Chapter 8

Enduring impacts of child sexual abuse

Introduction

The impacts of historical child sexual abuse in institutional settings are complex, varied and, in many cases, enduring. These impacts are not limited to the individual — they extend across families, friends and loved ones, and to the broader community.

Victim-survivors reported significant effects from their experience of child sexual abuse throughout their life course. These effects were often interconnected. Further, they were commonly triggered or heightened by certain life events, such as forming relationships, having children or sharing their story with another person for the first time.

The impacts were not limited to the victim-survivor, but were also felt by those who love and support them. The Board of Inquiry heard many examples of victim-survivors feeling guilt and anguish over how their experience of child sexual abuse affected their relationships with their parents, their partners and their own children.

The secondary impacts experienced by partners, family members and friends were also varied, and were frequently connected to the impacts the victim-survivor felt at a particular time. Secondary victims often described their grief in witnessing the day-to-day suffering of victim-survivors, and their desperation to help them get the support and care they needed to heal.

The experiences reported by victim-survivors from Beaumaris Primary School also profoundly affected the local community more broadly. Within close-knit communities, revelations about child sexual abuse can constitute a collective trauma, and diminish trust between its members and respect for its leaders and institutions.

This Chapter primarily focuses on the experiences of victim-survivors and secondary victims as shared directly with the Board of Inquiry, in their own words. It also includes literature and expert evidence on the broader impacts of historical child sexual abuse on communities and society.

Victim-survivors: effects over time

The effects of child sexual abuse can be experienced by victim-survivors throughout their life course.1 These effects can vary, and may be heightened at different stages of their life.2

Victim-survivors who spoke with the Board of Inquiry experienced effects in connection with:

  • mental health and wellbeing3
  • living with complex trauma4
  • educational and employment opportunities5
  • relationships6
  • parenting and children7
  • premature death of other victim-survivors of child sexual abuse.8

The Board of Inquiry heard that, while some victim-survivors experienced more acute effects in their childhood and adolescence,9 others were more greatly affected later in their adulthood.10 Some victim-survivors experienced profound effects in both childhood and adulthood.11 Other victim-survivors did not consider the child sexual abuse to have affected them significantly.12 This diversity of experience is consistent with literature on the effects of institutional child sexual abuse, which shows that individuals and groups experience different impacts, and that these can change throughout their life course.13

The diversity of victim-survivor experiences as related to the Board of Inquiry was consistent with the expert evidence heard by the inquiry. For example, Professor Leah Bromfield, Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection and Chair of Child Protection, University of South Australia, told the Board of Inquiry that ‘[t]here is no one pathway, no right or wrong way for impacts’ experienced by victims-survivors to manifest, either in time or place.14

Experts also told the Board of Inquiry that it is common for the onset of different effects to occur at key moments of a victim-survivor’s life.15 These key moments — which can include completing school, becoming a parent, raising children, the passing of parents or learning about the child sexual abuse of other victim-survivors — may also contribute to changes in the nature and intensity of the effects of the child sexual abuse the victim-survivor experienced.

Tragically, as discussed below, the Board of Inquiry heard from secondary victims of victim-survivors who died prematurely, in circumstances that were considered to be connected to their experience of child sexual abuse.

The point at which a victim-survivor discloses child sexual abuse can also shape the impacts they experience. Many victim-survivors who engaged with the Board of Inquiry did not disclose until adulthood. This means that victim-survivors may have been burdened by carrying a secret, with their initial feelings of shame and guilt compounding over time. Some victim-survivors explained that they had repressed their memories of child sexual abuse.16 One victim-survivor recalled that when he disclosed, ‘it was like a bomb’.17 Disclosure is discussed in Chapter 12, Grooming and disclosure(opens in a new window).

For many, the effects of their experience of child sexual abuse have reverberated, with earlier impacts contributing to or causing other effects or changes later in life. For example, disengagement from school as a result of child sexual abuse can affect a person’s career trajectory, which in turn can affect their level of financial security.

Victim-survivors and secondary victims who shared their stories with the Board of Inquiry also displayed enormous hope, strength and resilience in the face of adversity. It is not inevitable that a victim-survivor will experience exclusively negative outcomes throughout their life course.18 With the right support and care, many victim-survivors can recover from their traumatic experiences and live satisfying and happy lives that are not defined by their child sexual abuse.19 As the Board of Inquiry saw, many victim-survivors become motivated to contribute to safer outcomes for children in their professional and personal lives. These experiences are also reflected in this Chapter.

Poor mental health and wellbeing

The Board of Inquiry heard that many victim-survivors experienced poor mental health and wellbeing in connection with their experience of child sexual abuse. Mental health challenges varied in their form and severity throughout their life course. For some victim-survivors, challenges included diagnosed mental illnesses such as depression,20 anxiety,21 post-traumatic stress disorder22 and schizophrenia.23

One victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry:

I have a lifelong history of anxiety and depression, which started around the time that I was at Beaumaris Primary School. Most of my adult life I have taken medication. I cannot say to what extent my experiences at Beaumaris Primary School contributed to this. However, I have always felt that my time at Beaumaris Primary School was a turning point for the worse in my life.24

Another victim-survivor described how his mental health suffered as a teenager, and that these problems continued into adulthood:

As a teenager and young adult I engaged in risky behaviour, had trouble with authority and went through bouts of heavy drinking and depression. I also had and continue to have difficulty with stress, anxiety and depression.25

