The sexual problems linked to child sexual abuse could be an entirely specific effect related to traumatic sexualisation, or could be contributed to by a wider constellation of disruption of interpersonal and intimate relatedness. Child sexual abuse involves a breach of trust or an exploitation of vulnerability, and frequently both.
Sexually abused children not only face an assault on their developing sense of their sexual identity, but a blow to their construction of the world as a safe enough environment and their developing sense of others as trustworthy. In those abused by someone with whom they had a close relationship, the impact is likely to be all the more profound. A history of child sexual abuse is reported to be associated in adult life with insecure and disorganised attachments (Alexander 1993; Briere and Runtz 1988; Jehu 1989). Increased rates of relationship breakdown have also been reported in those exposed to child sexual abuse (Beitchman et al. 1991; Bagley and Ramsey 1986; Mullen et al. 1988).
Mullen et al. (1994) found that their subjects reporting child sexual abuse were more likely to evince a general instability in their close relationships. Though those with histories of child sexual abuse were just as likely as controls to be currently in a close relationship, they were more likely in the past to have experienced divorce or separation. When asked about the level of satisfaction with their current relationship, those with abuse histories expressed significantly lower levels of satisfaction. The level of current satisfaction was lowest for intercourse victims.
Relationship problems were also reflected in the evaluations of the quality of their communication with their partners. Less than half of the victims felt able to confide personal problems to their partner, and nearly a quarter reported no meaningful communication with their partners on a more intimate level, whereas only 6 per cent of controls took an equally negative view of their partners receptivity to their concerns. This perceived gap in communication at a deeper level rose to 36 per cent in those reporting child sexual abuse involving penetration.
In this study, those reporting child sexual abuse were more likely to rate their partners as low on care and concern, and high on intrusive control. Interestingly, the deficiencies perceived in their partners as sources of emotional support by those with histories of child sexual abuse was not generalised to peer relationships where they were just as likely to report they had friends in whom to confide and with whom to share their troubles.
A community study of Australian women found similar results with a history of child sexual abuse adversely affecting the quality of women’s relationships in adult life, and increasing the likelihood of divorce and separation (Fleming, 1997, Fleming et al, in press). Women who reported a history of child sexual abuse were more likely to report their current partner to be uncaring and highly controlling, and to be dissatisfied with the relationship. Child sexual abuse appears to affect a woman’s ability to maintain intimate relationships by interfering with her capacity to develop her sexuality and trust in others. The results of this study also found that women with histories of child sexual abuse who found difficulty in forming satisfying intimate relationships did not, however, report an inability to form close friendships or to receive emotional support from friends.
It is tempting to suggest that the experience of child sexual abuse at a vulnerable moment in the child’s development of trust in others predisposes to a specific deficit in forming and maintaining intimate relationships. The attribution of a lack of concern and a tendency to be intrusive and overcontrolling to their partners could be a product of these partners’ actual attitudes and behaviour, or could reflect primarily the expectations, interpretations and projections directed at the partner by these women with histories of child sexual abuse. Conversely, those who have been abused may be more prone to enter relationships with emotionally detached and domineering partners because their lowered self-esteem and reduced initiative limits their choices, or from some neurotic compulsion to repeat.
Self-esteem encompasses the extent to which individuals feel comfortable with the sense they have of themselves (the self for self) and, to a lesser extent, their accomplishments, and how they believe they are viewed by others (the self for others). Robson (1988) wrote that self-esteem is ‘the sense of contentment and self acceptance that stems from a person’s appraisal of his (or her) own worth, significance, attractiveness, competence and ability to satisfy aspirations’.
A number of studies have implicated child sexual abuse in lowering self esteem in adults (for review, see Beitchman et al. 1992), but the most sophisticated examination of the issue to date is that of Romans et al. (1996). This study showed a clear relationship between poor self-esteem in adulthood and a history of child sexual abuse in those who reported the more intrusive forms of abuse involving penetration. It was, however, those aspects of self-esteem involved with an increased expectation of unpleasant events (pessimism) and a sense of inability to influence external events (fatalism) that were affected, not those involved with a sense of being attractive, having determination, or being able to relate to others.
