Child abuse was highlighted during 2002 with the allegation that a number of churches and institutions had covered up incidents of child sexual abuse. Eddy Jokovich looks at the history of child abuse in Australia and welcomes the end of one of our country’s great silences.

(This article first appeared in Rattler 66 Autumn 2003, published by Community Child Care Co-operative (NSW). To purchase a copy, go to:

The sexual abuse of children in Australia has often been presented within the media as a contemporary phenomenon, something which developed because of the so-called decay of family values and the supposed replacement of the traditional family structure with more liberal lifestyles.

While there has been greater emphasis on child protection issues in recent years, and an increased awareness of child sexual abuse within the community, it is an issue that has been prominent throughout Australian history and, as a community, we are only now beginning to understand the wider ramifications of child abuse and how it has affected many generations of children.

In Australia, one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused in some way before they reach the age of 18.[1] Girls and boys of all ages, including toddlers and babies,[2] are sexually abused and, contrary to the belief that abuse predominantly occurs in lower socio-economic groups, child sexual abuse spans all races, economic classes and ethnic groups.[3] While this abuse is at great personal cost to victims, there is a strong relationship between child sexual abuse and issues that affect the entire community – such as criminal activity, psychiatric illness, drug dependency, long-term emotional problems, hostile anti-social behaviour and aggression.[4]

Around 32 per cent of all victims of child sexual abuse have attempted suicide and 43 per cent have considered suicide.[5] Around 70 per cent of psychiatric patients were sexually abused as children.[6] In Australian jails, at least 80 per cent of female prisoners have been the victims of incest[7] and 70 per cent of all prisoners were abused as children.[8] Around 80 per cent of the time, the offender is known to the child.[9]

Prelates who had protected priests or other church workers accused of sexual assault, headed at least 111 of the 178 major Catholic dioceses in the United States[10] and, during the 1990s, Australian courts dealt with nearly 450 individual child sexual assaults by priests.[11] In NSW, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, identified that only 2 per cent of familial, and only 6 per cent of extra-familial child sexual abuse were ever reported to police.[12]

But how strong are preventative measures within the community? Following on from the contentious issue of the treatment of children in immigration detention throughout 2000 and 2001, one of the most intense controversies during 2002 was the allegation that the Anglican Church of Brisbane overlooked incidents of child sexual abuse from the 1950s onwards, and that the Governor-General, Dr Peter Hollingworth, while Archbishop of Brisbane, remained, at best, indifferent to allegations of child abuse committed by members of the Church and, at worst, covered up these allegations and protected the alleged abusers.

Hetty Johnstone, the Executive Director of Bravehearts, an organisation which provides support for victims of abuse, and advocates increased education and research into the effects of child sexual abuse, feels that the revelations about the Governor-General and the political response to his actions are indicative of the history of child sexual abuse in Australia.

‘For many generations, institutions, in particular the churches, who are supposed to be our moral guiding posts, have covered up abuse – they have chosen to not talk about it, particularly amongst their own ranks. And when it has occurred inside families, the advice from the church has always been to try and deal with it through forgiveness.

‘That may have been well-intentioned in many cases but it has led to an entire culture of silence and secrecy and shame. The whole religious attitude to sex has been that there is something wrong with sex, generally. Somehow, it has all been mixed up and contorted and, at the end of the day, we’ve got a culture where we just don’t talk about child sexual abuse.’

International research[13] suggests that this ignorance of abuse and the culture of silence are principal factors inhibiting the prevention of abuse, meanwhile prolonging the suffering and distress for victims. Johnstone believes that, in light of this research, the wrong message is being sent to the community when serious allegations against the highest public officer in the country are not acted upon.

‘It’s not a good message’, says Johnstone. ‘It’s very negative and it underpins the shame and the silence and the secrecy. It also underpins the belief of many survivors of abuse that no one will believe them when they do have the courage to make these allegations, and it follows that because of this, they take the option of not telling anyone. And in the exposé of Peter Hollingworth’s alleged actions and inactions, that is exactly what happened – the victim was discredited and made to feel that it was all their fault.’

While the social and personal costs of child abuse are immense, there is also a massive ongoing economic cost to the Australian community. According to a recent study funded by the Criminology Research Council, the economic cost to the community is conservatively estimated to be in excess of $180,000 for each child that is abused. This takes into account the accumulated health costs; the loss of income to the individual and the resulting loss of taxation to governments; education and rehabilitation for the victim and the perpetrator; and the cost of corrective and detention services.[14]

Based on a national level of 40,000 children that are sexually abused each year,[15] this represents an annual cost of $7.2 billion.

