Close
Cut out paper dolls and a tree

Private sessions

This volume provides an analysis of survivors’ experiences of child sexual abuse as told to Commissioners during private sessions, structured around four key themes: experiences of abuse; circumstances at the time of the abuse; experiences of disclosure; and impact on wellbeing. It also describes the private sessions model, including how we adapted it to meet the needs of diverse and vulnerable groups.

The personal, de-identified, summarised accounts of many people who shared their experiences of abuse with us can be found by visiting the narratives webpage.

Summary

When the Royal Commission was appointed, the Australian Government recognised that many people would want to share their history of institutional child sexual abuse, but to do so in a private, protected and supportive environment. As a result, the Australian Parliament amended the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) to create the ‘private session’ process.

Participation in private sessions was voluntary. A person who appeared at a private session was not a witness or considered to be giving evidence.[1] Hearing survivors’ experiences of abuse in private sessions informed our understanding of the nature and extent of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts, the circumstances in which it can occur and the devastating impact it can have on the lives of those affected. Information provided in private sessions has been used throughout the Final Report in a de-identified manner.

The private sessions model was carefully designed using trauma-informed principles. We wanted to do everything we could to be sensitive to the diverse, far-reaching and ongoing impacts of childhood trauma on survivors. We endeavoured to engage survivors in ways that affirmed their experiences. The private sessions model was designed to be flexible and responsive to the diversity of survivors’ needs and capacities.

This volume describes the experiences of survivors of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts who came forward and told their stories to Commissioners during a private session. Following an exploration of the experiences of all survivors, this volume also considers the specific experiences of:

  • children and young people under the age of 25 at the time of the private session
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors
  • survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • survivors with disability at the time of the abuse
  • survivors in adult prison at the time of the private session.

Over one in three survivors who attended a private session were adults who described sexual abuse in historical residential institutions. They included forgotten Australians, Former Child Migrants and members of the Stolen Generations. Although the experiences of many of these survivors are included throughout this volume, the specific experiences of survivors of historical residential institutions are explored in detail in Volume 11, Historical residential institutions.

Over half of survivors in private sessions told Commissioners they were sexually abused in institutions managed by religious organisations. Although the experiences of many of these survivors are also included throughout this volume, the nature of these institutions and the specific experiences of survivors who described abuse in these institutions are examined in detail in Volume 16, Religious institutions.

In contrast to many other volumes, we do not make any recommendations in Volume 5. Our purpose is to give an account of some of the common themes that emerged as survivors shared their experiences of child sexual abuse with Commissioners.

We acknowledge the courage of all the survivors who came forward and shared their experiences with us, and the valuable contribution they have made to our work.

Between May 2013 and May 2017, 6,875 people came forward and told their stories of sexual abuse in an institution to one or more Commissioners during a private session. We expect to have held approximately 8,000 private sessions at the completion of the inquiry. Information from private sessions was captured in a number of ways, including:

  • narratives, which condensed each survivor’s story into a brief de-identified narrative format that could be read by others
  • a form that captured information relating to each survivor’s demographic profile and their experience of child sexual abuse in quantitative format.

Royal Commission researchers analysed the quantitative and qualitative information from private sessions and a sample of narratives to identify themes from private sessions. The themes described in this volume reflect what survivors told the Commissioners. We do not know how well the themes reflect the experiences of survivors who did not attend a private session.

Analysis of quantitative information from survivors in private sessions who provided the relevant information showed:

  • Survivors who participated in private sessions were most often male (64.3 per cent) and aged over 50 (57.4 per cent) at the time of the private session. Only a small proportion (6.3 per cent) were aged under 30. A substantial minority (14.3 per cent) identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander survivors. Only a small proportion of survivors were from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds (3.1 per cent) or were children with disability at the time of the sexual abuse (4.3 per cent). More than one in 10 survivors (10.4 per cent) participated in their private session while they were in prison.
  • On average, females were younger than males when the sexual abuse started (9.7 years compared with 10.8 years, respectively). Most survivors (85.0 per cent) experienced multiple episodes of child sexual abuse, and one-third (36.4 per cent) said they were sexually abused for between two and five years.
  • Survivors rarely described being subjected to just one type of sexual abuse. Most said they experienced non-penetrative contact sexual abuse (72.6 per cent), such as someone touching their body in a sexual way, or being forced to touch someone else’s body. Over half said they experienced sexual abuse with penetration (55.5 per cent). Others reported having their privacy violated (23.9 per cent) or being groomed for sexual contact (22.8 per cent). Grooming often occurred over an extended period of time to normalise the extra attention the perpetrator was showing the child and to gain their trust. Some perpetrators groomed the victim’s parents, especially when they lived with or had close contact with the victim’s family, or held a position of trust in the institution.
  • Most survivors also said they experienced other abuse in the lead up to, during and/or after the child sexual abuse, such as emotional abuse (80.7 per cent) and/or physical abuse (64.4 per cent).
  • Most survivors (93.8 per cent) described being sexually abused by a male, and more than one in 10 (10.9 per cent) said they were abused by a female. Over one-third (36.3 per cent) said they were sexually abused by more than one person.
  • Most survivors (83.8 per cent) said they were sexually abused by an adult. Almost one-third (32.2 per cent) said they were abused by a person in religious ministry, and one in five (21.0 per cent) said they were abused by a teacher. Almost one in four survivors (24.4 per cent) said they were sexually abused by another child, often in the context of bullying and harassment.
  • More than one in three survivors (36.0 per cent) said they were sexually abused in an historical form of out-of-home care, such as a children’s home, mission or reformatory. Just under one-third (31.8 per cent) said they were abused in a school, and 14.5 per cent said they were abused while participating or involved in religious activities, such as attending a church, synagogue or seminary. More than one in five survivors (21.0 per cent) said they were sexually abused in more than one institution.
  • The majority of survivors (58.6 per cent) told Commissioners they were sexually abused in an institution managed by a religious organisation. Among these survivors, close to two-thirds (61.8 per cent) said they were abused in an institution managed by the Catholic Church.
  • Most survivors described experiencing mental health issues at some point during their life (94.9 per cent). Many also said they experienced relationship issues (67.6 per cent) and poor educational achievement and/or financial hardship (55.7 per cent).

Circumstances at the time of abuse

Survivors often said that at the time of the abuse, their experience was that children were not highly regarded in society and were generally ignored or looked down upon. They described a social context where children had little value, were voiceless, had few rights, and were not considered worthy of any privacy or respect. This was especially the case for children who were in the ‘care’ of the state. Survivors described being ‘seen and not heard’, and that their disclosures of sexual abuse were ignored, disbelieved and dismissed.

Survivors often told Commissioners that institutions were afforded status, respect and power because of their place in society. Many survivors described an institutional culture that normalised abuse. Survivors who spent their childhoods in historical residential institutions often said adults routinely and publicly punished and physically abused children, though sexual abuse was most often conducted in private. Survivors who said they were abused in nonresidential and more contemporary institutions more often said that abuse and punishment tended to occur out of sight of others. These cultures of abuse often extended to bullying and harmful sexual behaviours between children.

Many survivors described coming from families where neglect, violence and abuse were common. Some survivors felt this may have increased their vulnerability to sexual abuse in institutional settings, as perpetrators may have targeted them knowing their parents paid little attention to their welfare. Other survivors told Commissioners they came from loving, supportive and open families. Often, these families had a deep trust in and loyalty to the institution where the child was sexually abused. Survivors believed this trust and devotion may have ‘blinded’ their otherwise loving and supportive parents to recognising the changes in their child’s behaviour resulting from the abuse. Many survivors said their family’s affiliation with the institution prevented them from disclosing the abuse.

Many survivors believed their lack of understanding about sex and sexuality as a child contributed to them being vulnerable to sexual abuse. They often said they felt confused about what was happening to them and did not understand it as sexual abuse. This was especially the case when perpetrators used grooming tactics to prepare the child for sexual abuse. Other survivors said they were socially isolated and considered ‘different’ to other children. They often believed perpetrators targeted them because they appeared introverted or withdrawn, knowing they were unlikely to report the abuse.

Experiences of disclosure

Survivors rarely described disclosing child sexual abuse as a one-off event. Some survivors intentionally disclosed the details of the sexual abuse during childhood or as an adult. Others had the details of the abuse discovered by someone else or only disclosed after they were asked. About one in 10 (10.3 per cent) survivors disclosed for the first time to the Royal Commission.

