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Identifying and disclosing child sexual abuse

This volume describes what we have learned about survivors’ experiences of disclosing child sexual abuse and about the factors that affect a victim’s decision whether to disclose, when to disclose and who to tell.


This volume describes what we have learned about survivors’ experiences of disclosing child sexual abuse. The experiences of survivors, told to us in private sessions and written accounts, have informed our understanding of the factors that prevent or assist disclosure. We have also drawn on research literature, evidence from our case studies and input from subject matter experts and stakeholders to describe the range of complex factors that affect the disclosure of child sexual abuse and the multiple barriers to disclosure victims and survivors face.

Identifying child sexual abuse in institutional contexts is a critical step in protecting children from potential or ongoing abuse, providing support to children in need, and holding perpetrators accountable for their behaviour. Given the covert nature of child sexual abuse, victims’ and survivors’ disclosure is often the only way that another person might become aware that sexual abuse is, or has been, occurring.

We were told that many survivors disclosed because they wanted the abuse to stop or wanted to prevent it happening to others. Other survivors disclosed because they could no longer carry the burden of the secrecy of sexual abuse. Disclosing early can immediately commence the important process of ensuring safety and protection for victims, taking steps to ensure the abuse is stopped and reducing risk to other potential victims. Disclosure is important for victims as well as the institutions involved, other children and the broader community.

Disclosure is rarely a one-off event, and is a process. Victims will disclose in different ways to different people throughout their lives. Disclosures may be verbal or non‑verbal, accidental or intentional, partial or complete.

Children who experience sexual abuse may exhibit a range of physical, behavioural and emotional symptoms that could be indicators of distress, trauma and abuse. There can be many reasons for a change in a child’s or young person’s behaviour or emotions, which can make it difficult to establish a causal link between the indicators and child sexual abuse. However, adults need to be aware of and alert to possible indicators, and keep child safety – including the possibility of sexual abuse – in mind when they notice changes in a child.

Many victims do not disclose child sexual abuse until many years after the abuse occurred, often when they are well into adulthood. Survivors who spoke with us during a private session took, on average, 23.9 years to tell someone about the abuse and men often took longer to disclose than women (the average for females was 20.6 years and for males was 25.6 years).[1] Some victims never disclose.

Whether, when, how and to whom a victim discloses is influenced by their age and developmental stage, disability, gender and cultural or linguistic background. Underlying these factors is the vulnerability of a child and the inherent power imbalances and complex institutional environments that they are required to understand and overcome in order to disclose abuse. Research shows that individuals assess their personal situation and may disclose, or partially disclose, depending on their reading of anticipated risks and benefits. Adults should be aware of the factors that may influence a disclosure so they can provide an environment that is conducive to disclosure.

[1] The average time to disclosure is calculated from information provided during 4,817 private sessions that were held before July 2016 because time to disclosure is available for these survivors. After this date time to disclosure was only recorded for survivors who told us they first disclosed in adulthood, not for those who first disclosed as a child. Chapter 2 provides further information from private sessions about survivors who told us they disclosed as a child and survivors who told us they disclosed as an adult.

Understanding barriers to disclosing child sexual abuse allows us to see where those barriers could be removed or reduced. Understanding why disclosure can be difficult may also help parents, carers, family members and loved ones who struggle to understand why a child did not tell them, or waited to tell them, about sexual abuse.

One of the most common barriers to disclosure we heard about in private sessions, which is also supported by research, was shame or embarrassment. These feelings can overwhelm a victim and have a silencing effect that can last for many years or decades. Of survivors who told us about disclosure during their private session, feeling ashamed and embarrassed was more common for survivors who told us they had disclosed in adulthood (46.0 per cent) than those who told us they had disclosed in childhood (27.8 per cent).

Before disclosing child sexual abuse, victims will often weigh up the potential risks and benefits of telling others about the sexual abuse. Unsurprisingly, victims are less likely to disclose if they feel they won’t be believed, expect a negative reaction or response, or believe the disclosure will have negative consequences for them, their families or communities. Of survivors who told us about barriers to disclosure during their private session, more than one in five (22.6 per cent) who said they had disclosed as an adult and more than a quarter (26.1 per cent) who told us they disclosed in childhood said they had thought they would not be believed.

Victims of child sexual abuse disclose within a context of their own community values and the development of their own gender identities and sexuality. Disclosure is a process that can occur concurrent with children and young people developing their sexual identities. For victims of child sexual abuse, this developmental process can become disrupted or confused by the impact of the abuse. For men, this includes barriers that arise from the myth and the stigma that surrounds victims becoming perpetrators. These attitudes around sexuality and gender can affect victims’ and survivors’ decisions to disclose abuse.

Understanding that child sexual abuse is harmful and criminal is key to being able to communicate to others that abuse is occurring. Some survivors who told us about barriers to disclosure during their private session said that they did not know the behaviours were abusive (8.2 per cent). Children who are sexually abused at a young age may not have the language or communication skills to convey their experience of sexual abuse. As young children, many survivors were exposed to sexual behaviour that they lacked the capacity or knowledge to understand. This led to many instances where children did not recognise that the abuse was wrong, or that it was something to be reported.

Child sexual abuse in institutions is often perpetrated by someone who is familiar to, and in a position of power and authority over, the child. The perpetrator will frequently be someone who is entrusted to provide care for the child. There is no typical profile of a perpetrator and their behaviours can change over time. The power and position of a perpetrator within an institution can prevent abuse being identified and can inhibit the child from disclosing, both at the time of the abuse and in the years that follow.

Perpetrators may inhibit disclosure using overt tactics, such as threats to the child or their loved ones. About one-fifth (20.3 per cent) of survivors who spoke to us during their private session about barriers, and said they had disclosed as an adult, said they feared retribution, including by the perpetrator, and this prevented them from disclosing during childhood. More than a quarter (27.8 per cent) of survivors who spoke about barriers and said they had disclosed as a child told us that fear of retribution had stopped them from disclosing sooner. Nearly 5.3 per cent of survivors who spoke to us about barriers to disclosure in their private session told us the perpetrator had threatened them or their family.

Perpetrators may also use more subtle manipulation. These tactics are often invisible to the child and to the other adults in the child’s life. The complexity of disclosure is difficult to understand unless the dynamics of child sexual abuse, particularly the behaviour of perpetrators, is understood.

Perpetrators can use grooming and other tactics to enable and facilitate the sexual abuse of children. They may groom to gain access to a victim, initiate and maintain sexual abuse of that victim, and conceal the sexual abuse from others who may identify it. These types of behaviours and tactics are often complex and incremental. They help to establish an emotional connection and build trust. They can involve a range of subtle, drawn out, calculated, controlling and premeditated behaviours. These tactics were a common feature of many accounts that we were told about during private sessions and in our case studies that contributed to silencing victims and survivors.

The power and status of perpetrators within the institution can also inhibit identification and disclosure. Perpetrators may exploit the power and authority associated with their position to create the impression that they are beyond reproach, to avoid abuse being identified, and to exert pressure on children to prevent disclosure. Perpetrators often have considerable authority in their position, which can lead children to fear that if they disclose: they will not be believed; their school grades or other status may suffer; the perpetrator will make life difficult for them, their parents or siblings; or disclosure will jeopardise their aspirations or interfere with special training or opportunities.

Perpetrators often isolate the child or alienate them from others, creating a barrier between the child and adults they might otherwise talk to about the abuse or who might see that something was wrong. Perpetrators often blame a victim for the abuse, or cultivate a shared sense of responsibility with the victim. Sometimes this is overt, other times it is more subtle or insidious. Many survivors told us that they did not disclose because they felt responsible for the abuse or thought it was their fault.

Institutional barriers can prevent both the identification and disclosure of child sexual abuse. These barriers do not exist independently. In many cases, a constellation of factors leads to institutional cultures where individuals can perpetrate sexual abuse that goes unnoticed and unreported and leaves children powerless to tell anyone what is happening.

Institutions that are isolated from the broader community, that have cultures that are violent, or where physical punishment and sexual abuse are pervasive can inhibit disclosure. These types of institutional cultures were more prevalent in past decades. Survivors told us they did not disclose because they thought sexual abuse was part of life, as it was so widespread and visible. Survivors also told us about the significant levels of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in historical institutions for children, such as residential institutions. Many survivors told us that, if they did disclose, they were physically beaten or punished.

Institutional policies and procedures that describe and provide examples of inappropriate behaviour, outline how to identify and report suspicions, and specify record keeping and information sharing requirements help keep children safe. However, if these policies and procedures are routinely ignored, not implemented or regarded as unimportant within the culture of the institution, it will be more difficult for children to disclose and for others to identify child sexual abuse.

In many case studies and private sessions we were told that the institution in which the victim was sexually abused had no clear or supportive pathway to disclose the abuse. Almost onethird (29.4 per cent) of survivors who told us about barriers to disclosure in private sessions said that, at the time of abuse, there was no one to tell. While we heard this in relation to many different institution types, it was more likely to be a barrier to disclosure for children in historical residential institutions. Often the perpetrator played a major role in the institution; sometimes they were also the person responsible for responding to complaints.

An institution that prioritises its reputation over the care and safety of children creates barriers for victims to disclose harm and for bystanders to report concerns. In some cases, victims told us they felt unable to disclose due to the prestigious nature of the institution, or the institution’s emphasis on reputation. A focus on protecting reputation can also prevent adults in the institution from identifying abuse and responding adequately when abuse is disclosed.

There may be a high degree of trust between people in an institution, particularly in religious institutions and organisations where colleagues share a professional background. In many situations this may be desirable and can contribute positively to the institution and the children who attend. However, this trust can also present a risk as it can enable perpetrators to groom the institution, parents and the broader community in order to sexually abuse a child or children without suspicion.

Many child victims and adult survivors need support to overcome multiple and formidable barriers to disclosure. It is not sufficient to educate children to recognise behaviours that constitute sexual abuse, and instruct them to tell someone if they are abused. Instead, adults need to be attuned to signs of harm in children and equipped to identify signs of possible sexual abuse.

Child safe institutions have a culture of safety that empowers children, prevents child sexual abuse and encourages identification and disclosure. Adults within child-focused institutions and the broader community need to better understand the dynamics of sexual abuse and how to recognise grooming tactics, and to notice emotional and behavioural changes in children and their attempts to disclose.

The conditions that empower, encourage and support children to disclose include where:

  • safe adults are available and accessible for children
  • children are given opportunities to raise and discuss concerns
  • children have access to sexual abuse prevention programs and information about sexual abuse
  • young people are taught to support peers
  • children are provided with appropriate supports to communicate abuse.

Many survivors were not able to disclose the abuse during childhood and did not disclose until well into adulthood. It is important to be aware that adult victims often delay disclosure for an extended period and may require additional support to report the abuse. The conditions that encourage and support adults to disclose include:

  • learning about child sexual abuse
  • supportive responses
  • access to support groups
  • media coverage and publicity about child sexual abuse
  • special telephone numbers that assist with reporting abuse to police
  • awareness of redress schemes.

Disclosure can be a traumatic experience for both children and adults. Given this, those in institutions who may receive a disclosure, or who may become aware of abuse, should know how to react and respond. The reaction of the person to whom a disclosure is made may affect whether the survivor makes future disclosures and may also affect the severity of psychological symptoms experienced by the survivor.

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