In 2007, I was heavily pregnant with my son. It seems an important detail, perhaps a direct influence on the impression a few lines in the sidebar of the newspaper inspired. Just a handful of sentences about a very wealthy man who had appeared in court on a string of sexual assault charges against a girl. She had been eleven when the offences began. My God, I thought, how must her mother feel? Her family?
As those questions wormed their way into my psyche, my curiosity lead me on a nine-year journey to try to understand how such a crime can happen and remain undetected. There were other stories that came to light; Maurice Van Ryn, the former CEO of Bega Cheese and prominent Sydney property developer Peter Versi. Both men of wealth and power.
Since the establishment of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in 2013, the extent of institutionalised abuse of children has been horrifying to observe. We now all share the knowledge that children, entrusted into the care of teachers, religious leaders and community organisations, have had that duty of care abused. It is easy to follow those news stories and apply a certain distance between us and them. Those are bad men (and they are overwhelmingly men) in positions of public power. It is shocking, unacceptable and appallingly pernicious. But it allows a certain moral tempering that this crime is over there, as it were. This might be acceptable if it were not the fact that 90% of children are sexually abused by people they know and trust within their family circle and within their own home.
And these are only the cases we know about. Because of underreporting, there are no accurate statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault against children. National figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s most recent report, Child Protection Australia 2015-16, indicates that of the 165,000 cases investigated, there were 61,000 substantiated cases of abuse against 45,700 children, 12% were sexual abuse. That’s 5,484 children we know about.
AIHW’s own media release says that these numbers are growing year on year. These figures make watching a news item depicting a suburban neighbourhood protesting about the paedophile relocated to a house in their street a fascinating exercise in social consciousness.
The paedophile in question is almost always conveniently a nasty looking man in a grungy tracksuit with greasy hair and a hunted look. As if any of the women who climbed into Charles Manson’s car would have done so if he looked anything but handsome and charming. As if sociopaths, psychopaths or malignant narcissists have not spent a lifetime concealing their true personalities behind a socially acceptable veneer.
We warn our children about stranger danger but the terrible fate that befell Daniel Morcombe, and all the other children like him, is not the statistical norm. The truth is that children are typically abused by their dad, their step-dad, uncle, grandfather, cousin, brother or the kindly neighbour next door. People whom they are supposed to be able to trust. Not strangers at all.
Criminal justice outcomes for sexual assault victims of any age are poor. Sexual assault offences have the lowest number of guilty pleas and the lowest rates of guilty verdicts compared to other crimes. They also have the highest appeal rates. The overall rates of reporting to police is less than 30%, so it is not difficult to surmise that it is even lower for children sixteen and under.
What’s more depressing is that only 15% of child sexual abuse cases result in the initiation of criminal proceedings against the alleged perpetrator. Of those cases that do reach court, less than 50% result in a criminal conviction.
Listen: Would you ban men from looking after your kids? Post continues after audio.
When it comes to children, it is easy to see why these numbers are so depressing. Fear of not being believed plays a part in failure to report but the legal system itself is a barrier. Given a child may not come forward for months, years or decades, there is little, if any, forensic evidence. The elapsed time can also affect their ability to remember the precise details needed to substantiate the claim. Not to mention that these crimes happen in secret. Rarely are there any witnesses, which means it’s the child’s word against an adult’s; an adult who is skilled and practiced at concealing the crime. Young children may not even have the language to describe the acts that have been committed upon their person. A child may very well feel guilty and responsible and may have been threatened to ensure their silence. It is understandable then that parents, the police and even the DPP may believe it will be too distressing for the child to go
through the rigours of the legal process. Would you want to subject your already traumatised child to the further trauma of a protracted legal case that will most likely go on for years and with only the slenderest of possibilities that the perpetrator will be found guilty in a court of law?
Many do not. The corollary of that, of course, is that the perpetrator is at liberty to commit the offence again.
Part of the problem is that our laws enshrine what is termed evidence of recent complaint. Our legal framework is derived from a thirteenth century prescription based on the assumption that if a woman had been raped she should immediately travel the neighbourhood and present her injuries to men of good standing. Her failure to raise a ‘hue and cry’ was an acceptable defence against the allegation. But children are not typical victims and our legal system was not designed to cope with this delayed reporting. Law reform in this area is an active and ongoing process but it does not change the important issues at play here.
Even if a child does see their day in court, they are at the mercy of a system biased against them, if not in law, in practice. The simple fact is they are a child in a room (or virtually in many cases these days) full of adults who have a wealth of courtroom experience. Amongst the legal professionals as well as the jury will be people suspicious of why it has taken so long for the child to come forward. And despite the fact that our law says a person aged under sixteen is incapable of consent, in the public domain there are plenty of people who are not so convinced, and some of them will be in the courtroom.
People also have preconceived ideas about how a ‘real’ victim should behave. Failure to conform to this idea can damage a victim’s credibility. Despite research to the contrary, not all victims exhibit obvious signs of trauma. Not all police officers or soldiers who have experienced trauma in the line of duty suffer PTSD or present some other obvious psychological damage, and nor do children.
All in all, the legal system is fraught with the possibility of revictimising our children.
Paedophiles must bank on this. They have little chance of being caught and even then, little chance of being convicted.
Which takes us back to the question, how must a mother feel when her child is being sexually assaulted under the same roof? The unpalatable truth is some mothers may know, but don't address the behaviour for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, economic and emotional dependency. The other reason is grooming. When you think about it, how does a perpetrator gain access to and guarantee the silence of a child? The child is the primary victim, but it seems totally within the realms of possibility that in order to access the child, the perpetrator must also groom the mother. Paedophilia is rarely the opportunistic crime we’d prefer to believe it is. Perpetrators must spend time building trust and the tolerance of acceptable behaviour. They build emotional bonds and dependency with the child, certainly, but also of the mother. Creating not one victim, but two.
Meredith Jaffé's newest novel 'The Making of Christina' tells the story of interior designer Christina Clemente, who is caught off guard by an intense affair with her charismatic client, Jackson Plummer. He quickly becomes the cure to Christina's loneliness and a surrogate father to her young daughter Bianca. But soon, it becomes clear that Bianca has a secret - and the monstrous truth threatens to destroy them all.
You can buy 'The Making of Christina' here.