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The Sexual Abuse of Children


Andy Kaladelfos, Yorick Smaal and Mark Finnane

Survivors’ testimonies to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (hereafter the Royal Commission), which began in 2013 and will continue at least until 2017, have understandably preoccupied media and public responses to the sexual victimisation of children.1 They have revealed the extent of the cover-up of abuse and the lack of accountability of those who committed criminal acts against children. Their testimonies challenge us to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and that redress for survivors is a just process. As Chair of the Royal Commission, Justice Peter McClellan, observed (McClellan 2015: 16), the systemic failures of institutions must be met with two responses: ‘Firstly to protect against the occurrence of child sexual abuse, and secondly to respond appropriately when any allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse occur, including holding perpetrators to account and providing justice to victims.’

Child sexual abuse is now a pre-eminent area of concern for individuals, communities and governments. Scholarly research in the area began with the examination in the 1960s of the physical assault of children. Feminist activism in the 1980s and 1990s prompted investigation of incest, rape and child sexual abuse (Jenkins 1998: 118–44, Angelides 2005: 141–77, Daly 2014a: 16–19). As the chapters of this book show, scholarly research on child sexual abuse has since developed significant bodies of knowledge in psychology, law, criminology and social work.

By contrast, much of our knowledge of institutional child sexual abuse comes from proliferating public inquiries in Canada, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and currently Australia, rather than academic research. Vivid journalistic and personal accounts from survivors have highlighted individual experiences of abuse in particular institutions (Coldrey 1993, Marr 2013, Penglase 2005). Academic studies have tended to examine the problem of institutional abuse after the development of public interest or media controversy, much of which concerned sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (Keenan 2012, Lytton 2008, Parkinson 2003, Terry et al. 2011, Corby et al. 2001). Most recently, research by Kathleen Daly has examined the complexities of the redress schemes of those public inquiries (Daly 2014a).

This book developed from a seminar convened by the editors at Griffith University in 2013, shortly after the commencement of the Royal Commission. The seminar brought together researchers in different fields to examine the theoretical, practical and evidentiary problems raised in the latest scholarly research and by public inquiries into child sexual abuse. Developing a wide-ranging understanding of the problem of child sexual abuse has important implications for our knowledge of and responses to abuse in different contexts. Hence the function of the seminar was to better understand the latest research on child sexual abuse in various disciplines with the aim of creating an interdisciplinary dialogue between researchers. This publication is the result of those exchanges.

The Sexual Abuse of Children is an interdisciplinary collection that brings together scholars from history, criminology, psychology, sociology and law to consider the recognition and redress of child sexual abuse. The book’s scope encompasses regulatory and informal responses to abuse in religious, educational and total institutions as well as abuse that occurred outside of institutions. It is the first book to consider past and contemporary responses to child sexual abuse and to compare responses to abuse in institutional and non-institutional settings. Our contributors draw on a range of case studies in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, England and Canada to undertake their analyses, which address aspects of the abuse of boys and girls from the late nineteenth century to the contemporary world. Thematically, contributors investigate child sexual abuse in a number of areas: they analyse the abuse of power by clergy and teachers; they investigate the difficulties of policing and prosecution; they critique the limited focus of public inquiries; they examine the vexed question of compensation and redress; and they put forward models for the prevention of abuse.

Part 1 of this book, ‘Histories of Child Sexual Abuse’, examines the latest historical research on the problem of sexual abuse within and outside institutions. Understanding the historical treatment of child sexual abuse dispels many contemporary assumptions about how the problem was dealt with in the past. The sexual abuse of children has been recognised as a serious criminal act for more than 150 years and has been the subject of substantial state intervention. Before 1960 there were at least 15,000 criminal prosecutions in Australia for the sexual victimisation of minors (Finnane and Smaal, chapter 1). The state understood the potential for abuse within educational institutions and even developed specific criminal liability for such offending (Kaladelfos and Featherstone, chapter 2). The historical record suggests that at least some religious bodies—here the Anglican case is considered—recognised and responded to sexually abusing clergy within their ranks (Jones, chapter 4).

