posted on December 12, 2014 10:30
This year has seen the conviction of many high profile public figures for child sexual abuse. They include entertainer Rolf Harris and actor Robert Hughes. Testimony regarding Swami Satyananda Saraswati at Mangrove Mountain ashram is currently being heard, and former Bega Cheese CEO Maurice Van Ryn has pleaded guilty to child sex offences. We are beginning to see that celebrity status or positions of power no longer confer immunity from prosecution. Such cases also underline that people regarded as familiar, reassuring and beyond reproach may in fact pose a high risk to children.
Child abuse can be difficult to speak about, for a range of reasons. They include shame, conflicted loyalties, threats from perpetrators, confusion about what "really" took place, and, especially if experienced a long time ago, pressure to forget the past and move on. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said the average time survivors took to report their abuse was 22 years. An Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) study of 4000 callers to its 1300 helpline supports this - the most common age for abuse to occur is between ages six and 10 and the majority of callers seeking help are aged between 40 and 49.
Many children abused when they were young are adults now, who struggle on a daily basis with the psychological and physical legacy of the harm inflicted on them with impunity by adults. Increasingly, survivors who had suffered in silence have come forward to tell of the impact abuse experienced in childhood has had and that it continues to blight their adult life. Many older callers to ASCA reported that they were disclosing their abuse for the first time. Significantly, they indicated that fear of the responses of others had discouraged them from speaking out earlier. They reported carrying a lifetime burden, including the belief that because their traumatic childhood experiences happened so long ago it is too late to heal.
The good news is that research shows it is possible to heal from childhood trauma. While vulnerable to stress, the brain can also change in ways that promote wellbeing. Positive experiences of relationships can literally "rebuild the brain" and realign the neural pathways that trauma disrupts. This highlights the importance of a safe context in which people can disclose what has happened to them, and thus the need for community awareness about the prevalence of childhood trauma, which comes in many forms, and its impacts into adult life if left unresolved.
The best response to the disclosure of childhood trauma is acknowledgement and validation for those who have experienced it. It is crucial that survivors can have confidence that what they choose to tell will be met with openness and support.
This does not mean encouragement to disclose distressing details, which might be better addressed in counselling. Rather, it means a spirit of receptivity to a topic that has long been regarded as difficult.
We know now that violation and betrayal of children occurs not only at the hands of individuals, but on the part of entire institutions into whose care children have been placed. The Royal Commission has revealed the broad spectrum of institutions - the majority of them "mainstream" – that have failed grievously in their duty of care to vast numbers of Australian children. Together with the abuse now substantiated to have been perpetrated by public figures, and even household names, we are in a position now to recognise the scope and prevalence of child sexual abuse and to respond more appropriately to it.
Many survivors who have never spoken out are finding their voice now. For those beginning to address the trauma of their childhoods, and the lifetime burden of holding this secret, recovery is possible and support is available. As a society, we need to continue to acknowledge the prevalence of childhood trauma. As individuals, we need to provide validation to those who disclose experiences of it. This, in turn, will help those who struggle with the impact of childhood trauma to access the support to which they are entitled, and which is long overdue.