Convicted child sex offender and former headmaster Stephen McLaughlin implicated in string of allegations spanning decades, police files reveal

Prison records of Dennis Douglas
Prison records of Dennis Douglas.(ABC News: Lewi Hirvela)

More worrying though, Douglas was the subject of current and very serious child abuse complaints relating to the three-year-old son of young Brisbane single mother, Jane Henderson*.

Sergeant Danslow tracked down Ms Henderson who revealed how she had allegedly been lured into the web of Douglas and, in turn, McLaughlin.

In 1997, during a night out in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Ms Henderson said she met McLaughlin’s heroin-addicted driver and began seeing him socially.

He bragged to her about the “wonderful” Christian Brothers and how they helped him through some bad times, according to her police statement sighted by the ABC.

Ms Henderson said the man took her and her young son *Bruce to meet McLaughlin.

She said the Christian Brother expressed sympathy for her travails as a single mother and thought her two-year-old son Bruce “was wonderful”.

Former Nudgee principal Stephen Mclaughlin
Ms Henderson said Brother McLaughlin introduced her to Dennis Douglas.(Supplied)

Later McLaughlin allegedly introduced her to Douglas who appeared personable and trustworthy and soon became close friends with Ms Henderson who let him babysit Bruce.

During the school holidays she allowed Douglas to take Bruce to the Christian Brothers’ beach house at Tugun on the Gold Coast.

Accompanying the pair were Ms Henderson’s two younger brothers — both in their early teens — and one of their young teenage friends.

On their return, it was clear something horrific occurred, according to Ms Henderson.

Her younger brother was in a rage, telling her that one of the boys had tried to run away and Douglas had behaved weirdly and was a “feeler” and a “groper”.

She noticed sexualised behaviour by Bruce and some injuries.

Furious, Ms Henderson went to police who arrested Douglas on child abuse charges.

When interviewed by police, Douglas confessed to some of the child abuse and claimed he had sexual interactions with McLaughlin, according to Sergeant Danslow.

Supporting aspects of Douglas’s story were extensive diaries he had kept over the past decade chronicling his regular contact with McLaughlin.

No direct admissions of Douglas’s child abuse crimes were evident in the neat handwritten entries, but they appeared to document Douglas’s extensive involvement with the children of disadvantaged families via his association with McLaughlin.

McLaughlin’s lawyers said their client didn’t know until “approximately 1998” that Douglas had been through the courts and pled guilty to child abuse.

They also stated that when their client became aware of Douglas entering school grounds, a directive was issued to Douglas in 1991, not to enter without first contacting the school and seeking authority from college officials.

But the diaries appeared to show that Douglas had the run of Nudgee College for years, often interacting with students on the campus well after 1991.

In one entry from December 3, 1992, Douglas described a visit to Nudgee where he associated with boarders.

Another entry in 1997 described Douglas taking one of the young boys he was later accused of abusing “for a tour” of school grounds.


How the Christian Brother allegedly assisted the child molester

Importantly, the diaries contained references to McLaughlin dispatching Douglas to meet or “help” single mothers who usually had young male children.

“Steve told me last night that I might be able to help a young 26-year-old lady who is an alcoholic. And needs support,” Douglas wrote on January 13, 1997.

“I’m over willing to help her, she has two boys, eight and six years.”

The detective now suspected that at the very least McLaughlin was exposing highly vulnerable children to the likes of Douglas.

Queensland Police Officer discussing Nudgee college
Queensland Police Officer discussing Nudgee college(ABC News: Alice Pavlovic)

The diaries provided clues to the children’s identities. One entry cited a “Dion” and his three brothers alongside an address on Brisbane’s northside.

Sergeant Danslow located Dion and his brothers in the care of their addict single mother.

The boys had been getting support from McLaughlin but with their mother battling addiction and a boyfriend who had just been in the justice system, obtaining evidence was impossible, Sergeant Danslow said.

The ABC recently found Dion living in country Victoria.

He alleged McLaughlin and Douglas had a close association with his family.

Chain smoking and emotional, the recovering alcoholic and former foster child is still angry about how he says his family were allegedly targeted by the two men.

“Mum and Dad … they only had us kids back then, probably to get the money,” he said.

“I lived in a shed in the back yard. I made it my own. I was sick of the yelling and fighting in the house.”

Dion lights a cigarette and holds a cup saying BE HAPPY.
Dion says he is still angry about how his family was allegedly targeted by Dennis Douglas and Brother McLaughlin.(ABC News: Sarah Lording)
Dion sitting on steps with a cat on his lap
Dion said Brother McLaughlin offered to help his family.(ABC News: Sandra Lording)
Dion stands with arms folded
Brother McLaughlin allegedly showered Dion and his family with gifts.(ABC News: Sandra Lording)

Dion said he went to live with his mother when his parents split up but when he tried to stop her new boyfriend from hitting her, she headbutted him in the face, breaking his nose, and her boyfriend then hurled him through a wall.

“Our parents didn’t care at all. I don’t remember ever seeing a social worker about any of this,” he said.

