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Published: 25 May 2015
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas

“There is no medicine that will cure trauma” – sexual abuse health expert

A week into Royal Commission public hearings in Ballarat, a sexual abuse health expert gave compelling evidence on the pervasive effects of child sexual and psychological abuse on surivivors.

Associate Professor Dr. Carolyn Quadrio of the University of NSW said that survivors of child sex abuse can be extremely damaged psychologically even if other aspects of their lives appeared to be sound.

Dr. Quadrio specialises in child psychiatry and in the effects of sexual violence on children.

She said that children don’t usually disclose the abuse. Those who do disclose are not believed and, if the abuse occurred in institutions, are punished for the disclosure. The experience of disclosing abuse and not being believed is very damaging for children. More often than not, she said, adults only disclosed abuse after many years of secrecy. This evidence is consistent with findings released by the Royal Commission in its June 2014 Interim Report, which analysed information obtained from its private sessions to date and revealed that on average it took survivors of abuse 22 years to disclose the abuse.

Child sexual abuse according to the Associate Professor affects every area of development of the child, and while trauma focused counseling can be helpful: “there is no medicine that will cure trauma”.

The Commission heard that child sexual and psychological abuse are intrinsically linked. Professor Quadrio said that it is impossible to sexually abuse a child without also psychologically abusing them.

The psychological abuse is caused by manipulation, betrayal and loss of trust. It is not solely linked to penetrative sex. She said that other forms of sexual abuse can be as damaging psychologically.

Dr. Quadrio said that ‘grooming’ was hardly necessary in Catholic institutions as staff already had such a high degree of control over children. The combination of access to children, authority and the cover of a respected profession created a culture in Catholic institutions where abuse was prevalent. She said she did not believe celibacy drove sexual abuse.

Professor Quadrio also listed the short-term effects of abuse on children. She said it could make them sad, angry, aggressive, prone to bed-wetting and sleeping problems. Another consequence, still not adequately understood within psychiatry, was the deep sense of shame children feel as a result of being abused. It is not uncommon for children to feel dirty, defiled, damaged, manipulated and to blame themselves for the abuse.

Carolyn Quadrio also gave evidence about long-term effects of abuse.

She said that the trauma caused by child sex abuse continues to disrupt every stage of development throughout life. Survivors of abuse commonly suffer from depression, anxiety and substance abuse linked to trauma. Personality disorders, confusion over sexuality and hypervigilance around other men are also not uncommon. Survivors may have difficulty being in functional sexual relationships and are vulnerable to being re-victimised and exploited later in life.

When questioned about sexual offending by those who have suffered child sex abuse, she said that this was a source of enormous anxiety to survivors. Because of this anxiety, some survivors may even be unwilling to have meaningful relationships with their own children. She acknowledged that some abuse survivors (a minority) enact the trauma they experienced by becoming offenders.

Dr. Quadrio gave evidence that false reportage of sexual abuse was uncommon both among children and adults.

When questioned about how the vicissitudes of life can be disentangled from the effects of abuse when assessing compensation for survivors, Carolyn Quadrio said this was impossible. 

The trauma cause by abuse effects every parts of a person’s being, she said.

The evidence given today by Dr. Quadrio’s before the Royal Commission about the devastating effects of child abuse on survivors is consistent with what many of clients disclose to us – that abuse has ongoing severe consequences for them in almost every facet of their lives.

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