Catholic Church must open way to transparency

Sydney Morning Herald | February 10 | Catholic Church must open way to transparency

The following opinion piece was published in the Sydney Morning Herald as well as online nationally.

It highlights the need for transparency by the Catholic Church, and all institutions in the context of the Royal Commission and recent UN findings
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a global first. Its private sessions and public hearings, including those into the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing Process, have given a voice to victims. The royal commission, Australia and the world are listening and bearing witness to a litany of abuses and failures within the church as well as other institutions. More is to come.

The commission is helping to bring the deep-seated, pervasive and devastating issues of child sexual abuse into the light. It is an open and transparent process to uncover the systemic failures of institutions to protect children and respond appropriately to these alleged and established crimes. It is leading the way in how these investigations should be handled. Hopefully, this will be reflected around the globe.

Another world first is the unprecedented and scathing report from the United Nations into the Vatican’s handling of child sexual abuse. The UN has deemed the Catholic Church to be in breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a human rights treaty prioritising the rights of children, to which it is a signatory. This finding confirms what survivors and survivor groups have long known: tens of thousands of children have been betrayed, harmed and violated within and by the church, its clergy and workers.

The Vatican attests that the church has done more than any other institution to address these issues with repeated protestations implying distortion and exaggeration of survivor testimony.


Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) supports the UN’s call that as a bare minimum all clergy and church official workers suspected of or found guilty of child abuse or putting children in harm must be removed immediately; that known sex offenders are removed from the ranks and turned over to authorities. These actions would indeed be in the best interests of the child.

The UN committee was gravely concerned, not only that the Holy See had not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, but also had not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and protect children. In fact it was found to have adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of abuse by clergy, while ensuring the impunity of the perpetrators, and those complicit in covering up their crimes.

The findings of the UN and the experiences of thousands of victims who assert that they have been re-traumatised in the process of seeking pastoral support, compensation and justice, need to drive real change. The time is long overdue for large and powerful institutions, such as the Catholic Church, to acknowledge their wrongdoings and take action. For decades victims, individually and collectively, have sought for church officials to respond with compassion and accountability.

Experience has taught us that any shift in hierarchical acknowledgement or processes requires pressure from outside of the church. Large numbers of victims have been party to internal church processes and few, it would seem, have left feeling that they have been heard, supported or justly treated.

The Vatican announced in December that Pope Francis would create a commission to study how to prevent abuse and help victims. The details of this initiative have not yet been released. The formation of another internal mechanism, without true independence and the scrutiny that brings, implies continuing efforts to keep this in-house. To date this has been at the expense of child safety and victim support. The church – and all institutions – must be held accountable to the laws of the land. Criminal acts or serious allegations should be referred to secular authorities.

Abuse flourishes in closed systems and within cultures of hierarchy and secrecy. The UN report demands immediate and decisive action, action which puts an end to the ”code of silence” which has seen the church prioritise its own needs over that of victims. The world needs this immediate action.

ASCA is calling for attitudinal change from the Catholic Church and, in fact, all institutions seeking to handle such matters internally – it’s time for open, independent transparency. We want to see every suspected case of child abuse investigated with the proper judicial processes within which the public is kept in the loop.

The church must demonstrate a real desire to uncover the truth in its ranks without obfuscation or cover-up. And we need global support with the full co-operation of all institutions.

We need to deal with this as a community, as we are doing in Australia with the royal commission. The testimony of survivors before the commission has led the way. Their experiences and their courage must count for something.

Offender gets four years while victim gets life

Offender gets four years while victim gets life


by Cathy Kezelman

01 Sep 05:55am

For a person whose innocence is stolen as a child and whose life has been irrevocably damaged, what constitutes justice?

Last month, Malcolm Fox was convicted of four counts of unlawful sexual intercourse. These crimes were perpetrated by him – a drama teacher – against a student who trusted and admired him. Today, a four-year sentence with a two year non-parole period was handed down.  Fox is to appeal this decision.

The victim’s sentence is life. But for the perpetrator, it’s four years.

