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.

“Words of Hope”

article AJN June 16th

Cathy Kezelman was just five years old when she was first brutally sexually assaulted. The abuse continued for close to ten years at the hands of a number of people.

But it was only at the age of 43 that the then medical practitioner revisited the horrific memories she had repressed for her adult life.

The nature of the trauma was so severe that Dr. Kezelman has developed a severe dissociative disorder that fragmented her personality into different parts, causing a disconnection between her thoughts, memories, feelings and actions – a condition to which she attribtues her survival.

But when her 18-year old niece died in a car accident, it triggered the repressed memories of the abuse to return and she began to relive them over a ten-year period in the form of flashbacks.

“As my memories came back I was dissociated as I recovered them, ” the 56 year old doctor recalls.  “The memories came back as fragments. My body was taken over; it was like I was being driven. I would mouth words that were being said to me. It was terrifying beyond belief.”

As the memories returned slowly, painfully and in fragments, her seemingly normal life took a horrible backflip, sending her into a spiral of deep depression.

After she relived each flashback with her husband or clinical psychologist, she would write down the memory. “I couldn’t actually speak,” she recalls. I was just so overwhelmed by the memories I thought I was going crazy.”

It was those writings throughout a therapeutic process which coalesced to form a recently published memoir, “Innocence Revisited – a tale in parts.”

The book tells the story of her ordeal – from the depression she fell into after her niece’s death, to the subsequent flashbacks, and finally to overc0ming her trauma.

More than a cathartic process, teh mother of four children and one foster child wrote the book to also help counter the shame that victims commonly experience.

“That shame is totally silencing and of course, so inappropriate because you’ve been the victim,” she emphasises. “The societal shame keeps people silent, particularly when you start talking about abuse in a white Anglo-Saxon, Australian, in a family, in a home, in our area. And of course perpetrators also implant that shame and guilt to silence you.”

As the chair of Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA), Dr. Kezelman has worked in a voluntary capacity for 10 years, lobbying the Government for funding and helping to devise the national organisation’s strategic direction. 

“At ASCA we know that child abuse continues unabated despite all the best attempts of child protection services. There are a lot of survivors in the community doesn’t make it go away. It’s still there.”

As a director of the Mental Health Coordinating Council, she says that unless more people start to talk about abuse, change won’t come about.

“It’s time to erode the secrecy, shame and stigma. People are scared of things they don’t understand and I think fear perpetuates the issue because it leaves it unaddressed.

But together with the silence often shrouding child abuse victims, the issue is also compounded by those who don’t accept the existence of repressed memories and their validity.

In launching the book Senior Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi said the book should be seen as a landmark in “it’s intense portrayal of the way a child can survive severe sexual abuse by dividing their very essence into fragments.”

“There will be come people who read this book and are reluctant to believe that such abject cruelty to a child or young adolescent could happen.” he said. “As a prosecutor in the criminal courts for more than 10 years I can tell you that it exists in every segment of our society and many other societies.”

Now with her book on the shelves Dr. Kezelman hopes that her book will reach out to other survivors.

“I want to show that there is help and hope and a future out there. I want to show that you don’t have to stay overwhelmed by your past and stuck in your trauma together, that you can move on and have a really positive life.”

“There’s no shame in seeking help for being a victim, ” she stresses. “It’s courageous to stand up and say, “I need help.” People need to be encouraged to do that and acknowledged for doing that.”

It’s been more than three years since Dr. Kezelman relived her last repressed memory. The therapy process has enabled her to form deeper relationships and live a richer life. She no longer controls you; it’s no longer all you are. It’s a part of you like everyone’s past is a part of them.”

It’s taken courage for Dr. Kezelman to tell her story, particularly within her own community and it’s come at the cost of her relationship with her mother and her brother, who is a Holocaust survivor. But silence would have come as the greatest sacrifice.

“I accept now what I can’t change. What I do get more upset about is the resistance and denial in our community that continues,” she says.

“And that’s what drives me to want to educate and keep speaking out because I want to see that change that creates a more positive world of support for children and adults that actually helps to stop this happening.”

“I think I’m privileged in a way. I’ve had an education, I’ve got a medical background, I’ve got the skills and advantages that other survivors don’t have. I feel like those can be used to create change and that’s what I’m trying to do.” 

Innocence Revisited – a tale in parts can be purchased at

Child sex abuse victims. Why don’t we believe them? Radio Australia editorial

Child sex abuse victims. Why don’t we believe them? (by Phil Kafcaloudes)

5 May 2010

Today I interviewed a woman who was one of the lucky people to have survived being sexually abused as a child.

So severe was the abuse she endured from the age of 6 until 14 or so, that the entire decade of her childhood was blocked out of her adult memory. The whole thing just wasn’t there. She went on to become a respected doctor, a mother, a person who contributed to society, but for much of this time Cathy Kezelman had no memory of much of her childhood. There were snatches, sure, but she didn’t think back to Kindy or First Class or Year Five like many of the rest of us.

She couldn’t. It was wiped.

How? It was pretty simple. Cathy, as a medical practitioner, can see how. She says children have an amazing resilience, and can cope with just about anything. At a price.

When her father started sexually abusing her, her child’s mind reacted in a way that allowed her to keep going. It fooled her into thinking that this can’t be a bad thing.

Her father though, was not so resilient. He killed himself, perhaps out of guilt for what he was doing to his daughter, perhaps because he was a flawed personality. Cathy doesn’t think it was the latter. She says that he was very loving, and would snuggle up with her, non-sexually, as a father should, and do all the things that father must do, like reassure, love and care. Most of the time.

More horrifically, after her father passed on, Cathy’s sexual abuse continued, carried out by other people who were in positions of power over her. And finally, some years later, a trusted family doctor sexually assaulted her, again and again.