Long-term impact on mental health
There have been numerous studies examining the association between a history of child sexual abuse and mental health problems in adult life that have employed clinical samples, convenience samples (usually of students), and random community samples. There is now an established body of knowledge clearly linking a history of child sexual abuse with higher rates in adult life of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, substance abuse disorders, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders (Briere and Runtz 1988; Winfield et al. 1990; Bushnell et al. 1992; Mullen et al. 1993; Romans etal. 1995 and 1997; Fergusson et al. 1996; Silverman et al. 1996; Fleming et al. in press). A more controversial literature links multiple personality disorder with child sexual abuse (Bucky and Dallenberg 1992; Spanos 1996).
Space does not allow a full review of the complex relationships between adult psychopathology and child sexual abuse but to illustrate the trajectory followed by such research in recent years, the literature relating a history of child sexual abuse to alcohol abuse in adult life will be briefly considered.
The possible influence of child sexual abuse on adult social and economic functioning has not received the attention it perhaps deserves. The well documented difficulties that sexually abused children experience in the school situation with academic performance and behaviour (Tong et al. 1987; Cohen and Mannarino 1988; Einbender and Friederch 1989) might be expected to negatively influence later educational attainments, and impair the development of the skills and discipline necessary to sustain effective work roles.
Bagley and Ramsey (1986) noted that those with histories of child sexual abuse tended to have lower status economic roles. A random community sample found women reporting child sexual abuse were more likely to have work histories that placed them in the lowest socioeconomic status categories. (Mullen et al 1994). They were also more likely to have partners whose occupations fell into the lowest socioeconomic groups. This did not simply reflect women with histories of child sexual abuse coming from lower socioeconomic status homes (which they did) but was also a product of a significant decline in socioeconomic status among those reporting child sexual abuse from their family of origin.
This relative decline in socioeconomic status was most marked for women reporting the more severely physically intrusive forms of abuse involving penetration. This latter group had an odds ratio of over four for such a decline, even following a logistic regression that took into account the confounding influences of family background, social disadvantage and concurrent physical and emotional abuse.
Interestingly, this decline in socioeconomic status could not be accounted for by simple educational failure, nor was the decline to be explained by a reduced participation in the workforce, or preference for part-time work. The explanation for abused women being in less well paid and prestigious jobs could be that they underestimated their value and sought occupations below their capacities (a failure of self-esteem), or that they were less adept at translating training and opportunity into effective function in the work sphere (a failure of agency). The increased frequency with which those reporting child sexual abuse entered partnerships with men from lower social classes compounded the tendency to decline in socioeconomic status.
This greater chance of a drop in socioeconomic status relative to family of origin is a crude measure of social and economic failure, and suggests a wide ranging disruption of function that is particularly marked in those reporting the more severe abuse experiences.
Sexuality and sexual adjustment
A history of child sexual abuse has been found to be associated with problems with sexual adjustment in adult life (Herman 1981; Finkelhor 1979). Finkelhor (1984) described what he termed reduced sexual esteem in both men and women who had reported child sexual abuse. In a subsequent study, Finkelhor et al. (1989) found that women who reported child sexual abuse involving intercourse were significantly less likely to find their adult sexual relationships very satisfactory.
An attempt to replicate these findings found no relationship between histories of child sexual abuse and sexual self-esteem, whether in male or female subjects (Fromuth 1986), although there was a suggestion that sexually abused women experienced a wider range of sexual activity and were more sexually active than the non-abused. Greenwald et al. (1990), in a questionnaire study, also failed to establish any significant increase in sexual dissatisfaction or sexual dysfunction in their women reporting child sexual abuse, although they only used a broad definition of abuse and did not analyse their data regarding those reporting penetrative abuse. They concluded that the ‘majority of existing evidence seems to suggest that adult sexual functioning is not significantly impaired in community samples of former female victims of childhood sexual abuse who are not seeking treatment’.