The victim’s impact statement, which was read in court, revealed a 43-year-old man who has spent most of his life battling depression, multiple suicide attempts and hospitalisations. He has struggled with addictive behaviours including drug use, alcohol and gambling. As with other victims one would assume these addictions have been acquired in an attempt to numb the pain and horror of his teacher’s sexual abuse.

It raises the question, on what basis can a sentence of four years be entirely suspended?

The court has heard that the victim had trusted Fox with his darkest secret, confiding that he had been previously sexually assaulted at the hands of another perpetrator. Fox did not report that prior abuse, nor inform the victim’s parents. Instead, he used that information to his own ends, grooming the already traumatised and confused adolescent and exploiting his victim’s vulnerability for his own sexual gratification.

No child is ever responsible for being abused. Malcolm Fox was in a position of authority, trust and power and he betrayed that position.

Judge Gordon Barrett said Fox’s offense against the 17-year-old in the 1980s was a serious breach of trust. However, he said Fox deserved mercy in sentencing.

The judge pointed to Fox’s poor psychological and physical health, long and distinguished career of public service, adding that he had ‘‘suffered’’ significant media attention during his trial.

Those factors, Judge Barrett said, warranted the suspension of Fox’s four-year prison term.

The victim in his impact statement further highlighted the impact of the abuse he suffered – his inability to complete his education, to reach his full career potential, and his relationship struggles with family and friends.

“It’s always felt unfair his life has continued normally while I was left with the legacy of his betrayal,” the victim stated.

Fox has claimed that the victim had ‘stolen his reputation’, but Fox did that to himself when he committed his crimes and engaged in unlawful sexual intercourse with an adolescent. Don’t we need to focus on the real victim in this case? So what degree of accountability has been demanded by our justice system for the perpetrator?

“Carrying this secret for so long has been exhausting and I always felt it was unfair that his life continued normally while I was left with the legacy of his betrayal,” the victim said.

“It has taken me years to overcome the legacy of betrayal that Malcolm Arthur Fox caused.”

The judge found that incarceration would mean that Fox’s mental health would suffer. It has reportedly been alleged that Fox has been suffering depression since the charges were laid.  Given he has been found guilty of those charges Fox’s depression would appear to have been precipitated as a result of his own actions.

One would assume that consideration in sentencing should be given to the impact of the crime including the years of depression and multiple suicide attempts the innocent victim suffered.

I believe the fact this ‘high profile’ case has attracted media attention should be irrelevant. Crimes have been committed regardless of who perpetrated them, who was victimised and what has been reported.

The judge found that imprisonment would be ‘more difficult’ for Fox than for others. It seems however that the victim’s lifetime struggle and the difficulty he has had daily living the life he deserved has counted for little.

In my opinion, the fact that Fox had been alleged to have performed a service to the public and had a number of character references should also be irrelevant to the fact that a crime was committed.

History is full of perpetrators of crime whose friends and work colleagues have attested to their good name.

As a society we minimise the impacts on victims. Child sexual assault offends our sensibilities and so we would rather deny its existence and its often devastating repercussions. The story this victim tells is horrific but it is one mirrored by innumerable victims around the world.

It takes enormous courage for a victim of child sexual assault to overcome their own feelings of shame and self-blame. To have the courage and intestinal fortitude to deal with their issues sufficiently to lay charges. To speak out about their abuse and reveal their public shame in a court for all to hear. To undergo the protracted legal processes of delay and further delay; to have their testimony scrutinized and the very core of their betrayal questioned. And face invalidation and humiliation. To face up to the very person who stole their childhood and their innocence.

Pieta Thornton, a colleague and founder of Victims and Witnesses of Crime Court Support has shared her dismay and shock at this sentence. She has stated that this outcome has made her question ever recommending that any victim reports their crime of child sexual assault to the police. This is not to say that the police won’t conduct a thorough investigation and treat the victim with the utmost respect – they do.  It is about what happens to the victim once the matter gets to court.

How can one, in all conscience, recommend that a victim open themselves up to a system and a process in which victims are re-traumatised and which may result in a suspended sentence. She and her fellow workers support victims of crime every day in their work. However she like us in ASCA must question the process in our courts which can result in such an outcome.

We appreciate only too well the effects of not reporting these crimes. Sexual offenders characteristically have multiple victims and child sexual assault often has devastating effects on victims, families and communities.

