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Landmark report on delayed reporting of child sex abuse prosecutions

29 August 2016
Major research published by Royal Commission

Research funded by the Royal Commission is the first in Australia and one of few internationally to examine the impact of delayed reporting on complaints. 

A stock image of a young child in distress. Image iStock

The numbers of alleged child sexual assaults in NSW reported to police have more than doubled since 1995, according to University of Sydney research. Image: iStock

Less than half the child sexual abuse cases reported to police over the last decade in NSW and South Australia have resulted in charges that proceeded to trial or a guilty plea, according to a landmark research report.

The numbers of alleged child sexual assaults in NSW reported to police have more than doubled since 1995 but the proportion of cases proceeding to prosecution has halved.

The report for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse details the impact of delayed reporting on the prosecution of such cases.

University of Sydney researchers were funded by the Royal Commission to examine how the criminal justice systems in NSW and South Australia deal with child sexual abuse complaints reported to the police in childhood, compared with those unreported until adulthood, commonly known as historical child sexual abuse.

In NSW, it is more likely that cases of historical child sexual assault with delays up to 20 years will be prosecuted than sexual abuse reported during childhood.

Contrary to expectations, historical matters are more likely to result in a conviction and imprisonment for the offender.

“Children and young people who have been sexually abused sometimes disclose abuse soon after it occurs, but only about 10 percent of those cases are proceeding to prosecution. There are probably many reasons for this, not least the difficulties children face giving evidence in the criminal justice system,” said Professor Judy Cashmore.

“This research is the first in Australia and one of few studies internationally to examine the impact of delayed reporting on the likely trajectory of these complaints through the criminal justice system,” said Professor Cashmore. 

Key statistics

  • Reports of child sexual assault in NSW doubled from 1,274 incidents in 1995 to 3,030 in 2014.
  • 63 percent of child sexual assault complaints to police in NSW, where the person of interest was identified, proceeded to prosecution in 1995; in 2014, it was 32 percent.
  • Boys and men delay reporting more often and longer than girls and women, and frequently into adulthood.
  • There has been a rise in the number of reported sexual assaults on girls and overall, 75 percent of incidents involved female victims.
  • About 80 percent of reported sexual offences against children are reported in childhood.

Most reports of child sexual abuse in NSW and South Australia were made within three months of the incident, but there has been an increase in reports made beyond 10 years after incidents, the report notes.

It finds the longest delays in reporting occurred where alleged perpetrators were authority figures — such as teachers, priests or foster carers — with data showing the majority of these reports were made at least 10 years after the incident.

Royal Commission CEO Philip Reed said: “The report contains interesting findings about the length of delay in reporting, particularly where the alleged perpetrator is a person in a position of authority. It also identifies that when reporting was delayed, there was no disadvantage to complainants in relation to charging and conviction rates.”

The report defines child sexual abuse to refer to a range of contact and noncontact sexual offences against a child, including sexual assault, indecent assault and acts of indecency, as well as child pornography and child sexual exploitation.

Luke O'Neill

Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)