In a study of a random community sample of 2,250 New Zealand women with a questionnaire and an interview phase, data was gathered on sexual histories including levels of sexual satisfaction and experienced sexual problems (Mullen et al 1994). The average age at which consensual intercourse first occurred, and the frequency of consensual intercourse with peers prior to reaching the age of 16 years, did not differ between controls and those reporting child sexual abuse. When, however, only those reporting child sexual abuse involving penetration were considered, they were significantly more likely to report consensual intercourse with peers prior to 16 years of age.
The controls and those reporting child sexual abuse were equally likely to have been sexually active in the six months prior to interview, but child sexual abuse victims expressed significantly greater dissatisfaction with the frequency of intercourse, interestingly being more likely to complain of infrequency or an unwelcome frequency. Those with histories of child sexual abuse were nearly twice as likely to report current sexual problems (28 per cent compared with 47 per cent) and for women whose abuse involved penetration, nearly 70 per cent complained of current sexual problems.
The general level of satisfaction with their sex lives was markedly reduced in those with histories of child sexual abuse compared to controls, an unadjusted odds ratio of 9.4 for overall dissatisfaction with their sex lives that rose to over 12 for abuse involving intercourse. Employing similar questions to those used by Finkelhor (1984) to quantify sexual self-esteem, it was found that significantly more child sexual abuse victims believed their attitudes and feelings about sex caused problems or disrupted their satisfaction in sexual relationships.
The unease about their own sexuality was most common in those whose reported abuse had involved penetration. There was also a significant increase in the frequency with which the victims complained of what they perceived as negative and disruptive attitudes in their partners that caused sexual difficulties. Fleming et al. (in press) in a community sample of Australian women found that child sexual abuse involving penetration was a significant predictor of sexual problems in adult life, even after taking the family and social backgrounds of the victims into account.
In the study by Mullen et al. (1994), there was also evidence for an association between a history of child sexual abuse and an earlier age of entering the first cohabitation and an earlier age at first pregnancy. This precocious involvement in an attempt at a permanent union and starting a family was particularly marked for those who had been victims of abuse involving penetration. This association could reflect a search for love and affection away from the inadequate home environment that so often accompanies the more severe forms of child sexual abuse. Sadly, in those who had been victims of the more intrusive forms of child sexual abuse, their attempts to establish relationships and families were likely to founder.
There is also evidence that women who report child sexual abuse are at greater risk during adolescence of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, multiple sexual partnerships, and sexual revictimisation (Gorcey et al. 1986; Nagy et al. 1995; Russell 1986; Spring and Friedrich 1992; Fergusson et al. 1997). In an Australian study, Fleming et al. (in press) found that child sexual abuse, in particular abuse involving penetration, was associated with increased risks of being raped as an adult and of being the victim of domestic violence.
These findings support the hypothesis that the exposure of children to the sexual advances and acts of adults places the victim at risk of later sexual problems. The more extreme and persistent forms of abuse produce greater disruption of the child’s developing sexuality. The age at which the abuse occurs might be expected to influence the extent of the long-term damage, and child sexual abuse occurring during the pre-pubertal stages of development is perhaps particularly likely to be traumatic. Currently, there are no adequate data on this relationship between age at abuse and subsequent sexual problems.
On the basis of clinical observations, it has been suggested that women exposed to child sexual abuse may in early adult life respond by heightened anxiety about sexual contact (with avoidance of relationships), or a paradoxical promiscuity (in which the victim devalues herself and her sexuality). What constitutes promiscuity tends to be a highly subjective evaluation, and women with a history of child sexual abuse are more ready to respond judgmentally about their prior sexual behaviour by labelling it promiscuous than would non-abused woman with a similar range of sexual experiences. This reflects not changed sexual behaviour, but changed attitudes to one’s own sexuality.