But someone who did show up to help was Brother McLaughlin.

“I didn’t like him from the start. He used to make my younger brothers sit on his lap. I’d been abused in foster care (in Victoria) and I knew what was going on,” Dion said.

He said the Christian Brother showered gifts on the four boys and their mother who struggled to care for them.

Dion said McLaughlin took them to stay in motels and to a house within the grounds of Nudgee College during the school holidays, but he did not witness any abuse.

He said they were also left alone in the company of Douglas, who told them he often acted as a driver for McLaughlin.

“I knew he (Douglas) was a paedophile. He drove around with me sitting in the front seat and I could see him masturbating,” Dion said.

In May 1997, Douglas offered to take Dion, his brothers and one of their teenage friends to his family’s farm at Mapleton in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

Dion said he didn’t go due to his suspicions of Douglas, but the other children did.

During the stay one of Dion’s brothers said they woke to see Douglas trying to sexually assault their young friend.

Angry and scared, the boys panicked and fled, according to Dion.

Dion Ball sitting with cigarette smoke going up into the air
Dion Ball sitting with cigarette smoke going up into the air.(ABC News: Sandra Lording)

The suspect who was one step ahead

Meanwhile, Sergeant Danslow was on the trail of another family he suspected of being involved with McLaughlin and Douglas but he couldn’t get the family to talk.


Sergeant Danslow turned his focus to Douglas who agreed to assist in the police investigation, alleging he was manipulated by Brother McLaughlin after reconnecting with him as an adult.

Sergeant Danslow had Douglas make a covertly recorded phone call to the Christian Brother.

During the call, the pair discussed Douglas being under investigation for abusing Ms Henderson’s son.

No admissions were made by McLaughlin but he allegedly encouraged Douglas to withhold information from the police, according to transcripts of the calls.

“Be careful with that (the information in the diaries) because that might be used in evidence … you should take things out that you don’t want to be there … because just get rid of it,” McLaughlin said.

The secretly recorded phone calls suggested Brother McLaughlin knew about the investigation

The pair also discussed how McLaughlin had lent Douglas money, how they had been away together and whether police knew.

When Douglas said it was “just over night”, McLaughlin replied: “Just generally a day and a night together, were they (the police) implying that I might have been one of the bad guys or something like that you know?”

In a second call on December 7, 1997, McLaughlin asked Douglas if his mother thought the two had been involved in a sexual relationship.

Brother McLaughlin told Douglas to deny any sexual relationship.

Sergeant Danslow suspected McLaughlin knew about the police investigation.

Those suspicions were confirmed when he brought in the police’s surveillance team.

The plain clothes officers, who normally followed dangerous drug dealers, violent bikies or murderers, tailed the Christian Brother as he visited toy shops buying bikes and gifts for children.

Surveillance image of Stephen Mclaughlin
Brother McLaughlin knew he was under surveillance.
Stephen McLaughlin under investigation
A police document linked Brother McLaughlin to Douglas.(Supplied)

During the surveillance, McLaughlin suddenly sped off down a remote country road, slammed on the brakes, leapt out of his car and started filming the undercover officers.

Annoyed, the team leader rang Sergeant Danslow.

“He knows. We’re finished here,” the leader said.

Shortly afterwards Sergeant Danslow received a call from McLaughlin’s lawyer who asked him if police were tailing his client.

“I said ‘you know I can’t say anything’.

“Well, if they are your people, they are not very good at it,” the lawyer said.

The rallying cry

While Sergeant Danslow knew McLaughlin was awake to the police investigation, he didn’t realise he was calling on some powerful allies – the alumni of Nudgee College.

Six days before the secretly recorded phone call with Douglas, McLaughlin stood to make an extraordinary address to the pupils, parents and old boys of Nudgee College at the school’s speech night.

Instead of only platitudes for high-achieving students, the speech turned into a desperate plea to the Nudgee faithful to reject allegations of paedophilia involving Christian Brothers.

“I’ve thrown away the speech I was going to give,” McLaughlin started.

“…we are facing an orchestrated campaign where few individuals are systematically targeting and attempting to destroy the hard-won reputations of brother after brother,” he said.

He asked the audience to “fight for the Christian Brothers because we need you to support us in this time of real need.”

White statue on right side, Nudgee School in Brisbane
White statue on right side, Nudgee School in Brisbane.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

The call for help was heard at the highest levels of government. Twelve days later, then Liberal Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs John Herron rose in the Senate in Canberra.

Former politician John Herron.
Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs John Herron supported Brother McLaughlin.(AAP: Andrew Sheargold)

The distinguished politician graciously thanked the Christian Brothers for his own education and then began reciting parts of McLaughlin’s speech before tabling it in its entirety.

Around the same time, Sergeant Danslow’s bosses started receiving calls from high-profile individuals asking “what’s Danslow doing to that good man?”

Furious, Sergeant Danslow fired off a transcript of the call between McLaughlin and Douglas to his boss and heard no more.

Rohypnol and a hangman’s noose

As the investigation progressed into 1999 another alleged victim came forward, also connected to Douglas.