Responses to childhood disclosures of sexual abuse before 1990 were described as mostly negative. Survivors often said they were not believed by adults within the institution and their parents, or that they were ignored, dismissed, punished or ridiculed. Initial poor responses to a disclosure often had the effect of silencing victims and many took several decades to speak of the abuse again. Survivors who disclosed as an adult often did so after experiencing a ‘trigger’ event, such as seeing the perpetrator on the street or hearing about the institution where the abuse occurred in the media. Survivors described responses to adult disclosures as mixed, with some recipients of the disclosure holding inaccurate and stereotyped views about victims of sexual abuse. Survivors described responses from police in a range of ways, from professional and compassionate to upsetting and invalidating.

Survivors often described the barriers to disclosure as similar for children and adults. Most felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about the sexual abuse, which either prevented them from telling others or meant they told only parts of the story. Other barriers to disclosure  were felt more acutely during childhood, such as feeling threatened or confused or being punished. Adult survivors who delayed disclosure often said they were not ready to deal with its consequences.

Wellbeing

The large majority of survivors told Commissioners that child sexual abuse in an institutional context had a lasting, negative effect on their lives. Most commonly, survivors described experiencing episodes of poor mental health such as depression or anxiety. Some (16.4 per cent) reported having attempted suicide and almost one in five (19.8 per cent) spoke about having had thoughts of suicide. Survivors also commonly experienced issues with interpersonal relationships, such as difficulties building and maintaining trust. Many said they had difficulties with physical intimacy and affection. While some had sought solace in spirituality and religion, others – especially those who experienced sexual abuse in a religious setting – felt anger and disillusionment and found it difficult to actively engage with religious institutions as adults. Most survivors said they experienced poor educational outcomes and/or economic insecurity, with many saying they had difficulty concentrating at school and achieved poor grades in the years immediately after being sexually abused.

Survivors described sources of strength and survival that had helped them lead positive, full lives despite experiencing sexual abuse as a child. Many relied upon support from family and friends, and others learned strategies for managing relationships and mental health issues through counselling. Some pursued the perpetrator or institution through legal action or via redress programs, though seeking justice sometimes took a heavy toll. Many survivors said their wellbeing fluctuated over their life course.

Commissioners heard about the experiences of 285 children and young people aged under 25 at the time of their private sessions, representing 4.1 per cent of all survivors. Fewer than half of the children and young people (38.6 per cent) attended in person. Many parents and carers attended to describe their child’s experience of abuse. In brief, of the people who provided the relevant information:

  • On average, children and young people were aged 9.7 years when they were first sexually abused. The majority said they were sexually abused on multiple occasions (78.0 per cent). Similar proportions said they were abused by a single person (79.3 per cent), and for a duration of one year or less (78.3 per cent).
  • Like other survivors, most children and young people told us they experienced nonpenetrative contact sexual abuse (56.9 per cent) and/or sexual abuse with penetration (47.7 per cent) in combination with at least one other type of sexual abuse, such as being groomed for sexual contact (20.6 per cent). Like other survivors, children and young people commonly told Commissioners they also experienced emotional (77.5 per cent) and physical abuse (52.3 per cent) before, during or after the child sexual abuse.
  • Children and young people most commonly said they were sexually abused by adults including foster carers (27.3 per cent) and teachers (9.8 per cent). A large proportion of children and young people (33.0 per cent) told Commissioners they were abused by another child.
  • Over one-third of children and young people (35.4 per cent) said they were sexually abused in contemporary (post-1990) out-of-home care, such as foster care, kinship or relative care or residential care. More than one-quarter (27.4 per cent) said they were abused in a school and 7.7 per cent said they were abused while they participated in a religious activity.

Circumstances at the time of abuse

Many children and young people believed the general community and institutional leaders had a limited understanding of child sexual abuse and its impact on victims and their parents.They described adults within institutions and the community as holding outdated assumptions about gender and masculinity, which led to them minimising concerns about bullying and abuse by children with harmful sexual behaviours.

Like other survivors, children and young people often told Commissioners that institutional authorities prioritised the status and reputation of the institution ahead of children’s safety and protection. They also described inadequate monitoring and oversight within institutions,especially in relation to supervising children with a history of violence and/or harmful sexual behaviours. They said the lack of supervision allowed bullying to escalate and for the sexual abuse to go on without the knowledge of adults.