The Board of Inquiry heard that some victim-survivors had developed poor mental health early on in their adulthood, shortly after finishing secondary school.26 Dr Rob Gordon OAM, Clinical Psychologist and trauma expert, gave evidence to the Board of Inquiry that ‘[t]here is no hard or fast rule with respect to when symptoms resulting from child sexual abuse will manifest’.27 While some children will experience ‘immediate onset’, for others, symptom onset may not occur until later in life.28 Dr Gordon explained in his evidence that ‘[s]ymptom onset for a particular victim-survivor is generally related to the meaning the child gives to the actions of the [sexual] abuse’.29

One victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that he had developed ‘major depression’ after finishing school.30 Although he acknowledged a family history of depression, he felt that it had ‘come out quicker, harder and more nasty than it could have’ because of the child sexual abuse, and that ‘the onset and degree of severity were added to by the sex[ual] abuse’.31

A secondary victim shared that, after the victim-survivor they knew attempted suicide, the victim-survivor was diagnosed with ‘depression, having an inadequate personality or having schizophrenia’.32 Another secondary victim told the Board of Inquiry that a victim-survivor they knew had had suicidal thoughts and spent a period in a mental healthcare facility.33 For another victim-survivor, their mental illness resulted in them being hospitalised.34

For many victim-survivors sharing their experiences, the challenges with mental health have been enduring — changing in intensity or re-emerging at different points throughout their life course. One victim-survivor explained:

I’ve suffered depression for at least 20 years … I don’t know how long I’ve even had depression …

[W]hen the black dog bites and when I’m at my worst, I come back to these things and I go over them and over them and over them …

It’s just a rut that I don’t have the tools to get out of sometimes. So here I am, a 60-year-old human, still shaken up, still stirred, still enraged, still disgusted and just churned up.35

One victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that trauma as a result of child sexual abuse had been in his life for 50 years, and that he had depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.36 Another victim-survivor described himself as a ‘lifer’, in reference to his sustained experience of poor mental health.37

Other victim-survivors shared that their mental health challenges had worsened at different times in their lives, particularly where they had needed to engage with traumatic memories of their experience. For example, one victim-survivor shared that his anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were ‘through the roof’ while he was engaged in civil litigation in relation to the child sexual abuse he had experienced.38 Another victim-survivor explained that ‘all of a sudden, a little trigger sets [the trauma] off’.39

A secondary victim, whose relative had been sexually abused as a child, told the Board of Inquiry that their relative had lived with anxiety for years, but the effects had worsened more recently:

[He has] particularly gone downhill in the last 10 years, and certainly since our parents passed away … [He is] really lost. He puts it down to the impact of [the child sexual abuse] … [and] he sort of said this is why he couldn’t form relationships and struggled …40

Some victim-survivors shared that they had self-harmed or contemplated self-harm in connection with their mental illness and trauma.41 Other victim-survivors had contemplated or attempted suicide in adulthood.42 Professor Patrick O’Leary, Co-Lead, Disrupting Violence Beacon and Director of the Violence Research and Prevention Program, Griffith University, told the Board of Inquiry that constantly having to live with suicidal thoughts has a significant impact on victim-survivors.43 One victim-survivor shared:

I have suffered two nervous breakdowns, with depression and suicidal thoughts. The first when I was in my early 40’s and became overwhelmed with life. The second was in [the 2010s] and I was put into [a mental healthcare facility] for five weeks and attended an eight week out-patient clinic followed by years of group therapy.44

Some victim-survivors felt that they had repressed or contained the trauma from the child sexual abuse.45 One victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry: ‘I just sort of locked it off. I put that aside’ and ‘it stayed in a box for 27 years’.46 Another victim-survivor similarly shared:

I was able to shut that down and put it aside … [A]s long as I didn’t say anything and no one found out, I was safe … The lid stays on it, and I don’t open it.47

Some victim-survivors described feeling enormous guilt about not reporting their experiences earlier, particularly when they later learned the alleged perpetrator of the child sexual abuse they experienced also harmed other children:

The difficulty is, way back in that time, I saw myself to be secretive and I didn’t speak up … No matter how logical I can be that I was 10 … no one can tell me that if I hadn’t spoken, that it wouldn’t have made a difference.48

Difficulties associated with living with complex trauma

The Board of Inquiry heard about the significant and complex trauma that victim-survivors lived with after the child sexual abuse. This manifested in victim-survivors turning to different means of managing their trauma and the pervasive effects it had had on their lives. Some victim-survivors told the Board of Inquiry of drug and alcohol use and addiction,49 eating disorders,50 gambling and engaging in criminal behaviour as responses to the trauma.51

One victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that he had used alcohol and drugs ‘to try to forget’ and that doing so had ‘allowed [him] to hide’.52 He commented that he knew five or six other victim-survivors who were sexually abused as children by alleged perpetrators and were too affected by drugs to tell their stories.53 Other victim-survivors also spoke about using drugs, including alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamines, in the years since their experiences of child sexual abuse.54 Some individuals told the Board of Inquiry that they had observed victim-survivors using these coping strategies.55 Dr Gordon explained that victim-survivors can develop habits such as gambling and substance abuse to shift their focus away from their experience of child sexual abuse.56

Education and employment challenges

Some victim-survivors shared that they felt the child sexual abuse they experienced had resulted in missed educational and employment opportunities in adulthood, and described their grief about not having the opportunity to fulfil their potential. For some victim-survivors, these missed opportunities flowed from their loss of interest in school.