Blurred image of David Wilson as a teenager.
David Wilson alleges he was abused by Brother Stephen McLaughlin as a teenager.(Supplied)

Teenager David Wilson* was a champion junior swimmer who attended a school in inner Brisbane and was living with his single mother.

Around May 1997, the schoolboy, then aged 15, attended a party at a New Farm restaurant where he says he met Douglas who later introduced him to McLaughlin.

Some days later, the teen was invited to stay the night at a Brisbane hotel with Douglas and McLaughlin where he alleged the Brother molested him in the motel spa and then later in the motel room, according to a copy of a statement he gave to police that was tendered in civil court proceedings.

Exterior shot of Brisbane's Coronation Motel.
Mr Wilson alleged Brother McLaughlin took him to Brisbane’s Coronation Motel where he was sexually abused.(Supplied)

He alleged he witnessed Douglas and McLaughlin also engage in sex. Mr Wilson alleged the Christian Brother then became infatuated with him.

“He told me he loved me. He promised to get me into a different school, a drama school in Sydney,” Mr Wilson told the ABC.

In exchange for clothing and money, which eventually totalled $20,000, Mr Wilson alleged he regularly met McLaughlin for sex, according to a police statement sighted by the ABC.

If you or anyone you know needs help:

During one stay at the Coronation Motel, Mr Wilson alleged a surreal scene unfolded.

Out on the high-rise motel balcony, the then-teenager alleged the Christian Brother smoked marijuana in a bong before going inside to have sex with him.

Blurred image of David Wilson with his family.
David Wilson’s sister encouraged him to go to police. (Supplied)

Mr Wilson said he came forward with his allegations about McLaughlin because he was struggling emotionally after losing a friend to suicide.

Police had the teenager wear a listening device and meet McLaughlin in a coffee shop in Brisbane’s Queen Street mall.

Again, McLaughlin made no admissions during the secretly recorded conversation, but he allegedly handed over a Rohypnol “sleeping tablet” to Mr Wilson and confirmed he was digging dirt on investigating detectives.

“They’re not lily white people … I’ve found out stuff about them,” McLaughlin said, according to a police transcript of the recording.

“I’ll go down fighting I’ll tell ya. Look there’ll be a few others if I go down.”

Queen St timelapse

Shortly after that meeting, police said a card featuring a hangman’s noose appeared outside Mr Wilson’s home with the caption “dead men on campus” — which Mr Wilson took as a threat.

Unbeknown to detectives, the Christian Brothers appeared to have launched their own campaign involving a surveillance operation on police and alleged victims.

A source previously close to McLaughlin claimed that private investigators did surveillance on detective Danslow and Mr Wilson, even filming the teenager having sex with another man in a Brisbane house.

By 2000, Sergeant Danslow’s three-year investigation failed to build a case against McLaughlin with Douglas’s involvement proving problematic.

Laws around child sex abuse in Queensland prevent the ABC from providing some details, but Douglas’s status as a self-confessed child abuser raised grave doubts about his credibility.

Police did bring indecent dealing charges against McLaughlin in relation to his alleged abuse of Mr Wilson, relying on Douglas as a witness.

Scales of justice generic

But the Magistrate rejected the case noting that Douglas was not a credible witness and had given no evidence of sexual acts between Mr Wilson and McLaughlin, including when the trio were in the spa at the Coronation Motel.

The Magistrate did indicate there were some suspicious features such as visits to motels and matters relating to Mr Wilson’s phone. But he decided Mr Wilson was not a credible witness and had told a multiplicity of lies to many people.

In what was a standard job rotation, Sergeant Danslow was transferred to another squad, leaving him frustrated about the years of investigative work that failed to bring justice.

“There was some regret (about the transfer), but I felt sorry for the [alleged] victims,” he said.

The war room

Despite the investigation seemingly going nowhere, new complainants with allegations continued to come forward.

In April 2001, police were put in touch with Rosa Smith*, another struggling single mother who was known to Family Services. 

Ms Smith said she had been receiving money and assistance from McLaughlin and some of her sons were given a free education at Nudgee College.

Ms Smith alleged that her two younger children, a boy and girl, had been abused by McLaughlin.

Police brought indecent dealing and rape charges against the Christian Brother.

Nudgee College exterior

Soon after, the family reported someone lurking outside their house taking photos and following the children.

Police were so concerned they started doing school drop off and pick-up and considered putting the family into witness protection.

Meanwhile, a war room of sorts was set up at an apartment at Kangaroo Point on the edge of Brisbane’s CBD to coordinate McLaughlin’s defence, according to sources linked to the operation.

A public relations specialist who did communications work for the Brisbane Catholic community and McLaughlin’s solicitor both operated out of the apartment, the source said.

Private investigators covertly filmed Ms Smith and her children, sources told the ABC.

Nudgee College said it was devastated to learn of the abuse allegations against Stephen McLaughlin.

At the committal hearing, McLaughlin’s barrister Bob Mulholland QC tried to have the charges dismissed on the grounds the allegations were “ludicrous and fantastic” and the female victim had been abused by older males prior to making the allegations.