As it is a small percentage of these crimes are reported. The process is simply too harrowing. Further non-reporting undoubtedly will mean more victims will be left struggling and fewer perpetrators will be held to real account.

If perpetrators are not sentenced to jail time for crimes for which they have been found guilty why would any victim subject themselves to such a punishing process? It is time to take a long hard look at these systems and institute changes which will see that victims are vindicated.

For support for adult survivors of child abuse call Adults Surviving Child Abuse on 1300 657 380 Mon-Fri, 9-5, or visit their website.

Child abuse in churches is not yet history

It’s heartening to see Australian politicians taking a stand around Catholic clergy abuse, but the calls to action this week by Senator Nick Xenophon and Victorian MP Anne Barker don’t quite go far enough.

We now need a Federal Government led, transparent national inquiry and mandatory reporting of all crimes revealed within the Church environment.

The Cloyne report, an independent state report released in Ireland into Catholic clergy abuse last week is the fourth inquiry in six years. All of the reports have been damning, chronicling the repeated failure of the Church to protect children, bring the guilty to justice and make the welfare of victims paramount.

This report, the Cloyne report, however is far more chilling. That’s because for a long time we’d been led to believe that the repeated child sexual assault of children by clergy and Church officers is a historical matter. And that cover ups are an issue of the past.

We had been told that we could largely rest easy because our children were now safe. Nothing could be further from the truth – the Cloyne report found that church officials, as recently as 2008, were failing to report suspected cases of child sexual abuse to civil authorities and protecting paedophiles over victims.

In 1996 the Church in Ireland implemented a policy for the mandatory reporting of all suspected crimes of child sexual abuse. The implementation of this policy should have gone a long way to ensure the safety of children. However the policy was not implemented.

According to the Cloyne report the Vatican issued a warning in 1997 that the new Irish Church policy had not been approved by the Holy See and undermined canon law, the Church’s internal legal authority.

This, it seems, is evidence of an attempt at ongoing cover-up emanating from the Vatican itself. What’s more, the Vatican intervention, according to the report, not only undermined the Church’s policies but ignored the child protection guidelines of the Irish State.

Every child who is abused is one child too many. An abused child is a child whose life is changed forever. A child who will not be free to live the life he/she deserves; an adult left struggling with a legacy so cruel that sometimes, the victim chooses to end the struggle themselves.

Child protection guidelines are instituted to protect children, to keep them safe, to care for them. Failing to adhere to them sacrifices our children. Lives are lost; lives are ruined.

Ireland is a country in which Church and State have long been symbiotically intertwined. In fact, deference to the Church and its tradition and power have been entrenched.

Yet this week the Irish Prime Minister, Edna Kenny accused the Holy See of downplaying “the rape and torture of children”, openly and vehemently questioning its internal processes and status. Kenny, supported by all sides of parliament is calling for accountability and action from the Vatican.

In Ireland as in Australia the protection of children is actually a matter for the State. If the authority of the Vatican and the Holy See can be so vocally brought into question by the premier and parliament of Ireland there is no reason that we cannot see the same call for justice and transparency in Australia.

Whether the public outcry which has followed Kenny’s long overdue call for the protection of children sees a separation of the Church and State in Ireland is not the key issue here.

It is the safety of our children in the Catholic Church, all churches, institutions, organisations, communities, homes and families and how we, as a society can work together to protect our young.

Anne Barker, a Victorian MP is currently in Dublin investigating how a formal inquiry akin to those conducted there, can be opened to investigate Catholic clergy abuse in Victoria.

As she has pointed out only a separate and independent inquiry ensures the documentation, independence and transparency needed for government, parliament and the State to be able to respond appropriately.

The independent Senator Nick Xenaphon has also joined the charge calling for the mandatory reporting of all crimes revealed within the confessional.  But the moves must go much further than that.

The protection of our children must transcend party politics. And it must also transcend the power of institutions. No longer can internal processes be allowed to override those of the State, either in Ireland or Australia. No longer can the Church’s canon law override civil law and criminal justice.

It is time for an open and transparent Inquiry into Catholic clergy abuse Australia-wide, a matter for State, Federal and Territory governments to work together to protect our children and keep them safe.