One victim-survivor recalled how the effects of child sexual abuse flowed through into his secondary education. He told the Board of Inquiry: ‘I found myself miles behind [in high school] … I kind of felt like [learning] was taken away from me’.57

Another victim-survivor shared that he had had ‘trouble holding jobs down’, had quit many of the jobs that he had held, and was working only part-time because of how he had struggled with the effects of the child sexual abuse.58 Others reported feeling like they had fallen short of their potential in their career,59 or had found it hard to maintain employment.60

Yet another victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry about the effect of the child sexual abuse on his career:

The last 20 years have been tough. Financially it was incredibly difficult. And I was dealing with emotions I did not understand … I was focused on keeping my family well and earning money. But my expectations and career dreams were gone … I recognised that I could not work at the same level, sadly.61

Professor Bromfield explained in her evidence that victim-survivors commonly reflect on their lost career and other opportunities throughout their life course.62 She described how victim-survivors feel that these educational and employment opportunities are lost because of their disengagement from school or other activities, such as sport or music.63 One victim-survivor recalled how his experience of child sexual abuse had caused him to lose interest in playing sports that he had previously enjoyed.64 He told the Board of Inquiry: ‘I stopped playing sport in high school. I took a step back’.65 In his evidence, Dr Gordon explained that child sexual abuse can damage a victim-survivor’s sense of identity, contribute to self-criticism and lead to difficulties in relationships with others.66 These effects can cause negative educational and employment outcomes.67

The Board of Inquiry is aware of another victim-survivor, who has passed away, whom secondary victims said had the potential for a successful sporting career had it not been cut short by his experience of child sexual abuse.68 The victim-survivor turned down a sports scholarship that would have allowed him to study overseas, and chose not to pursue a professional sporting career.69 The sibling of this victim-survivor believes these decisions to be connected to the victim-survivor not feeling safe after his experience of child sexual abuse.70

Another victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that participating in a civil claim affected his employment.71 He had taken long periods of personal leave since lodging the claim and ultimately felt that he was unable to return to work.72 He described his difficulty in working, knowing what had happened to him and other students.73

Victim-survivors have expressed to the Board of Inquiry their feelings of shame, disappointment and frustration about not having achieved their potential.74 These missed opportunities have contributed to financial difficulties and a lack of financial security for some victim-survivors and their families.75

While other victim-survivors did not explicitly discuss career or educational challenges, there may have been a relationship between other impacts, such as poor mental health, and their academic or employment outcomes.76

Relationship difficulties

The Board of Inquiry heard from victim-survivors and secondary victims about how the experience of child sexual abuse had affected relationships between victim-survivors and their loved ones throughout their life course. This includes relationships with partners, children, siblings, friends and other family members.

Victim-survivors recalled becoming distant and isolated from their friends later in their schooling as a result of the child sexual abuse they experienced. One victim-survivor reflected:

I became a little bit withdrawn and at lunchtimes I would just wander round school aimlessly and started to lose connections with people — with the friends I first made when I went to high school.77

Some victim-survivors told the Board of Inquiry that they had struggled with forming and maintaining relationships.78 One victim-survivor explained: ‘I developed a strong life-long pattern of withholding communication, having great difficulties to engage in those big and important discussions that matter in relationships’.79 Dr Gordon’s professional experience was that ‘victim-survivors … may be reluctant to have intimate relationships’, preferring feeling lonely over the risk of others finding out about the child sexual abuse.80

The Board of Inquiry also heard that the child sexual abuse affected victim-survivors’ sexual development and intimate relationships. One victim-survivor shared that she used to cry during sexual intercourse,81 while another told the Board of Inquiry: ‘as I grew older and into adolescence, [the child sexual abuse] really confused me sexually around sex and that being a safe place’.82 Dr Gordon gave evidence that victim-survivors of child sexual abuse may develop a ‘deep aversion to sexuality’, which can lead to difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.83

Victim-survivors’ relationships with their partners and children have also been affected. One victim-survivor felt that the impact of his experience of child sexual abuse on his family ‘has been enormous’.84 He told the Board of Inquiry that, because of his difficulty with maintaining a career that would allow him to support his family, his spouse had carried the responsibility alone.85 While another victim-survivor shared that, while he was using alcohol to manage his trauma, he did not spend much time with his partner and family.86 Other victim-survivors spoke of the difficulty of talking about their experience of child sexual abuse with their partners.87

The Board of Inquiry also heard about the strained relationships that some victim-survivors had with their parents, which continued into adulthood. One victim-survivor described being dismissed by his parents when, years later, he told them his story of child sexual abuse.88 Many victim-survivors explained that they had never been able to tell their parents what happened and felt this had impacted the relationship. One victim-survivor, for example, told the Board of Inquiry that he wished he had been able to disclose to his parents and explain why his behaviour had changed at school, but could not do so as they had since passed away.89 Another victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that his father had been hard on him about his school results, but he felt he could not talk to his parents about his experience of child sexual abuse and its effects.90 Yet another shared that he had not discussed his experience of child sexual abuse with his parents and that ‘it took a long time for [my mother] to trust me because of all the mental health challenges I had. It wasn’t until I was in my late 40s, 50s that we built that relationship where I could talk to her about things’.91

Some victim-survivors’ shared that their lives had been improved by close relationships with loved ones after they disclosed their experiences of child sexual abuse. One victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that he had been fortunate to have a partner and friends who had helped him navigate and access different services and processes.92 Another victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry: ‘I couldn’t have done it without [my family and friends], but I had to be able to talk about it. When I told my older brother he cried’.93

One victim-survivor expressed to the Board of Inquiry that marrying and having children had been a strength and a focus for him.94 The Board of Inquiry heard many similar stories of loved ones supporting victim-survivors in the years since the experience of child sexual abuse.95

Conflicting feelings about parenting and children

Some victim-survivors told the Board of Inquiry about how the child sexual abuse they experienced affected their relationships with children. This included interactions with children generally and their decision regarding whether to become a parent. For those who did have children, some described how the child sexual abuse they experienced influenced the way they parented.