Unlike other survivors, most children and young people described having at least one parent or carer who was responsible for their wellbeing. This was true for children who lived with their parents and for those in out-of-home care. Parents who attended private sessions to tell their children’s stories told Commissioners how much they loved their children and how concerned they were for their wellbeing. Many said they tried to protect their children from the sexual abuse, but that out-of-home care providers and government departments failed to act on their warnings. Other parents and carers acknowledged they had been overly trusting of perpetrators or the institution, and that they had misinterpreted perpetrators’ grooming behaviours as acts of kindness and generosity.

Experiences of disclosure

Most children and young people said they initially disclosed to their parents – often immediately or soon after the abuse and sometimes in the context of everyday conversation. Others said the abuse was witnessed by someone else, who then reported it. Children and young people who waited more than one year to disclose often described how they tried to disclose at the time by making partial disclosures. Disclosures were often facilitated by parents and carers paying careful attention to changes in their child’s behaviour and noting that something was wrong.

Most children and young people said the person they told about the sexual abuse – often their parent – went on to tell others including the police, welfare agencies or institutional authorities. Many parents and carers told Commissioners they reported the abuse to multiple authorities on multiple occasions. Like other survivors, children and young people often said that institutions became defensive or sought to protect their reputations after receiving allegations of child sexual abuse. This was especially the case for abuse by children with harmful sexual behaviours: responses were often dismissive, especially when the child with harmful sexual behaviours had disability.

Wellbeing

Children and young people often described the immediate effects of experiencing child sexual abuse. Many said they went from being happy or independent children to being frightened, angry and anxious. Some said they tarted wetting the bed and having nightmares. Some said they became hyper-vigilant and developed behaviours and rituals in an attempt to protect themselves from further abuse or to ease their experience of anxiety. Some had thoughts of suicide or had attempted suicide, or engaged in self-harm. Most said their participation at school was affected in the immediate aftermath of the abuse. For some survivors, their drop in participation was temporary. For others, the effect was more sustained as they left school early or could no longer focus on their education.

Parents and carers described experiencing sleeplessness, anxiety, nightmares and panic attacks after learning that their child had been sexually abused. For some parents, their child’s experience triggered memories of their own childhood trauma. Many parents and carers felt guilty or responsible because they had not recognised or had missed warning signs that, if acted upon, may have prevented the abuse. They also described the burden of being responsible for maintaining the wellbeing of the child and simultaneously dealing with dismissive or threatening institutional responses. Other parents and carers said they experienced feelings of rage and anger, which often affected their own intimate relationships.

Commissioners heard from 985 people who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander survivors in private sessions, representing 14.3 per cent of all survivors. In brief, of the people who provided the relevant information:

  • On average, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors were aged 9.6 years when they were first sexually abused. The majority said they were sexually abused on multiple occasions (87.1 per cent). Just over half said they were sexually abused by a single person (52.5 per cent), and a similar proportion for a duration of more than one year (52.8 per cent).
  • More than two-thirds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors experienced non-penetrative contact sexual abuse (67.5 per cent), such as someone touching their body in a sexual way, or being forced to touch someone else’s body. The majority (62.8 per cent) said they experienced sexual abuse with penetration. More than threequarters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors also experienced physical (78.8 per cent) and/or emotional abuse (77.7 per cent) in the lead up to, during or after the child sexual abuse. One-quarter (24.7 per cent) reported neglect.
  • Three-quarters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors (75.6 per cent) said they were sexually abused by an adult – most commonly a foster carer (23.3 per cent), residential care worker (19.4 per cent) or a person in religious ministry (17.9 per cent). Over one-third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors (36.4 per cent) said they were abused by a child with harmful sexual behaviours.
  • Three-quarters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors (75.0 per cent) said they were sexually abused in out-of-home care, the majority of whom were abused in historical out-of-home care (61.8 per cent), such as a mission or children’s home. A total of 15.2 per cent said they were abused in youth detention and one in 10 (10.1 per cent) in a school.

