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Opinion: What needs to happen to address the child sexual abuse epidemic?

3 min read
child sexual abuse

The Australian child maltreatment Study released earlier this year found that 28.5% of the population of 16-65 year olds were sexually abused as a child. The vast majority of this abuse was not institutional, but if our institutions can’t be made accountable, how do we as a society tackle the epidemic of child sexual abuse in our midst?    

More than five years have passed since the five-year-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse delivered its final report to the Governor General.  

The final report included innumerable recommendations for legal, policy and procedural changes to create a safer institutional world for children, and cultural change which saw the needs of survivors front and centre. We collectively stood aghast at the dismissive punitive responses so many survivors faced from institutions, and their representatives, when disclosing or seeking support or justice.  

The Commission was a watershed moment for Australia, in which the sheer scale of the crime and the compendium of systemic institutional failures shocked us all. An even greater wake-up call for the nation was the steady stream of survivor testimony which highlighted the unconscionable legacy of betrayal and violation perpetrated against their innocence.   

As a community we collectively thought to do better – to respond to survivors with empathy and compassion, to listen and believe when they disclosed. And to smooth the path to justice and support.  

 Six years later, there has been some progress which has come from those recommendations. Yet despite everything we have heard, and everything we know about the decimating impact of child sexual abuse, and the trauma it causes, it would appear that some institutions continue to prioritise themselves, their coffers and their personnel over the needs of those who were so brutally harmed under their watch.  

 For it seems that some institutions are continuing to do what they can to make survivors’ journeys to justice, support and healing unbearable. The examples are manifold – from the 15-year journey for justice from the victims of Malka Leifer who was reportedly spirited away in the dead of night under the protection of an orthodox Jewish community, to the protracted delays in Gymnastics Australia signing up to the National Redress Scheme.   

Notable also, is the recent Catholic Church’s bid to block a legal ruling to allow the father of a choirboy allegedly sexually abused by George Pell to sue for damages. Not to ignore the failure of the Anglican Church’s professional body who, with a guilt of misconduct finding, failed to mandate ex-Governor General, Dr. Hollingworth to stand down from his holy orders. And so on and so forth.  

The stark reality is that individuals who have endured child sexual abuse deserve an unobstructed path towards both healing and justice. This should represent the most fundamental and basic offering of an advanced and civilised society. Instead of lengthy delays, obfuscation and blocks, their journey should be streamlined and supportive.   

The trauma experienced from the original abuse and the legacy many survivors face daily is often life-sabotaging. The compounding of that trauma by the many systems and institutions that duck and weave is completely unacceptable.  

The pressing question remains. When will we, as a society and as systems of care and justice, step up promptly and willingly take accountability?   

What needs to happen for Australia, Australian institutions and Australians to open their hearts to the large numbers of our citizens who were sexually abused as children? If after the Royal Commission, institutions have not reset their moral compasses to take responsibility, and to be there for survivors, what else will force them to do so?   


Dr. Cathy Kezelman AM is a medical practitioner, has the lived and living experience of child sexual and emotional abuse, and is the President and Executive Director of Blue Knot Foundation National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma and Deputy Chair of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse.

Under her decades-long stewardship, Blue Knot Foundation has grown from a peer support organisation to a national centre of excellence combining a prominent consumer voice with that of researchers, academics and clinicians. She is a prominent voice in the media and at conferences and co-author of multiple seminal publications around complex trauma and trauma-informed practice. Cathy has spearheaded calls nationally for socio-political trauma-informed change and informed responsiveness to complex trauma.


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