Professor Bromfield gave evidence that, from her engagement with victim-survivors and their experiences, victim-survivors may feel that the ‘opportunities they might have had to be the parent that they want to be or to be a parent at all’ were lost because of the child sexual abuse.96

Some victim-survivors told the Board of Inquiry that they had not had children because of their experience of child sexual abuse.97 For one victim-survivor, the child sexual abuse caused him to decide at a young age to not have children.98 He shared that the experience of watching his friends raise their children ‘destroys’ him.99

Another victim-survivor similarly recalled that he had been reluctant to have children.100 Yet another felt uncomfortable about the possibility that the child sexual abuse he experienced ‘might make [him] more predisposed to harming kids’.101 He later realised ‘that wasn’t who [he] was’ and he eventually pursued a career working with children.102 The partner of a victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that she did not think that her partner had ever hugged her children.103

Other victim-survivors spoke of discomfort with their children and grandchildren. One told the Board of Inquiry that he had initially felt uncomfortable changing his baby’s nappy.104 These feelings of discomfort re-emerged when his grandchild was born.105 Similarly, another recalled that he had found it difficult to pick up his children when they were young.106

Professor Bromfield gave evidence to the Board of Inquiry about the impact of ‘the pervasive belief in the victim-to-offender theory’, which hypothesises that ‘men who are the victims of child sexual abuse are at risk of becoming perpetrators of child sexual abuse’.107 In her evidence, Professor Bromfield said that she considered this theory to be unhelpful, as most male victim-survivors do not become perpetrators of child sexual abuse.108 One victim-survivor acknowledged that this theory had affected them, despite considering it a ‘myth’.109

Other victim-survivors have been very protective of their children — sometimes overly protective. One victim-survivor recalled that he was ‘like a wolf, very protective of [his] kids’.110 He explained that he had always been present with his children, ‘[m]aking sure they were safe and okay’.111 Another told the Board of Inquiry that, when his child started primary school, he intentionally spent more time with his child in the school environment to ensure that it was safe for them.112 Others told the Board of Inquiry that they had been ‘strict’ or ‘hypervigilan[t]’ about their children’s safety.113

Premature death

The Board of Inquiry heard about the premature deaths of victim-survivors that were considered to be connected to their experience of child sexual abuse.114 Some individuals commented on victim-survivors dying in connection with substance use and mental health issues.115

These accounts are consistent with research that has found that people who were sexually abused as children have higher mortality rates than the general population.116 Child abuse and neglect more broadly contribute to healthy years of life lost due to premature death and illness, including anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, suicide and self-inflicted injuries.117

Not defining victim-survivors by their experiences of child sexual abuse

While the Board of Inquiry received detailed information about the negative effects of child sexual abuse on victim-survivors throughout their life course, it is important to reflect on the diversity of experience among victim-survivors, as well as the resilience many have shown in living with and overcoming these effects.

The effects of child sexual abuse differ for all individuals and change over time. As described above, some victim-survivors sharing their experiences with the Board of Inquiry did not consider the child sexual abuse they experienced to have had a significant impact on their lives. Further, while child sexual abuse can have serious and complex impacts, the experience of child sexual abuse does not have to define the lives of victim-survivors. Access to appropriate support and care to manage the effects of trauma is important for this to occur.118 The Board of Inquiry heard from victim-survivors who have experienced happiness and success in their personal and professional lives, notwithstanding their private struggles.

Several victim-survivors told the Board of Inquiry that they chose to pursue careers that would help other people, including children. Some victim-survivors have had careers as teachers in schools.119 One victim-survivor shared that he had coached boys in sports to show them that, in contrast to his experience as a child, ‘sport is a great thing’.120

Another victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that he has worked in his chosen profession in a range of environments, including with young boys affected by child sexual abuse and other trauma:

I … started to understand my journey was not a lone journey … At that time I didn’t know that, that other people have had sort of similar journeys to me and it’s affected them in probably even worse ways … I think looking back now, I wanted to protect others because I wasn’t protected.121

Many victim-survivors have focused on pursuing justice or providing support to other victim-survivors.122 One victim-survivor shared that throughout his life, despite other challenges he has faced, he has continued to fight for justice.123

Secondary victims

The Board of Inquiry heard directly from a number of secondary victims about the significant flow-on effects of their loved one’s experience of child sexual abuse. The Board of Inquiry heard about effects on victim-survivors’ partners, parents, children and other family members. Secondary victims who spoke to the Board of Inquiry had experienced the breakdown of relationships and mental health impacts such as vicarious trauma. They had also felt the responsibility of caring for their loved one.

Victim-survivors also spoke with the Board of Inquiry about the impact on secondary victims. One victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry:

[T]here is an opportunity to intervene as quickly as possible, but equally to prohibit [the trauma] from being intergenerational … because … it will have certain effects on different people in different ways.124

Common experiences of secondary victims

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) recognised that, although the experiences of secondary victims are different to those of victim-survivors, the effects on secondary victims of child sexual abuse and institutional responses to it can also be significant.125 In a research paper commissioned by the Royal Commission, the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that the families of victim-survivors experienced various impacts, including on:

  • their mental and physical health
  • the levels of tension, anxiety and conflict in their family
  • their long-term relationships with family members, including with extended family,
    such as in-laws and cousins
  • their marriages and partnerships
  • their feelings of social connectedness.126

Relationship difficulties

The Board of Inquiry heard that some relationships between victim-survivors and secondary victims had been negatively affected by the impacts of child sexual abuse. In some cases, relationships had broken down altogether. One victim-survivor described being affected by the fact that disclosing child sexual abuse to family and friends can ‘generate anxiety and resentment towards the person that has been abused because of the impact you are having on family and friends’.127