Mr Mulholland told the court the family had already been exposed to a paedophile while a younger child behaved in a sexualised manner. He said there were discrepancies in the victims’ recollections and problems with the way police had interviewed the children.

Magistrate Terry Duroux
Magistrate Terry Duroux committed Brother McLaughlin to face trial.

But in late 2002, Magistrate Terry Duroux committed McLaughlin to face trial.

McLaughlin’s distraught supporters reportedly wept in the court, but police were jubilant – years of investigations had paid off, or so they thought.

In early 2004 one of the investigating officers received an unusual call from the Justice Department.

The ABC understands the officer was told that videos of the children’s police interviews had been sent overseas by the defence for forensic examination and were found to be flawed.

The Justice Department dropped the case.

Generic court steps

This month, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare QC, discontinued the case after consideration of advice supplied to her.

The Crown did not have reasonable prospects of success of conviction at trial based on the admissible evidence available to it at the time, the spokesperson said.

“The reliability of the three interviews was the subject of expert analysis concerning the questioning undertaken and the responses given. The Crown also obtained an expert report on their contents before the matter was discontinued.”

McLaughlin’s lawyers say this was another example of complainants not being credible.

Tracked down by the ABC last month, Ms Smith, who has since had extensive treatment for severe mental health issues, said she did not recall ever being told the reason the charges were dropped.

But she did remember being so angry she had to be dragged out of the Justice Department by security.

Stephen McLaughlin stands next to children in the Philippines.
Stephen McLaughlin travelled to the Philippines in 2004.(

“I had the kids waiting in the car and I had to go and tell them that what they went through was all for nothing,” she told the ABC.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin celebrated with a party at a city nightclub associated with a former Nudgee old boy and was welcomed back into the Brothers’ operations, according to two people who attended the event.

In 2004 McLaughlin was dispatched to the Philippines to scope out new ministry opportunities including potential school sites where he had contact with children. He then went on to hold various jobs with the Brothers including a communications role.

The influence and the power

It would take another decade before his behaviour came to police attention.

By 2015, McLaughlin was living at Sandgate in Brisbane’s outer eastern suburbs, when a new complainant came forward.

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This time the alleged victim was the son of a single father who worked nights. McLaughlin had struck up a friendship with the father and babysat the man’s sons.

The victim alleged that in 2015, when he was 12, McLaughlin sexually abused him in a suburban home. He was charged by police in 2019 over the allegations.

McLaughlin went on trial in March this year and a jury found him guilty of two counts of indecent dealing with the boy who had been left devastated by the abuse.

The victim “took drastic steps to numb his feelings” including inhaling substances and skipping school leaving him “jobless, depressed and angry”, sentencing Judge Anthony Rafter said.

He said the victim suffered immensely but ruled McLaughlin’s sentence be suspended due to ill health and submissions from the defence about his lack of previous convictions and antecedents.

Judge Rafter noted that the defence had included references from individuals that praised McLaughlin’s “commitment to the rights of children”.

More than two decades after the first allegations about McLaughlin emerged – he was convicted.

But McLaughlin’s lawyers said while their client was currently battling serious, life threatening health issues, he was taking legal action to mount an appeal.

They said he believed he was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice and intended to take whatever action was necessary to restore his good name and reputation.

McLaughlin has repeatedly denied any sexual interaction with Douglas. A court also rejected Douglas’s claims of sexual interaction with the Brother.

For those who had come forward previously to make allegations about McLaughlin, or were impacted by Douglas coming into their lives, the result brought both relief and anger.

For the Smith family it was too late.

The boy who made the complaint in 2002 died in 2012 from a heart attack, which his family believed was brought on by the medication he was prescribed for depression and other ailments.

Dion said he didn’t believe justice had been served.

“By him getting off jail … it is not good for victims. It’s like he’s someone in a higher power and you can’t touch him,” he said.

Generic cross

For Mr Wilson, whose life had spun out of control after his association and failed criminal case involving McLaughlin in the 1990s, he was distressed he would serve no jail time.

“He was supposed to be sick back when I was taking legal action against him,” Mr Wilson said.

It took until 2017 for Mr Wilson to receive a settlement from the Christian Brothers for the abuse he alleges he suffered at the hands of McLaughlin.

When Sergeant Danslow learned Judge Rafter had mentioned character references praising McLaughlin’s work with children he was confounded.

“It’s really concerning that he [McLaughlin] was able to go on and have any contact with children. They need to look at the evidence. He’s got a dark side.

“I don’t think I have ever struck anyone like him that had the influence and the power and the people to support him.”

New investigation launched

After questions from the ABC the Christian Brothers Oceania Province said they would launch an independent investigation into concerns around McLaughlin, Douglas and Nudgee College, to be conducted by Brisbane barrister Troy Spence.

“I am very concerned by what has been raised and I have instructed these matters to be the subject of an independent investigation by an experienced Queensland barrister,” Province leader Brother Gerard Brady said in a statement.

“Whilst this takes place, the Province respectfully refrains from responding to these questions.”

