OPINION: The effects of sexual abuse go on forever

THE bravery of Hunter police officer Peter Fox has finally helped lift the lid on the widespread nature of the sexual abuse of children in Australia.

 Within days of his interview in this newspaper and subsequent television appearance, the federal government called for a Royal Commission with almost unanimous community support.  

Much media attention has focused on the abuse in institutions, in particular the Catholic Church, including what has happened within this  region.

  It is appropriate to spend time and money trying to uncover the extent of abuse within such institutions and the ways in which they did, or did not, confront the issue. 

Community anger has understandably been directed at the perpetrators, as well as the institutions that failed so spectacularly in their duty of care. 

It is crucial we must not forget the survivors.  There are hundreds of thousands of Australians who continue to live every day with the scars of childhood sexual abuse.  It is true many have had the resilience to successfully get on with their lives because their family situation was sufficiently safe or the abuse not so severe.  However for many the effects have been profound and they continue to struggle.

Studies into childhood sexual abuse have found it to be implicated in a significant percentage of suicides, mental health problems, a history of drug, alcohol or gambling dependencies, criminal behaviour and difficulties in intimate relationships. 

 Indeed the effects of childhood sexual abuse are so broad they can impact on all areas of a person’s life.  Apart from the costs to individuals, the cost to the Australian community is breathtaking. 

 In a Kids First Foundation study released in 2003 it was estimated that the cost to Australia of neglect and abuse (including sexual abuse) was about $5billion a year. The enormity of the problem would indicate that a Royal Commission is well overdue.  Indeed as many survivors are asking, “Why has it taken so long?”

Childhood is a vulnerable time and sexually abused children, including teenagers, have had their safety and integrity compromised.  Contrary to “stranger-danger” warnings, the adult who abuses a child is most often someone known to the child and is frequently in a caring role.  In other words, abuse is a fundamental breach of trust and an assault on the safety of the child.  It is sobering to acknowledge that the person trying to come to terms with what is happening and attempting to understand it, is only a child.  

Perhaps the most tragic outcome of childhood sexual abuse is that victims almost universally blame themselves.  In their struggle to make sense of their situation abuse survivors often claim that somehow they “let it happen” or that there was something intrinsically bad about them that made it occur. That is why it is so important in recovery for survivors to truly understand it was not their fault.

For many survivors the struggle to understand what happens continues well into their adult lives.  

The numbers who say they feel as if they have “dirty”, “bad person”, or simply “victim” written on their foreheads, visible to all, shows the level of shame and guilt adult survivors endure.  As one survivor claimed “it is written in neon because they can see it at night too”.  Although the most likely child sexual abuse scenario is of a girl abused by a male known to her, boys are more frequently represented when the abuse occurs in the context of an institution.  Again the perpetrator is nearly always a male and is often a serial offender.  This can give rise to the erroneous description of the relationship being homosexual.  

Child abuse is child abuse, irrespective of the gender of the victim.  These serial perpetrators often have hundreds of victims and are experts at grooming children, appearing trustworthy to other adults and skilled at covering their tracks.  Clergy abuse usually targets the children of devout families and the loss of faith is often a cause of despair both for victims and their families.

Most of those who have been abused call themselves survivors,  acknowledging that they are now attempting to move on.

As the Royal Commission proceeds we must not forget the survivors and neglect their ongoing need for support.  It is one thing to acknowledge what happened to them but this alone will not be enough to help them heal.  There is a desperate need for specific survivor-support services and for those existing services, such as in the mental health area, to acknowledge their role in service provision to this group.  

Mark Griffiths is a registered psychologist with many years’ experience helping male and female survivors of sexual assault. He led a workshop in Newcastle recently for male child abuse survivors under the auspices of samsn.com.au 

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