There is great support within the community for the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. Many people have high hopes it will right the wrongs of the past and help us, as a nation, to eliminate future child sexual abuse.
But how will the Royal Commission affect those who were abused?
Research from Australia and around the world has told us a great deal about the impact of child sexual abuse. We know, for example, that people who have been sexually abused as children are 2.4 times more likely than others to suffer from a mental disorder in adulthood and have a higher risk of addiction.
In adolescence, those who have been sexually abused are more likely to become involved in risk-taking behaviour, and are therefore more likely to be re-victimised in early adulthood and experience difficulties in their intimate relationships.
We also know that disclosure is a lifelong process. This is because children often feel ashamed of what has happened to them, blame themselves, or are fearful they will be punished if they speak out, or they won’t be believed. If the sexual abuse involves same-sex acts, the child or adolescent can feel a great deal of shame and confusion over their own sexuality.
These are powerful reasons why a child or young person does not want to talk about the abuse. So most children choose to remain silent for many years. As adults, they often realise that if they do speak out, there will be negative consequences for themselves and their families. Many choose to remain silent in order to protect family members from the reality of what has happened to them.
It may be slightly easier for children or young people to speak out, and demand justice, if the abuse took place outside the family or within an institution. But it’s important to remember that it requires remarkable courage to make any disclosure, given the stigma that attaches to victimhood.
In order for the Royal Commission to live up to society’s expectations, it’s important the rights of those giving evidence are protected. Survivors of child sexual abuse must be treated with respect and their stories must be honoured, even if the person telling the story is not considered an “ideal witness”. Adult survivors should not need to prove they are of good character; they have suffered enough.
It’s important people giving evidence are not shamed or questioned about their sexuality. The majority of paedophiles are heterosexual, not homosexual as is widely assumed. Paedophilia is a psychiatric disorder that involves sexual attraction to a child or adolescent and child sexual abuse is a crime – none of this has anything to do with the sexuality of the child involved.
My own research demonstrates that some people, especially men, don’t want their identities to be defined by their childhood experiences. They don’t see themselves as victims, or even as survivors, preferring to view themselves as more than their abusive pasts. As such, they may be reluctant to come forward to give evidence to the Royal Commission. But if do, they won’t want to be patronised or be portrayed in any way as “damaged goods”.
Most people who testify will want to tell their stories and seek justice. They will expect the police to lay charges against perpetrators and those who have broken the law by protecting criminals. Provided this occurs in a timely manner, they should find the experience worthwhile and, to a certain extent, healing.
Of course, there are legitimate concerns the process will re-traumatise people, and this is certainly possible if the situation is handled poorly. But provided people are not coerced into giving evidence, the experience is more likely to be cathartic than re-traumatising.
Unfortunately, some people listening to the proceedings from their homes around Australia may become traumatised as they realise that what they are experiencing – or have experienced in the past – is wrong. This will include children, in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, who are currently being sexually abused. It will also include adults who have been sexually abused by family members.
All those drawn into the Royal Commission will be embarking on a journey through grief. Hopefully, they come out on the other side having achieved some reforms, some prosecutions, and some healing.
The people who will be failed by the Royal Commission are the children who are too afraid or too ashamed to disclose what is happening to them now, and who unfairly blame themselves.