Historical context

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a distinct experience of institutionalisation and abuse in institutions. Multiple national and state inquiries have found the abuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is a collective experience, with its roots in colonisation and dispossession, disconnection from culture and protectionist and assimilationist polices.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors who attended private sessions were forcibly removed from their families under various state and territory placement and restriction legislation, and child protection laws. Others experienced the intergenerational trauma caused by the forced removal of whole families and communities under these racially discriminatory laws. The effects of forced removal are widely acknowledged to be ‘far-reaching and complex and often compounded in subsequent generations’.[2]

Circumstances at the time of abuse

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors often talked about the racism and discrimination they experienced within the wider community and within institutions. Some said they were taunted with racist names. Others said they experienced discrimination in less obvious ways, such as by teachers and other students avoiding them at school. Some said they believed perpetrators targeted them because they were socially isolated as a result of the discrimination.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors talked to Commissioners about being members of the Stolen Generations. They described the ongoing trauma they felt after being forcibly removed from their family, culture and land. Some had experienced the forced removal of their own children. Many survivors described coming from loving, supportive families and they could not understand why they had been removed and placed in abusive institutional environments.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors gave accounts of child sexual abuse in historical residential institutions, including missions and reserves. Many survivors said there was little or no effective oversight of management practices in these institutions, which were often violent places that humiliated and undermined their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity and culture. Physical, emotional and sexual violence was normalised: violence between staff and children, and among children, was condoned or ignored. Survivors sexually abused more recently often said they were abused in out-of-home care or in youth detention. Many of these survivors said the institutions had lax policies regulating adults’ interactions with children, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

Experiences of disclosure

Like other survivors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors often said they tried to disclose the abuse during childhood, but were ignored, dismissed or punished. Disclosure was difficult and sometimes impossible for survivors who lived on missions and reserves as children as there was simply no one to tell. Survivors said they felt powerless in the context of strict institutional hierarchies where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had limited say over their own wellbeing. Survivors abused in foster and kinship care placements told Commissioners they experienced a range of reactions to their disclosures of child sexual abuse, which were often complicated by the recipient of the disclosure being married or related to the alleged perpetrator. Childhood disclosures to police, especially among survivors who had been forcibly removed by police from their families, were often described as a negative and sometimes traumatic process.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors found comfort in disclosing as adults to former residents and survivors from the same institutions. Others found this difficult because it meant coming into contact with adults who, as children, had sexually abused them. Survivors who disclosed as adults to police said that they often did so with hesitation because of their early traumatic memories of removal, though many said the police treated them with respect and kindness and took action to investigate their claims. Survivors who disclosed through redress schemes often said they found the process difficult. Some did not tell their whole story during the redress process because of an ongoing sense of shame, which sometimes meant they received less money than they might have.

Wellbeing

Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors discussed issues related to their wellbeing in the context of the broader trauma associated with being removed from family, country and culture. For many, the trauma of child sexual abuse could not be separated from the intergenerational trauma associated with child removal. Most survivors who had been removed from family felt disconnected from their family, land and culture, and some felt no connection at all with their Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage. Many survivors had experienced suicidal thoughts and some had attempted suicide. Other survivors believed the trauma associated with removal and sexual abuse in institutional settings manifested in relationship difficulties passed from generation to generation. Many survivors described having nonexistent or strained relationships with birth parents and siblings, patterns of unhealthy intimate relationships, and difficult relationships with their own children.

Other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors often pointed to connections with family, community and culture as sources of strength and resilience. Some said they were proud of their achievements at work, and others drew hope and inspiration from watching their children and grandchildren achieve at school and in sport. Survivors often said they found peace and joy during their later years as they became involved with raising their grandchildren. Many older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors said they drew strength from connecting with country and culture in a way that helped bring perspective to their lifetime experiences.

[2] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Commonwealth of Australia, Sydney, 1997, pp 27– 37. Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, Commonwealth of Australia Vol 1, 1991.

The Royal Commission adopted a broad definition of culturally and linguistically diverse to mean anyone from a cultural or linguistic context different from the dominant Australian culture. Commissioners heard from 213 people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in private sessions, representing 3.1 per cent of all survivors. In brief, of the people who provided the relevant information:

  • On average, survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were aged 10.7 years when they were first sexually abused. The majority said they experienced non-penetrative contact sexual abuse (79.3 per cent). Most said they had experienced sexual abuse on multiple occasions (84.8 per cent), and two-thirds by a single person (66.7 per cent). Almost half (46.2 per cent) said they experienced penetrative abuse and almost one-quarter (24.5 per cent) described experiences consistent with having their privacy violated.
  • Like other survivors, survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds commonly described experiencing emotional (82.3 per cent) and/or other physical abuse (56.6 per cent) before, during or after the sexual abuse. Almost one-fifth (17.7 per cent) witnessed the abuse of other children.
  • Most commonly, survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds described being sexually abused by a person in a religious ministry (32.5 per cent) and/or a teacher (24.1 per cent). More than one-third (35.2 per cent) described sexual abuse that occurred in a school, and almost one-third (31.9 per cent) indicated they were abused in historical form of out-of-home care such as a children’s home.
  • The majority of survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (60.1 per cent) said they were abused in an institution managed by a religious organisation. Among these survivors, most said they were abused in an institution managed by the Catholic Church (57.8 per cent) and almost one in five (18.8 per cent) said they were abused in a Jewish-managed institution.

