‘Vanilla’ child sexual abuse comments were ‘profoundly damaging’

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Mr Richter suggested there were “no aggravating circumstances” and “no implement was used” on the two, 13 year-old boys against whom Cardinal Pell has been convicted of sexually offending while they were choir boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Dr Kezelman said “there is no child sexual offence, with or without penetration, that does not potentially harm someone.”

Robert Richter QC leaves County Court. 27 February 2019. The Age News. Photo: Eddie Jim.

Robert Richter QC leaves County Court. 27 February 2019. The Age News. Photo: Eddie Jim.Credit:Eddie Jim

“It is abuse by its very nature, because the child, of course, has not consented. Most children don’t even have the words for what was happening to them, it is an abuse of power, a betrayal of trust and a spiritual transgression of the highest order.”

Melbourne University social work professor and former holder of the Alfred Felton Chair for Child and Family Welfare, Cathy Humphreys, said the younger an individual experiences sexual abuse, “the more intense the interruption to everything in terms of their emotional, cognitive and behavioural development”.

She said that children were “believed” when they disclosed sexual abuse was vitally important to their chances of healing from it. “Of all the risk factors for childhood in terms of damage to mental and physical health, [sexual abuse] is the highest.

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“There are a whole range of forms of abuse children can experience in childhood, the most common is not sexual abuse but for children who have experienced it, it seems to be the most damaging for mental health,” Professor Humphreys said.

“There are things that can happen that are restorative [for child victims], and the first thing is being believed, and something being done about the offender, and people coming around the victim in a positive way. These things are terribly important.”

Among survivor advocates in court to hear Mr Richter’s comments was Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were raped by Melbourne priest, Kevin O’Donnell, during their primary school years in the 1980s.

Her daughter Emma later suffered from eating disorders, drug addiction and self harm and died in 2008, aged 26, from an overdose of medication. Katie Foster became a binge drinker in early adulthood and was hit by a drunk driver in 1999, and left physically and mentally disabled and needing round-the-clock care.

Ms Foster described Mr Richter’s comments as “insulting”.

“How can they say that? These are children. To hear people speaking like that, defending someone who would do something like that, is outrageous, insulting and that is what victims have to put up with,” she said.

Ms Foster told the ABC that Cardinal Pell’s guilty verdict had helped her understand why he had been “so angry” when she and her late husband, Anthony, asked him for help in the late 1990s.

Professor Humphreys said it was not uncommon for victims of child sexual abuse to experience serious trauma in the long term.

“I’ve been a child sexual abuse counsellor and did a PhD on child sexual abuse, and women who have been sexually abused, and have friends who were abused in childhood: what you see is there’s a point in mid-life where all the boundaries [a victim has put up around the memory of the event] come down.

“And they often have a huge crisis in life. Often there is a resurfacing of all those memories.”

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George Patton, Professor of child and adolescent health and senior principal research fellow with the NH&MRC,  said while the nature of the sexual abuse perpetrated on a child is an important factor on potential impacts later,  “how the child or adolescent is made to feel about the abuse” is an important influence.

“Some of the worst cases of abuse are where it is hidden; where the child becomes coerced and persuaded into becoming an active player in keeping [the abuse] secret , which begins to permeate every relationship. That is very toxic.”

“You [the victim] don’t want to get close to people; if you get close to people, the secret may come out and that becomes a problem when you reach adolescence.

“A real cure [for survivors of childhood sexual abuse)]is going to come from talking it through,” Professor Patton said, “this needs to happen on many levels; as a community, its a conversation that clearly, we have to have.”

For support, call the Blue Knot Foundation helpline 1300 657 380

Wendy Tuohy is Lifestyle editor.

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