The Queensland government confirmed McLaughlin, while not having been “formally assessed” as a foster carer, had an established relationship with the Department of Families.

As a direct result of his role as principal at Nudgee College, the department assigned him some caring responsibilities for children, a spokesperson said.

“Departmental records show he was frequently referred to as a foster carer and or approved person and treated as such. For example being given permission as an approved person to care for children away from the school.”

Departmental records indicated McLaughlin had offered a range of scholarships and supports to vulnerable children and their families and some of the children were in the care of the department at the time.

McLaughlin’s lawyers last week said their client was the temporary on-site foster care nominee as part of a program to provide education for disadvantaged children – a role he undertook for approximately three months prior to completion of his five-year term as college principal.

They said at no time did any student from the program make allegations of wrongdoing against their client who, after 1993, had very limited contact with Nudgee College and no involvement in the student equity program.

They said their client did not take any students from the student equity program to stay in motels.

McLaughlin’s lawyers said from time to time office staff for the Christian Brothers used McLaughlin’s credit card to make motel bookings and for expenses associated with visiting guests.

They said McLaughlin did stay at the Coronation Motel in the late 1990s, as did other staff, while renovations were being undertaken at the province leadership living quarters.

In responding to the ABC, they said it was “deplorable” to seek to link McLaughlin with “the many shameful acts which Dennis Douglas has been convicted of”.

Cross on top of building at Nudgee School
Cross on top of building at Nudgee School(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

Nudgee College issued a statement saying it was devastated to learn of the abuse allegations involving McLaughlin and Douglas, describing them as shocking and disturbing.

“The college acknowledges the bravery and courage of those who have come forward to tell their stories of this period. We also acknowledge the pain experienced by these individuals,” the statement read.

The college said the student equity program had been discontinued many years ago and those who oversaw the program were no longer involved with the college.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin’s former associate Douglas was last year released from prison where he had been serving a lengthy sentence for committing serious sexual offences against children in the 2000s.

State Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman unsuccessfully applied to block the Nudgee old boy’s release under the Dangerous Prisoners Sex Offender Act.

A court ruled Douglas could be released under rigorous supervision that included 48 conditions.

Like McLaughlin, Douglas is now back in the community.

*Names have been changed for privacy and legal reasons.


In-depth producer: Heidi Davoren

Digital production: Heidi Davoren

Photography: Michael Lloyd, Alice Pavlovic and Sandra Lording

Graphic production: Lewi Hirvela

Posted 25 Jul 202225 Jul 2022, updated 25 Jul 202225 Jul 2022

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Violating children’s rights: The psychological impact of sexual abuse in childhood

Professor Jill Astbury MAPS, College of Arts, Victoria University


All forms of child sexual abuse (CSA) are a profound violation of the human rights of children. CSA is a crime under Australian law and an extreme transgression of trust, duty of care and power by perpetrators. The rights violations that define CSA are critically connected to the deleterious behavioural and psychological health consequences that ensue. This article examines the long-term effects of CSA on mental health and the determinants of these outcomes, in order to identify opportunities to ameliorate the profound psychological impacts of CSA on the lives of many victims/survivors. The article is based on a literature review commissioned to inform the APS response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was established in 2013 by the Gillard Government.

Prevalence of child sexual abuse

Rates of CSA are difficult to gauge accurately given the clandestine, sensitive and criminal nature of the sexual abuse to which children are exposed. Perpetrators of CSA are often close to the victim, such as fathers, uncles, teachers, caregivers and other trusted members of the community (Finkelhor, Hammer & Sedlak, 2008). CSA often goes undisclosed and unreported to professionals or adults for many complex reasons, including fear of punishment and retaliation by the perpetrator, as well as the stigma and shame associated with this type of abuse (Priebe & Svedin, 2008).

A global meta-analysis of child sexual abuse prevalence figures found self-reported CSA ranged from 164-197 in every 1,000 girls and 66-88 per 1,000 boys (Stoltenborgh, van Ijzendoorn, Euser, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2011). In Australia, Fleming (1997) used a community sample of 710 women randomly selected from the Australian electoral roll and found that 20 per cent of the sample reported experiencing CSA involving contact. Another national survey involving both men and women (Najman, Dunne, Purdie, Boyle, & Coxeter, 2005) reported a higher prevalence of CSA, with more than one third of women and approximately one sixth of men reporting a history of CSA. A more recent study in Victoria (Moore et al., 2010) reported a prevalence rate of 17 per cent for any type of CSA for girls and seven per cent for boys when they took part in the study during adolescence. Both Australian studies involving community samples of women or girls and men or boys indicate that girls are two or more times more likely to experience CSA than boys.

Long-term mental health consequences

A significant body of research has demonstrated that the experience of CSA can exert long-lasting effects on brain development, psychological and social functioning, self-esteem, mental health, personality, sleep, health risk behaviours including substance use, self-harm and life expectancy. CSA often co-occurs with physical and emotional abuse and other negative and stressful childhood experiences that independently predict poor mental and physical health outcomes in adult life.