Where was her mother in all this? According to Cathy, her mother denied that this was happening. When Cathy told her mother that the doctor had started touching her inappropriately, her mother said something like: “Oh that’s just him, just tell him not to be silly”. This is a sentence that speaks volumes, for a mother who suspected the truth, and was too fearful to stand up for her daughter.

You see Cathy’s mum was a victim herself, a victim of the Holocaust. Her parents were murdered by the Nazis, and Cathy says it is easy to see now that the damage caused to her mother as a young woman came down the line. Her mother sheltered herself from the bad by denying it, just as her daughter did for thirty years.

Cathy’s father too had a traumatic childhood. He was a sexual abuse victim.

It is called patterning, and it happens with some victims of abuse, where they will do the same to young people in their care. I remember as a court reporter, hearing psychiatrists tell judges that a convicted sexual abuser was a victim themself. I even remember hearing one abuser, a scout master, say in his defence that it happened to him as a child and it did him no harm; it was a way of being loved. The judge wore none of it, explaining to this 50-something year old man that sexual abuse has nothing to do with love. It is about being a predator. The pattern may have been set, but it was up to him to break that pattern.

No-one could suggest that patterning happens in even a majority of cases. There must be thousands of abused people living good lives, the abuse a secret that in many cases will never be revealed, locked in their minds by feeling of guilt or fear of not being believed or fear of the damage it would do to their fathers or uncles. Others, like Cathy, have dealt with it and lives with the memory.

But there are many who don’t come through it. Recent statistics show that victims of childhood sexual abuse are eighteen times more likely to commit suicide, and are 49 times more likely to die of a drug overdose.

Cathy, mother, doctor, almost went this way too. Once her memory of the years of abuse returned to her (after counselling), she found herself standing at a cliff edge, going closer to the precipice, saved only by a voice that told her to speak to her counsellor. The talk pulled her back to this world, and into a life where she was determined to share her story, if only to let other victims learn that they are not alone.

Sexual abuse is part of every society. It is one of those things that just keeps on, like corruption, thievery and tax avoidance. The difference is that this one kills.

And there is far too much denying, perhaps from the victims, and certainly from the people who should believe them.

The ongoing protection of children must be a priority


This article was posted online in response to an article on about the crisis in the Catholic Church entitled “Yes we can beat church abuse”

An apology while welcome is only a start and for many sadly is too little too late. The fundamental betrayal of victims by the perpetrators has been serially compounded by the systemic failures of the institution and its hierarchy to act. We have seen global cover-ups, institutional risk minimisation, failure to bring the perpetrators to civil justice, blaming and re-victimisation of the victims and a failure of pastoral care.

Apologies are needed but they must be matched by a genuine focus on ongoing care and support for victims, reparation, true accountability, real justice, and a structural review of the factors which have enabled secrecy and silence to take precedence over the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the flock. The ongoing protection of children must be a priority with every measure being taken to ensure not one more innocent child is put at risk. The damage done to the innocents amongst us has been devastating. The victims who have been left struggling, their communities and families must be the focus.

An apology yes but real redress and a review and fundamental changes within the institution which allowed so many crimes to be committed within its walls.

Tragic child abuse case

The West Australian

I was asked to make comment on a tragic case of an adolescent sex offender raping a male and female, each 3 years of age. This case is a tragic reminder of the escalating number of sexual assaulted being committed by adolescent sex offenders. These crimes are on the rise and now constitute more than a third of reported crimes. Sadly adolescent sex offenders often go onto become adult sex offenders. It is crucial that they are subjected to the right programs, reassessed on an ongoing basis and for their treatment to enable them to take responsibility for their crimes, understand the impact of their crimes on their victims and that they do have a choice in what they do.

The young children of course will need expert ongoing care and support as will their families to help them find a way to live healthy and connected lives. It was good to see that the media was not only interested in the sensationalist side of the case but the 2 interviews I did on ABC Kimberleys and Mix 94.5 sought to understand the message the sentence was giving the community and the ongoing impacts of there crimes

(c) 2010, West Australian Newspapers Limited

A 16-year-old boy who raped two children after taking them from the yards of their Kununurra homes could be released from detention in October after being sentenced in Perth Children’s Court yesterday.

The boy was 15 and had used alcohol, cannabis and ecstasy when he led the two three-year-olds — a boy and a girl — away from two homes and sexually penetrated them in separate assaults committed within an hour of each other last December.

The court was told the boy, the teenager’s first victim, cried in pain during the attack and suffered an internal injury.

The teenager fled when the second victim’s father found him standing over his naked daughter.

Children’s Court president Denis Reynolds said the offences were so serious there was no option but to impose a total of two years’ detention to send a message to the community that sexual assaults against children would have serious consequences.

Judge Reynolds said that the teenager’s behaviour was “totally unacceptable”.

But Judge Reynolds said he also had to take into account the teenager’s guilty pleas to two counts of aggravated sexually penetration, his co-operation, the absence of sexual offences on his record, his supportive family and his youth.

Judge Reynolds ordered that the teenager become eligible for supervised release within 10 months, which is earlier than the 12 months which would usually apply to his two-year term of detention and the shortest possible minimum term for his sentence.

The sentence was backdated to take account of time spent in custody since his arrest which means he will be eligible for release in October.

Adults Surviving Child Abuse chairwoman Cathy Kezelman said that the sentence appeared to be lenient and it was crucial the teenager undertook programs while in detention because sexual offending as an adolescent could be the start of a pattern which continued into adulthood.

“The sentence does sound light given the potential impact on those two children,” Dr Kezelman said.

“I think the sentence does (also) appear to be light given the message the judge was trying to deliver to the community.”