For some partners of victim-survivors, the impact of the experience of child sexual abuse has affected the quality of their relationship and their sense of connection with the victim-survivor. The partner of one victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry that, while they have a committed and supportive relationship with their partner, they have felt at times that their needs have been unmet as their partner lives with the trauma of child sexual abuse.128 They described having, at times, to distance themselves from their partner.129

One secondary victim shared that she and the victim-survivor no longer sleep together and that the impacts of his experience of child sexual abuse have changed the dynamics of their relationship.130 She also felt that their children’s relationships with the victim-survivor have been affected by the impacts of the experience of child sexual abuse.131

Another secondary victim opened up about the extent to which the child sexual abuse her husband experienced and his attempts to manage it have affected her and her family, practically and emotionally. She told the Board of Inquiry that, although she has supported her partner throughout their marriage and provided stability — such as by working, managing the household and caring for their children — her husband has continued to struggle with the impacts of child sexual abuse.132

Yet another secondary victim told the Board of Inquiry about the way relationships between their family members had been affected. They told the Board of Inquiry that their parents had distanced themselves emotionally, socially and physically from the victim-survivor (who was their brother), and that they had ‘judged [his] mental illness’ and ‘believe[d] it reflected badly on them as parents’.133 They added that, after the victim-survivor’s death, their mother had ‘struggled to acknowledge [he] was her child and could not tell people that he had died’.134

This secondary victim also told the Board of Inquiry that their own relationship with their parents had been affected, with their parents distancing themselves from them in order to protect themselves from reminders of their loss or grief.135 They did, however, describe their brother’s relationships with them and their other sibling as ‘safe and normal and ongoing and … non-judgemental’.136 This secondary victim felt that their brother had ‘loved the normality’ of the relationship and that it was unaffected by the child sexual abuse he experienced.137

Poor mental health and wellbeing

The Board of Inquiry heard about the poor mental health and wellbeing that secondary victims experienced after learning about a victim-survivor’s experience of child sexual abuse or upon witnessing the effects of the child sexual abuse on the victim-survivor’s life.

One secondary victim told the Board of Inquiry that the effects of the child sexual abuse her husband experienced had affected her own mental health:

Living in an environment where the scars of this abuse are ever present, I too experience panic and anxiety due to the constant tension and emotional turmoil within our relationship of living with the effects of this abuse.138

Another secondary victim shared that her and her family’s lives had been ‘traumatically affected’ by the child sexual abuse her husband experienced, and shared that she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.139 Yet another described finding out that their sibling had been sexually abused as a child as ‘unimaginable’.140

For some secondary victims, the mental health effects were closely connected to feelings of shame, guilt or responsibility for the victim-survivor’s experience of child sexual abuse.141 One victim-survivor expressed that he thought his parents had ‘both felt a great deal of guilt’ about the child sexual abuse he experienced.142 He described his parents as being ‘very crestfallen [and] gutted’ when he disclosed the child sexual abuse to them for the first time.143 He went on to say that one of his parents, who was a teacher at Beaumaris Primary School, was ‘devastated’ — not only because of what he told them about his experience of child sexual abuse, but also because this parent had been professionally close to the alleged perpetrator.144

While the Board of Inquiry did not hear from any parents of victim-survivors (which is not surprising, given the time that has passed since the child sexual abuse occurred), these individuals’ accounts of the impact on victim-survivors’ parents are consistent with academic literature. A study on the effects of child sexual abuse on non-offending parents concluded that feelings of failure and guilt were the primary long-term response.145

Responsibility for effects on secondary victims

Victim-survivors spoke openly and honestly about the effects their experience of child sexual abuse have had on their loved ones. Some shared that they felt responsible for these effects. For example, one victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry:

I’ve always felt a lot of guilt since 2000 [when I disclosed], because I should have said something when I was 10, and yeah okay, I shouldn’t judge myself too harshly as a 10-year-old … [T]hose impacts on my parents … have had a very strong and continuing effect on me. They added to, in a very significant way, what was already an enduring sense of shame that I’ve carried since 1973.146

Another victim-survivor shared with the Board of Inquiry: ‘I gamble a lot, it’s my escapism. [My poor partner] puts up with it’.147 Other victim-survivors have not disclosed the full details of the child sexual abuse they experienced to loved ones, fearing the effect it may have on them. For example, one victim-survivor told the Board of Inquiry: ‘I haven’t told my wife the full story of what happened to me … It just hurts and I don’t want to hurt her’.148

Feelings of shame and guilt can perpetuate silence and are barriers to disclosure. As Professor Bromfield explained in her evidence to the Board of Inquiry:

Fear of the impacts of child sexual abuse on their loved ones can be used by perpetrators to help maintain the silence of victim-survivors. Wanting to avoid adversely impacting their loved ones can also be a factor considered by victim-survivors in deciding whether to disclose their abuse or seek help, including into adulthood.149

Affected communities and wider society

The aftermath of child sexual abuse can extend throughout entire communities and society more widely.