Nevertheless, the research literature indicates that when other predictors of poor adult mental health are statistically controlled, CSA remains a powerful determinant of psychological disorder in adult life (Kendler et al., 2000). Strong evidence from twin studies indicates that a causal relationship exists between CSA and subsequent mental disorders. Twin studies necessarily control for genetic and family environment factors and a number since 2000 have documented significant associations between CSA, depression, panic disorder, alcohol abuse/dependence, drug abuse/dependence, suicide attempts and completed suicides.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies published between 1980 and 2008 (Chen et al., 2010) found that a history of sexual abuse including child sexual abuse was related to significantly increased odds of a lifetime diagnosis of several different psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep disorders and suicide. A particularly strong link between CSA and subsequent PTSD has been found.

Although the diagnosis of PTSD may be appropriate for those who have been exposed to relatively circumscribed CSA, Herman (1992) argued more than two decades ago that this diagnosis does not adequately capture the psychological responses of people who are repeatedly traumatised over a long period of time, experience subsequent re-victimisation in adolescence or adult life and typically display multiple symptoms of psychological distress and high levels of psychiatric co-morbidity. For survivors of this kind of CSA, Herman (1992) proposed the expanded diagnostic concept of complex PTSD on the grounds that it was better able to accurately capture the complex psychological sequelae of prolonged, repeated trauma.

Risk of suicide: Australian research

Survivors of CSA face a significantly increased risk of suicide and a higher prevalence of suicide attempts and ideation. An Australian follow-up study (Plunkett et al., 2001) of young people who had experienced CSA compared with those who had not, reported that those with a CSA history had a suicide rate 10.7-13.0 times the national rate. Furthermore, 32 per cent of those sexually abused as children had attempted suicide and 43 per cent had thought about suicide. None of the non-abused participants had completed suicide.

A more recent Australian study confirms and extends this finding. Cutajar and colleagues (2010) conducted a cohort study of 2,759 victims of CSA by linking forensic records from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine between 1964 and 1995 to coronial records up to 44 years later. They found that female sexual abuse victims had 40 times higher risk of suicide and 88 times higher risk of fatal overdose than the rates in the general population. Interestingly these rates were even higher than those for males, in contrast to the usual gender pattern for suicide. The respective rates for males were 14 times and 38 times higher than those in the general population.

Determinants of long-term mental health outcomes

While victims/survivors of CSA face greatly increased risks of poor mental health in adult life, a significant minority do not go on to develop psychological disorders (Saunders, Kilpatrick, Hanson, Resnick, & Walker, 1999). Broadly, two approaches to explaining this finding have informed research: differences in the nature of the abuse that has taken place; and post-abuse factors that positively mediate or intervene in the development of negative long-term mental health outcomes.

Nature of the sexual abuse

The likelihood of experiencing severe, negative mental health outcomes in adult life as the result of CSA is increased by several abuse-specific characteristics. Large scale epidemiological studies have consistently documented that forced penetrative sex, multiple perpetrators, abuse by a relative, and a long duration of CSA (e.g., more than a year) predict more severe psychiatric disturbance and a higher likelihood of being an in-patient in a psychiatric facility in adult life.

More than 20 years ago, Pribor and Dinwiddie (1992) investigated different types of CSA of increasing severity and found that incest victims had a significantly increased lifetime prevalence rate for seven psychological disorders including agoraphobia, alcohol abuse or dependence, depression, panic disorder, PTSD, simple phobia and social phobia. Bulik, Prescott and Kendler (2001) also confirmed that a higher risk for the development of psychiatric and substance use disorders was associated with certain characteristics of the abuse, including attempted or completed intercourse, the use of force or threats and abuse by a relative. More severe and chronic abuse which starts at an early age has also been reported to increase the risk of developing symptoms of dissociation.

Post-abuse mediating factors

Certain factors, both negative and positive, are likely to intervene after CSA has taken place and to mediate adult mental health outcomes.

  • Coping strategies
    Specific coping strategies used by survivors can positively or negatively predict long-term psychological outcomes. Overall, positive, constructive coping strategies such as expressing feelings and making efforts to improve the situation are associated with better adjustment (Runtz & Schallow, 1997; Tremblay, Hebert, & Piche, 1999), and negative coping strategies, including engaging in self-destructive or avoidant behaviours, with worse adjustment (Merrill, Thomsen, Sinclair, Gold, & Miller, 2001). However, the coping strategies used by survivors are contingent to some degree on the availability of social or material resources over which children have little or no control.

    In addition, the number of negative or maladaptive coping strategies used is predictive of the likelihood of sexual re-victimisation in adulthood (Filipas & Ullman, 2006). This strongly indicates that the link between CSA, negative coping strategies and adverse adult psychological outcomes is strengthened by sexual re-victimisation. Several studies have confirmed this relationship.
  • Re-victimisation
    CSA is associated with an increased risk of subsequent violent victimisation including intimate partner violence and sexual violence in adolescence and adulthood (see, for example, Classen, Palesh, & Aggarwal, 2005). Sexual re-victimisation involving rape or other types of sexual abuse/assault poses a potent risk for worse psychological health in adult life. A number of studies have confirmed that women who are sexually re-victimised compared with their non-revictimised counterparts have more severe symptoms of psychological distress in adulthood.
  • Social support and reaction to disclosure
    Historically, the role of social support and other societal and cultural factors in determining survivors’ responses to CSA has been under-explored in comparison with the heavy focus on the survivor’s role in responding to sexual trauma. Increased interest in the contribution of social support and other sociocultural factors has prompted increased investigation into the social contextual factors that can mediate adult outcomes following childhood violence, many of which are associated with the reactions to disclosure.