However, there is evidence that in those whose abuse has been particularly gross (in terms of physical intrusiveness, frequency, duration or closeness of relationship to abuser), there is an increased risk of precocious sexual activity with its attendant risks of teenage pregnancy and social ostracism. It would be surprising if the traumatic introduction to sexual activity constituted by child sexual abuse did not place the child’s sexual development in some degree of jeopardy. Studies such as those of Fromuth (1986) and Greenwald et al. (1990) that did not detect any negative long-term effects of child sexual abuse on adult sexuality probably had samples lacking a sufficient number of those exposed to more seriously intrusive abuse and, by their methods of analysis, the damage inflicted by the more severe forms of abuse was diluted with results from subjects reporting inherently less traumatic abuse experiences.
Women in a random community sample who had reported child sexual abuse were asked what problems they attributed to this abuse. They volunteered sexual problems in nearly 20 per cent of cases, and less than 3 per cent added a belief that they had behaved in an unduly promiscuous manner as adolescents in consequence of the abuse (Mullen et al. 1994). Over 50 per cent of the victims of incestuous abuse in this sample regarded the child sexual abuse as having affected their sexual adjustment as adults. This contrasts with only 5 per cent who attributed mental health problems in adult life to their histories of child sexual abuse.
Similarly, in an Australian study (full reference needed), 17 per cent of those who reported child sexual abuse, when asked whether the abuse had had any long-term effects, reported they believed it had damaged their sexual lives. These self-evaluations certainly underestimate the actual impact of child sexual abuse on the levels of psychopathology, but emphasise the extent to which child sexual abuse is regarded by victims as disrupting subsequent sexual development.
The sexual problems reported so frequently in those subjected to child sexual abuse, particularly of the more chronic and physically intrusive types, may be conceptualised in terms of the disruption of the developing child’s construction of sexuality and the nature of sexual activity. Child sexual abuse may well create for some victims a construction of sexual intimacy contaminated by exploitation and coercion. The lack of mutuality and benevolence implicit in a child being used as the object of an adult’s sexual acts is a disastrous introduction to the possibility of loving sexual relationships. That experiences of sexual abuse, particularly when repeated or when involving a breach of what should be a caring and protecting relationship, leave no residual damage seems an inherently unlikely proposition.
Long-term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse by Paul E. Mullen and Jillian Fleming wwww.aaets.org/article176.htm
There is also a considerable overlap between physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and children who are subject to one form of abuse are significantly more likely to suffer other forms of abuse (Briere and Runtz 1990; Bifulco et al. 1991; Mullen et al. 1996; Fergusson et al. 1997; Fleming et al. 1997). Mullen and colleagues (1996) found women with histories of child sexual abuse had over five times the rate of physical abuse, and were three times as likely to also report emotional deprivation.
It could be that family circumstances conducive to child sexual abuse are also productive of other forms of abuse. This hypothesis is supported by the clear overlap between the risk factors for all three types of abuse. The second possibility is that the apparent comorbidity could reflect a data collection artefact created by individuals who are prepared to disclose one type of abuse being prepared to disclose other forms of abuse (Fergusson and Mullen in press).
The possibility has been raised that characteristics such as physical attractiveness, temperament or physical maturity might increase the risks of children being sexually abused (Finkelhor and Baron 1986). Child molesters are reported to selectively target pretty and trusting children (Elliot et al. 1995). A recent study suggested early sexual maturation in girls may be associated with increased vulnerability to abuse (Fergusson et al. in press). Fleming et al. (1997) reported girls who were socially isolated with few friends of their own age were almost twice as likely to report having been sexually abused.
Interpreting correlation studies
The tendency for child sexual abuse to co-vary with disturbed family backgrounds, other forms of abuse and possibly even victim characteristics, creates profound difficulties when it comes to interpreting correlational studies. This is particularly the case when examining long-term deleterious effects that could theoretically result from child sexual abuse itself, or from those other childhood traumas and disadvantages with which it is so often associated.
In some cases, the adverse outcomes attributed to child sexual abuse may be related as much to the disrupted childhood backgrounds, in the context of which the abuse arose, as to the child sexual abuse itself. There are reports that poor family functioning may account for many of the apparent associations between a history of child sexual abuse and adult psychopathology (Fromuth 1986; Conte and Schueman 1987; Friedrich et al. 1987; Wyatt and Mickey 1987; Harter et al. 1988).
