Kneejerk reactions won't help in fight against child sexual abuse

Sydney Morning Herald
March 1 2005

It is time to cast aside the myths about pedophile crimes, write Chris Goddard and Joe Tucci.

For more than 20 years writers have expressed concern that childhood has changed irrevocably. Books such as Children Without Childhood and The Hurried Child suggest that childhood is under threat. Now it appears that even parents celebrating some of the joys of childhood - swimming and athletics carnivals - could be prevented from taking photographs in case someone might abuse the privilege.

The truth is that we have always had trouble with child abuse, in all its forms. Throughout history children have been terribly treated. It is only in the past 40 years that we have shown real interest, and that interest has not always led to appropriate responses.

Our responses to child sexual abuse, in particular, have been quite extraordinary. A hundred years ago it is said Freud changed his mind about sexual trauma in childhood. Having originally formed the view that child sexual abuse occurred quite commonly, a number of writers claimed he chose to believe that child sexual abuse was a mere product of fantasy.

About 50 years ago, Kinsey and colleagues published a report that described the effects of sexual abuse on children as nothing more than those experienced when a child sees insects or spiders. Kinsey's "research" made a major contribution to the myths that for so long helped deny the reality of sexual abuse.

Children were said to fantasise; children were said to be seductive (Peter Hollingworth, the former governor-general, appeared to stray into this territory); mothers were said to be collusive, and as a last resort children were said to lie. The myths served one purpose: to silence abused children.

There are still many forces at work that conspire to hide crimes against children. Even the language minimises awful acts. We still call the child rapist a "pedophile", a "lover of children". No one would dare call a rapist of women a "gynophile" or "lover of women".

There are other problems. Australia's child protection systems are in disarray. In fact, there is no system. Each state and territory has developed its definitions and responses, its reporting laws. As a consequence, it is impossible to work out what is going on.

In one example, the latest publication from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare provides the number of serious abuse cases "substantiated" in each state. Queensland had 17,473 such cases in 2003-04, compared with 7412 in Victoria and only 427 in Tasmania. In Victoria only 8 per cent of such cases are said to involve sexual abuse, compared with 17 per cent in Tasmania and 24 per cent in Western Australia.

And NSW? The institute says the state was "unable to provide these data due to the ongoing implementation of the data system".

There are many other examples of disarray: Victoria has not fully implemented working-with-children checks. It is still possible for more than one child to be murdered (as in the Kathleen Folbigg case) in one family and for no one to notice.

We now know that child sexual abuse may cause terrible downstream costs in adulthood. Even with our inadequate data, we know that children are more likely to be abused in their families, or by others in close positions of trust and power. Strangers are not generally the major danger.

Even so, care is required. The recent Operation Auxin raids have shown that there are hundreds of men who buy and swap internet child pornography. Child porn, according to the Australian Federal Police, is a global business as well as a global crime. The effects on children, to know their abuse is recorded and widely available, can scarcely be comprehended.

Child pornography, however, has little to do with swimming carnivals or athletics meets. The UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2000, defines it as "any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities, or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes".

Photographs of children swimming are not pornographic. If some people gain perverted pleasure from such photographs, they will also do so from department store catalogues and children's television.

We can best protect children, and celebrate childhood, not by banning cameras but by making the prevention of child abuse a national priority, by rigorously prosecuting crimes against children, and providing the national standards of child protection that all children deserve and urgently need.

Professor Chris Goddard is interim director, National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Monash University. His next book on child abuse, The Truth is Longer than a Lie"(with Dr Neerosh Mudaly), will be published later in the year.

Joe Tucci is chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation.       media news and views

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