It’s time to speak out about the unspeakable

It’s time to speak out about the unspeakable

Published online in ‘The Punch’,

8th March 2012

During the early 1900s, at a time of increasing unrest over economic, social and political inequality for women, International Women’s Day was born. Now etched in our calendars, March 8th has even become an official holiday in some countries.

The day celebrates both the achievements and the vital contribution women make in society. It’s also a recognition of the role feminism has played in exposing sexual violence and seeking solutions to combat this problem. A problem that is yet to be abated.

The release late last month of the UN Secretary-general’s report on sexual violence during conflict, named military forces, militia and other armed groups as serious offenders in a large number of countries. Sexual violence was noted to have hampered peace building in places such as Timor Leste, Sierra Leone and Bosnia and featured in civil unrest in Egypt and Syria.

While sexual violence flourishes in regions which are at war or experiencing civil unrest, it is not restricted to such zones. In fact, sexual assault is a pervasive social practice which knows no religious, cultural, demographic or economic bounds.

While sexual assault can profoundly affect victims of all ages, child sexual assault is often the most damaging. Extensive research has established the impacts of child sexual assault on the brain not just in childhood but right through the life cycle.

In Australia, an estimated one in three girls, and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted in some way prior to the age of 18. While more typically perpetrated by men, women can and do offend. Sexual violence has long been used as a tool of power and control, instilling and exacerbating fear, helplessness and humiliation in vulnerable populations.

Children are inherently vulnerable. Child sexual assault is a primary act of betrayal by someone in a position of trust, often the very person charged with the child’s care. It violates the child’s basic human rights.

In situations of conflict and post conflict these crimes can be encapsulated in terms of civil and political rights, transgressed in the public domain.  However in Australia, the vast majority of cases of child sexual assault are perpetrated in the private domain, in the home and family.

In the 1970s and 80s, feminist waves first highlighted the often gendered crimes of sexual violence. For the first time, sexual abuse was publicly named, personal stories were told and power imbalance and control were identified as key factors in the perpetration of sexual violence.

While we have evidenced some changes in our societal approach to sexually violent crimes, in Australia we have a long way to go in combating the collective denial, stigma and taboo which would still rather not speak about the apparently unspeakable.

In recent years, the Australian media has begun to report on child sexual assault more frequently. But often they are sensationalised, with the focus shone on the facts of single cases, ignoring more substantive educative messages.

It is time to speak openly and candidly about the factors which foster child sexual assault, and how to mitigate them. More survivors and the organisations which represent them are starting to speak out but they need to be heard by a society which is ready to listen. Only then can survivors start to overcome the soul-destroying shame imposed on them by both their original victimisation and their re-victimisation by communities and systems which minimise, negate and/or dismiss their experiences.

As human beings we share a common humanity. Inherent in our humanity is an accompanying vulnerability. War and civil unrest create vulnerable populations where, fuelled by the oppression of women within those populations, the human rights abuses of violence and sexual violence can and do abound.

Within Australia we have our own history of human rights violations. Cultural dislocation and entrenched disadvantage have presided over an epidemic of violence and sexual violence within Indigenous communities, with substantiated rates of child abuse and neglect being eight times those of non-Indigenous communities.

Yet child sexual assault in Australia is widespread and not confined to Indigenous communities. We, in Australia, who live in the “lucky country”, a country at peace, must address the factors which enable child sexual assault to continue unabated.

This International Women’s Day let’s celebrate the contribution women have made in their various roles as mother, daughter, mentor, colleague, boss or friend. And let’s do what we can to protect the most vulnerable amongst us ­– our children – from child sexual assault.

Child protection programs which educate families on how to keep children safe are to be commended. However, not all children can defend themselves against sexual abusers, or feel safe enough to disclose and ask for help. All Australians need to be alert to the possibility of abuse and its signs in child victims.

The average paedophile has between 50 and 150 victims. If there is any suspicion that a child is being abused, it is important to come forward and notify the appropriate authorities. Should the suspicion not be substantiated, the consequences of being wrong are far less damaging than those of failing to report a case in which a child is actually being abused.

Not reporting not only leaves that child at risk of ongoing abuse, but puts other children at risk. Once reported the onus is on the authorities to investigate but we can all play a part. This International Women’s Day and every day from now on, let’s do what we can to keep our children safe from sexual predators.

Presentation – complex trauma

The following presentation was given at Inaugural Conference, Westmead Psychotherapy Program for Complex Traumatic Disorders, 10th November 2011. It is available on registration at psychevisual


This presentation, “Responding to the needs of consumers with complex trauma histories a consumer perspective” focuses on the needs of adult survivors of child abuse, highlighting the frequent failures of the current system to identify them and respond appropriately. Using her personal journey of recovery from complex trauma at the core of which is childhood abuse, Cathy explores the distinguishing features of complex trauma presentations. In so doing she stresses the need to respond holistically to each person with full awareness of their lived experience. She highlights the need for the research of the last thirty years to be incorporated into practice with a trauma-informed approach to care bringing better outcomes for consumers with complex trauma histories.

Prioritise support for the abused: ASCA

Governments need to do more to support the two million Australian adults who have experienced child abuse, survivors say.

Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) says all governments should do more to help health services identify and respond to trauma, in particular the complex trauma of child abuse.

Cathy Kezelman, ASCA’s head of stakeholder relations, said health services needed the right tools to provide proper care for adults who too often suffered in silence from the trauma of their childhood abuse.

“There is a significant research base that shows the damaging effects of the often multiple, unresolved trauma of childhood experiences on the brain,” Dr
Kezelman said in a statement.

