Impacts of child sexual abuse: the ripple effect

Volume 3 of the final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the RC) considers and explains the impacts of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts on survivors and often on their family members, friends, and entire communities.

The impacts of child sexual abuse are different for each survivor, for many it can have deep rooted and lasting impacts while others do not feel that they have been profoundly harmed by the experience.

The onset of those impacts is also very individual, for some the impacts are immediate and temporary, while for others they can last throughout adulthood. In some cases it emerges later in life; for others it abates only to re-emerge or manifest in response to triggers or events. New experiences or entering new stages of development in their life often act as that trigger, for many it is when they have a child themselves.

There are many complex factors that can influence the way that survivors are affected by child sexual abuse. While no single factor can accurately predict how a person will respond, some factors appear to influence either the severity or type of impacts they experience.

These factors include:-

  • the characteristics of the abuse (such as the type, duration and frequency)
  • the relationship of the perpetrator to the child
  • the social, historical and institutional contexts of the abuse
  • the victim’s circumstances, experiences and characteristics (such as age, gender, disability, prior maltreatment, and experiences with disclosing the abuse).

Child sexual abuse can affect many areas of a person’s life, including their:-

  • mental health
  • interpersonal relationships
  • physical health
  • sexual identity, gender identity and sexual behaviour
  • connection to culture
  • spirituality and religious involvement
  • interactions with society
  • education, employment and economic security.

The most commonly described impacts from research and from the private sessions is the impact on a person’s mental health. Of the survivors who provided information in private sessions, 94.9% told the RC about mental health impacts such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); other symptoms of mental distress such as nightmares and sleeping difficulties; and emotional issues such as feelings of shame, guilt and low self-esteem. In addition to mental health difficulties survivors in private sessions also spoke of psychological impacts including difficulties with trust and intimacy, lack of confidence with parenting, and relationship problems. Impaired education and the economic consequences of the same were also referenced by survivors.

The RC learned that there are often particular effects which are more uniquely associated with when a child is sexually abused in an institution. These include impacts on spirituality and religious involvement, such as a loss of faith or a loss of trust in a religious institution, for those victims sexually abused in such settings. Such abuse in an institutional setting also causes distrust and fear of institutions and authority.

In addition to affecting the individual survivor, child sexual abuse has ripple effects that reach others, including the victim’s family, carers and friends, as well as other children and staff in the institution in which the abuse occurred, the community and wider society. These ripple effects can be long-lasting, even affecting future generations by perpetuating cycles of disadvantage, abuse and trauma. Those caught by the ripple effect can also suffer adverse impacts on their mental health, relationships, family functioning, employment, financial security and social connectedness.

Other people with a connection to the institution where the sexual abuse occurred – such as other children and staff at the institution, whistleblowers, and families of perpetrators – can also experience significant effects, for example on their mental health, social connections and employment.

The ripple effects of child sexual abuse have significant and ongoing social, cultural and economic impacts on the wider society and when one considers the cost of providing the appropriate services and supports to deal with these impacts, the clear lesson to be learned is that every step must be taken to prevent it occurring in the first instance.

moohan_sharonv2 Written by Sharon Moohan, partner at BLM

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