Circumstances at the time of abuse

Survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds often described experiencing a sense of isolation as a child. Language barriers, cultural differences and discrimination often increased a family’s dependence on religious communities, and some perpetrators exploited this dependence by acting in friendly ways and appearing to offer refuge from hostile social conditions.

Many survivors said that looking or sounding different to other children in the institution made them targets for bullying and victimisation – by other children, and sometimes by adults. Bullying and name-calling left them feeling as though their safety and wellbeing mattered less than that of other children. For some, social isolation acted as a barrier to disclosure: as children, many survivors felt they had no one to tell about the abuse.

Experiences of disclosure

Like other survivors, survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who disclosed during childhood often told an adult in authority at the institution or their parents. They told us they were commonly disbelieved. Like other survivors, those who delayed disclosure said they did so due to shame and embarrassment and a fear of punishment or of not being believed. Some said they did not disclose because their parents held the institution and the perpetrator in high regard. They said their parents had risked a lot – sometimes their lives – to come to Australia and felt very connected and loyal to the religious or cultural institution that had offered them support during their early years in the country. Male survivors sometimes said they did not disclose due to strong expectations of men and masculinity that meant expressions of emotion were perceived as weakness.

Wellbeing

Survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who had little contact with people outside of their community said they were deeply affected by the sexual abuse. Many felt that they lost their social and support networks after disclosing the abuse and found themselves questioning their faith and community. Like other survivors, some survivors from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds had thoughts of or had attempted suicide. Many survivors cited support from partners and other family members as an important source of strength and resilience. Survivors who had lived in residential care as a child – and especially those who were child migrants – described adult lives that had been compromised by the poor standard of education they received. Accessing redress and financial compensation rarely improved survivors’ wellbeing in the long term, with many describing the process as re-traumatising.

The Royal Commission’s framework for defining disability was based on the understanding that physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments are common aspects of human functioning. Impairments, health conditions or chronic illnesses can be considered a disability when environmental and personal factors hinder a person’s full and effective participation in society.

Commissioners heard from 293 survivors with disability at the time of the sexual abuse, representing 4.3 per cent of all survivors. In brief, of the people who provided the relevant information:

  • On average, survivors with disability were aged 10.9 years when they were first sexually abused. The majority said they were sexually abused on multiple occasions (86.1 per cent) by a single person (58.7 per cent) for a duration of one year or less (62.8 per cent).
  • The majority of survivors with disability said they experienced non-penetrative contact sexual abuse (64.1 per cent) and/or sexual abuse with penetration (56.5 per cent). One in four (25.0 per cent) also said their privacy was violated. Often, survivors said they were sexually abused under the guise of carers conducting activities that were considered ‘appropriate’ for their role, such as assisting the victim with bathing and dressing.
  • Like other survivors, most survivors with disability said they also experienced other abuse in the lead up to, during and/or after the child sexual abuse, such as emotional (79.7 per cent) and/or physical abuse (67.6 per cent) or witnessing the abuse of other children (20.3 per cent). Survivors often said they were humiliated and teased about their disability. Survivors with physical impairments described situations where adults in the institution had taken advantage of children’s inability to remove themselves from uncomfortable or painful situations, such as by leaving them in urine-soaked beds at night as punishment.
  • Survivors with disability were most commonly sexually abused by adults (74.5 per cent). Almost one in five (17.4 per cent) said they were abused by a person in religious ministry. A slightly smaller proportion (16.4 per cent) said they were abused by a residential care worker and 14.6 per cent said they were abused by a teacher. More than one in three survivors with disability (35.4 per cent) said they were abused by another child.
  • More than one-third of survivors with disability (34.1 per cent) told Commissioners they were sexually abused in an historical out-of-home care institution, such as an orphanage, children’s home or disability-specific residential care facility. Close to onethird (32.4 per cent) said they were abused in a school and one in 10 (10.2 per cent) reported abuse in a hospital, doctor’s surgery or rehabilitation facility.

