Sunday 19 November 2017

Shane Dunphy: The five main things people say about child abuse... and why they shouldn't

'Wimp' tweet reveals how wrong people can be about child abuse

Five-time world darts champion Eric Bristow. Photo: Getty Images
Five-time world darts champion Eric Bristow. Photo: Getty Images

Shane Dunphy

Former darts world champion Eric Bristow begrudgingly apologised last Wednesday for tweeting that the footballers in the emerging child sexual abuse scandal were "wimps" and demanding to know why they didn't "sort out" their abusers "when they got older and fitter".

Bristow claimed the comments, which he admitted were badly worded, were really an attempt to encourage children who had experienced abuse to come forward. The awful thing is, he could be telling the truth.

The spectre of child sexual abuse has become such an ever-present shadow over our society that it seems everyone has an opinion about how to deal with offenders, how to treat survivors, and how to make our world safer for all concerned.

To try to shed some light on this very dark subject, here are the five main things people say about child abuse - and why they probably shouldn't say them.

1. It's just about sex - people have meaningless sex every day, so get over it

Child abuse is not about sex, it is about power and dominance.

No child is in a position — emotionally, physically or psychologically — to give permission to an adult to perpetrate a crime upon them, and no one enjoys being physically overpowered and violated (Stock photo)
No child is in a position — emotionally, physically or psychologically — to give permission to an adult to perpetrate a crime upon them, and no one enjoys being physically overpowered and violated (Stock photo)

Many abusers have claimed the children they molested gave their consent, or even enjoyed the experience.

This is a lie. No child is in a position - emotionally, physically or psychologically - to give permission to an adult to perpetrate a crime upon them, and no one enjoys being physically overpowered and violated.

2. Survivors make up false allegations to get sympathy and attention

According to a survey carried out by international support and research body, Help for Adult Victims of Child Abuse, not being believed is the fear that is most likely to prevent survivors of abuse from coming forward.

Anyone who believes that people make up these stories should consider some of the realities that a survivor would face daily. People cross the road because they are too embarrassed to face them; others suggest the abuse is their own fault, that they did something to make it happen; certain parents won't let them anywhere near their children, because don't survivors of abuse often become abusers themselves?

Do you still think people make these stories up?

3. You're an adult now - no one can hurt you unless you let them, so stop wallowing in self-pity and move on with your life

This is more or less what Bristow was trying to say, that when you were abused, you were a child and had no control - but that as an adult you are far better equipped to defend yourself, so you can stop being afraid.

What people don't realise is how insidious abusers can be. Many survivors attest to the fact that, when faced with the person who hurt them, even years later, they immediately become weak, vulnerable children again.

One survivor, who gave evidence in the Ferns Report into clerical abuse, was working in Dublin in his late 20s, and purely by chance ran into the priest who had abused him as a boy.

He was so terrified, he allowed himself to be coerced into getting into a taxi with the man, who invited him to go back to his hotel room.

Luckily, he found the strength to make his excuses and flee, but it illustrates the point - abuse preserves, amber-like, the hurt, frightened child that survivors once were.

4. It couldn't have been that bad if you didn't report it for 20 years

The vast majority of child sexual abuse is reported by adults at least two decades, sometimes even longer, after it happened.

Abusers tell children they prey on that they will die if they tell; that terrible things will happen to their parents; that no one will believe them (see number 2), and they may even be punished for what happened.

This brainwashing, combined with the physical and emotional impact of the abuse, causes the experience to be repressed - the child's mind walls up the memories and buries them deep in the subconscious while they try to carry on with their life.

Something so toxic cannot stay buried - it seeps out. Survivors of child sexual abuse are 59pc more likely to be arrested as juveniles and 30pc more likely to commit a violent crime than their peers who were not abused.

Some 80pc of 21-year-olds on the books of Tusla for childhood sexual abuse present with some degree of psychiatric disorder.

And 25pc of girls who experience childhood abuse are likely to experience a teenage pregnancy.

Adults usually report when their lives reach such a crisis point - they know they cannot continue without help.

So could it have been that bad? Yes, it could.

5. You're a survivor - you're still here. That's something to celebrate

Author and child protection activist Andrew Vachss has written about the language we use to discuss child abuse - and he drew attention to the term "survivor".

He pointed out that, in many instances, survival is a random thing, a stroke of luck rather than due to any purpose, talent or intent. Children who have been abused grow into adults.

Those among them who choose never to harm others, who rise above the pain they experienced and who make time to volunteer at youth clubs, share their stories with others who need support, perhaps even go on to become child protection workers (a common reason people cite when choosing a career in social care is to ensure their childhood experiences are never visited on others); people who exhibit this kind of compassion, Vachss suggests, are not survivors: they are transcenders.

Perhaps Eric Bristow should think about that.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News