What can South African schools learn from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse?

  • What can South African schools learn from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse?

    In late 2018 the 17-volume Final Report of a most remarkable inquiry into child sexual abuse and how institutions have dealt with that abuse was published in Australia.

    Known as the Australian Royal Commission (RC) into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, this powerful inquiry was set up in 2012 by the Australian Federal Government of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. It ran for five years up until 2017. It resulted in 189 recommendations including many relating to schools and is perhaps one of the most important achievements of any government in modern times.

    The Royal Commission grew out of allegations of sexual abuse of children in institutional settings made over many years and brought to a focus in national inquiries that had investigated the plight of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. The Royal Commission would now look specifically at how institutions had been handling child sexual abuse. These institutions included schools of all kinds, across all sections of society. The Commission’s powers included following up anything reported to it and compelling witnesses to give evidence.

    A total of 16,953 individuals had contacted the Royal Commission by the time it concluded, including 7,981 survivors of child sexual abuse. Of these survivors, nearly one third (2521 or 31.6%) were victims of sexual abuse in 1,069 schools. 75.8% of abuse reported happened in private schools and
    24.2% in government schools.

    Sexual abuse can range from inappropriate touching to sexual penetration. The RC found that penetrative abuse occurred in over half (55.7%) of 91.9 % of victims who reported on the nature of abuse to the Royal Commission. Female survivors reported slightly more penetrative abuse than males (63.1 and 51.5% respectively).

    Other forms of abuse mentioned by the RC included grooming and entrapment, violation of privacy, exposure to sexual acts or pornographic material – which is much easier today through cell phones and other smart devices, and child sexual exploitation. In addition to sexual abuse, 57.8% of
    survivors told the RC that they experienced other forms of maltreatment, including physical abuse (63.1%) emotional maltreatment (80.4%), witnessing the abuse of others (16.9%), being neglected (14.9%) or being forced to work (10.3%).

    The impact on victims was far-reaching, long-lasting and often tragic. The report showed that 76.8% of victims interviewed by the RC said they had gone from being happy and independent to being frightened, angry and anxious and described at least one impact of the abuse. 90.9% experienced mental health issues, including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse and almost half said their education was affected in the short or long term. Personal difficulties made victims less willing to trust others, have trouble forming and maintaining relationships, and diminished their employment and economic outcomes. In some cases, the RC heard that disclosing sexual abuse led to further abuse of the victim, including other forms of abuse.

    93.3% of survivors reported that they were abused by males. Most were abused by adults but a significant proportion, (23.4%) were abused by other male children (performing so-called harmful sexual behavior). 6.7% reported abuse by females. Of all the victims, (in schools and elsewhere)
    63.6% were males and 36.4% were female.

    When performed by an adult on a child, it is called child sexual abuse. When performed by a child on another child, it is called “harmful sexual behavior”. We can take from this that child sexual abuse is largely a problem of adult males on boys and girls, but where other (usually older) children can also, play a role in sexual abuse.

    The average age of victims when first abused was 10.4 years (male 10.8 and female 9.7 years).

    While it became clear that child sexual abuse was reported as happening in all schools, the RC Final The report found that private schools had been much worse than government schools, particularly at preventing disclosure and making appropriate responses. Insights into why this was the case include concern for the school’s reputation and financial interests; hyper-masculine and hierarchical cultures; a sense of being part of a superior and privileged institution; the unquestioning selection of ex-students for employment; long-serving principals and governing structures with little or no accountability for student well-being and safety; boarding schools being largely part of private schools, where a disproportionate number of survivors reported being sexually abused and the involvement of religious ministers, particularly in Catholic schools.

    Graham Bell
    Ph.D., FRSN, Retired Scientist, Sydney, Australia.

    Survivor of child sexual abuse, Graham Bell is a guest speaker at the inaugural Safe Schools Seminar to be held at Durban High School on Friday 10 May open to high school management and educators, Governing Body and Representative Council of Learners members.

    For more information and to book your place, contact registrations@safeschoolguide.co.za

    The full programme is available on www.safeschoolguide.co.za.
    The 17 volume Final Report of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse can be obtained at www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au

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