Circumstances at the time of abuse

Many survivors described a society where it was common and accepted for children with disability to be removed from their parents and placed in the care of an institution. They spoke of an era when ‘people didn’t have high expectations of people with disabilities’ and where people with disability were ‘out of sight and out of mind’.[3] Some survivors believed they were placed in institutions that did not meet their needs. This was especially common among survivors who were labelled as having ‘behavioural issues’ but placed in institutions for children with profound intellectual and physical disabilities.

Like other survivors, survivors with disability often described institutions as lacking procedures and codes of conduct that might have protected children from sexual abuse. They commonly said they were left alone in the company of sexually abusive adults and children with harmful sexual behaviours. Survivors who grew up in residential institutions often said that sexual and physical abuse was so widespread they thought it was a normal part of being a child in an institution.

Like other survivors, survivors with disability who grew up in residential institutions often said they had no or very little contact with their birth families during childhood. Survivors who lived with their families often said they lived in a supportive and loving environment. They often said they believed they became vulnerable to sexual abuse due to high levels of deference and trust towards people in authority in institutions, such as people in religious ministry and health professionals.

Experiences of disclosure

Most often, we were told that survivors with disability made deliberate attempts to disclose the details of the sexual abuse – often to a parent. Survivors with communication and cognitive impairments were particularly reliant on supportive adults noticing changes in their behaviour after the abuse. Children without protective adults in their lives, including many who lived in residential care, said their attempts to disclose were disbelieved, ignored or punished. Survivors who disclosed to police were often left disappointed. Commissioners heard that police would not pursue criminal charges because the victim – who often had a communication or cognitive impairment – was not viewed as a ‘credible witness’. Survivors perceived that mainstream and disability-specific services were ill-equipped to deal effectively with disclosures of sexual abuse by people with disability.

Wellbeing

Like other survivors, survivors with disability often told Commissioners they struggled to deal with feelings of anger, shame and low self-confidence following the sexual abuse. Others felt deep despair and hopelessness. Many had considered suicide and some had attempted suicide. Some survivors said they had difficulty forming friendships or described themselves as lonely. Many survivors said they experienced difficulties with education and employment at some point in their lives, which they believed was due to not receiving a quality education because the institution they attended wasn’t equipped to teach children with disability. Others said they experienced discrimination and prejudice in the workplace, and that this had affected their opportunity to participate as fully in work as they would have liked.

[3] Name changed, private session, ‘Carly’ (sibling); Name changed, private session, ‘Tui’.

The Royal Commission’s inmate engagement strategy involved Royal Commission officers visiting correctional centres across Australia and working with staff and prisoner representatives. In total, Commissioners heard from 713 survivors who were in prison at the time of their private session, representing 10.4 per cent of all survivors. In brief, of the people who provided the relevant information:

  • Most were male (91.0 per cent), consistent with the wider adult prison population in Australia.
  • On average, survivors in prison were aged 11.3 years when they were first sexually abused in an institutional context, though many said they experienced physical and sexual abuse prior to this, often within the family. The majority were sexually abused on multiple occasions (86.7 per cent). Most said they were sexually abused by a single person (53.7 per cent), and almost three-quarters for a duration of one year or less (71.5 per cent).
  • The majority of survivors in prison described non-penetrative contact sexual abuse (65.4 per cent) and/or sexual abuse with penetration (59.2 per cent). Almost one in four (24.0 per cent) said their privacy was violated, often by being watched while in the shower or being subjected to unnecessary strip searches in youth detention. Many also experienced other abuse alongside the sexual abuse, such as physical (72.3 per cent) and/or emotional abuse (72.1 per cent).
  • More than one-quarter of survivors in prison (28.3 per cent) said they were sexually abused by custodial staff, including in youth detention settings, and one in five (19.3 per cent) said they were abused by a person in religious ministry. Similar proportions said they were abused by a residential care worker (14.7 per cent) or a foster carer (14.6 per cent).
  • Half of the survivors in prison said they were abused in out-of-home care (50.5 per cent). Almost one-third of survivors in prison (32.7 per cent) said they were sexually abused in a youth detention facility, and 16.0 per cent said they were abused in a school.