But if crimes and perpetrators within certain contexts and settings have been the object of policing and criminal sanction, historical abuse within children’s institutions generally remained hidden because of the pervasive discourses of childhood innocence. Children who disclosed sexual matters in institutions were portrayed as precocious and untrustworthy, their complaints commonly disbelieved and met with punishment (Swain, chapter 3). The chapters in part 1 deal variously with limitations of the historical recognition of abuse: reporting of offences was constrained by the physical and social structures that regulated children’s lives. Children who had access to adults who could report abuse on their behalf were better able to have their victimisation recognised. In contrast, many decades of silence would elapse before the abuse of those without that benefit would be disclosed.

Part 2, ‘Recognising and Responding to Abuse’, examines how the problem is dealt with in the present. The opening of part 2 examines the psychological and criminogenic patterns in child sexual abuse. Understanding the geographies of offending and their relationship to offence types is important for designing successful prevention strategies (Smallbone and McKillop, chapter 5), as is appreciating the scope, nature and causes of abuse within specific institutional structures, such as the Catholic Church (Terry, chapter 6). Successful prevention remains limited by the failure to report offences, a consequence of social barriers to community interventions in suspected cases of abuse (Fay-Ramirez, chapter 7).

However, in order to recognise child sexual abuse and respond to it effectively, governments must consider all forms of abuse. A shortcoming of the current Royal Commission (inherent in its terms of reference) has been its lack of examination of abuse within the home (Salter, chapter 8), despite ‘the family’ being the foundational unit of social organisation and an institutional structure that might be considered to contribute to the victimisation of children. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (2015–16) provides an important avenue for examining this enduring social problem.

Part 3 analyses the lessons learned about sexual abuse and examines critical questions in achieving justice and redress for victims. Investigating historical allegations of sexual abuse has become a considerable part of policing in recent years. These complaints give rise to their own unique challenges, especially the erosion of evidence and memory in the decades between the event and notification (Kebbell and Westera, chapter 9). For children reporting abuse today, psychological research has shown the continuing gap between how children should be cross-examined to elicit the most accurate outcomes and current practices that can contaminate memory and result in false evidence (O’Neill and Zajac, chapter 10). Implementing strategies to regulate the questioning of children will result in better and more just outcomes.

Redressing abuse can be achieved through various means, including counselling, social services, compensation and criminalisation. These issues are considered by a number of contributors. Survivors of abuse within religious institutions often have unique needs: not only is harm caused by physical or sexual acts of abuse but a loss of spiritual faith can be an additional trauma (Sauvage and O’Leary, chapter 11). Such experiences necessitate the development of a complex trauma approach, giving service providers an appreciation of the different manifestations of abuse. The practical and theoretical complexities of redress schemes are considered by examining the contentious issue of monetary payment (Daly, chapter 12), which in some cases have ranked individuals’ experience of abuse as more or less deserving of compensation. Finally, the question of criminal responsibility for abuse within institutions is an important one for the Royal Commission (Freiberg et al. 2015). Contemporary regulation of corporate crime and organisational responsibility may provide a model framework for establishing criminal responsibility and institutional liability in cases of child abuse (Bronitt, chapter 13).

Addressing both Australian and international contexts, The Sexual Abuse of Children examines past and present practices in prevention, justice and redress for abuse. The collection reveals that the problem of child sexual abuse has a long legacy. Certainly the extent and harm of child sexual abuse has increasingly been recognised and addressed, within particular settings and at particular moments. Yet the persistent defences of ignorance or denial of harm by those in positions of trust continue to challenge redress and subvert the promise of effective protection and prevention.


We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Griffith Criminology Institute, the Violence Research and Prevention Program (Griffith University), the Griffith Social and Behavioural Research College, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, and the Key Centre for Ethics, Law Justice and Governance (Griffith University).

1     Contributors to this book use a range of terminology to refer to those who have been sexually abused. These terms—including ‘survivor’, ‘victim’ and ‘complainant’—reflect the diverse experiences and responses of those affected by sexual abuse.

The Sexual Abuse of Children

   by Yorick Smaal, Andy Kaladelfos and Mark Finnane