The Nature of abusive systems may have changed but its chilling effects have not (opinion piece)

The nature of abusive systems may have changed but its chilling effects have not

By Cathy Kezelman – posted Thursday, 16 June 2011 Sign Up for free e-mail updates!


As “child migrants” launch a class action over alleged systemic physical and sexual abuses at Fairbridge Farm School at Molong in previous decades 11 Australians have been charged in a four-month operation over child pornography and child sexual assault. While the horrific abuses alleged at Fairbridge Farm are all too representative of the institutional abuses suffered by too many “forgotten Australians” and “child migrants” the alleged offenders in this latest report are involved in a present-day system of abuse. In this system children are exploited to produce pornographic images of sexual acts in which no children should ever be involved. In some cases in this peer-to-peer investigation, it is reported, our children have been raped and subjected to unconscionable acts of bestiality. And images and videos of these atrocities have been disseminated across the internet to feed the perversions of adults.

In the case of the alleged abuses at Molong disadvantaged and orphaned children were separated from their country, homes and families and transported from the UK to Australia. These children were young, fearful and exceedingly vulnerable, and were denied the love and nurture which is every child’s right, on an ongoing basis. Not only did those charged with their care reportedly not keep them safe but certain adults feasted on the vulnerability of their young charges. The Fairbridge children were reportedly repeatedly beaten, raped, exploited and profoundly neglected. Without the security of a safe, stable attachment, children focus on simply surviving and so shift resources normally earmarked for learning and development. Many of the child migrants have struggled their entire life to find a sense of identity, to form relationships, hold down a job and reclaim their health.

Here we are in 2011 and by all reports the abuse of our children, in this case child sexual assault, remains, in some circles a pervasive social practice. In the newly reported cases, swapping of pornographic images has occurred through a global file-sharing network. All children are young, innocent and developmentally immature. During childhood the brain grows and develops rapidly, especially in the first 3 to 5 years, with further rapid development during puberty and it continues to grow and develop until a person is in their twenties. During this entire period the trauma of child sexual assault can and does impact fundamental neuro-chemical processes, and these in turn can affect the growth, structure, and functioning of the brain.

Child sexual assault breaches trust, ablates safety and exploits innocence and vulnerability. The fundamental betrayal and damage to future relationships a child suffers when that child is sexually assaulted, can and often does set up lifetime patterns of fear and mistrust as well as chronic feelings of hopelessness. Adults sexually assaulted as children are often left struggling to establish their own self-worth, to relate to others, to regulate their emotions and manage stress.

While some survivors do show remarkable resilience and function well, many struggle with mental and physical health issues. The statistics are chilling – adults sexually assaulted as children are 3-5 times more likely to be depressed as adults and up to eighteen times more likely to commit suicide. The good news is that with the right help and support Australian adult survivors of childhood trauma can go on to live healthy fulfilling lives. However many are left struggling day to day because of the appalling lack of investment in appropriate care and support – services which understand the trauma at the core of a person’s issues and respond to its impacts with empathy, respect, empowerment and validation.

We need to work together to be alert to the risks to our children, to report our suspicions to the appropriate authorities and to speak out in all cases about abuse and its effects. The nature of abusive systems may have changed but its chilling effects have not. Abuse in all its forms and child sexual assault in particular is a pervasive blight on us all. Let’s work together to prevent it and actively address the needs of those left struggling with its impacts.

Church still drags its heels on child abuse

Church still drags its heels on child abuse

Cathy Kezelman

May 17, 2011 – 1:01PM

The new Church guidelines do not go far enough to protect children freom abusive clergy.The new Church guidelines do not go far enough to protect children freom abusive clergy. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers NCH

The Vatican has once again abrogated its responsibility for stamping out abuse within the Catholic Church. The long-awaited guidelines on preventing clerical sex abuse and reporting suspect priests to police, issued to bishop’s conferences globally, fall far short of what is needed.

The guidelines leave the responsibility of responding to child sexual abuse within the Church to bishops, who have 12 months to draw up their own rules for enforcing the Vatican directive. Historically, however, it is the Church hierarchy, and specifically bishops, that on many occasions have failed to bring perpetrators to justice or to ensure the safety of children from alleged or known abusers.