Delay in the disclosure of CSA is linked inevitably with other delays, all of which are harmful to the child. These include delay in putting in place adequate means to protect the child from further victimisation, delay in the child receiving meaningful assistance including necessary psychological and physical health care, and delay in redress and justice for the victim. Without disclosure, negative health outcomes are more likely to proliferate and compound. Conversely, disclosure within one month of sexual assault occurring is associated with a significantly lower risk of subsequent psychosocial difficulties in adult life including lower rates of PTSD and major depressive episodes (Ruggiero et al., 2004).

Yet experiences of disclosure are not uniform and whether they are positive or negative depends on the reactions of the person to whom the CSA is disclosed. Unfortunately, negative reactions to disclosure are common, constitute secondary traumatisation and are associated with poorer adult psychological outcomes (Ullman, 2007). Such reactions include not being believed, being blamed and judged, or punished and not supported, all of which can compound the impact of the original abuse and further increase the risk of psychological distress including increased symptoms of PTSD, particularly when the perpetrator is a relative.

Specific characteristics of disclosure appear to be protective against the development of psychiatric disorders. This finding highlights the importance of social support in concert with effective action by the person in whom the child confides. The degree to which someone is affected is likely to reflect various indicators of the severity of the abuse as well as countervailing protective factors such as the strength of family relationships and the survivor’s self-esteem. One such factor is a warm and supportive relationship with a non-offending parent, which is strongly associated with resilience following CSA and lower levels of abuse-related stress.

Implications for psychological training and practice

The research outlined above shows conclusively that CSA is associated with multiple adverse psychological outcomes, although such outcomes are not inevitable. The identified mediating or intervening factors that increase or decrease the risk of developing psychological disorders as a result of CSA have important implications for psychological training and for the practising psychologists who work with survivors of CSA.

Training on CSA

It is a matter of grave concern that the issue of CSA has been neglected in psychology training. When psychologists lack appropriate knowledge and skills to work with survivors they put both their clients and themselves at risk and can cause unintended harm. Training on CSA is urgently needed in psychology programs to disseminate evidence to students on the protean psychological consequences of CSA as well as the skills necessary to carry out the demanding mental and emotional work of treating survivors. Survivors can have chronic, complex problems in many areas of functioning and psychological disorders can overlap with physical health problems, including pain syndromes and high risk health behaviours such as alcohol, tobacco and drug use. Careful long-term psychological care is often necessary. As survivors may seek help from a range of psychologists, it is important that all psychologists are educated about the magnitude and psychological consequences of CSA.

Apart from acquiring more in-depth knowledge of the emotional effects of CSA and experience in trauma-related interventions, postgraduate courses should prepare practitioners for how exposure to their clients’ traumatic material can traumatise them as well. To remain psychologically healthy while working with survivors of CSA, psychologists need to be able to recognise symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and develop self-care strategies and support systems that will help them to manage the stress related to working with CSA survivors.

Most practising psychologists today who work with survivors have acquired their knowledge and skills ‘on the job’ post-graduation or as a result of their own initiative by attending workshops delivered by specialists in the field. An unknown number of registered psychologists may have no training on CSA and a more systematic continuing education program should be available and accessible so that all psychologists are equipped, at the very least, to ‘do no harm’ to the clients who have experienced CSA.

Implications for psychological practice

Knowing how to facilitate disclosure and take a comprehensive trauma history is an essential first step in developing a treatment plan for survivors of CSA. How a psychologist responds to a client’s disclosure will have an enormous impact on whether a survivor continues or abruptly terminates treatment. Any hint of disbelief, blame or judgment is likely to fracture the client’s fragile hope that she or he will be believed and that it is safe to undertake the painful task of working through the original abuse and its aftermath. If the response to a disclosure is negative it may be years before a survivor is willing to try again, and in the meantime the psychological burden of the abuse and its effects can proliferate. The effort to remain silent and keep the abuse hidden is extremely isolating and cuts off access to potential avenues of psychosocial support.

It would be a mistake for psychologists to assume, for example, that knowing about prolonged exposure therapy for the treatment of PTSD, would, by itself, be sufficient to offer effective treatment to survivors. Beyond the symptoms of traumatic stress associated with CSA, survivors often struggle with many other pressing concerns. These often relate to the deep betrayal of trust by the adult/s with a duty of care towards them as children. This betrayal can prompt persistent negative self-perceptions, difficulties in trusting others and their own judgement, and abiding feelings of shame and intrinsic ‘unloveability’ that contribute to insecure, unsatisfying relationships in adult life. These same issues can impinge on the client-psychologist interaction, making it challenging to establish a robust therapeutic alliance or maintain appropriate boundaries.

