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.

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.

Dateline – interview with Fr. Tom Doyle


Dateline showed an interview with Fr Tom Doyle who has been observing the impact of child abuse within the catholic Church for 25 years. He is outspoken about the systemic failure of the church to act. I posted the following comment on the website

Fr. Tom Doyle speaks the truth – systemic failure

The RCC continues to fail to bring the perpetrators of child sexual assault to justice, address the systemic secrecy and silence within, or provide the requisite pastoral care to victims. Crimes have been committed by clergy globally and yet the church hierarchy has repeatedly failed to take responsibility or intervene to protect children. Child abuse is a pervasive social practice, not limited to RCC but the response of this institution has exponentially comounded the damage.

Your survival is remarkable and profound

I have read your book.  Your survival is remarkable and profound, as is your expose’ expressed in parts.  This shocking story, sickening to the soul, serves to give hope, at least to other survivors embarking on the road to recovery.  I am amazed at your resilience and compulsion to deal with very difficult issues.  Congratulations on articulating this very difficult history.

I wish you continued success on your road to recovery, in finding the life that was robbed of you!

Thank you for sharing it with us.

 From John