JACK WATERFORD. Most sex abuse occurs in the home

Feb 27, 2020

WHY does Peter Dutton and  the Home Affairs Department need more high -tech powers  when the real problem of sex abuse is in the home?

But if cases of on-line access to international child-sex abuse materials, were but a drop in the ocean compared with the number and networks involved in sexual abuse in schools, orphanages, and sporting and cultural groups, the evidence suggests that the number of sex-abuse cases in institutions was a tiny proportion of cases in ordinary society. As we have been repeatedly told but sometimes forget when we see a crusade for more high-tech powers, most child sexual abuse occurs in the home.

It is mostly committed by a family member, or a person well known to the victim. And as with the institutional abuse cases, the assaults often do not come to light for many years, in part because some victims blame themselves, or fear that the consequence of complaint will be the break-up of the family. “Stranger danger” exists, but like other public relations constructs is too much emphasised compared with the risk from uncle, step-father or next-door neighbour.

At this level of the problem, police activity was almost non-existent, even after the welfare establishment had generally succeeded in making child abuse a notifiable event. Welfare authorities heard reports – sometimes doing notifications themselves when they saw children in danger – and, within their resources, tried hard to see if they could substantiate complaints.

Australian statistics on child abuse and child sex abuse are woeful – being more focused on formal reports, substantiations and so on than on statistics of victims. Some jurisdictions, particularly in Canada, and parts of the United States, have long-term statistics that point to the size of the problem. What we know about Australian victims suggests they follow this pattern.

Only ten per cent of victims ever go to or come to the attention of police or welfare authorities. (One of the problems of using welfare case files is that we have no way of knowing whether these are typical cases, worst cases, or cases plucked from a particular subset of society, such as indigenous Australians and the underclasses.  No one has ever demonstrated that race or class is a significant factor in predicting whether someone – most likely a young girl – will be sexually assaulted. But welfare files, for obvious reasons are heavily skewed in this direction.)

Another problem was that “victimhood” was often being levered by police, social workers or parents into their preconceptions of what it “should”  look like. Many victims showing signs of distress were adjudged naughty or given to lying. As with another massively unreported crime – rape —  where there has long been a tendency on the part of (male) detectives to assume that rape must be accompanied by obvious violence.

Canadian figures suggest that about 20 per cent of women and between five and ten per cent of men experienced some form of sexual abuse as children. Generally, they reported the abuse as occurring between the ages of seven to 13.  In about half the cases, with either boys or girls,  the abuse involved sexual penetration. It seems that more than 90 per cent of the perpetrators were men, and that the perpetrator was known to the victim about 90 per cent of the time.

It seems that at least a third of the perpetrators have clear paedophilic tendencies, in the psychiatric sense. But that means that two thirds – fathers, uncles, brothers, neighbours, teachers and boyfriends — are opportunist predators, almost as likely to re-offend. It is hard to know who are worse.

In no way do I diminish the suffering of children being abused in third world countries for the sexual gratification of older Australian men. Australia has a moral duty to these victims that cannot be swallowed up by the knowledge that Australia itself may have as many as 700,000 children (of 5 million under 18) who are being, or have been sexually abused. It’s quite likely, if the harrowing royal commission reports are any guide, that in a significant proportion, the abuse has been as serious and severe, if not necessarily photographed or broadcast.

That’s on top of the icebergs of older siblings, now adult,  parents and grandparents also abused in their childhood, but with cases now, perhaps, regarded as being less urgent because they are now less vulnerable or more safe.

We cannot, should not, blame police alone for failing to stumble over this nightmare in our midst. But we should not kid ourselves that there’s now a national action plan, guided by the wise AFP, to make sure it doesn’t continue happening.

When cops, politicians and ambitious public servants use the sexual abuse of children to promote further a national surveillance state on the Chinese model – at least as soon as home affairs can buy a computer that works — there’s an implication that anyone expressing a doubt is in favour of paedophilia.  One might wonder instead whether decades of shameful failure to protect children shows a systemic fault not yet addressed. One that will be cured by will and new insights, not toys and a “free hand”.

Asked about it all later this week, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, of a police family background and outlook on life, remarked that “if I thought someone was abusing a child somewhere, I’d kick the door down, I’d go and try to rescue that child.

“And those who want to abuse children shouldn’t be able to hide in the internet. And if they’re doing it, I’m going to use every tool at my disposal to try to protect that child…  They’ll [police] get what they need to protect the kids.’’

Bravo. What a pity this vehement attitude does not extend to those of his friends who have protected perpetrators from arrest and punishment by failing, as the law required, to report their activities to police. On matters like this, his personal friendships, and his social engagements, are not private matters, but ones of real public interest. Sadly, that’s not the sort of offence the AFP has the power, or will, to prosecute.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

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