Many victims in countries across the world have repeatedly been denied the care and support they need. In many cases compensation has been elusive and patently inadequate for the needs of those victims.

Advertisement: Story continues below

And there appear to be no repercussions for bishops who fail to develop the guidelines or indeed for those who contravene them.

Given the decades of abuse perpetrated within the Catholic Church by clergy and others for which there has been minimal accountability having another year for bishops to draft their own guidelines is a travesty. The longer the Church fails to act decisively, the longer innocent children remain at risk within its confines.

The National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland has just revealed alarming statistics — the number of allegations of child abuse at the hands of priests in the Irish Church has increased by 38 per cent between April 2010 and March 2011. In its 2010 annual report, the NBSSCC stated that there had been 272 new allegations of abuse between April 2010 and March 2011 as compared to 197 for the same period the previous year. Twelve of the people against whom allegations have been made are still practising priests. The failure to remove priests under investigation from their duties implies that children are potentially being exposed to further risk within the Catholic Church in Ireland, at the very least.

While Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologised to victims, more is needed. We need to see strict guidelines that are enforced systemically. Reporting of allegations to the police must be mandatory. We need to see a zero tolerance policy, such as that in America in which priests accused of the crime of child sexual assault are automatically suspended subject to an investigation.

“Limiting the exercise of the cleric’s ministry’ – as is suggested under the new guidelines is inadequate. The words “limiting the exercise” mean children could continue to be exposed to rape and molestation at the hands of paedophile priests. To adequately protect children, all clergy under investigation, and ultimately all clergy found guilty of child sexual assault must be removed from the ministry and from any contact with children.

The onus has been placed on bishops to be alert to the signs of abuse and to identify potential perpetrators. There appears to be no real guidance as to how bishops should make these assessments.

The letter also states that all cases deemed “credible” should be sent to the Vatican to review. It stresses that lay review boards “cannot substitute” the decisions of bishops.

Over the years we have seen far too many paedophile priests moved from ministry to ministry, only to abuse more children as a result. Similarly it is the bishops who have been charged to be committed to the “spiritual and psychological assistance” of victims. Again this falls way short of an obligation to provide victims of child abuse with the ongoing therapeutic care and compensation needed for them to begin to reclaim their lives.

Child sexual assault is not a problem particular to the Catholic Church. It is a societal issue that knows no religious, ethnic or geographical boundaries. However the Catholic Church has repeatedly failed to adequately address abuse within its ranks.

The Church must draw on the collective knowledge of lay experts, in developing and implementing strict child protection guidelines.

It must show that it is accountable as an institution and as a hierarchy. The Church, in common with other institutions, must bring all perpetrators within its midst to civil justice. Those found guilty must be punished according to the laws of the country in which they live.

Finally the Church must provide all victims, child and adult, with the funds they need to receive ongoing professional care and support for as long as they need it. For only with the right care and support survivors of child abuse have the possibility of working through the impacts of their abuse and finding a life worth living.

Dr Cathy Kezelman is chief executive of Adults Surviving Child Abuse

Asking the question: What happened to you?


The following is an interview I and a fellow speaker, Janey Kelf were involved  on April 30th as part of a 24 hour talk-athon “breaking the silence”

Asking the Question: “What Happened to You?”


in HealthAirdate: Sat, Apr 30, 2011 follow

Understand how the standard medical model of diagnosis often fails to heal patients by focusing on the obvious symptoms rather than the underlying cause. You’ll receive an introduction to the idea of trauma-informed care and practice across service systems. Join our host, Diane Cranley, as she talks with Dr. Cathy Kezelman – medical practitioner, CEO of ASCA Australian national charity, Director of MHCC (Mental Health Coordinating Council NSW); Janey Kelf – Counselor with an interest in the creative arts and the politics of childhood abuse survival.

When child abuse survivors become parents

When Child-Abuse Survivors Become Parents Print
Written by Dr Cathy Kezelman
Tuesday, 02 November 2010 – published Webchild

 Never assume that just because you were abused as a child, you are destined to fail in your own journey through parenthood, writes Dr Cathy Kezelman.Survivors of child abuse are as determined as anyone to become good parents. However, parenting does not always come easily to them. They often question their ability to love when they were not nurtured themselves as children.