Local communities

The reverberating effects of child sexual abuse throughout communities and across generations often amount to a sense of shared trauma. This is because trauma, such as the trauma associated with child sexual abuse, is ‘not only an individual psychological phenomenon but also a collective one’.150 Entire communities can be affected by the dynamics of trauma.151 In particular, institutional child sexual abuse is ‘associated with vicarious trauma’ for individuals and families and across communities.152

In reference to clerical child sexual abuse, Dr Katie Wright, Associate Professor, Department of Social Inquiry, La Trobe University, gave evidence that ‘it became apparent that the traumatic effects extended beyond victim-survivors to also encompass wider communities’.153 Similarly, Professor Bromfield gave evidence to the Board of Inquiry that ‘[t]here are … examples where the impacts on the local community have created a sense of collective trauma, comparable to that which might occur in the context of a human caused or natural disaster’.154

Although the shared experience of trauma associated with natural disasters or conflicts is often felt immediately, the collective trauma associated with child sexual abuse may not emerge until later.155 This is because child sexual abuse is often perpetrated in private and knowledge of it emerges to different sections of the community at different times, meaning a sense of shared trauma often does not occur at the time the child sexual abuse occurs.156

In the context of child sexual abuse, Dr Wright explained in her evidence that experiences of collective trauma unfold throughout communities as they grapple with the understanding that ‘something terrible has happened within their community’.157 The level of collective trauma experienced could be influenced by the extent to which the community remains intact and how the institution where the child sexual abuse occurred responds to it.158

The Board of Inquiry heard from some victim-survivors and secondary victims about how the experiences of victim-survivors of child sexual abuse at Beaumaris Primary School affected the Beaumaris community and are still discussed today. The impact on the community in Beaumaris is heightened by the fact that many victim-survivors, their families and other community members with knowledge of the experience of victim-survivors still live in the area. In describing the impact, one victim-survivor said that there was a feeling within the community that it was not safe.159 She went on to say that ‘we’re all still talking about it’.160 Similarly, another victim-survivor said that victim-survivors discussed their experiences ‘down at the local pub’,161 while yet another commented that there was ‘still a considerable amount of anger’ about the child sexual abuse and how it had been responded to.162 A secondary victim recalled that ‘now there is a bit of momentum’ regarding people disclosing, there were more people saying: ‘it was me too’.163 Another individual described the impact on the local community as ‘profound’, and reflected on the feelings of grief for victim-survivors and the lives ‘they should have had’.164

Using information gathered by the Royal Commission, Professor Bromfield researched the impacts of institutional child sexual abuse. She found that the reactions of communities affiliated with the institutions at which child sexual abuse occurred could vary.165 Some affected communities responded with ‘disbelief and hostility’, while others grappled with ‘their own grief and guilt from their association with the offender’.166 One affected community member told the Board of Inquiry that she remained concerned that her son had been sexually abused by an alleged perpetrator, but that she ‘will never know definitively’.167

Professor O’Leary gave evidence to the Board of Inquiry that communities may express disbelief after learning about incidents of child sexual abuse, because the perpetrator was ‘so good’ and ‘served the community’.168 The Royal Commission recognised that ‘community connectedness can be shattered by the revelation of child sexual abuse, especially when the perpetrator is well-liked or the institution is respected or trusted’.169

The impacts of the experience of child sexual abuse on victim-survivors also meant that, in many cases, the community suffered from the missed opportunities in victim-survivors’ lives. The ongoing trauma of child sexual abuse hindered the ability of some victim-survivors to engage fully in community life. One victim-survivor commented that they had left Victoria partly because of the trauma associated with the child sexual abuse.170 Furthermore, communities have been devastated by the lives lost to child sexual abuse.

Wider society

There is evidence that child sexual abuse, particularly institutional child sexual abuse, causes broader public harm.171 As the Royal Commission identified, the societal impacts of child sexual abuse are ‘difficult to quantify’, yet are ‘broad and pervasive’.172 The Royal Commission recognised that the effects of institutional child sexual abuse have likely ‘directly and indirectly affected the lives of countless people in Australia today’.173

The public harms of child sexual abuse include detrimental social impacts, such as a loss of trust in institutions responsible for keeping children safe. Researchers have pointed to the ‘profound sense of alienation that results from institutional betrayal’.174 Professor Bromfield gave evidence to the Board of Inquiry that:

Where a large number of children are discovered to have been affected by child sexual abuse in important public institutions this can also impact the broader community. For example, it can erode public trust in institutions and affect parents’ sense of safety in entrusting their children to the care of institutions.175

Society is also affected by the impacts of child sexual abuse experienced by victim-survivors and secondary victims. As Dr Joseph Tucci, CEO, Australian Childhood Foundation, told the Board of Inquiry: ‘The societal and community cost of the pain and suffering caused by child sexual abuse is enormous. There is also a huge economic cost of child sexual abuse’.176 The Royal Commission noted that while the economic costs of child sexual abuse are difficult to quantify, it is ‘likely to be in the billions of dollars each year’.177 One study also recognised the significant economic productivity losses arising from child sexual abuse related to poorer educational and employment outcomes for victim-survivors compared with the general population, and ‘costs’ to other service systems, such as child protection and the criminal justice systems.178 Although this study focused on the United States of America, its conclusions are likely applicable in the Victorian context.

Despite these significant impacts on the wider community, there is evidence that child sexual abuse remains largely invisible and ignored by the public, and that there is limited understanding of the seriousness, scale and cost of child sexual abuse.179

