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Stopping the silence

10,000km is a long way to walk. But one man is doing so around the EU to raise awareness of sexual abuse of children and the need to talk about it. THEO PANAYIDES meets him on his way through Nicosia

Matthew McVarish has walked more than 7,500 kilometres, with a few thousand more to go. He’s stood on a snake (in Greece), caught a serious chest infection (in Lithuania) and been chased by packs of wild dogs, leaving bite-marks on the blue kilt he’s been wearing for months now. He’s been robbed at knifepoint though they only took €2.50, which was all he had on him. Walking through the Greek mountains, it rained every day for three weeks – so he walked for three weeks with wet shoes, and ended up grazing all the skin off his feet. In Latvia he found a wallet on the ground; it belonged to a man in California – so Matthew mailed it back to him, and the man was so grateful he arranged free accommodation for Matthew in Warsaw.

It all started exactly one year ago, on May 31, 2013, when he set out from London on the first day of Road to Change, a 20-month, 10,000-mile walk around the EU – though actually it started many years ago, which is where our story grows darker. Matthew isn’t even sure exactly when it started, maybe when he was three or four (he’s now 31). That’s when he was first molested by his uncle, his mother’s brother, a regular pattern of abuse that continued all through his childhood, till he was 13. Road to Change isn’t just about walking; “I don’t have any particular love of walking,” he tells me, “or desire to hold the world record for walking around Europe”. Road to Change is a project with a purpose – or, like it says on the flyer: “Walk to Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse”.

He’s now been in 21 countries, and been interviewed dozens of times (maximum publicity is the whole point). How would he compare their different attitudes to the problem? He takes a sip of water, and cocks his head as he does occasionally, as if physically recalibrating the contents of his head to answer your question. “I can promise you,” he replies at last, “that, in 21 countries, I haven’t been in any nation that’s comfortable talking about this. Nobody wants to talk about sex and children.”

And why would they? It is, as he puts it, “the worst thing in humanity” – though different countries have different hang-ups. Older people in Estonia, for instance, still have the old Soviet mindset of paranoid secrecy, whereas Poland is strongly Catholic and “wherever there’s a fear of homosexuality, because of the Catholic presence or in any Christian country, you’ll find that boys who’ve been sexually abused don’t want to tell anyone about it, in case people think they themselves are gay”. In Hungary or Romania, the problem is that “men don’t want to be seen as vulnerable or weak”; being sexually victimised “puts you in the woman’s role, in the eyes of their culture”.

Mostly, however, nobody wants to talk about it because it’s gross. “You’re one of the first journalists to ask me to describe the sexual acts,” notes Matthew, “which I’m comfortable doing, but no-one really asks”. Another journalist asked him for details, sitting in the British Embassy in Berlin, “and the room became very uncomfortable,” he recalls. The abuse, for the record, didn’t involve actual sodomy – but his uncle stripped him naked, kissed him inappropriately, “put me in sexual positions”, performed oral sex on him, and more. On one occasion he molested him with Matthew’s mother in the room, putting his hand down the boy’s underwear. “I’m not even sure why he did that,” muses Matthew; presumably just “to see if he could get away with it”.

It’s hard even reading about this stuff, let alone talking about it. The “mental images” it conjures up are creepy and disturbing, he acknowledges. “I appreciate that – but it’s about trying to take the power away from that, and the hysteria away from that”. The NGO behind Road to Change is called ‘Stop the Silence’, he points out – and there’s a reason why it’s called ‘Stop the Silence’, rather than ‘Catch the Perverts’: “Because the problem is that we can’t talk about it. And our ability to prevent it and heal from it, individually and as a society, relies on our ability to talk about it.”

This was notably true in his own case – indeed, what happened after the abuse ended may be even more significant than the hellish decade he’d endured. As a child, recalls Matthew, though he hated the abuse he had “no concept” of how wrong it was. Eventually he began to understand and, at 13, “I finally stood up to [my uncle] and said I don’t want you to do this anymore. And that was it. For two years, till I was 15, I just avoided him. Never said anything in the family about what he’d done, I just stayed out of his way”.

When he was 15, however, his oldest brother (who was then 25) had a complete nervous breakdown – and, visiting him in hospital, Matthew discovered he wasn’t the only one who’d been abused; their uncle had molested his brother, and two other brothers, as well. “I saw him in hospital, sedated and just mentally crippled by having never addressed what happened to him,” he recalls, “and it was frightening for me because I thought: ‘That’s what’s going to happen to me, if I don’t get help’.”

So the truth came out – but only partly, and only within the family. His parents didn’t go to the authorities, though his dad “never let my uncle back in the house, which is a step, I suppose”. For his mother, it must’ve been devastating. This was an Irish Catholic family with seven kids (Matthew is the youngest); Dad worked at Rolls-Royce making aeroplane engines, Mum was a teacher who’d quit her job to raise her brood. Picture a small house in East Kilbride near Glasgow, seven children, “a constant pile of laundry needing done”, every meal “like a canteen, trying to feed this entire football team of kids – and then my uncle would turn up and say ‘I’ll just take Matthew out for the day’ and my mum would be like [look of relief] ‘Take him! Get him out of my face!’”. The sense of blame and guilt for unwittingly enabling the abuse must’ve been crushing – so the family hunkered down, and chose to live with its secret.