Mullen et al. (1993) in a study on New Zealand women found positive correlations between a history of child sexual abuse and mental health problems in adult life. However, the overlap between the possible effects of child sexual abuse and the effects of the matrix of disadvantage from which abuse so often emerges was so considerable as to raise doubts about how often, in practice, child sexual abuse could operate as an independent causal element.
When examining all subjects with histories of child sexual abuse, it was found that the risks of women victims, who came from stable and satisfactory home backgrounds, developing significant adult psychopathology were no higher than for non-abused controls from similar backgrounds. This did not, however, hold for those who gave histories of the most physically intrusive forms of abuse involving actual penetration. This group, which contained a significant proportion of women subjected to chronic penetrative abuse in an incestuous context, did have significant increases in psychopathology, even when account was taken of the confounding influence of disrupted and disorganised family and social backgrounds.
Fleming et al. (in press), in a study of Australian women, found mental health problems to be associated with a history of child sexual abuse. However, when a multivariate analysis taking into account social and family background variables was employed, it was again only in those whose abuse had involved penetration that the association remained significant.
These findings go some way to reconciling the observations of clinicians who discern clear and dramatic relationships in their patients between prior child sexual abuse and current symptoms of specific mental disorders, and epidemiologists who extract from their data less specific correlations that barely survive confrontation with confounding variables.
The clinician sees, almost exclusively, the most severely abused whereas the epidemiologist studies the full range of reported child sexual abuse in a community. The clinician extrapolates from the individual case where dramatic personal experiences like child sexual abuse inevitably seem to explain the occurrence of disorder (particularly when patient and therapist start from the assumption that child sexual abuse deserves primacy), whereas the epidemiologist studying differences in incidence of disorders in a population is drawn to broad sociocultural and environmental influences that explain the bulk of the variation in populations.
Both perspectives have their place, and with that place comes limitation. Clinicians who, on the basis of experiences with individual cases, seek to describe the role of the full range of child sexual abuse in generating disorder and disease in our community are likely to fall into error, just as epidemiologists fall into error when they attempt to deny any reality, or therapeutic benefits, to the meaningful connections constructed between child sexual abuse and current difficulties in a treatment process.
Long-term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse by Paul E. Mullen and Jillian Fleming wwww.aaets.org/article176.htm
Suburban Melbourne parents Chrissie and Anthony Foster learned in the 1990s that two of their daughters, Emma and Katie, were raped by their local priest, Father Kevin O’Donnell.
Emma began harming herself after the trauma forced upon her. Teenage Katie got drunk to avoid her haunting memories and was hit by a car, leaving her permanently disabled.
So began Chrissie and Anthony’s harrowing, tireless fight for justice.
After the priest was sentenced to jail, the church — through its Melbourne Response scheme — offered Emma a $50,000 payment that would require her to sign away future legal rights. The Fosters thought this grossly unfair, sued the church and eventually settled for a sum many times larger than the initial offer.
In 2008, Emma died of an overdose.
The Fosters became public figures and challenged the church’s attitudes and legal strategies.
In 2010, Chrissie published her family story in a book, Hell on the Way to Heaven.
A year later, the Victorian Government launched a parliamentary inquiry into the way religious and other institutions handled cases of child sexual abuse. The Fosters gave damning evidence against the church hierarchy.
A national campaign then led the Gillard government to announce the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The Foster story was at the forefront of the royal commission’s public hearing into the Melbourne Response. Chrissie gave evidence, supported by Anthony on the stand.
In 2017, Anthony died after collapsing in a car park. He was given a state funeral. Speakers included the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, and royal commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan.
Despite her grief, Chrissie is dedicated to continue fighting injustice so survivors and their families may receive proper compensation through redress and common law. She is also a devoted and passionate advocate for better child protection.
Denis Ryan: A country policeman ignored
It was 1956 and Denis Ryan was a young policeman on patrol in St Kilda. One night, he and his partner came across a drunken priest caught pants-down in a car with prostitutes.
The clergyman was taken into custody but was later released by another policeman.