The reason I know this is that I am myself a victim of child abuse.

My father sexually abused me from the age of about four. Meanwhile my mother, a Holocaust survivor, was not there for me emotionally. I spent much of my childhood anticipating and avoiding her anger, and reeling from her put-downs.

I grew up, got married and became a doctor. When I was in my late-twenties, my husband and I decided to start a family. We had four children over a period of eight years.

My child-abuse issues had not yet come to the fore; that only happened in my mid-forties. So for the first 10 to 15 years of my children’s lives, I had no idea that my abuse was impinging on my capacity to parent them.

Valuable Insights

Through therapy, I gained valuable insights into my interactions with people, including my kids. This has allowed me to develop deeper, richer bonds with my family.

I also discovered my life’s passion, which is supporting other adult survivors of child abuse. A big part of this is sharing first-hand knowledge about challenges they might encounter when they become parents, and in doing so allay some of their fears.

So what are some of the specific ways in which being abused as a child can affect you as a parent?

“The Baby In You”
Being pregnant and giving birth can put you back in touch with “the baby in you”, triggering feelings and experiences from your own childhood. So for many female child-abuse survivors, having a baby can unleash suppressed feelings and increase the likelihood of post-natal depression.

This didn’t happen to me personally, so effectively were my memories locked away. However, it did for a number of my friends with a history of child abuse. At that time, neither they nor their doctors were aware of the significance of their depression, or of the impact it could have on their children.

Much more is known and understood about postnatal depression now, and that means better support for mothers and children. The best advice is to be aware of the possibility and reach out for help, from your doctor or health professional, and support from friends and family.

Fierce Self-Reliance
Research also suggests that early-childhood relationships are internalised and mirrored in other associations throughout a person’s life. So if the parenting you received wasn’t ideal, this might shape your pattern of connecting with others, including your children.

Everyone’s situation will be slightly different, but for me this resulted in fierce self-reliance. I perceived vulnerability as a sign of weakness, to be avoided at all costs. Also, I couldn’t form deep relationships, because closeness in childhood had caused me harm.

As a result, in my early parenting days I was quite “cut off” emotionally, and dismissive of my kids without being aware of it. I expected them to just get on with life and not dwell on things that bothered them – because that’s what I had to do.

Another aspect of parenting that may challenge abuse survivors is discipline. Often they have grown up with no model of consistent and fair parenting, so they literally don’t know how to set appropriate boundaries, and may end up excessively permissive or strict. Striking this balance is something with which I still struggle today.

You may also feel anxious about protecting your children and keeping them safe. Again, it can be hard to know what is ‘normal’ if you haven’t been given that example yourself.

Healthier Relationships
The good news is that even though child abuse can affect the way a child’s brain develops, studies show that the right sort of help – psychotherapy, for example – can help rewire even a fully developed adult brain and alter the way you interact with other human beings.

 The sub-text here is that we can all make changes in our lives. If you were abused as a child, you can learn how to have healthier relationships. Healthier relationships mean healthier families and happier children.

So do not assume that just because you were abused, you are destined to abuse your children and generally fail as a parent. With insight into your own patterns of behaviour, you will become more aware of how best to care for yourself and your family.

About the author: Dr Cathy Kezelman is Chairperson of Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), a nationwide support network dedicated to the health and wellbeing of adult survivors of child abuse and neglect. Cathy is also the author of Innocence Revisited – a tale in parts, a book about her experiences of child sexual abuse.

Presentation to parliamentary briefing session Feb 2009

This paper was presented to a parliamentary briefing session Feb 2009:

“Just imagine a plague that’s not immediately fatal. It attacks in childhood and lurks in the bodies and minds of its victims into adulthood and old age. It makes its victims up to sixteen times more likely to experience debilitating mental illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia, self harm and suicide, persistent nightmares and flashbacks, drug and alcohol abuse. It prevents its victims from getting an education, finding a job, forming relationships and feeling okay about themselves and leaves them struggling day-to-day to get to first base, to do those things that most people take for granted.

