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COVER STORY: Wives and girlfriends of child sex offenders. 'How could you not have known?'

Warning: the content in this post is at times graphic and may be disturbing.

Amanda* turned off the light to leave her daughter’s bedroom. She closed the door quietly and held her breath for the time it took to reach the bathroom. Through the hall. To the bedroom. To the ensuite. With the door closed behind her, the then-27-year-old curled up in a foetal position and “cried her guts out” on the white tiled bathroom floor. The nightly routine of bedtime had recently become unbearable.

Little by little, her 10-year-old daughter Casey* had been revealing to her mother the extent of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Amanda’s ex-boyfriend, Mark.

Casey told her mum she missed Mark. She didn’t want him to get in trouble. It was her, Casey’s job, she told Amanda, to protect the man in his 20s who’d sexually abused her between the ages of seven and nine.

It was usually after school, while Amanda was at work, when Mark touched Casey. Later, the 10-year-old would be able to tell police the exact time of the offences, because she remembered hearing the Play School theme music and wishing she was watching the show.

Casey’s revelation was the devastating piece of a puzzle Amanda had been praying didn’t exist. She had worried for 12 months, through a gruelling police investigation into Mark’s use of online child sex abuse material, that she would find out her own daughter had been abused by the man she invited into their home. And it was true. Her ex partner had sexually abused her little girl.

The timeline for discovering your partner is a child sex abuser can be hard to pin down. Often, it emerges slowly, devastatingly over a period of time. For Amanda, it started with the discovery of a photograph on Mark’s phone. The girl’s skirt was pulled up, her underpants were on the floor and her vagina was exposed.

Later, Amanda would learn the girl in the photo was the seven-year-old daughter of their next door neighbours. She went to the police and they found more images, as well as messages with a distributor of child sex abuse material. Ever since that first photograph, the question had been a constant echo; had he touched my daughter? 

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Dating Mark had been a “decision”. It wasn’t a love-at-first-sight runaway romance for Amanda. It was logical and considered and realistic and everyone thought she was making the smartest decision she’d ever made.

Her relationship with her ex – Casey’s father – had been volatile. She had been “beaten down” physically and emotionally and Mark was someone completely different. She knew him from school and, when she ran into him unexpectedly in a shopping centre car park, he was what she remembered: “Sweet with a sense of humour. Very respectful, and very polite.”

Amanda was careful because of Casey. Sometimes she would test Mark by leaving the lounge room and watching from the kitchen how he behaved with her then six-year-old daughter. “I was a mum first, and I had to be careful with the man I was bringing into our life. I wanted to do the best by her,” she said.

Eventually, when Mark moved in with them, Casey asked if she could call him ‘dad’. “I had no instinct that there was something to be concerned about,” Amanda said. “I saw myself being with him for the rest of my life.”

But then things changed.

“He became over-confident, a bit arrogant and our sex life was non-existent” Amanda remembers. She thought he was cheating. She confronted him, over and over again. He told her she was crazy, that she was making things up. Gas-lighting, that’s called.

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When she found a secret mobile phone under the mattress in the spare bedroom, it was almost a perverse kind of relief.  “I needed evidence. I needed something concrete to justify breaking up my daughter’s home,” Amanda remembers, anguished. She still thought he was cheating, though. At first, she did not realise the extent of what he was doing.

There were text messages and strange phone numbers and countless photographs. Adult women. Gay porn. Transgender females. Then, the photograph of the girl with her underpants on the floor.

“You spend your whole life knowing to go to the police, that you would kill someone who could look at something like that. But I froze. I could not get my head around it. I decided to ask him, ‘do you want to tell me how old she is?'”

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Natalie Walker’s story is different.

Natalie and her husband were married in the year 2000 and, two years after the wedding, the pair moved to Melbourne from Adelaide.

It was a long weekend when their hometown mates came to stay. It was a group of her husband’s closest friends – the same men who’d been his groomsmen at their wedding. One of them worked in IT and had always been responsible for servicing the couple’s shared computer.

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Natalie told Mamamia: “He pulled me aside and told me ‘everybody knows your husband watches porn, but I’ve found something different. I’ve found child pornography'”.

Natalie had a weekend of entertaining ahead of her. A house full of men and her husband, who she suddenly, devastatingly wasn’t sure she even knew.

“I was reeling – it was the first I knew of anything like that. I had no hunch. I was just so shocked,” she recalls. “Everything else in our relationship was idyllic…”

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News about the proliferation of child abuse and child pornography feels impossible to escape. From celebrities and public figures to clergy, trusted figures in the community and seemingly ‘regular’ men who are being caught, arrested and charged.

Between 1989 and 1994, there were approximately 12,000 items of child pornography seized in Australia. In 2015 alone, there were 11,000 investigations into online child abuse material across the country. A single case in 2010 saw Australian police seize 729,000 images and 2,700 movies.

The world is riding a “tidal wave” of online child abuse material according to a Canadian Supreme Court judge who presided over a 2001 landmark case that ruled “freedom of expression” is no excuse for viewing images of children being raped.

The tidal wave arrived with the internet.

And just when you think it cannot get more repugnant, it does. Last year, the Australian Federal Police issued a warning about an “alarming trend” of men in sitting in front of their computer screens directing – yes directing – child abuse material being live streamed from the Philippines.

But this story isn’t about the men or even the poor, innocent victims of these crimes. There is another group of people intimately affected by the sexual abuse of children: the wives, girlfriends and families of their abusers.

We all have one question: How could they not have known?  From the outside, from the comfort of lives that may not have been destroyed by this most horrific of crimes, we cast immediate judgement on the partners of abusers. We make them responsible. We assume their complicity. And we offer zero support.

Why? Because we need to believe we could never be them. That we would never be blind sided by such evil.

The thought of something so dark and sinister lurking within someone you love is so unpalatable that we can’t allow ourselves to imagine it. This is why, instead of acknowledging the pain of women like Amanda and Natalie, we push them away and assume their complicity or at least their guilt by association. Because recognising their trauma and admitting their innocence also opens up the possibility: If it can happen to her, it can happen to me.

Many partners of child sex offenders are living in anguish. Image via iStock.

The truth is just as difficult to digest. With some exceptions, these women are hurting. They are scared of the person they've spent their lives loving. They are afraid for their children, or the children of loved ones around them. Most of all, they have lost all trust in themselves because, if they've gotten this so wrong, what else might they discover?

Still, we shut these women out of our communities and life and thoughts at the same time as their lives are being blown apart.

"The responsibility so often falls to the woman in this situation - I was the one who had to confront my husband and report him," Natalie said. "When he broke down and I was worried for his well-being and again I felt responsible."

And this is something rarely discussed. The partners of these men are often faced with the burden of the men's mental health, emotional welfare and physical safety after finding out what they really are.

Exposed child sex offenders have an increased risk of suicide. A 2012 study found exposed paedophilia could be a "sufficient trigger" for suicide. And a 2013 analysis from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which looked at 106 suicides from child sex offenders, found 79 per cent of suicides were from child pornography traders or collectors. Nearly all the suicides were from Caucasian men who were married and employed. Twenty-six per cent of offenders killed themselves within 48 hours of becoming aware of the investigation.

A Current Affair reporter, Ben McCormack who was recently charged over child pornography offences was hospitalised within days and remains in hospital several weeks later. It is not known if he has a partner.

"Not only are you dealing with the horror of what you've discovered, you also are handling the responsibility of reporting it and all the time wondering, 'what if he kills himself?'"

Struggling with her own experience and looking for someone to turn to, Natalie founded PartnerSpeak  - an "online peer support forum for those whose partner, spouse or family member views/ed child abuse material". In March this year, the organisation hosted a world first symposium in Melbourne, looking at the needs of the partners of online child sex offenders.

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Mark was quick to defend himself when Amanda asked about the image on his phone. Casey and the neighbour's daughter, he explained, had been playing a game where they took off their underwear and danced around. He'd asked them to stop and took the photo to "show their mothers".

"But you never showed me? And it's on a phone I wasn't meant to find?"

She went to the police. What followed was a nightmare familiar to anyone who has reported a loved one for a crime. The police seized the phone and their computer. They arrested him outside his parents' home. He was found guilty of viewing and producing child pornography. The accusations of sexually assaulting Casey didn't come out until later, after the 10-year-old stopped blaming herself for his departure and felt safe enough to open up to her mother about what Mark had done to her.

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When Natalie confronted her husband, "he broke down and was distraught". He promised he would get help. Natalie left him, despite being intensely worried for his safety.

Where the stories of Amanda and Natalie come together, is in the anguish and the loneliness.

"Shame can rub off on the non-offending partner and she can become tarnished with the same brush," Natalie explains. "I didn't want to be in the house after I confronted him so I called a friend to ask if I could come and stay. This was a friend who would call me when her child was sick, I had keys to her house and everything. I told her what happened and she said 'no' I couldn't come and stay because she 'didn't want to get involved'."

"It was then that the walls started to come up. I began to realise - people don't want to be close to me, because it means being close to this horrible offence.'"

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Mark was never convicted of sexually abusing Casey. By the time Amanda went to the police, it had happened long enough ago that Casey's recollection wasn't clear enough and there were suspicions she'd been coached.

Instead, Casey is the one serving the life sentence. She has been in and out of hospital after "countless" suicide attempts. Now 21, she talks often about ending her life.

"I find it difficult to explain to my boss, and to my colleagues, why I need time off work to get my daughter to her appointments. When I do explain, I am faced with so much stigma that I feel penalised," Amanda said. "There is also implied blame from the health professionals caring for Casey. People think I've failed my daughter, no matter what I do."

Amanda says she doesn't feel she has the right to call herself a victim because "I was the person who brought this man into mine and my child's life, and it was my daughter who suffered first-hand for it".

Still, it's important to remember that she's not the criminal here. And while there will always be some women of child abusers who refuse to believe or accept proof of their partner's crimes, women who are aware of it and even in some shocking cases actively complicit, most women, women like Amanda and Natalie are not. We should not shun them in the way we shun the men who abuse children or participate in industries who do.

*Some names have been changed. 

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