05Sep Recent developments for understanding child abuse

Some reports on abuse of children

The outgoing Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, was interviewed on Newstalk in the past week. There is a short report in the current Irish Catholic. Among other things, she said: ““I think because there has been a huge predominance in the media about the coverage of clerical sex abuse it has slightly distorted the picture. The last picture we had was in the SAVI [Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland] report and in fact clerical sex abuse accounts for only 6% of child abuse and in fact much more worrying is the statistics of 20-25% of children abused by somebody that is known to them, either in their family or in their extended family or community. I think we have had probably some discomfort in talking about those things, but it’s important that we don’t forget that.”

Without in any way seeking to diminish the awfulness of abuse by clergy, it is good to see it acknowledged that the “huge predominance in the media” about clerical abuse has been harmful. “Slightly distorted” is an understatement. She said, “clerical sex abuse accounts for only 6% of child abuse.” It is always difficult to discover the full truth about such a secretive matter. SAVI is the report on Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, published in 2002. SAVI and SAVI Revisited, which was published in 2005, states in the Executive Summary: “Clerical/religious ministers or clerical/religious teachers constituted 3.2% of abusers.” (Page 5)

Although she got the percentage wrong, her reminder that a far larger proportion of abuse takes place either in the family or in the extended family is important. This, of course, is more difficult to tackle than institutional abuse.

A report just published, prepared by the Australian Institute of Criminology for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, is entitled “Historical review of sexual offence and child sexual abuse legislation in Australia: 1788–2013.” It starts with a brief history of sexual abuse of children in Australia. It says: “At this point [18th century] in history (as was the case until the twentieth century) children had very few rights. They were seen as the chattels of their fathers, a view that was enshrined in English canon law (Boss 1980). For example, under English law, rape was the theft of a girl’s virginity that could be rectified through providing compensation to the father (Ames & Houston 1990; Petrie 2000). This perception of children as chattels may offer some explanation for why, during the early stages of Australia’s settlement, the government of the time did not provide services to protect those children who had arrived or had been born in the colony.” (Page 3). That this was the case, however shocking to us today, can help in recognising the late development of understanding of the matter until the late 20th century.

This report says: “At the start of the twentieth century, under significant pressure from his peers, Freud released a series of new papers contradicting his previous work on Seduction Theory. In his revised work, Freud posited that his female clients who had recalled experiences of child sexual abuse had either fantasised the events because of unresolved sexual feelings towards their parents (Oedipal Complex), or had been the sexual aggressors in the first place (NSW Government 1985). Freud continued to deny the occurrence of child sexual abuse throughout the 1900s, and even took concerted efforts to repress the research of his peers, which appeared to contradict his now revised theory.” (Page 6)

“1940s–1960s
Most commentators agree that it was between the 1940s and 1960s that child abuse was ‘re-discovered’ and that western democracies recognised child maltreatment as a societal-level concern rather than cases that occurred in isolation … Kempe and his colleagues proposed the ‘battered-child syndrome’ as an interpretation of medical evidence (radiological surveys of children that revealed untreated broken and fractured bones) caused by physical abuse perpetrated typically by parents or caregivers …
After the publication of Kempe’s work, child abuse was also ‘discovered’ in other countries. …While awareness and concern regarding physical abuse and neglect were increasing during this period, the same cannot be said for child sexual abuse … While the prevalence and impact of child sexual abuse was continually minimised and denied during this period, Breckenridge notes that ‘government records and independent research continued to confirm rather than deny the frequent occurrence of the event’ (1992:21).
It was only in the late 1960s and particularly the 1970s that sexual violence, including child sexual abuse, emerged as significant social and political issues in Australia and overseas.” (Pages 8-9)

The situation in Ireland was not dis-similar, however difficult it may be to take it in. This is the society of which the church is part. This is the kind of historical context which should have been addressed by the Murphy Report.

UNICEF has just published “HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: A statistical analysis of violence against children.” This is a report on violence against children all around the world.

A final comment:
Sometimes the remark is heard that abuse by a cleric is worse than abuse by others. There is certainly a particular kind of betrayal involved here; and yet I would never want to say that it is worse, for a simple reason. It would imply that abuse suffered not at the hands of a cleric is less serious. This would be an injustice. Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, said, ““I think because there has been a huge predominance in the media about the coverage of clerical sex abuse.” The distortion resulting from this predominance has meant that the vast number of those abused by others has been seriously neglected, almost forgotten. Except by those who retain memory of their abuse.

Pádraig McCarthy