Recollections hard for victims - and professionals
4 April 2013
The royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse commences hearings on 3 April.
The commissioners and those who work with them are going to hear some extremely distressing stories of abuse. Some will be gut-wrenching. Some will produce feelings of revulsion and disgust. Some, even though true, will be hard to believe.
People who work in the area of child sex abuse know how distressing these stories can be. It is recognised that professionals who listen to and help victims of child sexual abuse are at risk of themselves suffering from compassion fatigue, a form of significant psychological distress including recurrent, intrusive recollections of what the abuse victim has related to them.
So who will be looking after the commissioners and their staff? Where can they go to if they need to unload, to deal with some of the distressing things they will certainly hear? There has been no indication that this type of support is available. If it is not, it should be put in place before the burden of hearing these stories becomes too great.
It is essential that support services are being put in place for the victims who come forward. This is clearly a priority. But it would be wise not to overlook the needs of those who, over several years, will be listening to and thinking about these accounts.
There is also the danger of an unwanted side effect from the commission. Before the 1970s child sexual abuse was rarely recognised and hardly ever discussed. There is no good evidence that it is more common now than it was in the past. It has always been with us, but we just couldn't face it.
If a child ever summoned up enough courage to say she had been sexually interfered with she wasn't believed. In fact, she would often be punished for saying such an outrageous thing.
Now the subject is widely recognised, in themes of novels, television drama and films. It is part of the daily grist of the media.
But there is still a level of denial. Even though it is common, child sexual abuse is an unpleasant topic. It is a fact too hard, too unpleasant for most people to entertain or comprehend.
Quite naturally it's one we don't want anywhere near our families or our friends. We would rather that it was "over there" than closer to home.
A danger with the current focus on child sex abuse within religious and other institutions is that it may give people some degree of comfort because it is seen as a problem that it is "over there" and nowhere near us.
This is far from the truth. Australian research shows that 75 percent perpetrators of child sexual abuse are people who the child knows and trusts. Of these, about 15 percent are fathers or stepfathers, 30 percent are other male relatives of the child (uncle, brother, grandfather), 15 percent are family friends (neighbours and other adults who spend time with the family as friends, who are trusted and who have access to the child) and 15 percent are acquaintances of the child and family. It is this latter, rather small group which includes adults in religious and other institutions who have access to children. The remaining 25 percent of child sexual abuse offenders are strangers who have not met the children before.
So while the current focus on the response of religious and other institutions to child sexual abuse is timely and essential, it is important not to lose sight of the facts about where most child sexual abuse occurs. Child sex abuse is common. The majority of children are being abused, often in their own homes, by people they are related to or who their families trust.
Kim Oates is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney and a former President of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.
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