Chapter 8 Endnotes

  1. James Leslie Herbert et al, ‘Impacts of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: What We Have Learned from Research and the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse Private Sessions’ in India Bryce and Wayne Petherick (eds), Child Sexual Abuse: Forensic Issues in Evidence, Impact, and Management (Academic Press, 2020) 221, 231.
  2. James Leslie Herbert et al, ‘Impacts of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: What We Have Learned from Research and the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse Private Sessions’ in India Bryce and Wayne Petherick (eds), Child Sexual Abuse: Forensic Issues in Evidence, Impact, and Management (Academic Press, 2020) 221, 231.
  3. See e.g.: Private session 15; Private session 7; Private session 12; Private session 4.
  4. See e.g.: Private session 12; Private session 2; Private session 23; Private session 24.
  5. See e.g.: Private session 4; Transcript of Tim Courtney, 23 October 2023, 18 [10]; Submission 49, 1; Private session 6; Private session 12; Private session 20.
  6. See e.g.: Submission 15, 1-2; Submission 50, 11; Submission 49, 1; Private session 36; Private session 23; Submission 2, 1.
  7. See e.g.: Private session 20; Submission 4, 1; Submission 2, 1; Transcript of Tim Courtney, 23 October 2023, 19 [12]–[25]; Private session 23.
  8. See e.g.: Private session 12; Private session 9; Private session 3.
  9. See e.g.: Private session 7.
  10. See e.g.: Private session 2.
  11. See e.g.: Private session 15.
  12. See e.g.: Submission 27, 1.
  13. James Leslie Herbert et al, ‘Impacts of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: What We Have Learned from Research and the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse Private Sessions’ in India Bryce and Wayne Petherick (eds), Child Sexual Abuse: Forensic Issues in Evidence, Impact, and Management (Academic Press, 2020) 221.
  14. Transcript of Leah Bromfield, 24 October 2023, P-70 [15]–[16].
  15. Transcript of Rob Gordon, 23 November 2023, P-286 [31]–[34]; Statement of Leah Bromfield, 23 October 2023, 13 [67].
  16. Submission 4, 1; Private session 3; Private session 11; Private session 15; Private session 31.
  17. Private session 31.
  18. Jerusha Sanjeevi et al, ‘A Review of Child Sexual Abuse: Impact, Risk, and Resilience in the Context of Culture’ (2018) 27 Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 622, 626; Ilan Katz et al, Life Journeys of Victim/Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in Institutions: An Analysis of Royal Commission Private Sessions (Report, December 2017) 16; Transcript of Leah Bromfield, 24 October 2023, 68 [6]–[14].
  19. Ilan Katz et al, Life Journeys of Victim/Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse in Institutions: An Analysis of Royal Commission Private Sessions (Report, December 2017) 16; Transcript of Leah Bromfield, 24 October 2023, 68 [6]–[14].
  20. See e.g.: Private session 15; Private session 7; Private session 12.
  21. See e.g.: Private session 4; Private session 11.
  22. See e.g.: Private session 4; Private session 10.
  23. See e.g.: Private session 12.
  24. Submission 26, 1.
  25. Submission 49, 1.
  26. See e.g.: Private session 7; Private session 11.
  27. Statement of Peter Rob Gordon, 22 November 2023, 4 [17].
  28. Statement of Peter Rob Gordon, 22 November 2023, 4 [17].
  29. Statement of Peter Rob Gordon, 22 November 2023, 4 [17].
  30. Private session 7.
  31. Private session 7.
  32. Private session 12.
  33. Private session 30.
  34. Private session 24.
  35. Private session 15.
  36. Private session 4.
  37. Private session 7.
  38. Private session 2.
  39. Private session 39.
  40. Private session 17.
  41. Private session 24; Private session 4.
  42. See e.g.: Submission 4, 1; Private session 2; Private session 10; Private session 15; Private session 31; Submission 15, 1.
  43. Statement of Patrick O’Leary, 15 November 2023, 8 [57].
  44. Submission 15, 1.
  45. See e.g.: Private session 15; Private session 20; Private session 31; Private session 39.
  46. Private session 15.
  47. Private session 20.
  48. Private session 20.
  49. See e.g.: Private session 12; Private session 2; Private session 23; Private session 24.
  50. Private session 24.
  51. Private session 2.
  52. Private session 2.
  53. Private session 2.
  54. Submission 15, 1; Private session 23.
  55. See e.g.: Private session 12; Private session 32.
  56. Statement of Peter Rob Gordon, 22 November 2023, 8 [36].
  57. Private session 23.
  58. Private session 4.
  59. Submission 49, 1.
  60. See e.g.: Private session 22; Private session 38.
  61. Private session 10.
  62. Transcript of Leah Bromfield, 24 October 2023, 68 [28]–[34].
  63. Transcript of Leah Bromfield, 24 October 2023, 68 [28]–[34].
  64. Private session 4.
  65. Private session 4.
  66. Transcript of Rob Gordon, 23 November 2023, 283 [7]–[35].
  67. Transcript of Rob Gordon, 23 November 2023, 283 [7]–[35].
  68. Private session 6; Private session 12.
  69. Private session 12.
  70. Private session 12.
  71. Private session 20.
  72. Private session 20.
  73. Private session 20.
  74. Private session 36; Submission 49, 1.
  75. Submission 49, 1.
  76. Jazlyn M Mitchell, Kathryn A Becker-Blease and Raechel N Soicher, ‘Child Sexual Abuse, Academic Functioning and Educational Outcomes in Emerging Adulthood’ (2021) 30(3) Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 278, 292; Alan Barrett and Yumiko Kamiya, ‘Childhood Sexual Abuse and Later-Life Economic Consequences’ (2014) 53(1) Journal of Behavioural and Experimental Economics 10, 15–16.
  77. Private session 22.
  78. See e.g.: Submission 15, 1; Private session 22; Private session 31; Private session 33; Submission 50, 12.
  79. Submission 50, 12.
  80. Statement of Rob Gordon, 22 November 2023, 5 [22].
  81. Private session 3.
  82. Private session 29.
  83. Transcript of Rob Gordon, 23 November 2023, P-284 [14]–[21].
  84. Submission 49, 1.
  85. Submission 49, 1.
  86. Submission 15, 2.
  87. See e.g.: Private session 36; Private session 23.
  88. Submission 2, 1.
  89. Private session 23.