Circumstances at the time of abuse

The majority of survivors in prison described entrenched disadvantage when they were growing up. From a young age, they were often subjected to multiple types of sexual and other abuse. Some were abandoned at a young age and spent much of their childhood being passed from one extended family member to the next. As they grew older, they spent less time at home to avoid family dysfunction. They said they had to look after themselves, but often did not know how to do this in safe ways. Sometimes their involvement in petty crime or substance use brought them to the attention of police and welfare authorities. Some survivors saw links between their home environments and their vulnerability to child sexual abuse in institutional settings.

Survivors in prison commonly described a childhood moving frequently in and out-of- home care placements, sometimes experiencing homelessness, time in youth detention and then prison. Some experienced abuse and assault in all of these institutions. Some felt vulnerable to abuse in and out of out-of-home care because the foster family knew they had been in multiple placements, and that they probably had no supportive parents or friends. Many described youth detention centres as violent places where physical abuse perpetrated by staff towards children was tolerated as a means of enforcing rules.

Experiences of disclosure

Most survivors in prison waited until adulthood to disclose their experience of child sexual abuse. Almost one-third of survivors in prison (31.4 per cent) told their story for the first time to the Royal Commission. Most male survivors said their childhood circumstances had forced them to become independent and self-reliant from a young age, and that revealing child sexual abuse would have been seen as a weakness by their peers. In contrast, female survivors often said there was an understanding among women in prison that many had been sexually abused at some time in their lives, and that they were supported and encouraged by other prisoners to talk about the experience of child sexual abuse.

Wellbeing

For many survivors, child sexual abuse in an institution was only one in a series of multiple childhood traumas. Most reported symptoms of mental illness, including self-harm, suicide attempts, addiction, sleeping problems, flashbacks and triggers. Many spoke about anger, and sometimes criminal offences that were related to violence. Most survivors said that they had been involved with the criminal justice system for some time, usually for crimes linked to substance use. Some said that after spending so much of their life in youth detention and prison they had become institutionalised and struggled to readjust to life outside prison after being released. Some survivors said they had found strength from accessing education, counselling and other therapeutic services in prison. Others said they felt that mental health services in prisons were focused on preventing suicide and managing medications rather than providing the kind of long-term care some survivors felt they needed to deal with the consequences of child sexual abuse and other trauma.

Many survivors stressed that their key motivation for attending a private session was to tell Commissioners about their ideas for change.

Survivors suggested that child sexual abuse in institutions may be better prevented by improving community understanding of child sexual abuse, including the prevalence of abuse in institutions, and by countering misconceptions about perpetrators of child sexual abuse in institutions. They also said that abuse may be better prevented in institutions by improving supervision and monitoring of staff, especially when they were alone with children, and better background screening of adults wishing to work or volunteer with children. Some survivors acknowledged that people who were motivated to sexually abuse children would find their way around even the best-designed systems.

Other survivors suggested changes to institutional culture to enable more age-appropriate discussion of sex and sexuality with children. They believed that changing the norms for acceptable conduct between children may better prevent bullying, harassment and sexual abuse. Some said that prevention education for children to recognise the signs of sexual abuse and to know how to respond was important, especially for children with disability who often received no or very limited sex and sexuality education. Other survivors said institutional staff should also be trained in what constitutes child sexual abuse and how to better detect grooming behaviours.

Survivors suggested that responses to allegations of child sexual abuse could be improved by better communication between institutions and parents and carers, so parents and carers could better understand what the institutions were doing to respond to incidents and to prevent further sexual abuse from occurring. This was especially the case for survivors who had been sexually abused by another child.

Survivors who had disclosed in childhood often said they wanted the criminal justice system to be more ‘child friendly’. This sentiment was echoed by parents and carers of survivors with disability, and especially those with communication and cognitive impairments. They felt that the system would be more accessible and supportive of people with disability if communication and cognitive impairments were better accommodated.

Survivors felt they could be better supported by greater access to specialised counselling services – immediately and in the years and decades following the abuse. Survivors in prison said they needed support in prison and after being released. Others discussed a need for appropriate redress, through a scheme that was efficient and straight forward. Many survivors said a memorial may help to acknowledge and remember the past, which was an important part of protecting children in the future.

[1] Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth)

Content updating Updating complete