Victims’ welfare key in abuse inquiry
The royal commission on institutional responses to the sexual abuse of children in religious, government and non-government organisations offers a unique opportunity for Australia to establish robust child protection and victim support systems.
Schools, churches and other such organisations and institutions, and those who work in them, are in a position of responsibility and accountability for the children entrusted into their care. Any abuse of their power and authority, as happens with child sexual assault, can cause fear, horror and helplessness.
When that abuse is repeated, trust is further betrayed. When organisations and institutions ignore, minimise and dismiss survivors’ experiences, the impacts can be further compounded.
Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) welcomes the royal commission. It brings an opportunity to fully, comprehensively and transparently investigate all allegations of child sexual assault, past and present, and the processes, practices, policies, laws and systems that conspire to perpetuate the actual and potential sexual assault of Australian children.
While Australia will be looking to the commission to provide recommendations that prioritise the safety and protection of our children, the commission must also make recommendations regarding apologies, redress, reparation, and professional support for victims.
Child sexual assault entails the abuse of power and a betrayal of trust. In many cases it has been perpetrated by those in a position of authority, in care-giving and pastoral roles.
The destructive effects of such assaults have, in many cases, been further exacerbated by organisations that could have stopped them, failed to validate the experiences of victims and failed to respond empathically or provide appropriate care and support.
In child sexual assault the traumatic acts are premeditated, often repeated and can occur over a long period of time. The impacts are cumulative and destructive. But with the right support, personal and professional, there is cause for hope and optimism – recovery is possible.
The damaging experiences on the brain can be repaired, and survivors benefit from ongoing therapy and counselling from those with expertise in recovery from child sexual assault.
The commission has a responsibility to recommend the provision of the right professional support for survivors and the resources to enable it.
In addition, it is imperative that the commission and its officers understand the effects of trauma on victims and their particular vulnerabilities and sensitivities. This includes survivors’ susceptibility to repeated stressors, including subsequent betrayals, minimisation of their experiences, drawn out negotiations for compensation and other forms of re-traumatisation.
Child sexual assault is most commonly perpetrated by adults on whom the child depends and trusts – family members or other adults in regular contact through school, church, sports or other community activities.
In announcing research from callers to the 1300 support line last month, ASCA confirmed that for the vast majority of children who have been abused, the abuse was by someone they know.
Of those who spoke about their perpetrators, the research shows the majority, 62 per cent, were harmed by their immediate family and 23 per cent by extended family. Only 2 per cent were abused by strangers.
Other perpetrators include family friends (12 per cent), religious group (9 per cent) and teachers (5 per cent).
The safety and protection of children is an absolute priority. So too is the process of recovery for child and adult victims. When a person has experienced child sexual abuse they are prone to re-traumatisation, which can occur at any age, with trauma and its impacts being compounded over time.
When a child is sexually abused the child takes on an inappropriate sense of shame and self-blame, and these feelings often continue into adult life.
Even though survivors may want to talk about their feelings, their own shame, as well as fear of how others will respond, can stop them from doing so.
Overcoming the shame of child sexual assault and speaking out takes courage and fortitude. It means facing the betrayal of those who perpetrated the abuse and those who were complicit in protecting them.
Those conducting this commission of inquiry need to be informed about trauma to minimise the potential for re-traumatisation.
That said, the vast majority of survivors and survivor organisations welcome the royal commission as an opportunity to be heard, to see justice done and to influence real change.
Offering a choice to provide public or private testimony would enable more survivors to break the secrecy and silence of child sexual assault, to feel empowered and understood. Being listened to and being believed can be an important step in the recovery process. Genuine and heart-felt apologies, as well as a process of redress, can also go some way towards starting that process.
Let’s seize the opportunity to work together to achieve that end.
Dr Cathy Kezelman is president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse.