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Nature and cause

This volume details the nature and cause of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. It also describes what is known about the extent of child sexual abuse and the limitations of existing studies. It discusses factors that affect the risk of child sexual abuse in institutions and the legal and political changes that have influenced how children have interacted with institutions over time.


The Royal Commission’s understanding of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts and why and how it happens is based on the information gathered through public hearings, private sessions, research, written accounts, roundtables, public consultations, and issues papers.

Many survivors told us that ignorance about child sexual abuse in institutions hindered prevention and identification, and meant that institutions failed to respond appropriately. In many instances, the lack of knowledge enabled the sexual abuse to continue undetected. Survivors also said that the misconceptions and stigma associated with child sexual abuse often prevented them from disclosing abuse and seeking the treatment and support that would have otherwise been available to them.

Understanding the problem is essential to identifying and preventing child sexual abuse today and in the future, enabling appropriate support for those affected, and properly holding to account those who commit, facilitate or conceal abuse.

Child sexual abuse can take many different forms. While each victim’s experience is unique, common themes emerged during our inquiry. Many survivors described the forms of sexual abuse that they experienced. These often included non-penetrative contact abuse, penetrative abuse, violations of privacy, exposure to sexual acts and material, and sexual exploitation. Some survivors also described witnessing the sexual abuse of others.

For the purposes of this Royal Commission, we adopted a broad definition of child sexual abuse that is victim-centred but takes into account legal definitions and frameworks. We consider child sexual abuse to be:

Any act which exposes a child to, or involves a child in, sexual processes beyond his or her understanding or contrary to accepted community standards. Sexually abusive behaviours can include the fondling of genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or any other object, fondling of breasts, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and exposing the child to or involving the child in pornography. It includes child grooming, which refers to actions deliberately undertaken with the aim of befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, to lower the child’s inhibitions in preparation for sexual activity with the child.

We considered the production, consumption, dissemination and exchange of child sexual exploitation material to be child sexual abuse.

Adult perpetrators may use a wide range of tactics and strategies – including grooming, coercion and entrapment – to enable, facilitate and conceal the sexual abuse of a child. Grooming can take place in person and online, and is often difficult to identify and define. This is because the behaviours involved are not necessarily explicitly sexual, directly abusive or criminal in themselves, and may only be recognised in hindsight. Indeed, some grooming behaviours are consistent with behaviours or activities in non-abusive relationships, and can even include desirable social behaviours, with the only difference being motivation. Perpetrators can groom children, other people in children’s lives, and institutions.

Not all child sexual abuse involves grooming. Perpetrators may also use physical force or violence as a tactic to overcome a child’s resistance to sexual abuse. This may include coercion, threats and punishment. This instils fear to enable or facilitate child sexual abuse and silence the victim.

Child sexual abuse is often accompanied by other forms of maltreatment, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Survivors often told us that they experienced multiple forms of abuse at the same time.

As part of our inquiry, we sought to understand the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions. We gathered information from a wide range of sources to enable us to understand how many people have been affected by child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. Although there are limitations to the available data, it demonstrates that the extent of child sexual abuse in institutional settings in Australia is significant. Child sexual abuse has occurred across a wide range of institutions and has affected tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people over many years.

We recognise there are a number of barriers to accurately estimating the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions in Australia. For example, different jurisdictions collect and report information about child sexual abuse differently. Research on the prevalence of child sexual abuse often does not include detailed information about institutional contexts or only examines specific institutions, rather than the problem broadly. Another barrier is that many survivors of child sexual abuse never report the abuse, or report many years after the abuse occurred. A nationally representative study is needed to understand the true extent of the problem, to establish a baseline to measure the effectiveness of child protection policies, and to better understand Australia’s future progress in protecting children from sexual abuse and other forms of maltreatment in institutional contexts.

Hearing from the many people who attended private sessions enabled Commissioners to understand more about those affected by child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. In private sessions up to 31 May 2017, we heard from 6,875 survivors of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts, as well as their family members, carers and supporters and other children in institutions where the abuse took place.

People who attended a private session had the opportunity to tell Commissioners about their experience of sexual abuse in institutional contexts. Survivors were not asked to describe the abuse they had experienced, and so the information presented is drawn from what participants volunteered during private sessions. People often spoke about the abuse, the institution in which it occurred, the person who carried out the abuse, and how the institution responded. Many also described the impact the sexual abuse had on them as children and throughout their adult lives.

Information from private sessions may not represent the experiences or extent of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts in the broader Australian community. This is because people had to approach us to attend a private session, which some parts of the community may have been more or less likely to do. It is likely that there are many people who have been sexually abused in institutional contexts as children who did not attend a private session.

The survivors we heard from came from diverse backgrounds and contexts. In private sessions we learned the following from survivors who volunteered specific information to Commissioners:

  • the majority of survivors we heard from in private sessions (64.3 per cent) were male
  • more than half of all survivors who reported their age at the time of abuse told us in private sessions that they were aged between 10 and 14 years when they were first sexually abused
  • female survivors who attended private sessions generally reported being younger when they were first sexually abused than male survivors
  • 14.3 per cent of all survivors who attended a private session were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • 4.3 per cent of all survivors who attended a private session told us they had a disability at the time of the abuse.

During private sessions, 93.8 per cent of survivors told us about sexual abuse by a male. This is consistent with research, which indicates the majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse across all settings are male. In private sessions, 67.3 per cent of survivors provided information on the age of the perpetrator at the time of the sexual abuse. Of these survivors, 83.8 per cent told us they had been abused by an adult.

Survivors often told us about the roles held by adult perpetrators within institutions. The most commonly reported roles were people in religious ministry and teachers. A number of features were common across many of the roles we heard about during private sessions. These features often facilitated or enabled the sexual abuse to occur, and included:

  • unsupervised, one-on-one access to a child, such as travelling alone with the child
  • providing intimate care to a child or an expectation of a certain level of physical contact
  • the ability to influence or control aspects of a child’s life, such as academic grades
  • authority over a child, particularly in situations with significant control such as a residential setting
  • spiritual or moral authority over a child
  • prestige of the perpetrator, resulting in the perpetrator being afforded a higher level of trust and credibility
  • opportunities to become close with a child and their family
  • responsibility for young children, such as preschool carers
  • specialist expertise, as in the case of medical practitioners, that enabled perpetrators to disguise sexual abuse.

During the course of our inquiry, we heard about a wide range of institutions where children had been sexually abused. These institutions included childcare services, schools, health and allied services, youth detention, historical residential care, contemporary out-of-home care, religious activities, family and youth support services, supported accommodation, sporting, recreational and club activities, youth employment, and the armed forces. We categorised these institutions by their management type, including government, religious and non-religious management.

In private sessions, 58.6 per cent of survivors told us they were sexually abused in an institution managed by a religious organisation. These institutions included places of worship and religious instruction, missions, non-government schools, orphanages, residential homes, recreational clubs, youth groups, and welfare services. Almost 2,500 survivors told us in a private session about child sexual abuse in an institution managed by the Catholic Church. This represents 61.8 per cent of all survivors who reported sexual abuse in a religious institution and 36.2 per cent of all survivors.

Just under one-third (32.0 per cent) of survivors told us in private sessions they were abused in an institution under government management. The most common types of government-managed institutions we heard about were schools, out-of-home care, youth detention and health.

Another 10.4 per cent of survivors told us in private sessions they were sexually abused in institutions that were not under government or religious management. Sixty‑three per cent of these survivors said the abuse occurred in a private organisation such as a child care centre, a medical practice or clinic, a music or dance school, an independent school, a yoga ashram or a sports club. A further 36.1 per cent of these survivors told us they were sexually abused in a non‑government or not-for-profit organisation.

We also heard about the responses of institutions responsible for monitoring, oversight and criminal justice. Some of our case studies examined the responses of police, law enforcement and agencies responsible for public prosecution of reports of child sexual abuse occuring.

We heard from many people who wanted to understand why the sexual abuse of children in institutions happens. In order to make recommendations about what institutions and governments should do to better protect children in the future, we needed to understand why and how this problem occurs.

While there is no simple explanation, we gathered information that assists with understanding why and how children have been sexually abused in institutions. We learned that the interaction of factors related to the adult perpetrator or child with harmful sexual behaviours, the institution, and the vulnerability of the victim, increase or decrease the risk of child sexual abuse occuring.

What influences an adult to sexually abuse a child

Adult perpetrators are always responsible for their own actions in sexually abusing a victim. Without diminishing this responsibility, it is important to understand the various and complex factors that may contribute to perpetrator motivation, so that safeguards can be developed to reduce opportunities for abuse and keep children safe.

Despite commonly held misconceptions and persistent stereotypes, there is no typical profile of an adult perpetrator. People who sexually abuse children have diverse motivations and behaviours that can change over time. We learned that:

  • a range of adults sexually abuse children, and attempting to predict the likelihood of someone being a perpetrator based on preconceptions should be avoided
  • adult perpetrators are predominantly male, although women do sexually abuse children in institutional contexts
  • the strategies used to sexually abuse children are influenced by the institutional context
  • adult perpetrators in institutional contexts may be strategic in the way they identify, groom and sexually abuse children, and groom others within the institution.

Given that most adult perpetrators are male, it has been suggested that gender may play a role in influencing who commits child sexual abuse. However, while the overwhelming majority of people who commit child sexual abuse are men, gender is not predictive of whether or not a person will become a perpetrator. Although the majority of adult perpetrators are male, most men do not sexually abuse children.

A variety of complex factors may influence an adult to sexually abuse a child in any setting. These are often referred to as ‘risk factors’, and refer to the likelihood or propencity that an individual will sexually abuse a child. Risk factors associated with adult perpetrators identified in research include:

  • adverse experiences in childhood, such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect
  • interpersonal, relationship and emotional difficulties, including difficulty connecting with other adults, intimacy problems and poor social skills, and emotional affiliation with children
  • distorted beliefs and ‘thinking errors’ that may facilitate child sexual abuse
  • indirect influences, such as contextual or ‘trigger’ factors.

Researchers have developed various typologies to understand adult male perpetrators, based on their behaviours and characteristics. However, most perpetrators do not fit neatly into discrete categories. Rather, they may exhibit motivations or actions that are representative of more than one type, or may exhibit elements of different typologies at different points in time. Typologies provide a useful means of understanding patterns against a background of considerable diversity, but should not be used as a diagnostic tool.

While recognising this limitation, we have identified three typologies, drawn from research, that reflect the patterns frequently displayed by adult perpetrators we heard about during private sessions and public hearings. They are, ‘fixated, persistent’ perpetrators, ‘opportunistic’ perpetrators, and ‘situational’ perpetrators. These typologies have different but overlapping traits, behaviours, characteristics and patterns.

There is no typical profile of women who sexually abuse children identified in research.

Research suggests that four pre-conditions must be met before an adult will sexually abuse a child. They are motivation to sexually abuse; overcoming internal inhibitions the perpetrator may have about sexually abusing a child; overcoming external barriers to access a child; and overcoming the child’s resistance. These pre-conditions provide a useful framework for understanding why and how an adult perpetrator commits child sexual abuse, and the role of the institution in facilitating or preventing access to a child. To effectively prevent child sexual abuse, each of these pre‑conditions must be addressed.

What influences a child to sexually abuse other children

Children have sexually harmed other children in institutional contexts. While the sexual harm that children can inflict on other children should not be minimised, children are not the same as adults in terms of their sexual and emotional development and legal responsibility. Children with problematic and harmful sexual behaviours exhibit behaviours that can range from those that fall outside what is developmentally normal through to behaviours that are coercive and abusive. Some children, particularly younger children, may engage in inappropriate sexual interactions without intending or understanding the harm it causes others. Children who exhibit harmful sexual behaviours have often experienced trauma themselves, and require protection and treatment. Research has found that most children with harmful sexual behaviours do not go on to perpetrate sexual abuse as adults.

The characteristics of children with harmful sexual behaviours are diverse. However, of survivors who told us during private sessions that they were sexually abused by another child, 86.3 per cent said the child was male. Most of the children with harmful sexual behaviours we heard about in private sessions harmed other children in institutions where there was opportunity to be unsupervised with other children.


While there is no simple explanation for why child sexual abuse occurs in some institutions, we have identified a number of ways that institutions may enable opportunities for abuse. Institutions may create these opportunities inadvertently but all institutions are responsible for removing them by identifying, preventing and mitigating risks, and responding appropriately when abuse occurs. Throughout our inquiry, we learned that:

  • some institutions are more likely than others to enable adult perpetrators and children with harmful sexual behaviours to sexually abuse children, and to make it more difficult for the abuse to be detected and addressed
  • the level of risk within a particular institutional context is influenced by the types of activities and services provided, the physical environment, the characteristics of the children in the institution, and, to an extent, organisational management
  • some institutions, such as closed institutions, carry more risk of child sexual abuse than others and these institutions need to be alert to their heightened risk
  • children are more likely to be abused in institutional contexts where the community has an unquestioning respect for the authority of an institution
  • many risk factors exist in contemporary institutional contexts.