  90. Private session 36.
  91. Private session 29.
  92. Private session 9.
  93. Private session 4.
  94. Private session 14.
  95. Private session 23.
  96. Transcript of Leah Bromfield, 24 October 2023, P-68 [36]–[37].
  97. Private session 20; Submission 4, 1.
  98. Submission 4, 1.
  99. Submission 4, 1.
  100. Transcript of Tim Courtney, 23 October 2023, 19 [6].
  101. Private session 20.
  102. Private session 20.
  103. Private session 19.
  104. Submission 2, 1.
  105. Submission 2, 1.
  106. Transcript of Tim Courtney, 23 October 2023, P-19 [12]-[25].
  107. Statement of Leah Bromfield, 23 October 2023, 13 [68(c)].
  108. Statement of Leah Bromfield, 23 October 2023, 13 [68(c)].
  109. Private session 20.
  110. Private session 23.
  111. Private session 23.
  112. Transcript of Tim Courtney, 23 October 2023, P-19 [12]–[25].
  113. See e.g.: Private session 14; Private session 31.
  114. See e.g.: Private session 6; Private session 12; Private session 9; Private session 3.
  115. See e.g.: Private session 12; Private session 6.
  116. Nina Papalia et al, ‘Sexual Abuse During Childhood and All-cause Mortality into Middle Adulthood: An Australian Cohort Study’ (2023) 219(7) Medical Journal of Australia 310, 312.
  117. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018: Interactive Data on Risk Factor Burden (Web Report, 24 November 2021) <https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/burden-of-disease/abds-2018-interactive-data-risk-factors/contents/child-abuse-and-neglect>(opens in a new window).
  118. Emma Bond, Fiona Ellis and Jenny McCusker, I’ll Be a Survivor for the Rest of My Life: Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and Their Experience of Support Services (Technical Report, 2018) 44.
  119. See e.g.: Private session 15; Private session 20.
  120. Private session 4.
  121. Private session 14.
  122. Private session 19.
  123. Private session 16.
  124. Private session 9.
  125. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Final Report, December 2017) vol 3, 202.
  126. Antonia Quadara, Mary Stathopoulos and Rachel Carson, Family Relationships and the Disclosure of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Report, July 2016) 11.
  127. Private session 9.
  128. Private session 19.
  129. Private session 19.
  130. Private session 30.
  131. Private session 30.
  132. Submission 33, 1.
  133. Private session 12.
  134. Private session 12.
  135. Private session 12.
  136. Private session 12.
  137. Private session 12.
  138. Submission 21, 1.
  139. Submission 33, 1.
  140. Private session 32.
  141. See e.g.: Private session 15; Private session 13.
  142. Private session 15.
  143. Private session 15.
  144. Private session 15.
  145. Georgina Fuller, ‘Non-offending Parents as Secondary Victims of Child Sexual Assault’ (2016) 500 Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice (Australian Institute of Criminology) 4.
  146. Private session 15.
  147. Private session 2.
  148. Private session 23.
  149. Statement of Leah Bromfield, 23 October 2023, 14 [71].
  150. Arlene Audergon, ‘Collective Trauma: The Nightmare of History’ (2004) 2(1) Psychotherapy and Politics International 16, 16.
  151. Arlene Audergon, ‘Collective Trauma: The Nightmare of History’ (2004) 2(1) Psychotherapy and Politics International 16, 20.
  152. Tamara Blakemore et al, ‘The Impacts of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: A Rapid Review of the Evidence’ (2017) 74 Child Abuse & Neglect 35, 35.
  153. Statement of Katie Wright, 23 October 2023, 9 [39].
  154. Statement of Leah Bromfield, 23 October 2023, 14 [72].
  155. Statement of Katie Wright, 23 October 2023, 8 [35].
  156. Statement of Katie Wright, 23 October 2023, 8 [35].
  157. Statement of Katie Wright, 23 October 2023, 8 [35].
  158. Transcript of Leah Bromfield, 24 October 2023, P-72 [39] – P-73 [14].
  159. Private session 3.
  160. Private session 3.
  161. Private session 17.
  162. Private session 40.
  163. Private session 33.
  164. Private session 13.
  165. James Leslie Herbert et al, ‘Impacts of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: What We Have Learned from Research and the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse Private Sessions’ in India Bryce and Wayne Petherick (eds), Child Sexual Abuse: Forensic Issues in Evidence, Impact, and Management (Academic Press, 2020) 221, 233.
  166. James Leslie Herbert et al, ‘Impacts of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: What We Have Learned from Research and the Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse Private Sessions’ in India Bryce and Wayne Petherick (eds), Child Sexual Abuse: Forensic Issues in Evidence, Impact, and Management (Academic Press, 2020) 221, 233.
  167. Private session 35.
  168. Transcript of Patrick O’Leary, 16 November 2023, P-198 [2].
  169. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Final Report, December 2017) vol 3, 224.
  170. Private session 16.
  171. Cate Fisher et al, The Impacts of Child Sexual Abuse: A Rapid Evidence Assessment (Report, July 2017) 154.
  172. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Final Report, December 2017) vol 3, 233.
  173. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Final Report, December 2017) vol 3, 231.
  174. Kathleen McPhillips et al, ‘Understanding Trauma as a System of Psycho-social Harm: Contributions from the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse’ (2020) 99 Child Abuse & Neglect 1, 5.
  175. Statement of Leah Bromfield, 23 October 2023, 14 [72].
  176. Statement of Joseph Tucci, 21 November 2023, 9 [42].
  177. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Final Report, December 2017) vol 3, 233.
  178. Laura E Henkhaus, ‘The Lasting Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Human Capital and Economic Well-being’ (2022) 31 Health Economics 1954, 1967.
  179. Joseph Tucci and Janise Mitchell, ‘Still Unseen and Ignored: Tracking Community Knowledge and Attitudes about Child Abuse and Child Protection in Australia’ (2022) 13 Frontiers in Psychology 1, 1.

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