Denis was told, “You don’t charge priests”. He also learned there were members of Victoria Police who actively protected the church from scandal.
Years later, Denis was transferred to the regional Victorian city of Mildura, where he came across the same priest he had arrested in St Kilda.
The priest was Monsignor John Day, a violent and sadistic man. A teacher and a nun told the policeman that Monsignor Day was committing crimes against children.
Denis investigated and compiled a list of victims; he sought to have the priest charged, but was prevented by senior police, including his immediate superior, Sergeant Jim Barritt — who was a close friend of Monsignor Day.
Denis wrote to the Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, but received no help. Bishop Mulkearns told him that Sergeant Barritt had already cleared Monsignor Day of any allegations.
The church and police officials’ protection of Monsignor Day did two things: it was forced Denis out of the job he loved, and gave a green light to other paedophile priests in the vast Ballarat Diocese.
Denis, who still lives in Mildura, gave evidence to the royal commission and was supported by former Victoria Police chief commissioner Mick Miller.
The force officially apologised to him in 2016, but he has still not been properly compensated for his ruined career.
In his final speech last month before handing down recommendations, Justice McClellan explained how police in Victoria and NSW actively protected church officials, when their highest priority should have been protecting children.
Paul Tatchell: A boy who fought back
After Monsignor Day was allowed to go free, criminal clergy in the Ballarat Diocese became emboldened.
St Alipius Primary School was ruled by four paedophiles, all working there at the same time. They included the notorious Gerald Ridsdale, and a violent sex offender called Brother Ted Dowlan, who ran one of the boarding houses at St Patrick’s College. He later changed his name to Ted Bales.
Br Dowlan, whose bedroom was attached to the Year 7 students’ dormitory, beat and raped children at will.
One night, he raped a boy called Paul Tatchell, who fought back. After being attacked in Br Dowlan’s room, Paul began punching the clergyman.
Leaving the Brother crying on the floor, Paul ran from the room and tried to call his parents for help, but the school’s headmaster and other staff locked him in a closet until morning.
Paul was then expelled. The church leadership did not report Br Dowlan to police. He remained a free man until Paul and other victims came forward to make police statements in the early 1990s.
He watched from the back of a courtroom as the law finally punished his attacker.
Paul gave evidence at the royal commission. So did the school headmaster, Brother Paul Nangle, who claimed he never knew Br Dowlan was a sex offender.
But the evidence was overwhelming. Paul went into the army, and then into business. He now owns a newspaper, and was recently elected Mayor of Moorabool Shire, east of Ballarat, for the third time.
He does not consider himself a “victim” and says he does not suffer the same type of post-traumatic stress as other former boarders — perhaps because he punched back, and could not be controlled like others.
As part of his interview for the ABC documentary Undeniable, Paul went back to the room where he was raped for the first time.
He will never return to that building.
Joanne McCarthy: Uncovering devastating secrets
In 2006, Newcastle Herald reporter Joanne McCarthy received a phone call that set her on a path to becoming one of Australia’s finest investigative journalists.
The voice at the other end of the line asked her why a priest who had been convicted of child sexual assault was not being written about in the newspaper.
Joanne looked into it, and found the tip-off to be accurate, but on questioning church authorities, she immediately detected they were lying.
For children, the Newcastle-Maitland region had been a dangerous place for decades. The cover-up of crimes was effective and unrelenting.
But Joanne’s work began unravelling the truth. She would go on to write more than a thousand stories on clergy sex abuse and institutional cover-ups within both the Catholic and Anglican churches.
In 2012, John Pirona, a fireman and victim of clergy sex abuse, disappeared after leaving a note that read “too much pain”. Joanne and the Herald covered the story and later reported on John’s death by suicide.
On the night of John’s funeral, Joanne decided enough was enough and wrote an editorial calling for a royal commission.
Her work, along with that of courageous Lateline journalist Suzanne Smith, led to senior NSW detective Peter Fox deciding to speak out on the issue.
Soon after, then-prime minister Julia Gillard ordered the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
In the final moments of her prime ministership, she wrote a letter of endorsement for Joanne’s work in changing Australia forever.