Cultural, operational and environmental factors within institutions can all affect the likelihood of children being sexually abused and the prospect that abuse will be identified, reported and responded to appropriately.

  • Institutional cultural factors include leadership and organisational culture, which shape assumptions, values, beliefs and norms. These influence, among other things, how individuals behave when interacting with children, what is understood to be appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, and how children’s wellbeing and safety is prioritised. They can include risk factors such as the failure to listen to children, or prioritising the reputation of an institution over the safety and wellbeing of children.
  • Operational factors include governance, internal structure, day-to-day practices, the approach to the implementation of child-safe policies and the recruitment, screening and training of staff and volunteers. They can include risk factors such as institutional hierarchies that inhibit identification of abuse and allowing perpetrators to remain in positions where abuse can continue.
  • Environmental factors include the characteristics of physical and online spaces that enable potential adult perpetrators and children with harmful sexual behaviours to access victims. They can include risk factors such as access to children in isolated or unsupervised locations, and the use of online environments to groom and abuse children. 

What influences a child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse

All children are at risk of sexual abuse where a potential perpetrator or child with harmful sexual behaviours has access to children within an institutional context. Some children are more vulnerable to child sexual abuse in institutional contexts than others. This can be because they are placed in situations that expose them to higher levels of risk more frequently or for longer periods of time than other children.

There are a variety of related factors that may influence the vulnerability of a child to sexual abuse, including:

  • the gender of the child
  • the age and developmental stage of the child
  • whether the child has experienced maltreatment previously
  • whether the child has disability, and the nature of that disability
  • the family characteristics and circumstances of the child
  • the nature of the child’s involvement in institutional settings
  • other factors, including the child’s physical characteristics, social isolation, level of understanding of sexual behaviour (including sexual abuse) and personal safety, sexual orientation, high achievement and level of self-esteem.

As there is only limited research into these factors, we cannot be conclusive about the extent to which they might increase the vulnerability of a child to risk of sexual abuse. There may also be other factors related to the child that increase vulnerability that have not been identified here.

Identifying these risk factors helps us understand why a child may be at increased risk of sexual abuse in institutional contexts. These factors should be viewed as being associated with the occurrence of child sexual abuse, rather than being a direct cause of abuse, although research suggests that some factors are more strongly associated with child sexual abuse than others.

Particular groups of children may be more vulnerable to sexual abuse because of their increased exposure to certain risk factors. For example, children with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may be exposed more often to circumstances that place them in a high-risk institution; make it less likely they are able to disclose or report abuse; and may make it less likely they will receive an adequate response. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are significantly over-represented in some high-risk institutional contexts due to a range of historical, social and economic factors, including colonisation.

Just as there are risk factors that may increase a child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse, protective factors may reduce their vulnerability. Although the presence of protective factors in a child’s life does not guarantee that they will be protected against abuse, they may help to moderate the risk of, and act as safeguards against, abuse. Factors that may decrease the likelihood of a child being sexually abused include:

  • supportive and trustworthy adults
  • supportive peers
  • a child’s adequate understanding of appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour, including sexual abuse, and personal safety
  • a child’s ability to assert themselves verbally or physically to reject the abuse
  • strong community or cultural connections.

The culture and practices of institutions as well as community standards have pivotal roles in the prevention of child sexual abuse.

During the course of our inquiry, we heard from people who were sexually abused as children in many decades. We also heard about the responses of institutions to child sexual abuse over this period. The contexts in which children have been placed in institutions have changed over time. Some children – including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds – have been placed in closed institutions, such as out-of-home care or juvenile justice facilities, at higher rates than other children. This is a result of specific government and institutional policies and practices.

Changes to laws, policies and practices over the decades have improved the potential for institutions and governments to protect against and respond to allegations of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. The systems for preventing, identifying and responding to child sexual abuse in institutions in Australia have developed over time. Each state and territory has a set of child welfare laws, a child protection system, and a system of reporting and investigating child sexual abuse. Despite differences across states and territories, arrangements are broadly similar and sit within a national framework for child welfare and protection and international obligations on children’s rights. However, separate systems across jurisdictions have led to inconsistencies and varying standards and approaches. Further changes are needed to improve the safety and wellbeing of children in institutions.

In recent decades the rights of children have become increasingly considered in the development of laws and policies. Along with many other countries, Australia now formally recognises children’s rights as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, although challenges remain to ensuring its implementation.

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