they do not make for comfortable viewing.
“When Jesus said ‘Suffer the little children’, I don’t think the raping and torturing of children was what he had in mind,” the artist says, referencing the King James Bible translation of an invitation that Jesus offers in Luke 18:16.
In another life James K was Adam Knott, a news photographer based in Sydney and, for 15 years, a celebrity photographer in Los Angeles. His work is in the permanent collections of many galleries including the Art Gallery of NSW.
Though he was never abused himself he became enraged at the thought that children were being abused. He began work on this mixed-media show in 2013, soon after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced.
“The Royal Commission was about the institutional responses and I felt very early on that I wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget what the children had been through, the suffering that they’ve endured, not only at the time but for the rest of their lives,” James K tells Eternity.
“For me it was about the children, the survivors, but also the poor ones who couldn’t take it any longer.” – Adam James K
“The illnesses and the mental and psychological problems that these children endure, that these survivors endure, are quite horrific; [the abuse] ruins their lives and a lot of them actually go on to commit suicide. I wanted to make sure that we don’t forget the children because we never actually see the children and we never see their pain.
“The Royal Commissioner has done a fantastic job, but for me it was about the children, the survivors, but also the poor ones who couldn’t take it any longer, the ones who actually had to take their own lives because they just couldn’t handle it any more.”
The other horror James K has sought to portray is the lack of remorse he feels has been demonstrated by many priests who have committed such atrocities. In one picture, God Made Me This Way, James K shows a group of clergy who covered up the extent of clerical sexual abuse. They are gathered around an altar on which a small naked child lies like a human sacrifice. At the top of the picture is an unattributed quote showing a disturbing lack of contrition: God made me this way.
“His reply was ‘God has forgiven me’. I was so disappointed and so devastated.” – Adam James K
James K explains that this lack of remorse has bewildered him for a long time.
“I’d met a priest who was a paedophile, someone I knew personally. That affected me profoundly as well because hearing his excuses or his reasons I just couldn’t fathom it,” he says.
“When I asked him if any of the allegations were true … his reply was ‘God has forgiven me’. I was so disappointed and so devastated.”
James K had defended this family friend, who was never charged and is now dead, against the hearsay about him. He felt devastated to discover his faith had been misplaced.
“We all look up to priests, we all hold them in high regard – we revere them – and when you’ve revered this person for a long time and that’s their answer when you ask them straight up, you just think ‘oh no, what have I done?’”
Though James K was brought up and confirmed in the Anglican church, and still prays every day, he has stopped going to church because, “I feel like the house of God has become the house of man. I don’t like what the church has become … but there’s only one God and that’s the God I pray to every day.”
Though he has no children, he explains that he became sensitised to the plight of children back in the ’80s and ’90s when he travelled the world as a news photographer.
“With a photograph too, you can’t help feeling like you’re exploiting the child.” – Adam James K
“I think that started with my photography, like going to places like Romania and Tiananmen Square, mainly Romania – that was the first place I saw HIV-positive orphans. I think that’s when my empathy for children really started to kick into overdrive,” he says.
“The main thing I got from that too was that when a child isn’t touched or picked up from a cot in the first five years of their life, their development as a human is stunted. Their brains don’t develop, they’re mentally disabled … And when you see when they don’t get that, the photos of those kids were just horrific.”
“To see the eyes of a child who has given up hope is very distressing.” – Adam James K
James K was also appalled by the dead eyes of Vietnamese children which he saw in a Hong Kong refugee camp in the late ’80s.
“They’d been born in the camps and spent the first few years of their life in a camp and I found that horrific as well. They were all living on these concrete floors in these tiny little boxes and they were stacked up like in a warehouse and there would be a family per box.”
“To see the eyes of a child who has given up hope is very distressing.”
Gradually, James K realised that he was not able to capture the pain and suffering of children with photographs.
“Some photographers can, but I don’t think I could. That’s why over the years I developed my drawing skills by going back to art college in 2003 and I felt that’s when I could express their pain and suffering,” he explains.
“And with a photograph too, you can’t help feeling like you’re exploiting the child, whereas with a drawing this comes straight out of my head, my heart, my soul, and hopefully transfers down onto the paper.”
“I found one of the most disturbing things was that they had no remorse. I couldn’t believe it.” – Adam James K
Asked why he had depicted himself as a paedophile priest, he says it relates to the title of the exhibition.
“The title comes from a video that I’m going to be doing where I portray a priest who has sexually abused children,” explains James K.
“I am using the actual quotes that I’ve taken from my research from the Royal Commission or police interviews. The paedophile priest is standing there actually saying these quotes, justifying his abuse, and then I’m getting people to pelt me with foam rocks or paint bombs to symbolise the religious act of stoning.
“I just want that point to come across that I’m using the actual quotes because I found one of the most disturbing things was that they had no remorse. I couldn’t believe it.”