Joanne was awarded Australian journalism’s highest honour, the Gold Walkley.
The reporter who took that phone call 11 years ago is still investigating and writing. She believes there is much work to do in delivering justice to survivors and better protection to children in all states and territories.
Rob Walsh: ‘No more suicides’
The royal commission would not have been possible without the revelations in Ballarat.
In the years preceding the inquiry, Rob Walsh was one of the survivors who helped publicise the consequences of abuse, by working with police to expose a tragically nigh number of suicides in the city.
While dealing with his own acute trauma, he supported others — and still is.
A subsequent NSW Special Commission of Inquiry found senior church officials withheld evidence from police.
The inquiry did not find evidence of a conspiracy by police to stall investigations and said Peter had lost objectivity in investigating the church.
But Peter’s courageous appearance motivated the Australian public to start talking about the need for a royal commission, which prime minister Gillard soon ordered.
Peter had been investigating paedophile priests for many years.
He built strong relationships with victims and provided them great comfort.
After acting as whistleblower, his position in NSW Police was untenable; he sacrificed his beloved career to reveal critical details of abuse and institutional interference in the Newcastle-Maitland region.
Before and after the interview, Lateline played a leading role in forcing Australia’s largest national inquiry into child sexual abuse.
For many years, reporter Suzanne Smith led the Lateline investigations.
“We focused very much on the leadership of the church. By elevating their significance on Lateline, we gave the stories a national focus. It also led to many victims, in other states, coming forward,” Suzanne says.
Former executive producer John Bruce says the interview with Peter was the tipping point.
“While there were subsequent attempts to undermine the value of Inspector Fox’s interview, many in the Newcastle and broader Australian community regarded him as a hero for triggering the royal commission,” he says.
In turn, Peter praised the media for its role in bringing about the inquiry.
Over decades, journalists and editors from almost all Australian television networks, news radio programs, major and regional newspapers, as well as online media, have chipped away at institutional denials and evasion.
Without the work of the press, the dark secrets of some churches, governments, charities, schools and other organisations would have remained forever untold.
John Ellis: A survivor finally heard
John Ellis was a key witness in one of the most dramatic royal commission public hearings.
The lawyer says the nation’s largest inquiry into child abuse has made Australia a better place.
“The way that they’ve gone about it has answered every challenge,” he says.
The royal commission heard evidence from John, church officials and lawyers. It gave all an insight into the tactics of the church’s legal team.
At the end of the hearing, Cardinal George Pell conceded the church dealt with John unfairly from “a Christian point of view”. The cardinal later issued the survivor an apology.
Looking back at his daunting role in the inquiry, John says, “I had the sense, really, as soon as the royal commission was announced that this was going to be a momentous time in our country”.
“What I didn’t realise was how important it would be for me personally as an individual to finally be listened to the first time.
And to be able to stand up to an institution like the church, I can’t put into words what that’s meant for me.
John and his wife Nicola, also a lawyer, represent many survivors seeking redress for the crimes committed against them.
In 2014, he was awarded the Australian Lawyers Alliance annual Civil Justice Award for “unwavering diligence, passion, vision and resilience”.
He says the Catholic Church still has no uniform approach to survivors seeking justice.
“There are parts of the Catholic Church who have been integral in working towards collaborative processes that we’ve developed,” John says.
“And there have been parts of the Catholic Church who have impeded that and sought to destroy it and break it down. I think I’ll reserve judgement on where that stands on balance.
“I think in a lot of ways it remains to be seen, and particularly after the spotlight of the royal commission is off, the church as a whole … which way it will go with that.”
He doubts the Commonwealth Government’s national redress scheme will achieve all its aims.
“I think it’s a good thing and a necessary thing. And it’s an essential part of the whole response that there be a safety net for the thousands and thousands of people who otherwise would have no avenue to redress, and would have no institution to approach for what had happened to them.
“But as a substitute for proper and effective responses from the institutions, I don’t think that that’s the answer.”
