April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, a month in which we focus on the needs of victims of sexual violence of all ages. While all sexual violence is abhorrent and often profoundly damaging this article speaks to the needs of adults who were sexually abused as children.
Just over a year ago, after five years of operation, our nation’s ground-breaking Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse closed its doors. It lifted the lid on the scourge of child sexual abuse within our churches, charities, schools and sporting bodies. And its recommendations mapped out a plan for systemic change within our institutions many of which are currently being enacted. The Commission conducted a forensic examination of the systemic failures which allowed and enabled the protection of perpetrators, institutions and hierarchical cover-ups.
In addition, it also provided a platform to give survivors a voice – a voice long denied, dismissed and minimised. A voice which showed us as a community, just how damaging the crime of sexual abuse perpetrated by people in positions of power, trust and care often is, over time. It also showed us the importance of listening, hearing and believing, what was often seemingly ‘unbelievable’.
More than 4,000 survivors from 1,691 religious institutions revealed that they were sexually abused as children to the Royal Commission. These crimes were perpetrated by priests, ministers, teachers, youth leaders and others. Many children suffered under the care of religious leaders and institutions, whose responses to discovering this abuse, were painfully inadequate.
However, the terms of reference of the Commission, although broad in Commission terms, were narrow for the tens of thousands of Australian survivors who missed out. These are people who were sexually abused within the apparently sacrosanct haven of the home and family. Just as institutional child sexual abuse was, and in some cases still is, treated with secrecy, stigma and cover-up, the home and family has traditionally been seen as a private space – what goes on behind closed doors stays behind them and what happens within the family is family business.
But this needs to change. And it needs to change now. That’s because the vast majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated within those sacred walls. And the damage reaped is often monumental not just for individuals and their families but for the very fabric of our society.
Children depend on their caregivers for their very survival. For this reason, they need to attach and bond to them, even when they are being abused by them. And many abused children remain loyal to their abusing caregivers for the same reason. Emotionally and physically dependent children whose brains are still developing at the time they are abused are unable to process the enormity of the betrayal of being sexually abused by a family member. This can leave the child feeling confused and unsafe, and unable to focus on learning and exploring to meet their developmental needs. This is because they are preoccupied with trying to be and feel safe in their inherently unsafe world. Additionally, within a family setting, a perpetrator often has ready access to a child. No-one asks questions; no-one sees. This leaves the child particularly vulnerable as they are trapped and can’t escape. The prevailing power imbalance of the abusing parent, caregiver or other family member over a child means the child feels helpless and powerless, living in fear, awaiting the next assault.
Child sexual abuse is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power. The perpetrator often tricks the child into believing that the abuse is an act of love, and that they are responsible. But a child is never to blame for being sexually abused. Often threats, fear and manipulation are used to maintain the child’s silence, protect their secrecy and keep the child a victim. Within the family, a child can fear that speaking out will break the family up or cause another member to be harmed, if that is what their perpetrator has led them to believe.
Child sexual abuse doesn’t only impact the victim. It decimates families, polarising them into those who believe the victim and support them, and those who don’t. Or those who are trying to preserve the external image of the family and its place within the community, despite the crimes being committed within.
The Royal Commission showed us the importance of being listened to, heard, validated and believed. It is time for us as a society and a community to listen to survivors of child sexual abuse within the family. We must embrace them so they know and believe that they are not to blame. We must help erode the shame they often feel and to reach out and show them that they are not alone. There is hope and there is help and we must show survivors that with the right support, they can find a path to healing.
About the Author
Dr Cathy Kezelman AM is a medical practitioner, mental health consumer advocate, and President of Blue Knot Foundation National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma. For confidential counselling and support call the Blue Knot helpline on 1300 657 380 or visit www.blueknot.org.au.