The plague of child abuse has caused more misery and suffering than any of the great plagues of history and yet the Australia community and successive governments continue to deny its consequences.

By conservative estimates, there are more than 2 million adults surviving child abuse in Australia and 8 million members of the Australian community directly affected by this tragedy. A 2008 study by 5 Australian universities of over 21 thousand older Australians found that over 13% of those surveyed reported having been sexually or physically abused in childhood. These figures are consistent with prior studies and do not include those who have been emotionally abused or neglected or forced to live in domestic violence situations. With Australia’s population sitting around 21.5 million people, the number of Australian adults surviving child abuse is probably more like 4 or 5 million – or every 4th or 5th person in this room.

This 2008 study showed that child abuse survivors are two and a half times more like to have poor mental health outcomes, four times more likely to be unhappy even in much later life, more likely to have poor physical health, to smoke and be physically inactive. The research also shows a higher prevalence of broken relationships, lower rates of marriage in late life, lower levels of social support, and an increased likelihood of living alone. A 2008 report by Access Economics, the Australian Childhood Foundation and Monash University found that the cost of child abuse to the Australian community in 2007 was $10.7 billion, and could be as high as $30.1 billion; and that the projected cost of the consequences of abuse over the lifetime for children abused for the first time in 2007 at $13.7 billion and could be as high as $38.7 billion. The cost of not addressing adult survivors’ needs is crippling.

These statistics may seem hard to believe but have been established by Australia’s most reputable institutions but the legacy of child abuse has long been challenged by the politics of disbelief. This very shame and stigma and a conspiracy of silence has long kept survivors isolated, stopped them speaking or accessing the help they need. Despite a recent surge of media stories about child abuse, the rates of abuse and neglect continue unabated at an estimated 5 times officially reported levels and no change in community attitudes to the issue. A 2006 study by the Australian Childhood Foundation showed that community concerns about child abuse had not altered between 2003 and 2006 and were ranked lower than concerns about the cost of petrol and the vagaries of public transport.

This issue of child abuse touches on some very raw social nerves. Children who are abused live in fear of disclosing while adults are expected to shut up and get over it. The majority of people would prefer to imagine that child abuse doesn’t go on and that if it does, not in our community and certainly not in our homes and families. However 85% of abuse occurs in the family and 96% is perpetrated by someone the child knows; no sector of Australian society is
immune. Until we tackle this issue head on survivors’ needs will continue to swamp our psychiatric hospitals and homeless shelters, and flood our criminal justice and welfare systems.

The impact of child abuse does not stop when the abuse stops. The advertising campaign, the TV component of which you are about to see is confronting and we make no apologies for that. It has to be to expose the entrenched taboo around the impact of child abuse, to highlight the plight of adult survivors and to confront a pervasive myth – the myth that it is easy to get over child abuse. Both the community and successive governments have turned a blind eye to the needs of adult survivors for too long and this inaction has caused devastating repercussions for all Australians.

I have no doubt that some of you will find this TV ad uncomfortable or perhaps even shocking. However speaking as a survivor of child abuse myself I would like to stress that being abused as a young and innocent child is far more uncomfortable than any 30 sec advertisement, and living long-term with the impact of that abuse is devastatingly shocking.

The needs of adult survivors are a significant social, health and economic challenge which have been crying out for government action for a long time. Since 1995 ASCA has helped thousands of survivors reclaim their lives. Our creating new possibilities workshops for survivors, education and training programs for health care workers, network of skilled service providers and other services are of proven benefit. We have the skills and expertise to help but our resources and funds are severely limited; we cannot solve this community scourge alone but we are ready to work together with government and other service providers on a solution.

It is high time we saw the needs of adult survivors high on the national agenda alongside other significant social and health issues such as depression, suicide, substance abuse and homelessness. As a prioritized focus for government with a minister with portfolio responsibility for policy around capacity building and service delivery and ongoing funding commensurate with the scale of the problem, and its impact. ASCA is committed to ensuring that all Australian adult survivors of child abuse will be able to find the help they need to find health well being and meaningful engagement in the Australian community. We look forward to working with you all on the way forward.”

Dr Cathy Kezelman

Read more about this presentation at: