Why does it take victims of child sex abuse so long to speak up? 220



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Last week, former Prisoner star Maggie Kirkpatrick was found guilty of the abuse of a 14-year-old girl in 1984. Kirkpatrick joins entertainer Rolf Harris and Hey Dad! actor Robert Hughes as the latest Australian celebrity to be convicted of sexual abuse.

These cases raise a murky set of questions about the extent of child sexual abuse and the impunity enjoyed by prominent figures.

The UK has been grappling with these questions since hundreds of people accused entertainer Jimmy Savile of sexual abuse after his death in 2011. He is now recognised as one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders.

UK police have been investigating an expanding set of scandals regarding the alleged involvement of high-profile men in the sexual abuse of children in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These scandals have now engulfed a number of current and former politicians.

Disclosure is often made later

These allegations of sexual abuse are “historical” in two ways. First, they pertain to incidents of abuse that are often decades old.

Second, it is no exaggeration to say that these allegations are remaking history. These disclosures of abuse challenge our cultural memory and collective understandings of public figures. They tell a more complex and disturbing story than the version of history that we are most familiar with.

Understandably, the credibility and substance of these allegations has come under considerable scrutiny. Why didn’t victims say anything at the time? And is it justified to pursue their allegations now, decades after the fact?

At times, these questions have had a legalistic and sceptical tone to them. They recall entrenched myths that a rape victim who doesn’t raise “hue and cry” immediately after the event is untrustworthy.

An immediate complaint of sexual abuse is relatively unusual. It is more common for children to delay talking about the abuse or to never report it. One retrospective survey of Canadian adults abused as children found that one-fifth reported the abuse within a month, but 58 per cent delayed disclosure for five years or longer, and one-fifth never disclosed the abuse to anyone.

Studies with adult survivors consistently find that most didn’t tell anyone about the abuse when they were kids. Only a small proportion of incidents are ever reported to the authorities.

A long road

Disclosure is not an event but a process. Many factors are at play in enabling or constraining a child to speak directly about abuse and bringing that complaint to the attention of the authorities. The age and development of the child, the relationship of the child to the perpetrator, the severity of the abuse and the availability of support dynamically shape the disclosure process.

Multiple stressors in the child’s family and community context, and social and cultural attitudes that shame and blame victims, can create environments in which disclosure is fraught with difficulty. The process of disclosure often involves behavioural and indirect cues, and accidental disclosures, as much or more often than a conscious decision to tell someone about the abuse.

It is often assumed that disclosing abuse is naturally in the interest of victims. However, children may withhold disclosure because they accurately believe that the adults in their life will be angry with them or not support them.

Research with adult survivors has found that many did disclose in childhood only to experience blame and minimisation. Abuse may then continue in spite of the disclosure.

Negative and shaming reactions to sexual abuse disclosures have been shown to significantly increase the risk of mental illness and distress in the victim. Feeling betrayed is corrosive to mental wellbeing.

In “historical” allegations, the years that elapse between abuse and a court case are often indicative of the long journey that survivors take to recover from abuse and find a forum in which their complaint will be heard. Initial disclosures of abuse are likely to be to friends, partners and other people who the survivor trusts.

In court, the husband of the woman Kirkpatrick abused recalled a conversation in the mid-2000s in which his wife said that, as a teenager, she went to the house of “the nasty one on Prisoner” and “some sexual things happened”. It was several more years before she made a formal complaint.

Even when disclosure occurs in a formal setting – such as to police – survivors are not guaranteed an adequate response. One of Robert Hughes’ victims reported him to police in the late 1980s and again in the 1990s but was apparently told nothing could be done.

The disclosure paradox

The paradox is that, in order to detect sexual abuse, we depend on abused children to speak out, but they are often in environments in which they can’t rely on support or understanding.

In this impossible situation, non-disclosure is a way that victims of abuse protect themselves from further betrayal and harm. Extricating themselves from unsupportive environments and finding opportunities to speak about their abuse is a complex and fragile process that can take many years.

It seems that the pertinent question in “historical” abuse allegations is not:

Why didn’t victims say something at the time?

Rather, it should be:

Why do abuse victims have to wait so long to speak and be heard?

The ConversationHave you been wondering why it has taken all these years for the tales of abuse to emerge? 

Michael Salter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  1. Because no one back then believed children when they told family etc about sexual abuse. …so glad they are now getting closure!

    5 REPLY
    • it has to be told sooner if they are guilty they could have molested more children. easier to be believed these days.

    • Yes you are right Ann…I’m 65, noone believed you back then. No child should have to suffer and the perpetrator should ve treated like a murderer as it is just as bad. Still a lot of partners of molester don’t want to know too. It’s horrific!

    • That is so true and I am glad somebody finally said it. The partner does not want to know. Will ruin the family and the image. ‘People will think I’m not enough for him’. Well guess what. They hide behind partners to become socially acceptable. Thank you Karen Ellery Pritchard.

  2. Money

    8 REPLY
    • All the money in the world wouldn’t heal the pain and I fear so many children are still going through the horror as we speak, the cost to our society, immeasurable.

    • And it’s because of disgusting attitudes like that that so many people take so long to come out about it, thank god times have changed & victims feel safe to finally deal with it.

    • I agree these people should be brought to justice. But why did they wait so long and why only stars with money?

      1 REPLY
      • It’s not only stars with money, Susan…they’re just the ones that make the headlines. In my case I told a few people but only went to police years later and was initially disparaged by the sergeant I spoke to. Not being believed is a biggy. I can understand why these people waited. Who are people going to believe? A ‘star’ or a kid?

    • Unfortunately its people that they should be able to trust, its that trust that protection that all children should be able to take for granted that’s damaged.

    • Susan – I think you’ll find there are many cases brought before the Courts which are never reported in the media, who are only interested in proceedings which involve someone well known to the public.

  3. I had an incident in my early teens that has bothered me more as years go by, and perhaps that is what has happened with the people reporting it. I was not raped but only because I was A State Runner and out ran the guy. I was only 13 years old and he tried to grab me at the beach, I managed to get away, he ran after me, he tackled me in the sand dunes. I kicked him and ran to the waters edge and sprinted on the hard sand, he was hot on my heels behind me. 2 surfers on boards came to my rescue. This happened around the time of the Wanda Beach murders, I have often wondered if it was that guy

    6 REPLY
    • I had an incident with the local priest. I used to ride his horses for him, then one day when I was about 15 he tried to grope me. I was able to get on my pony and flee. He was later accused of molesting other girls, but many didn’t believe he had. I did,but I still said nothing. Eventually he was moved to another parish where no doubt he continued the same behaviour

    • I never reported it either Sue, at that age I never even thought about reporting it, it has always been in the back of my mind especially since I have gotten older, that I should have

    • Oh Libbi that could of ended so badly for you, cause it was evident he wasn’t going to give up until he got you. So glad this ended well but not the type of thing you would forget in a hurry.

    • My elderly mother recently asked me if Father had ever done anything to me, and I still said no. He’s long dead, and mother is 93. She doesn’t need that on her mind at her age

  4. I had someone recently show me a photo of them with Rolf Harris from many years ago.she said he also groped her but she says it’s what men do! I was horrified. She was very critical of these victims. I certainly let her know that young people need to be protected from scum like this and just because she finds it acceptable, doesn’t make it right. She seems to think of it as a badge of honour! Disgusted. I just hope she doesn’t have grandchildren.

    1 REPLY
  5. I told my mum about a groping ‘ uncle’ when she wanted him to give a speech at my wedding.
    Otherwise she would never have known

  6. Because there ashamed for what happened and have to find the courage to speak up ! Also they think no body will believe them. ,

  7. Abuse of children back when we were young seemed to be rife, but could it still be happening? Nothing seems to have changed much. Technology I’d better, but attitude is just as bad. We have to stop looking for an excuse for these animals, stop wondering why they are not reported immediately and start taking action. Although I agree that any crime needs dealing with, why is child sexual abuse so hard to discuss by some? Why doesn’t it get the publicity, say a one punch victim gets? In my day, you didn’t back chat your parents or elders, you didn’t question them, you never spoke out against them. This has a lot to do with it. Today we seem to just bury our heads on the sand.

    3 REPLY
    • Yes it does still happen, anyone who thinks otherwise is naive beyond belief. And statistically it is much more likely that the perpetrator is a family member or someone within the circle of trust. Unfortunately society has been lulled into a false sense of security by our current obsession with Police Checks but we need to remember that Police Checks only show offenses for which someone has been charged and by the very nature of their behaviour successful long term pedophiles are both smart and manipulative so rarely get caught.. The very best way to keep your children safe is to give them a very clear understanding of boundaries… including age appropriate behaviour…and encourage them to socialise with their peers in groups and to analyze and respond to risky behaviour rather than make them risk averse by hyper-vigilant parenting.

    • Up here in Brisbane,it is still very much going on,and I am sure my city is just a small reflection of Australia……Schools are required to pass onto Police if they have suspicions of any child being abused……there was a glich in the computer programme,which failed to send these reports to Police….It was reported they now believed that over 3000 cases in a 6 month period failed to reach Police…..Of couse,it has now been followed up,but the number of suspected cases of abuse to children is horrendous!!!!!

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