The ripples of sex abuse

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( Left to Right ) Commissioner Bob Atkinson APM, Helen Milroy, Justice Peter McClellan AM, Justice Jennifer Coate, Robert Fitzgerald and Andrew Murray . Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

( Left to Right ) Commissioner Bob Atkinson APM, Helen Milroy, Justice Peter McClellan AM, Justice Jennifer Coate, Robert Fitzgerald and Andrew Murray .
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

By Penny Mulvey

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is hearing private submissions from 1400 people in the lead up to the public hearings, scheduled to begin in October. These private hearings, normally before two commissioners, have been taking place across the country. A trained counsellor is present in every session to assist if needed.

Janette Dines, CEO of the royal commission, speaking to ABC’s Radio National last month said several thousand people had been in contact, and the commissioners are hopeful that people will continue to come forward.

The commissioners have been appointed for three years and will prepare an interim report no later than 30 June 2014. At this stage, the final reporting date has been set at the end of 2015, but could be extended.

While the royal commission is confining its enquiries to institutional abuse, the statistics relating to sexual abuse throughout the community, including within the family, are high.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, one in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15; one in 20 men have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15; one in four women have experienced sexual abuse as children and one in six men have experienced sexual abuse as children.

The commissioners are very conscious of the responsibility they have to listen carefully and to not re-traumatise individuals who are sharing their stories. Ms Dines said that so far the reaction to the private hearings has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Some people have said that it’s the first time they felt safe and able to tell their story and people really sense that the commissioners want to hear their story and that they’re there to listen,” Ms Dines told ABC reporter Fran Kelly.

However, given the prevalence of sexual abuse within Australian society, the impact of the Royal Commission will create an ever widening ripple effect. The group, Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) says the majority of adults who have reported sex abuse in their childhood (62 per cent) were harmed by their immediate family and 23 per cent by extended family. Only 2 per cent were abused by strangers.

Other perpetrators include family friends (12 per cent), religious group (9 per cent) and teachers (5 per cent). As the media reports evidence presented before the Royal Commission, the potential for adult victims of familial child sex abuse to be taken back to a place of horror, pain and self loathing becomes increasingly likely.

In 2007 The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault published a paper –‘Ripple effects’ of sexual assault, by Zoë Morrison, Antonia Quadara and Cameron Boyd. This academic paper sought to demonstrate the scope and significance of sexual assault as a major issue, both at an individual and societal level.

The paper examined both secondary traumatisation and secondary victimisation. Secondary traumatisation refers to people who were not the actual victim of the assault, but were nonetheless adversely impacted by it. A recent example is the family of Jill Meagher (who was brutally raped and murdered by a man on parole for previous rapes in Melbourne last year). Her husband Tom says the vicious death of his wife has made him fearful:

“And that’s the worst thing for me because the way Jill and I lived was very free of that. We trusted people we met,” he said.

“That’s been ruined for me. And I think that’s the worst part of it. Not being able to be myself any more.”

In the victim impact statement prepared by Edith McKeon, mother of Jill, Mrs McKeon wrote that her life stopped on 22 September 2012.

“My personal relationship with my husband and son has changed, as we are all dealing with Gillian’s murder and the loss of her in different ways. The emotional harm it has done to us as a family is devastating and inconsolable…I have been given a life sentence.”

Secondary victimisation refers to the process that can occur to the victim, when they disclose details of the sexual assault and receive negative or inadequate responses from family, friends or professionals, leading to further trauma.

ASCA president, Dr Cathy Kezelman, writing on the ASCA website, explains:

“When that abuse is repeated, trust is further betrayed. When organisations and institutions ignore, minimise and dismiss survivors’ experiences, the impacts can be further compounded.”

In a joint submission to the Royal Commission, Dr Gary Foster of Living Well (Anglicare Southern Queensland Sexual Assault Services) and Professor Patrick O’Leary of Griffith University, advocated particularly for male survivors of child sexual abuse.

“It is important to recognise how the process of disclosure is handled will significantly influence a person’s subsequent coping and wellbeing…we know that if the response does not meet expectations, is experienced as inappropriate or inadequate this can impact significantly on survivor’s mental health and wellbeing.”

The Foster/O’Leary submission has collated research in relation to men sexually abused in childhood. Male victims are far less likely to disclose at the time of the abuse; they typically disclose being sexually abused in childhood 10 years later than women (on average 22 years after the assault).

A majority of men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse have not told anyone. Men have reported many concerns about why they are fearful to disclose, from shame and stigmatisation to the uncritical acceptance of the belief that male victims become abusers.

A 2009 Australian study revealed that 46 per cent of men who were sexually abused as children have attempted suicide at some time.
One of the concerns for Foster and O’Leary is the lack of adequate training by mental health services or telephone help-lines to respond appropriately to male survivors of child sexual abuse.

Their concern has wider ramifications as well. Calls to the ASCA hotline tripled since the royal commission was announced in November. As public hearings are reported it would be expected that such calls will continue to increase.

What processes are being put in place to support those impacted via the ripple effect? People who have repressed memories of abuse. People who are related to those who have been victims of abuse. People who are overwhelmed by the stories that they are hearing each day reported in the media. Journalists who are reporting it. Support staff assisting the commissioners. The list goes on.

In the reporting4work blogsite by former journalist and foundation board member on the Dart Australasia Centre for Journalism and Trauma, Trina McLellan provides some sound advice for journalists covering the royal commission, particularly in relation to self care.

She also warns of the importance of the media not acting as judge, jury and executioner:  “This royal commission will be complex, convoluted and will continue over a relatively long timeframe, but…newsrooms should resist the urge to pre-judge what particular outcomes should eventuate from these discoveries/disclosures.

“This royal commission is, at its heart, about investigating allegations of gross abuse of power by those in positions of trust and influence, and if newsrooms, editors or reporters rush to judgment and bay for blood, they risk being deemed as no better than alleged perpetrators by their audiences and by their own journalists.”

Morrison, Quadara and Boyd found in their research into the ripple effect, that there are also positive ripples for those working in the sexual assault field. It relates to the ability of care workers and counsellors to make a positive difference. Quoting one worker:

“Like those of our clients, our spiritual questions are about evil, about the nature of humanity, about the nature of what is holy, about whether the universe is benign, or about existential angst and despair.”

Another spoke about the privilege of working to free the world from sexual violence:

“Each time we refuse to let the horror and pain of sexual assault define our lives, each time we can refuse to let it destroy another person, each time we transform the pain into greater knowledge, strength, compassion and wisdom we are one step closer to creating the world we want: a world free from sexual violence.”

To quote Dr Kezelman of ASCA , “Let’s seize the opportunity to work together to achieve that end.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by child abuse, help and support is available from the ASCA helpline on 1300 657 380. If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available from Lifeline on 131 114. Kids Helpline can be contacted on 1800 551 800. If you would like to tell your story to the Royal Commission, call 1800 099 340 or send an email to

Sources quoted in this article:
Reporting on Sexual Assault by The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault as a media backgrounder:
Ripple effects of sexual assault, by Zoë Morrison, Antonia Quadara and Cameron Boyd, Australian Institute of Family Studies,
Reporting moral outrage – Reducing the ramifications of royal commission coverage by Trina McLellan,
Victims welfare key in abuse enquiry, by Dr Cathy Kezelman
Submission to Royal Commission from Dr Gary Foster and Professor Patrick O’Leary
Transcript of the Radio National interview between Fran Kelly and Janette Dines

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