‘This is an enormous cost to the community’, says Johnstone. ‘This level of child sexual abuse causes more pain, suffering, tragedy and death than any other plague this country has ever seen. There is also a direct correlation between children being sexually abused and youth suicide, homelessness, prostitution, crime and drug abuse.

‘The effects of abuse on the child, if the issue is not resolved at the time of abuse, is absolutely enormous and this why we were so angry about the actions of the Governor-General. What is so damaging is that he has prized himself in the media as having worked in social work for most of his life, and now sides with the alleged perpetrator and not the victim.

‘If you have a child that is sexually abused, the damage to that child at the time is significant, there is no doubt about that. But when that child discloses the abuse to adults and is supported, cared for, believed and empowered at that point of time, then the damage to that child is minimised exponentially.

‘That child that is supported will grow up and have a go at a normal life like everybody else, but when that child is not believed, if they are shunned, if they are silenced, of if they are made to feel shame, then that child is going to grow up and never be able to maintain a normal adult relationship with a partner or have a normal family life.’

While sociologists, statisticians and paediatricians have collated data on the prevalence of child sexual abuse in Australia, a key concern is why, historically, there have been indifferences and institutional misunderstandings surrounding the role of the child within the community.

Peter Pierce, Professor of Australian Literature and Head of the School of Humanities at James Cook University in Cairns, believes that the indifference towards child sexual abuse relates to white colonial rule during the nineteenth century and the colonisation of an alien land. ‘There’s the historic and geographic basis for the “lost child” in Australia. In the nineteenth century, the figure of the child lost in the bush is one of the dominant ones in our cultural remembering – such a poignant and commonplace figure in novels, in plays, in poems, in pantomimes, in painting.

‘The “lost child” then was a replacement for the anxiety of adults who had come to Australia from England and felt like they didn’t belong in the place, so the child lost was symptomatic of their own unease. But from the second half of the twentieth century up to now, it seems that the indifferent bush has been overtaken by active human intervention as the enemy of the child – it has become an anxiety about the future, about time, and about how another generation should be brought into being.

‘So, throughout Australian history, children are abused, abandoned, aborted and murdered. This happens in our fiction, in our film and, sadly enough, in real life.’

The position of children within the judicial system during the nineteenth century reflects this alienation and children during the colonial period were legally classified within a ‘victim-threat’ parameter – legislation relating to children was more about removing threats to social stability rather than viewing them as potential victims of parental neglect or abuse.[16] Most legislation during the nineteenth century was modelled on the English Industrial Schools Act from 1857, which empowered the state to remove troublesome children in order to make them ‘good and useful citizens’.[17]

Interest in child protection and anti-abuse measures gathered momentum in the late nineteenth century with the creation of the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in 1897, during a time of deep economic depression and poverty. Strongly influenced by a worldwide movement, the SPCC was primarily set up to protect children from all types of abuse in the family setting.

Groups such as the SPCC continued to raise awareness of child abuse issues for most of the first half of the twentieth century but the next wave of interest in child protection occurred in the 1960s, after influential American paediatricians determined that ‘a clinical condition in young children who have received serious physical abuse’, known as the ‘battered baby syndrome’, should become an issue that government-run child protection services should become involved with.

This was a significant development in the understanding of the effects of child abuse on both individuals and communities, and signalled a shift in thinking from a moral perspective to a more holistic and psychological one.[18]

While child protection within institutions has improved in the latter part of the twentieth century, with the instigation of legislation such as the NSW Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act and the Working With Children Check, there is still a great need for change within the general community.

Consistent with the ‘victim-threat’ dualism that existed in the legislatures during the nineteenth century, contemporary media portrayals of children remain contradictory, where imagery of ‘the child’ is exploited, firstly, in the promotion of media products and, secondly, by devaluating children as individuals in sensationalised current affairs programming.

Not surprisingly, a survey produced by Professor Ruth Webster in 1998,[19] showed that children are represented negatively in the media in five main ways:

  • as idealistic deviants who opt for a better world and are seen as belonging to a counter-culture;
  • as delinquent and young offenders, promoted as being guilty of the apparent youth crime wave;
  • as victims of family breakdown;
  • as parasites, including drug addicts and dole bludgers; and
  • as evil non-children who are associated with horrific crimes.