The belief that child sexual abuse is not only a potent cause of adult psychopathology but can be understood and treated within a post-traumatic stress disorder framework has spawned a minor industry in sexual abuse counselling. Though many working in this area have shifted, on the basis of their clinical experience, to broader conceptualisations, there remains a considerable vested interest in a specific post-abuse syndrome.
There are also political agendas linked to seeing child sexual abuse as a product of misdirected and ill controlled male sexuality (which it is), and as independent of social circumstances and family background (which it isn’t). Herman’s (1992) description of child sexual abuse as one of the combat neurosis women suffer from as a result of the sex war neatly conflates the post-traumatic stress model with the political agenda of some feminists.
The understandable wish to avoid repeating the deplorable error made in domestic violence of blaming the victim (Snell et al. 1964) can lead to an insistence on looking no further than the perpetrator (and often just his maleness) for an understanding of why abuse occurs. This potentially impoverishes research aimed at identifying the social and family correlates of child sexual abuse that constitute risk factors for such abuse. The knowledge of such risk factors is essential to the development of programs aimed at primary prevention.
Family risk factors
Child sexual abuse is not randomly distributed through the population. It occurs more frequently in children from socially deprived and disorganised family backgrounds (Finkelhor and Baron 1986; Beitchman et al. 1991; Russell 1986; Peters 1988; Mullen et al. 1993). Marital dysfunction, as evidenced by parental separation and domestic violence, is associated with higher risks of child sexual abuse, and involves intrafamilial and extrafamilial perpetrators (Mullen et al 1996; Fergusson et al. 1996; Fleming et al. 1997).
Similarly, there are increased risks of abuse with a stepparent in the family, and when family breakdown results in institutional or foster care. Poor parentchild attachment is associated with increased risk of child sexual abuse, though it is not always easy to separate the impact of abuse on intimate family relationships from the influence of poor attachments on vulnerability to abuse (Fergusson et al. 1996; Fleming et al. 1997).
Disrupted family function could, in theory, be related to child sexual abuse because of the disruptive influence of a perpetrator in the family. However, given the majority of abusers are not immediate family members, it is more likely that the linkage reflects a lack of adequate care, supervision and protection that leaves the child exposed to the approaches of molesters, and vulnerable to offers of apparent interest and affection (Fergusson and Mullen in press).
The relationship between child sexual abuse and adult psychopathology tended initially to be conceptualised in terms of a chronic form of post traumatic stress disorder (Lindberg and Distad 1985; Bryer et al. 1987; Craine et al. 1988). This model focused on trauma-induced symptoms, most particularly dissociative disorders such as desensitisation, amnesias, fugues and even multiple personality. The idea was that the stress induced symptoms engendered in the process of the abuse and have reverberated down the years to produce a post-abuse syndrome in adult life.
In its more sophisticated formulation, this model attempts to integrate the damage inflicted at the time to the victims’ psychological integrity, by the child sexual abuse and the need to repress the trauma, with resultant psychological fragmentation. The latter manifests itself in adult life in mental health problems, and in problems of interpersonal and sexual adjustment (Rieker and Carmen 1986). The post-traumatic stress model found its strongest support in the observations of clinicians dealing with individuals with histories of severe and repeated abuse. It was also often linked to notions of a highly specific post-abuse syndrome in which dissociative disorders were prominent.
In the United States, a less medicalised model for the mediation of the long term effects of child sexual abuse was proposed by Finkelhor (1987) with his ‘traumatogenic model’. This suggested that child sexual abuse produced a range of psychological effects at the time and, secondarily, behavioral changes. This model predicts a disparate range of psychological impairments and behavioral disturbances in adult life which contrasts with the post traumatic syndrome model with its specific range of symptoms. Finkelhor’s model, though less medical and symptom-bound, pays only scant attention to the developmental perspective. It cedes primacy to the psychological ramifications of the abuse with little acknowledgment of the social dimensions. Only in recent years have attempts been made to articulate the long-term effects of child sexual abuse within a developmental perspective (Cole and Putnam 1992), and to attend to the interactions between child sexual abuse and the child victims’ overall psychological, social and interpersonal development.