It didn’t work. At one point I ask Matthew about a tattoo on his arm, a kind of bird that’s actually a stylised ‘M’. He had it done on 9/11, he explains, stuck in Barcelona and going through a “suicidal” phase, the ‘M’ representing his own dark side which he was trying to escape. While he was feeling suicidal, his three brothers were being medicated for depression and still hadn’t told their wives (or anyone else) about their childhood. “You can’t close a door in your mind and forget about it,” he cautions, “because it’ll sneak out in other ways”. Matthew ended up going to drama school, and became a professional actor and playwright – so he wrote a play, To Kill a Kelpie, dramatising the family situation and illustrating the importance of getting help. He invited his brothers to see the play – and it did the trick; in 2008 they all pressed charges, and his uncle is now in prison.

A happy ending? Not entirely. Scars like that never really heal – in fact, he claims, if you look at a brain scan of an adult who was abused as a child and one who had a normal childhood, the two are different: “You create this deep faulty line in the brain”. And there’s something else, though it may seem callous to mention it. Matthew and his family were able to bring charges because there’s no statute of limitations for child sex offences in the UK, and their uncle was convicted because UK law accepts it as evidence when several complainants come forward with similar allegations – but in fact there was no tangible evidence 15 years after the fact (there can’t be, in the absence of a confession) and the four alleged survivors, though they pressed charges separately, were brothers who could easily have cooked something up, if so minded. The potential for false allegations seems enormous.

Matthew looks impatient when I broach the question. Do you realise, he retorts, that one in five children are affected by this issue? “Every fifth child born is sexually violated,” he claims (a statistic I’ll leave to Google-watchers to confirm). “There are approximately, at any one time, 100 million victims or survivors of sexual violence in Europe. 100 million! Look at this café,” he goes on, gesturing at the coffee shop around us, “20 per cent of people in this room have been sexually violated. And the first thing people say is ‘What about false reporting?’.” He shakes his head, finding the whole thing “mental” (one of his favourite words) – yet the objection seems valid. One gets the impression that British politicians have enacted a risky law for social-policy reasons, maybe on the assumption that few people would take on the stigma of claiming they were sexually abused when it didn’t really happen. It remains to be seen how other EU countries – with their different cultures and legal systems – will tackle the dilemma.

Matthew McVarish thinks they should tackle it the same way, at least where the statute of limitations is concerned (he tells me a hair-raising story of a survivor in Luxembourg – where there’s a 10-year limit – who’s unable to report his abuser, even though the man has written him a letter confessing to the abuse and still works with vulnerable children). That’s why he’s walked 7,500 kilometres, with eight more months of torture still to come – though in fact he doesn’t see it as torture, more like a personal journey.

“I’ve changed a lot,” he confirms. “Like, when I left London, first day I left London, I was somewhere in Croydon and I saw a stray dog, and I remember being [terrified expression] ‘oh my god, who owns that dog, somebody catch it’. I was pretty scared, I was shaking. Pretty evil-looking dog”. Cut to last month, walking through Bulgaria, when his driver Stig texted him to warn about 15 wild dogs moving in a pack on the road ahead – and “when I got that text I laughed, because I’ve dealt with thousands of dogs now” (he’s got pepper spray, plus a special whistle that emits a high-pitched frequency). Not to mention that “I’ve lost the concept of distance” after 12 months on the road. Our coffee shop is two miles away from the place where he’s staying; needless to say, he didn’t take a taxi.

profile2-Matthew walks round the walls
Matthew walks round the walls

What does he think about while he’s walking? “I practise things. I practise what I’m going to say to the UN [he’s due in Geneva in September]. I practise what I’m going to say to the European Parliament”. Such high-profile meetings mean that time is of the essence. He can never stop and rest, not even when he had the chest infection in Lithuania (he just took some antibiotics on the go). The other problem is that money is scarce. They couldn’t find sponsors, he sighs, despite approaching some 200 companies (“No company wants its logo next to the words ‘child sexual abuse’”) – so, for instance, he has to eat 5,000 calories a day to keep going but can’t afford to do it properly, so he and Stig will “go to cheap supermarkets, we fill the van with as much food as we can pay for, and I’ll eat 2-3 times a day”.

He’s still lost about 15 kilos since starting the walk, says Matthew, and the body redistributes protein so at one point “my calf muscles were ridiculously over-developed but my upper body was wasting away, I couldn’t even lift a shopping bag!”. He bought a pair of walking poles in Lithuania, so he could walk with his whole body, but the poles were stolen in Bulgaria – and the van’s now been burgled in Italy (where it’s waiting for him to cross over from Malta, his next stop), making money even scarcer.

It’s long, it’s arduous, it’s dangerous. “There were two other guys who were doing similar walks when I started, and they’re both dead,” he says matter-of-factly (both were hit by traffic). So why do it? To heal the scars, obviously, to try and redeem his lost childhood – but it’s also more than that. “I have this weird desire to help people reach the next stage in whatever journey they’re on,” he tells me. And maybe it’s also related to why he became an actor in the first place – growing up as a small scrawny boy in “this huge, gigantic family”, always the youngest, always trying hard to get attention by any means necessary.

“I still see myself as an artist,” notes Matthew. “I kind of think of Road to Change as one big artistic… I don’t know, it’s a movement of some sort”. Like any artist, he relishes the big eye-catching gesture – especially with a worthy Cause attached. The wild dogs, the physical strain, the robbers, the sharing of painful memories: “All part of the adventure”. He gets up, shakes hands, then he’s back on the road again.

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