This article deals with themes of child sexual abuse and may be triggering for some readers.
They say the past cannot be changed. To let go, to live in the moment, to look forward.
But what happens when you are struck by a secret so blistering that your past is no longer what it was?
This is the reality one 45-year-old Australian mum-of-two is now facing, when in a single moment, everything Karen* thought she knew about her quiet, happy family life was shattered.
Last year, her 17-year-old daughter Laura* confided in her that she had been sexually abused by a close family friend. She was only eight years old at the time, and her parents had no idea they’d been inviting a “monster” into their home.
All they had was an inkling that something was amiss. But they thought they’d put a halt to it before any real damage was done.
Karen recalls how when Laura was age nine, she scurried into their room, shaking her and her husband awake. She told them she had just woken up to find Andrew* sitting on her bed, shining his phone towards her.
Andrew was one of their oldest friends, and he was visiting from overseas where he was based. The family was putting him up for a few nights on their living room couch.
“My husband and I were in a state of shock, we were trying to work out what possible reason there was for him to be in her room,” Karen tells Mamamia.
When they confronted Andrew that night, he spat out excuse after excuse. He said that he had insomnia. That he couldn’t find his sleeping pills and thought maybe he dropped them in her room. That he thought watching Laura sleep might help him get to sleep himself.
Andrew was kicked out of the house, never to be invited again.
The incident was reported to the police. And while officers wanted to question Andrew and comb through his phone, it was decided it was best they allow him to board his flight and leave the country as planned. Laura was petrified by the idea of him being closeby. Karen wanted him as far away as possible.
So, he left.
And for a while, life went on.
Karen pressed Laura over and over about that night. But each time, she insisted Andrew didn’t touch her.
Until at age 16, she could no longer carry her secret alone.
In August last year, Laura told her mother that there had, in fact, been a previous incident when she was eight. And that time, Andrew had physically abused her.
Karen recalls her daughter telling her she pretended she was asleep so his hands would leave her alone. But that only made it worse. When Laura opened her eyes, he hid. When she closed her eyes, his hands returned. And it see-sawed like that, back and forth.
After that incident, every time he came over, Laura would work desperately to stay awake all night, hoping the simple act would protect her from him.
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Right away, Karen helped her daughter begin criminal justice proceedings with the police. But the news crushed her, severing her life into two parts.
“We both (my husband and I) cried a lot every night for weeks and weeks,” Karen says. “Everything has become a ‘before’ and ‘after’ moment to me.”
She says nothing hurts more than looking at old photos.
“I used to have photos everywhere around the house,” she says.
“I’ve spent hours scrolling through old photos that used to be memory markers of the beautiful, happy family we’d created. Now I stare into her big, blue eyes looking for clues I may have missed.”
Karen is determined to share her story because she believes there is power in talking about it.
“It’s seen as such a dirty secret and the shame seems to get pushed onto the victims,” she says.
“When you start to talk about it, you see how frighteningly common it is. But there is also some comfort in knowing you’re not alone.”
She believes only by talking about it can we empower victims and work towards preventing abuse.
“We need to stop the perpetrators, not shut the victims up.”
Karen always thought she was better equipped than most to spot the signs of an abuser. She volunteers at a sexual violence centre, and she herself had been a victim of child sexual abuse.
Andrew appeared to be just a regular guy. He has a wife, and young children. He works in a respectable job. Karen and her husband first met him when they employed him at their small business, and they developed a close bond.
“He was the last person I’d have described as creepy, and he didn’t trigger any alarm bells. I’m very attuned to people who make me feel on edge and he was not that person at all,” she says.
She says she understands fully now how paedophiles put on a charming, trustworthy, friendly facade because otherwise they’d never get access to children.
“The media paints this image of a dirty, greasy old man, and we’re all looking at the wrong people… It’s usually someone close to you but that message doesn’t get through,” she says.
Carol Ronken, the director of research at Bravehearts, commended Karen for speaking out.
“It goes a long way towards awareness around this issue. Child sexual abuse is very difficult to talk about because often people don’t want to hear it… But if we don’t talk about the realities of child sexual abuse, we’re not going to be protecting our children and ultimately we need communities that keep children safe,” Ms Ronken says.
She says dispelling the ‘stranger danger’ myth is hugely important.
“It’s one of those things where people feel a bit safer if they think it’s strangers who abuse children. But we know from research that anywhere between 85-95 per cent of the time, the offender is someone the family loved and trusted,” Ronken says.
“The ‘stranger danger’ idea can put children at risk because if someone they know well does something unsafe, they’re not sure if it’s wrong, what to do about it or whether to talk about it.”
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Karen says she is trying her best to stop blaming herself for what happened.
“I have so much guilt. We let this man into our home. It kills me,” she says.
“But we had to get out of the mindset of blaming ourselves. There is very little we could have done.”
She says Laura has also been better since getting it off her chest. And today, she is pursuing her abuser in court.
“She can see she is wholeheartedly believed by everybody,” Karen says.
“We’ve been awestruck with how brave and strong she has been.”
She says her daughter is determined to help future victims, and by going to court, she feels she is saving other children from suffering the same fate at Andrew’s hands. Karen doesn’t know if any other children were assaulted by him, but her 13-year-old son says he was never targeted.
Karen says her experience with the criminal justice system has been “eye-opening”, and it’s driving her to spread awareness. She says her heart broke at the fact it took three weeks since reporting the abuse last year before the child protection unit could interview her daughter: she realised just how inundated detectives were with cases of children being abused.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there were 7171 children reported to have been sexually abused in the year 2015-16. Ms Ronken says anonymous personal safety surveys find that on average, one in five children will be sexually harmed in some way before their 18th birthday.
Ms Ronken stresses that no victim and no parent should feel guilty.
“The only person responsible is the offender,” she says, explaining that offenders often groom parents as well as children.
“Offenders who want access to a child will often try to become best friend with their parents.”
She encourages parents to speak to their children from a young age about personal safety.
“This not only increases the chances for children to speak out if something happens to them but also promotes resilience. When children are resilient they are less likely to be targeted by an abuser.”
She advises teaching children about consent, body ownership and personal boundaries, through ways such as not forcing them to kiss relatives and helping them understand their body’s warning signs of discomfort.
She also says it’s helpful to identify other adults they can open up to about uncomfortable feelings, such as teachers and grandparents, because victims often don’t disclose abuse to their parents at first out of fear of frightening or upsetting them.
“Like teaching the road rules, teaching personal safety skills doesn’t mean they definitely won’t get hurt but it gives them what they need to stay as safe as possible and to know what to do if something happens.”
If this story raised any issues for you, or if you need more information on the signs of child sexual abuse and what to do about it, please visit the Bravehearts website or ring their helpline on 1800 272 831. ChildWise also provides support on 1800 991 099.
*Names have been changed for legal reasons.