Evidence and frameworks for understanding perpetrators of institutional child sexual abuse

Michael Proeve, Catia Malvaso, Paul DelFabbro

September 2016

ISBN 978-1-925289-82-4

Executive summary

In January 2013, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, (then) Governor-General, assembled a Royal Commission to inquire into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission must recommend laws, policies, practices and systems that will effectively prevent or, where it occurs, respond to future abuse. To ensure it provides authoritative, relevant recommendations, the Royal Commission has developed a detailed research program. As part of the research program, the Royal Commission recognised the need for a synthesis of current evidence regarding the characteristics, motivations and offending behaviour of child sexual abuse perpetrators.

The purpose of this report is to provide a review of available scholarly literature concerning adult, adolescent or child perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and to relate findings from this general literature to more specific literature concerned with child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. The report identifies and explores the principal themes in the general literature which include: the adverse developmental events in the lives of perpetrators, mental health problems of perpetrators, deficits in their relationship skills, patterns in their abuse of others, and efforts to identify different types of perpetrator as based on the clustering of certain characteristics. The approach was to compare findings from the general literature on perpetrators of child sexual abuse with studies which focused specifically on individuals working in professional roles in institutional settings, so as to highlight the similarities and differences between general and institutional perpetrators. By identifying themes drawn from the literature on perpetrators of child sexual abuse, the report is intended to assist the Royal Commission in its understanding of perpetrators of child sexual abuse and to draw out implications from the literature for the prevention and response to child sexual abuse.

The findings in this report show that it is possible to identify commonalities in the characteristics of adult and child or adolescent perpetrators. However, a focus on these commonalities can obscure considerable diversity in the characteristics of perpetrators.

Diversity has been addressed in the literature by proposing typologies to identify groups of perpetrators, and these typologies may help to increase our understanding of the patterns of characteristics that are often combined within these groups. However, the typologies as well as the knowledge of typical perpetrator characteristics are not sufficiently specific to develop profiles of perpetrators. Therefore, it is not intended in this report to describe profiles of perpetrators or to indicate methods of predicting perpetrators.

In seeking to understand what is known about the characteristics of perpetrators, this review does not diminish or find justification for perpetrator behaviour; there is no justification for child sexual abuse.