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Column The risk of suicide among survivors of child sexual abuse needs to be measured

To give the survivors of horrific childhood abuse the support and care they need, we must properly understand the threat that suicide poses to victims, writes Mark Vincent Healy.

PERHAPS THERE CAN be no darker subjects than suicide and clerical child sexual abuse. When they are combined, where there is strong evidence in countless surveys and reports to suggest there is a direct link between them, one is perhaps doubly horrified by such issues. It’s a topic which can refer all too often to a horrific beginning to one’s life as it does a most tragic end.

I felt moved to do something about the combined suffering of suicide and clerical child sexual abuse and attended the launch of the World Suicide Prevention Week on Thursday 5 September 2013 at the Department of Health, Hawkins House.

As a campaign survivor of child sexual abuse by members of the Spiritans or Holy Ghost Fathers, I am mindful of the failures of this congregation to address my needs and those of others survivors and their distraught families with whom I am in contact. I have been told by the Acting CEO, Ms Teresa Devlin of the National Board for Safeguarding Children that she has received update reports from second tranche participants which once processed will be published later this month.

There is a connection between these events and their subjects and it’s a very tragic and important one.

Helping survivors of child sexual abuse

At the launch I asked both Minister Kathleen Lynch TD, Minister for Disability, Equality, Mental Health & Older People who launched the event and Professor Ella Arensman of the National Registry of Deliberate Self-Harm Ireland who gave an excellent presentation on the NSRF Annual Report 2012, “Would they support a call for research into ‘completed suicide’ amongst survivors of clerical child sexual abuse considering no research has been done on the noted link between the two?”

Both Minister Lynch and Professor Arensman agreed and stated that indeed there needs to be research in the area of suicide and clerical child sexual abuse in order to provide better services to the identified more vulnerable survivors of such abuse.

Indeed the Minster’s presentation emphasised the connection between an evidence-based approach and adopting creative and appropriate solutions to suicide prevention. The fact there has been no such research highlighted the need which the Minister replied was therefore ‘very important’. Professor Arensman also was aware of this need and gave her full support for such a research programme.

A new conversation with hope for recidivists of attempted suicide, consolation to grieving families and communities, and ‘risk assessment’ of any current practices and procedures which contribute to suicide needs to begin in this area.

No survey into the rate of suicide amongst this group exists

My main concern is with and for that most vulnerable group, survivors of clerical child sexual abuse. They are at risk if they remain silent and they are at risk if they break silence and enter redress processes seeking justice. The risk is life threatening as evidenced by my research.

The SAVI Report, March 2002, page 202 stated: “Recent work shows that child sexual abuse is among a set of adverse experiences linked in a strong graded manner to adult psychopathology and suicide (Dube et al., 2001).” Dube et. al. 2001, indicated that there is anything from a 2- to 5-fold increase in the risk of attempted suicide from such abuse which is accepted by the Irish psychiatric fraternity from that American survey.

Despite this, there is not one survey into the rate of suicide amongst this identified vulnerable group of survivors of clerical child sexual abuse or child sexual abuse in general.

Who is afraid of the consequences of such research?

Dr David Lisak author of a 1994 study “The Psychological Impact of Sexual Abuse: Content Analysis of Interviews with Male Survivors” wrote to me recently saying, “From an epidemiological perspective, when you have demonstrated significantly higher rates of depression and suicidal ideation in a subsample of the population, you can logically infer that actual suicide rates will follow.”

What surprises me is that the question of an identified subsample of the population noted in numerous studies and surveys as having higher risk of suicide such as noted in the SAVI Report from 2002 that there has not been a study to confirm this anywhere, yet everyone believes it to be true.

Might it be because if such a study were to prove it were linked then there would be enormous social, judicial and medical implications and consequences? It might not be in the interests of the political and religious establishments to consider such a liability perhaps.

My own research

The figures on suicide rates for survivors of child sexual abuse are hard to find, and those that are make for lamentable reading.

In September 2010 it was reported in Belgium that 13 victims died by suicide attributable to clerical child sexual abuse.

In September 2012 it was reported in Victoria, Australia that 40 survivors of clerical child sexual abuse allegedly died by suicide triggering a Parliamentary inquiry which found 620 more cases of child sexual abuse committed by the Catholic clergy. The final parliamentary report will be issued on 30 September 2013.

In Ireland cases of suicide directly related to clerical child sexual abuse are more difficult to find because of the lack of research and study to date.

In 2004 Paul Dwyer died by suicide when the DPP decided there was insufficient evidence to convict his alleged abused Fr Bill Carney who was extradited by a London court back to Ireland in May 2013 to face 34 charges of child sexual abuse.

In April 2005, Anthony Delaney died by suicide. “Mr Delaney was among the former inmates of residential institutions whose case have been dealt with by the Government-appointed Residential Institutions Redress Board” according to Ben Quinn of the Irish Independent.

In October 2010, in a report conducted by Mary Higgins for the St Stephen’s Green Trust, entitled, “Developing a profile of survivors of abuse in Irish religious institutions”, it was cited that “One person reported that of 39 co-residents in his class, 17 had committed suicide since discharge.” I have heard anecdotal stories from other survivors and former inmates of from Irish residential institutions who claim they know of reports of 33 survivors of residential abuse who committed suicide.

In December 2011, the Cloyne Report was published in full. Earlier in July 2011, Paul Cullen of the Irish Times reported “two people attempted suicide.” At the same time, Michael Brennan of the Irish Independent reported details of the 18 priests against whom allegations were made but none were convicted. A priest by the name Fr Moray is mentioned as having sexually abused a brother and sister. The brother is recorded as having died by suicide.

In June 2012, Paul Daly (whose case was conjoined with mine in a successful prosecution of Fr Henry Moloney by the DPP in March 2009) was believed to have died prematurely as a result of his child sexual abuse.

In September 2012, it was cited in the second tranche reports by the National Board for Safeguarding Children prepared by the Missionaries  of the  Sacred  Heart (MSC), that “The suffering of victims has on occasions caused them to engage in self-harming. There is a record of one young man who died by suicide where it is noted in the files that the abuse that he suffered was seen as a contributing factor if not the main cause of his death.”

Society must not shirk its responsibility

This information in Ireland indicates more than just the statistical data of 55 confirmed or alleged suicides in Ireland as a result of clerical child sexual abuse, but it also tells the extent of the tragic stories and ruptured lives caused by the aberrant members of the Catholic clergy who perpetrated and facilitated such abuse. Indeed in seeking redress there is no ‘risk assessment’ conducted regarding any litigation procedures outlining the dangers posed to survivors in seeking justice and redress.

Society, however, must not shirk its responsibility to such a vulnerable group especially where it is clear to what danger they are actually being subjected having been so intimately violated from such an early age. Are we not judged by how we treat the most vulnerable amongst us?

There is reason to believe you know someone who was sexually abused as a child, only you may not know it. Opening up such debate depends on ‘safe space’ and ‘trust’.

People wholly undeserving of any further neglect

I have written to the Minister for Children, Ms Frances Fitzgerald in the hope that she would consider the need for the services to survivors of clerical child sexual abuse which I am calling for.

I am only looking for two services, ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ to counter the suicide ideation identified in a group of Irish people wholly undeserving of any further neglect from childhood by our State.

Mark Vincent Healy is a survivor campaigner seeking ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ for survivors of clerical child sexual abuse.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact the following organisations:

  • Samaritans 1850 60 90 900 or email
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634
  • Console 1800 201 890
  • Aware 1890 303 302
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email

[Main article image posed by model: luxorphoto via Shutterstock]

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