The relationship between these media representations and child sexual abuse needs to be explored. In 1997, the Wood Royal Commission into NSW Police Corruption recommended the introduction of a community education program aimed at changing attitudes to sexuality and raising awareness of child sexual abuse within the community.[20]

Hetty Johnstone believes that, along with a public education program, there should also be a further Royal Commission into the levels of child abuse in Australia, to enable the community to fully comprehend its social and economic cost. ‘We are currently compiling a report to be presented to all parliamentarians throughout Australia’, says Johnstone, ‘so that they can get a better understanding of the issues and why a Commission should take place.’

But Royal Commissions are difficult to instigate and, more often than not, politically motivated, for example, the Court Government’s WA Royal Commission into the Penny Easton affair, or the current Federal Government’s Royal Commission into the building industry. Johnstone blames the lack of interest from the Prime Minister, John Howard, on a conspiracy of silence. ‘I think if the government was to stand up and call for a Royal Commission and expose all of the abuse that has been going on’, says Johnstone, ‘they would lose an election. That’s how critical it is.

‘I think at the end of the day, there’s votes at the other end of it. There’s a lot of families out there touched by this, who don’t want it exposed and a lot of institutions are the same.

‘It’s disappointing. Without healthy children, a healthy economy and a healthy environment, we’ve got a very sad future.’

Eddy Jokovich is Managing Editor of Rattler and director of ARMEDIA.

Bravehearts, formerly People’s Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse, is a not-for-profit group based in Brisbane. Details about the organisation are available on their website: or by phoning (07) 3290 4474.


  1. Australian Institute of Criminology’s Second National Conference on Violence, June 1993, Canberra.
  2. NSW Commission for Children and Young People, Child Sexual Assault: Information Sheet 6, Sydney, 2000.
  3. D. Finkelhor, ‘Sexual abuse in day care : A national survey’, paper no.1; ‘Victimisation prevention programs: A national survey of childrens’ exposure and reactions, paper no.2, NSW Child Protection Council, 1993. J. Goldman & U. Padayachi, ‘The prevalence and nature of child sexual abuse in Queensland, Australia‘, Child Abuse Negl, 1997; 21: pp.489-498. C. O’Donnell & J. Craney (eds.), Family violence in Australia, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1982. S. Peters, G. Wyatt, & D. Finkelhor, in D. Finklehor, (ed.), A sourcebook on child sexual abuse, Sage, Beverly Hills, CA, 1986, pp.15-59.
  4. B. Waters & N. Kelk, ‘Effect on Victims‘, paper on paedophilia, Australian Institute of Criminology, op.cit.
    R. Oates & L. Tong, ‘Sexual abuse of children: An area with professional reforms‘, The Medical Journal of Australia, vol.147.
  5. A, Plunkett, S. Shrimpton & P. Parkinson, ‘A study of suicide risk following child sexual abuse‘, Ambulatory Pediatrics, vol.1, no.5, pp.262-266).
  6. Children’s Commission of Queensland, ‘Paedophilia in Queensland Report‘, 1997.
  7. P. Easteal, ‘Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t’ feel‘, Alternative Law Journal, Clayton, Victoria, vol.19(2), 1994, p.53.
  8. Children’s Commission of Queensland, op. cit.
  9. C. Bagley, Child sexual abuse and mental health in adolescents and adults: British and Canadian perspectives, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot [England]; Brookfield, [USA], 1995.
  10. Reported in The Australian, 14 June 2002.
  11. Hypocrites: Evidence and statistics on child sexual abuse amongst church clergy, 1990-2000, Eros Foundation, Canberra, 2000.
  12. The Wood Royal Commission, Interim report on investigation into alleged police protection of paedophiles, Sydney, 1997, vol.4, p.608.
  13. Queensland Crime Commission, Child sexual abuse in Queensland: The nature and extent, Project Axis Report, 2000.
  14. F. Briggs, A cost-benefit analysis of child sex-offender treatment programs for male offenders in correctional services, Child Protection Research Group; University of South Australia, 1999.
  15. Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence.
  16. D. Scott & S. Swain, Confronting cruelty: Historical perspectives on child protection in Australia, Melbourne University Press, 2002, p.4.
  17. ibid.
  18. ibid.
  19. Quoted by N. Bolzan in ‘Is what you see what you get?‘, presented at the Taking children seriously conference, University of Western Sydney, July 1999.
  20. The Wood Royal Commission, op. cit., vol.5, p.1202.

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