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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 21 September, 2014

Opinion: Why are so many victims of child sexual abuse reluctant to report it?

Lenient sentencing in sexual assault cases has negative consequences – not just for individuals, but for all victims.

Gerry Fahey

THE ECONOMIC AND Social Research Institute (ESRI) has just published a new study into the effect of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) on the long-term economic consequences for individuals affected, in terms of lower attachment to the labour market and/or lower incomes. The study found that:

5.6% of men and 6.7% cent of women in the study said that they had experienced CSA. Looking at people aged 50 to 64, 17% of male and 14 percent of female survivors of CSA were out of the labour force as a result of being sick or permanently disabled. (The corresponding figures for those who had not experienced CSA were 8 and 6% cent respectively.)

The ESRI figures on the incidence of CSA in Ireland are consistent with the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) Report. Whereas the ESRI study used a single question about sexual abuse “Before you were 18 years were you ever sexually abused?”, the SAVI Report looked at the incidence of twelve different forms of abuse ranging from penetrative abuse to non-contact abuse such as being exposed by an adult to pornography. The SAVI study found that:

More than four in ten (42%) of women reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. The most serious form of abuse, penetrative abuse, was experienced by 10% of women. Attempted penetration or contact abuse was experienced by 21%, with a further 10% experiencing non-contact abuse.

The long-term psychological consequences of abuse 

While the recent ESRI study looked at the economic consequences of child sexual abuse, the SAVI study highlighted the long-term psychological consequences: those who had experienced attempted or actual penetrative sexual abuse were eight times more likely to have been an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital than those who had not been abused.

The SAVI Report also highlighted the fact that the occurrence of CSA is very much under-reported to the authorities. Almost half of those who disclosed experiences of sexual violence in this study reported that they had never previously disclosed that abuse to others, and just 7.8% of women had reported their experiences to the gardaí. Only half of those who reported to the gardaí were satisfied overall with the service they received.

Clearly both studies show that CSA is a major social problem and SAVI shows that it is grossly under-reported. Unbelievably 21% of those who experienced penetrative abuse or rape as a child, and 12% of those who suffered rape as an adult, did not report the crime to the gardaí. This raises some very serious questions.

Questionable outcomes in sexual assault cases

Could it be that our criminal justice system has a part to play in this under-reporting of a very serious crime? It is possible that a contributing factor to this is that, over the years, there have been a number of high-profile sex related cases with questionable outcomes which have been brought to the attention of the public.

One most recent examples of this was the case of the businessman Anthony Lyons, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting a young woman in Dublin. The judge sentenced the Lyons to five years in prison but suspended most of the sentence, with Lyons initially serving just six months in prison. The DPP wisely appealed this decision and the Court of Criminal Appeal increased the time to be served in prison by Lyons to two-and-a-half years. The decision by the original judge to suspend most of the sentence trivialised the effect of the trauma experienced by the young woman and, also, sent out a message that if a sex offender is well-off, their money could be used to avoid an appropriate-to-the-crime jail sentence. This case has much in common with the recent Graham Griffin, Martin Quigley and Aidan Farrington cases.

Even more recent was the case of a seven-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by her stepfather’s brother, John Carvin. The offender was found guilty by a jury of his peers and the judge in the case sentenced the criminal to three years but suspended the sentence in full for three years so that the offender would serve no time in prison.

The decisions in these cases are bizarre when viewed from a psychotherapeutic perspective. The eminent Jungian psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched had this to say about the effect of childhood trauma:

Traumatised children strive to understand why they are being neglected, abused or shamed, and nearly every traumatised child ends up believing that s/he is in pain because s/he is fundamentally at fault… In terms of the psyche, trauma is any experience that causes unbearable pain or anxiety when a child’s sense of self is repeatedly threatened the child is traumatised. This can happen through sexual or physical abuse.

A lack of faith in our justice system 

These cases are not by any means exceptions to the rule in our criminal courts nor are such cases only of recent origin, as the 2004 Tim Allen case showed. Allen was found guilty of downloading child pornography and sentenced to 240 hours of community service by the judge. Allen paid €40,000 to a charity. Yet if Allen had been before an English court for the same crime he would have been sentenced to five years in prison, according to one newspaper report.

The despicable aspect of child pornography cases is that they involve many children being forced to engage in sex acts with other children or adults. The children involved are frequently from developing countries and, because of this, these victims cannot give evidence in the cases involving them – making it easy to morally disengage from the awful horror of what the children suffer, if one chooses to.

Could it be that one of the reasons that so much CSA goes unreported is that victims of sexual abuse or rape do not trust our criminal justice system? Certainly SAVI found that women were not likely to report the CSA because they felt ashamed, blamed themselves or feared family reactions and publicity. A feeling that the Gardaí “couldn’t do anything to help” was another common reason given for not reporting the crime by those who were raped or abused. Is it any wonder that this happens when the leniency shown by some judges in high profile sex crime cases is taken into account, as well as the extensive media accounts of the very negative effect of this judicial leniency on the female victims and the implied message which that sends to the general public?

In spite of the ESRI and SAVI reports it can be easily argued that our courts are not doing much to help reduce the high level of CSA in Ireland if the cases highlighted above are anything to go by.

Gerry Fahey is an occupational psychologist and a graduate of TCD and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

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