CSA does not result in a single disorder such as depression, treatable within the 10 sessions supported under the Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative. The chronicity and complexity of the disorders stemming from CSA require much longer term mental health care. The current system under Medicare is very poorly suited to meeting the mental health care needs of perhaps the most numerous and psychologically vulnerable group in society – CSA survivors.


The Royal Commission has provided a timely opportunity to closely examine the enduring, deleterious and multi-faceted impacts of CSA on survivors, how institutions in which abuse took place failed to intervene and the kind of assistance survivors believe will be most helpful in healing from their traumatic experiences. Psychology has much to contribute to this process and to ensure that the best available psychological evidence is put forward to address the profoundly disturbing phenomenon of child sexual abuse.

Clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuseIn contrast with the large evidence base amassed since the 1980s on the prevalence and health consequences of CSA occurring in the general community, minimal research was published before 2000 on CSA perpetrated by clergy or others working for institutions or organisations, and evidence remains limited in scope.There is an additional theological and spiritual dimension to clergy-perpetrated abuse that sets it apart other forms of CSA, including a spiritual and religious crisis during and after the abuse (Farrell & Taylor, 2000). CSA perpetrated by priests and other members of the clergy has been described as “a unique betrayal” (Guido, 2008) and the “ultimate deception” (Cook, 2005), and the implications of such abuse for victims are eloquently described by McMackin, Keane and Kline (2008):The sexual exploitation of a child by one who has been privileged, even anointed, as a representative of God is a sinister assault on that person’s psychosocial and spiritual well-being. The impact of such a violent betrayal is amplified when the perpetrator is sheltered and supported by a larger religious community. (p.198)Psychological consequences of clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuseClergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of children can catastrophically alter the trajectory of victims’ psychosocial, sexual and spiritual development (Fogler et al., 2008). In the US, investigation into the Catholic Church by the John Jay Research Team repeatedly identified certain psychological effects of clergy CSA in the personal testimony of survivors and family members. These included major symptoms of PTSD with co-occurring substance abuse, affective lability, relational conflicts, and a profound alteration in individual spirituality and religious practices associated with a deep sense of betrayal by the individual perpetrator and the church more broadly (John Jay College, 2004, 2006; McMackin et al., 2008).Some of these negative psychological outcomes are shared with survivors of CSA in the general population but those related to spirituality, religious practices and a sense of betrayal by the church alter the nature of the harm caused by clergy-perpetrated CSA. While a diagnosis of PTSD may be useful as a starting point in understanding and treating survivors of clergy CSA, Farrell and Taylor (2000) contend that “there are qualitative differences in [clergy-perpetrated CSA] symptomatology, which the PTSD diagnosis cannot explain” (p. 28). Such symptoms include self-blame, guilt, psychosexual disturbances, self-destructive behaviours, substance abuse, and re-victimisation. These symptoms are argued to emanate from the theological, spiritual and existential features of clergy CSA. For these reasons, Farrell and Taylor (2000) suggest that a diagnosis of complex PTSD (Herman, 1992) offers a better fit for the symptoms reported by survivors of clergy-perpetrated CSA.Preventing clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuseThe history of denial, cover up and delays in response to disclosures of clergy CSA by churches has been well documented, with their responses to perpetrators evidencing a failure to implement any effective preventative measures. To stop institutional CSA from occurring, it is critical to understand the situational indicators of such abuse so that the opportunities they afford to perpetrators to commit the crime of CSA can be identified.Parkinson and colleagues (2009) identified that having immediate and convenient access to minors were the defining characteristics that facilitated abuse. The evidence also suggests the need for parents and their children to be made much more aware of the grooming tactics used by clergy who perpetrate CSA. The John Jay College study (2006) identified the strategies that allowed the perpetrators to become close to the child they subsequently abused including being friendly with the victims’ families, giving gifts or other enticements such as taking them to sporting events or letting them drive cars, and spending a lot of time with victims.A recurrent theme in Australian victims’ accounts is how their parents’ religious beliefs and trust and reverence for members of the clergy meant that they could not conceive of the possibility that priests could sexually abuse their children and betray their own vows. Yet there is ample evidence that this trust was sadly misplaced and the same caution that would be applied to other members of society needs to be applied to the clergy.Finally, in tandem with a message from churches that there is zero tolerance for CSA, there needs to be a clear and trustworthy process in place, independent of the churches, that encourages children to disclose CSA safely and confidentially. Educational programs in all schools beginning in primary school might be one way of achieving this.Victims of clergy-perpetrated CSA need to be heard with respect and compassion, given meaningful assistance to meet their psychosocial needs, and provided with justice through those who perpetrated the abuse and those who covered it up being held fully accountable. Only then will it be possible for recovery from the immense trauma of clergy CSA and the rebuilding of shattered lives to truly begin.

The author can be contacted at


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Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on October 2013. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.OCTOBER 2013 | ISSUE INDEXThe sexual abuse of children