“But research also shows us that the brain has the capacity to repair itself. With the right support, adults abused as children can reclaim control of their lives
and make an important contribution to society.”

She said the annual estimated cost of child abuse and neglect among Australians had been estimated at $4 billion. She said more than two million Australian adults had experienced some form of child abuse.

Guidelines need to be developed to fill a gap in education and awareness among health professionals to help them identify and deal with the impact of childhood trauma resulting from abuse, ASCA said in the statement.

Don’t ignore abuse victims on national day

Don’t ignore abuse victims on national day

Jan 24th,

Business Spectator

leaders should spare a moment on Australia Day to think about helping child abuse survivors get a new start, an advocacy group says.

Two million Australian adults who have experienced child abuse need more support to live healthy lives, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) says.

“As the country comes together to honour and reflect on its annual achievements, ASCA is calling on governments and policy makers to prioritise support for the more than two million adult Australians who have experienced child abuse in all its forms,” the group said.

“Just like our new citizens, many of these Australians are working towards living healthy and happy lives. The good news is, a better life is possible,” Dr
Cathy Kezelman of ASCA said.

“But change needs to be led by the leaders of our community.

She said health services needed the right tools to provide proper care for adults who often suffered in silence from the trauma of childhood abuse.

With the right support, they could regain control of their lives and make an important contribution to society, the doctor said.

She said more than two million Australian adults had experienced some form of child abuse, and the annual cost to the country of child abuse and neglect had been estimated at $4 billion.

Professor Donna Cross, Western Australia’s nominee for Australian of the Year, has said problems children face in early life such as abuse and bullying can lead to alcohol and drug abuse and violence in adulthood.

Parenting hope and help for mothers abused as children

Child abuse survivor Dr Cathy Kezelman faces the demons of her past to become the best parent she can be.

Children learn how to manage their feelings and behaviour from the people who parent them, generally from their mother. While this article refers to mothers,
many of the ideas relate to others in a parenting role – fathers, step-parents, and foster and kinship parents.

When a mother has not had her emotional needs met in childhood she may struggle to understand them or how to meet them. As a consequence she may
unwittingly look to her children to meet her needs. However, no child can ever fill a mother’s needs, no matter how hard they try. Attempting to do so often
leaves a child feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

If you grew up in an abusive or violent household then abusive behaviours are familiar. It does not mean that you will abuse your children. But it may mean
that you may struggle to trust what you observe, feel and experience. It may also mean that you struggle with relationships, including your relationship with
your child. Over time, however, you can learn to trust your reactions and modify your relationships patterns for the better.

When people think of abuse they often think of sexual abuse. But abuse comes in many forms and emotional abuse can be equally as damaging. It can be overt – shouting at your kids, putting them down or calling them names. It can also be more subtle – using fear to control a child, blaming a child unfairly, ignoring
and refusing to speak to the child.

Children living in a domestic violence situation, even if they are not the object of the violence, experience emotional abuse. When you have been abused as
a child and are living or have lived in a domestic violence situation, you may be desensitised to abusive behaviour. As a result you may unwittingly stay in an
emotionally unhealthy situation, inadvertently subjecting your child to emotional abuse.

In some households adults rage against one another and children absorb the intensity of that rage. A child growing up with destructive anger doesn’t know
what to do with it or how to process it. Children express their feelings and what is happening to them in their behaviour. Bad behaviour is often an
expression of their chaotic feelings.

Children growing up in tumultuous households often go to school and dump their anger on others. This often gets them into trouble. Yet all they are doing
is expressing their distress and confusion. Alternatively they may become shy and withdrawn.

As a child I was emotionally abused by my mother. I grew up scared of her anger. She used it to control me. I tried to avoid it by becoming overly
compliant. I grew up timid and clingy and found it hard to separate and venture out into the world.

Infants whose reactions and feelings are reflected back to them feel safe, secure and understood. They learn to trust what they feel and think. They can
make sense of the world. Nurtured children learn to value themselves. Their self-esteem grows and they develop healthy interactions with the world and

When a mother repeatedly causes a child distress, the child is often overwhelmed by emotions they can’t process. The child struggles to find meaning
in what is happening.

My mother did not acknowledge or validate my feelings. I ignored them to keep the peace and dismissed my thoughts along with them. By my teens I had adopted my mother’s feelings, thoughts and beliefs. Eventually I didn’t even know what mine were.

As I was out of touch with my feelings I couldn’t adequately understand or address my children’s emotional needs. However, I was lucky. As an adult I found
a good therapist. In therapy I learnt to make sense of my emotional world. This has made me more emotionally available to my children.

No parent can provide for a child’s emotional needs all of the time. However, if your childhood has left you struggling to provide for your child’s emotional
needs, there is a lot you can do. Mothers can acquire healthy parenting skills from understanding their childhood and its effects on them and their parenting.
Abusive patterns of the past are often alive in the present. Yet with understanding they can be changed. Ways to do this include:

•    Identify there is an issue
•    Acknowledge it and the role you and others are playing
•    Look for help and support
•    Speak to a good friend
•    Find a counsellor or therapist
•    Observe others as they parent
•    Search online or in your favourite bookshop for one of the many excellent resources
•    Enrol in a parenting course.


Dr Cathy Kezelman is Head of Stakeholder Relations, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA).

ASCA is a national charity that supports adults who have experienced any form of childhood abuse or neglect. That includes emotional abuse. To find out more
visit the ASCA website or call 1300 657 380 or 02 8920 3611 for support.


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.

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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