Breaking the Barrier of Silence around Child Sexual Abuse

Professor Shurlee Swain’s  third paper for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a fascinating survey of previous royal commissions and other official inquiries in Australia.

“The History of Australian inquiries reviewing institutions providing care for children” (2014) identifies 83 Australian inquiries. Download the paper here.

The first, a NSW Select Committee on Destitute Children, began in 1852 and the last, the Victorian Parliamentary Committee on the Handling of Child Abuse in Religious and Other Non-government Organisations, reported in 2013.

Swain identifies three types of inquiries over the course of 160 years.

  1. Policies and systems: From 1852 through to the post-war period, inquiries were concerned with policy and establishing and refining the child welfare system.
  2. Damage control: a series of more specific inquiries from the 1860s to the 1990s in response to allegations of abuse.
  3. Listening to the Victims: From the 1990s to contemporary times a number of inquiries have focussed on hearing survivor testimony.

The 83 inquiries are all listed in a handy appendix – four times the length of the discussion that analyses the history. The table shows the focus of each inquiry, lists the main institutions examined and points to the recommendations that seem most relevant.

However, Swain is acutely aware that the current Royal Commission – given its explicit terms of reference around the handling of child sexual abuse – will have its work cut out to find any direct value in the majority of previous inquiries because of the silence surrounding sexual abuse.

The long silence

“Sexual abuse was rarely raised in the context of these investigations,” Swain writes, “although occasional references to problems with immorality in the institutions…would suggest that this absence was indicative of a silence around sexuality (p. 8).”

Where immorality was mentioned, it usually referred to sexual behaviour among the children and the risk of moral contagion when innocent children were placed amongst the already ‘depraved’.

The possibility that staff could be involved in sexual relationships with the children was rarely taken seriously, let alone seen as a systemic issue. Where allegations against staff were impossible to ignore, for example specific allegations of abuse in reformatories and disability institutions, the events were seen as problems with individuals – although very few child welfare officials were ever sent to trial as a result of these investigations.

This was the case, too, where children died in ‘care’ – as many did of course. Swain could find only three instances in which a coronial inquiry led to criminal charges being laid. It has to be said, furthermore, that not all deaths were the subject of inquests even when the circumstances warranted it. But that’s another matter.

Swain astutely argues that the final reports alone will not provide sufficient evidence to understand to what extent and why sexual abuse – or deaths in custody – are glossed over or ignored. A skilled historian with time to examine minutes of evidence and other archival material would be able “to read into the silences to establish what was not being discussed, as well as the issues that made it into the public record (p. 4).”

Nevertheless, some of the practices are already clearly documented – and Swain nails them here:

  • individualising accusations of sexual abuse (‘perverts’ and ‘sex fiends’)
  • discrediting witnesses
  • minimising reporting in the interests of public morality, and
  • perhaps most important of all, failing to listen to the child victims, or not taking their evidence seriously enough because of their lowly status.

Breaking the barrier of silence

The inquiries held in more recent years have actively sought testimony from survivors. Residents of children’s institutions had in the past been invited to give evidence before inquiries but, as we have seen, “their testimony was always corrupted by their status”. That is, they were mere children, and who would take the word of a child against a welfare officer or a man or woman of the cloth?

The recasting of the debate was encouraged by feminist discourse which challenged the belief that sexual abuse was merely the acts of individual ‘perverts’ or ‘sex fiends’ and could be seen as systemic, and the core transgression of childhood innocence” (p. 11).

The change can be seen as a political act, produced by, among others, organised Care Leaver advocates: “people who in their childhood were the objects of state and charitable intervention, are now asserting their rights to recognition as equal citizens whom the state has wronged (p. 10).”

Swain correctly asserts that the new model of testimonial-based inquiry came to Australia with the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (read more). This was followed by an extensive series of inquiries, as different survivor groups claimed their right to speak. Although sexual abuse was not a specific term of reference of the Lost Innocents (Child Migrants – read more) or Forgotten Australians (Care Leavers – read more) inquiries, victim/survivor testimony was so strongly articulated that the reports singled it out for special treatment.

“Within this series of inquiries the willingness to speak about sexual abuse has seen the issue rise in prominence to the point where it has become the primary focus of the current Royal Commission (p. 10).”

A weak backlash has emerged from conservatives running unconvincing two lines of comment:

  • claims  that the ‘politics of regret’ now unfairly privilege ‘victim narratives’ over other stories – and therefore that people with different views are now being silenced and marginalised; and
  • accusations that ‘victim narratives’ are fabrications or ‘flaunting suffering’ to get attention and financial compensation.

Despite that backlash, I find it impossible to imagine a future where child sexual abuse is swept back under the carpet.

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