The study and discussion of child sex offending is replete with stereotypes of predators and molesters who prey on children. These stereotypes are often used to characterise child sexual abuse as the problem of a deviant minority, and so the only available response is to identify and incarcerate those responsible.
In contrast, in its final report, released today, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse presented a socially and historically contextualised understanding of child sexual abuse. While accepting that some institutional abusers are “fixated, persistent” paedophiles, the commission found the majority are not.
Instead, it concluded that most institutional offenders are opportunistic or situational – that is, most offenders are not driven to abuse children by mental illness or perverse sexuality. Instead, institutional sexual abuse arises through an interaction of personal, situational, institutional and social factors.
These interactions have been shaped by the historical period and the circumstances in which children and adults find themselves. By placing institutional abuse within its larger context, the commission has made the prevention and identification of child sex offending a collective responsibility.
A psychosocial model of offending
Child sex offenders are a diverse group. However, the commission identified a common set of predisposing issues among identified perpetrators of institutional abuse. These included adverse childhood experiences, interpersonal and emotional difficulties, and cognitive distortions about children and sexuality.
Personal risk factors can be exacerbated within institutional settings. Institutional cultures and hierarchies can foster feelings of superiority or impunity among ordained or lay members. Abusive sexualities form where adult entitlement and authority facilitate close contact with children in institutional settings.
Disrupting the process of unethical sexual development in institutional settings requires multiple strategies. The commission identified ten standards that are essential for all child-focused institutions. It is also calling for a national framework and a national office for child safety.
Importantly, the commission recognised the lack of early intervention initiatives for men who think they are at risk of abusing children. It recommended the establishment of information and help-seeking services for men concerned about their sexual feelings toward children. This is a major service gap in Australian responses to child sexual abuse.
Abuse in religious contexts
Several recommendations relate to the governance structures of churches and religious denominations in order to enhance democratic decision-making, accountability and transparency.
This has included specific recommendations to a variety of denominations to ensure that theology and tradition is not operating to conceal sex offences or to place children at risk.
The commission flagged clericalism – the belief that ordained people are superior to the laity – as a contributing factor to child sexual abuse. Clericalism not only reinforces perpetrator feelings of impunity and entitlement, but reduces the likelihood that victims will be believed. It can also promote institutional complicity and cover-up in the aftermath of an abuse incident.
61% of survivors of abuse in a religious institution nominated a Catholic institution as the site of their abuse. The commission was concerned by trends toward clericalism in Australian Catholicism, and criticised “catastrophic” failures of leadership shown by senior Catholic figures in relation to child sexual abuse.
The commission identified canon law and compulsory celibacy as contributing factors in child sexual abuse.
The training of priest and clergy is a crucial intervention point for the prevention of child sexual abuse. The commission proposed training on child protection and ethical relationships throughout clerical formation.
Tellingly, representatives of both the Catholic and Anglican churches told the commission that the increased involvement of women in church leadership would be protective of children. The need for both organisational and theological reform confronts many religious denominations in the commission’s aftermath.
Tackling power and abuse
Institutional abuse often involves the eroticisation of the socially legitimised power of adults over minors.
Children are frequently not listened to in institutional settings, or seen as a “problem” to be managed. The lack of power afforded to children in institutions has provided many opportunities for abuse, and can discourage them from complaining when abuse takes place.
To disrupt this dynamic, the commission called for enhanced opportunities for children’s participation and decision-making in the institutions of which they are part. This is particularly crucial for young people in out-of-home care.
Although the proportion of children in out-of-home care is lower today than in the past, the commission identified that this group is at particular risk of abuse and exploitation. It recommended increased investment in their empowerment and care.
The commissioners acknowledged that almost one-in-four survivors reported institutional sexual abuse by another child. Their recommendations included a range of interventions to prevent harmful sexual behaviours by children and responses after the fact to victims and those children exhibiting harmful behaviour.
The commission also called for improved community understanding of harmful sexual behaviour by children.
By positioning abuse as a problem driven by social norms and values, as well as institutional failures and the conduct of perpetrators, the commission made child sexual abuse a national responsibility and concern. As its report says:
For institutions to be safe for children, the communities in which they operate need to be safe for children. The whole nation can contribute to change to keep children safe.
Recommendations include social marketing campaigns to change abuse-supporting and victim-blaming attitudes, and prevention education for children and parents.
Increased training in abuse and child protection for child-focused professionals would increase the capacity of the Australian workforce to prevent, identify and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse.
At the commission’s close, it is clear that child protection is not just the responsibility of underfunded and stretched statutory services, and child abuse is not just caused by a small group of deviant offenders.
We all have a role to play in child safety. And as the royal commission finishes, this work has only just begun.