The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is testament to both the evil in our society and to the courage and determination of many of the victims. But we need to be aware that most child sexual abuse occurs in places other than churches and institutions.
Towards the end of Chief Commissioner Justice Peter McLellan’s introduction to the Commission’s final report, an important statement appears that was not picked up by the media:
The Royal Commission has been concerned with the sexual abuse of children within institutions. It is important to remember that, notwithstanding the problems we have identified, the number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in institutions.
Among the many good things the Commission has achieved, a danger is that it is more comfortable for us to see child sexual abuse as occurring predominantly in institutions, including churches, instead of realising that it is far closer to us than we realise.
In taking an overview of the whole problem of child sexual abuse, we need to look at two questions: Who are the abusers? And, why do people sexually abuse children?
Reading the reports from the Commission over the last few years, one would assume that child sex abusers are men, usually celibate men. It is true that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by men, usually heterosexual, often married, men. But this is not exclusively so. Women have been known to sexually abuse children, men and women together have abused children and children themselves have been reported as sexual abusers of younger children.
The reasons why abuse occurs are complex. One helpful concept is the Four Preconditions Model, described by David Finkelhor, one of the world’s foremost researchers in child victimization.
- The desire to have sex with a child: Finkelhor suggests that a proportion of people have transitory feelings of sexual attraction towards children but because of their upbringing and societal taboos, quickly dismiss these feelings.
- Nurturing feelings of sexual attraction towards children: This may be done through exposure to child pornography and mixing with people who encourage sexual activities with children. The Commission highlighted how in some instances, young priests fell under the influence of older priests who were already established child sex abusers.
- Having access to children: People with abusive desires may seek employment with organisations where there is access to children, particularly where children are entrusted to their care and supervision.
- Overcoming the resistance of the child: Programs that teach children to protect themselves, to be wary of people who want to touch their bodies, to tell responsible adults about untoward behaviour of other adults are a good thing, but our responsibility to protect children goes far beyond just telling a child to speak up and to say “no”. A child is no match for a clever abuser; an abuser who may charm a family, gain their respect and confidence and is nothing like the stereotypic, but quite false, idea of the abuser who lurks on street corners. When this person has authority over a child, particularly as the Commission showed, when he is a priest who tells the child it is “God’s will” that the child submits, it is an unusual child who can resist.
Child sexual abuse was described only in the more widely read academic literature in 1977, although there were sporadic reports before then. A major reason why abuse has remained hidden for so long is that many abusers are charming and therefore thought to be incapable of this crime and that children are threatened with punishment if they reveal what has happened to them. Often when a child has been brave enough to reveal the abuse, the child is not believed and even punished for lying. When the abuser is a priest or other church employee, how can a child’s story stand up against the denial of such a respected person?
Although the Commission looked at a range of institutions and other churches, the greatest number of alleged perpetrators were in Roman Catholic institutions.
While the majority of child sex abuse victims in the general population are female, these figures were reversed for claimants against the Catholic Church where 78% of claimants were male. Some have postulated that this is a result of celibacy requirements. However when Professor Patrick Parkinson and I published our 2012 study on child sex abuse in the Anglican Church, where there are no celibacy requirements, the gender pattern of victims was similar. We suggested that this may have been because girls were less often left alone by their parents before and after church activities whereas boys were less well supervised and so at greater risk.
Clearly there is no simple explanation. As Justice McClellan said: “Poor practices, inadequate governance structures, failures to record and report complaints, or understating the seriousness of complaints, have been frequent.” and “If the problems we have identified are to be adequately addressed, changes must be made. There must be changes in the culture, structure and governance practices of many institutions.”
People must not be protected because they hold high office. Child abuse investigations must never be subservient to the reputation of the organisation.
Child sexual abuse is a crime that must be reported to the police so that allegations can be properly investigated, not ever dealt with internally by the institution.
The Royal Commission has been a beginning. It is testament to both the evil in our society and to the courage and determination of many of the victims. But we need to be reminded that most child sexual abuse does not occur in churches and institutions. While some is caused by a person who the child does not know, the majority occurs closer to home, within families, extended families and from friends and neighbours.
We must be aware of the dangers of falling into the same trap of the institutions, of ignoring, overlooking or just not taking a child’s allegation seriously.
Kim Oates is a former President of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney.