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'I made a confession about my childhood to my friend. It blew her entire family apart.'

This story mentions child sexual abuse.

What started as a coffee catchup with a friend ended up shattering many lives but ultimately saving three children.

We are not close friends, just two women who share a background in journalism, a mutual love of writing and a tendency to dive into intense and deeply personal conversations whenever we meet. I am old enough to be her mother but over the years we have formed a relationship built on mutual admiration, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy.

To her, I guess I contribute the wisdom and lived experience of an older woman with opinions about life and journalism that she appears to value. To me, she is like a daughter, without the emotional tentacles in my heart and soul. I admire her strength. She knows what she wants, and she goes for it. She knows what she doesn’t want and banishes it from her life. In that way, she is stronger and more confident than I ever was. She asked me once if I see her as a younger version of myself. It is the type of direct and disarming question that makes her a good journalist. I think I do in a way but she lives her life with so much more purpose, assurance and self-confidence than I ever did. 

Our catch-up at the café that day, given how infrequently we meet, began with the usual update on our respective lives. I enquired about her 11-year-old daughter, who she is raising on her own, and we talked about our current writing projects. At some point, the conversation moved to a television show she had been watching called A Friend of the Family. It is about a pedophile abusing the children of close family friends in 70s America. I remember seeing the promos but knew it was something I would never, could never, watch. As I recalled the creepy images, I felt a familiar twist in my gut, and a tightness in my chest and took another sip of coffee. My friend shrugged. "I don’t think I’ll keep watching it," she said. "It seems too far-fetched."

I had to wrench my thoughts away from the dark place they had gone to. I lowered my cup. "How do you mean?"

"Well, I just can’t see how parents could let that happen."

Watch: One woman shares why she told no one about the sexual abuse she experienced when she was a child. Post continues after video.

Video via YouTube/Committee for Children.

I searched the eyes of my beautiful young friend for a hint of irony. There was none. Pure innocence stared back. Of course. She was raising her daughter in a world where parents are more wised up to the potential for their children to be abused. They’re generally more vigilant about their safety and unsupervised free-ranging in and out of neighbours' homes is no longer the norm. Modern kids are taught about 'boundaries' and 'inappropriate touching' and, if it happens, are encouraged to report it to a responsible adult. As a fiercely protective mum, who holds her daughter close, how could my companion possibly imagine a time when things were so different? I shook my head as I felt rage on behalf of my childhood self. "I have no trouble believing it," I said. "It happened to me and my brothers and sisters."

Her eyes grew wide as I spewed the details of how trusted family friends and a neighbour had abused us, enabled by trusting and meek parents who, it turned out, suspected but didn’t act. One family friend took advantage of my parent’s trust and molested me when I was 12. What was my mother thinking, allowing me to go alone with this man to his farm? And what did she make of my reluctance, despite my love of the farm, to go back? I didn’t tell my parents until years later about what he did, carrying guilt and self-blame into adulthood. Then there was the neighbour, who used the lure of his new TV set (we didn’t have one) to regularly invite us over. He took me into the garden shed and clasped me to him as he trembled all over, making me promise not to tell his wife. He took my sister and her friend swimming and groped them underwater. Did my parents not think it odd that a man in his 60s wanted to spend so much time with children? But it is what he did to my younger brother that was the most despicable and damaging. From the age of six to eight he regularly abused him. The ‘offending’, although the man was never charged or even outed, took place in his workplace at the weekends. This systematic abuse at such a young age has blighted my brother’s life. He has suffered multiple, inexplicable health issues and carries a rage born of the impotence of a young child, without parental advocacy or support, to prevent what happened to him. Now, as a man in his sixties himself, he remains bewildered and resentful that our parents did not do more to protect him. 

My friend seemed genuinely shocked that I had opened this portal into a world and a time where the misplaced trust and inaction of parents made their children fair game to trusted friends and neighbours, faux aunts and uncles. "Oh my God," she said. "I had no idea that happened."

I left the café drained by the re-living and hoping it hadn’t all been too overwhelming for her.

One evening, a week later, I got a message from her. What it disclosed made my blood pound in my ears. I had to sit down. She told me she couldn’t stop thinking about what I had told her and it prompted her, at an appropriate moment, to ask her daughter if she had ever been made to feel uncomfortable by the attentions of an adult. Her daughter began to cry and told her that her cousin, my friend’s niece, was being molested by her sister’s live-in partner. The cousin, also in her pre-teens, had confided in my friend’s daughter but asked her not to tell anyone. She said she hadn’t told her own mother because she was so happy with the man she didn’t want to "ruin her life". My friend was upset and furious and, unsurprising to me, took unequivocal and decisive action.

In a series of long messages in the coming days, she revealed what unfolded. She created an opportunity to talk with her young niece, who confirmed the abuse was happening. Accompanied by another family member, she went to tell the girl’s mother, her older sister. "It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do," she told me. "She was devastated. This guy was her soulmate."

The family immediately reported the matter to the police. Two days later the man, who worked with young children as a sports instructor, was arrested. When confronted he confessed. The children, including a male cousin and my friend’s daughter (who recalled waking with her onesie pyjama suit unzipped during a sleepover at her cousin’s house), received counselling, supported by their parents. I understand they are all doing well.

When I reflect on this event, I am left with an even deeper admiration for my young friend, for her courage and fierce advocacy for her young family members. I am also struck by how a random conversation could trigger a chain of events and consequences neither of us could have imagined when we sat down to talk that day. For a while, I felt bad about the carnage that conversation had caused, but guilt is still a default reaction for me and, given the outcome, I understand there is no place for it here.

Despite the consequences for her family, my friend was hugely grateful I had opened up to her about my own past that day. But it still took her and her family’s willingness to immediately believe and support the children, and report the perpetrator, which will make all the difference to how those kids recover. Knowing you are valued and will be believed and protected at all costs is everything. How times have changed. 

If this brings up any issues for you, contact Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, on 1800 272 831.

Feature image: Supplied.

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