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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

E.3: “Telling someone about what had happened to me”

13. Victims and survivors who were sexually abused as children faced complex hurdles to telling anyone what was happening to them (Figure E.2). For many, telling someone felt impossible and they only felt able to disclose later in life.

“There was no one I could go to, no one to tell”

14. As children, some victims and survivors felt they had no one to tell that they were being sexually abused. Brinda said that she came from a “very traditional family” and did not feel that she could tell her parents that she had been raped: “The expectation was I would have an arranged marriage. Sex before marriage was not a ‘thing’”.[1] One child victim and survivor described feeling trapped with no one to tell:

It’s kind of a trap really, you don’t know what to do because you don’t know what the options are; it’s like telling somebody to get outside of a room when you can’t see any windows or doors in a way.”[2]

Learning about online sexual harm research participant


15. It was especially common to hear that victims and survivors who grew up in residential institutions felt that they had no one to whom they could disclose sexual abuse. RS-A6 said there was no one outside of his residential school who he could speak to about sexual abuse perpetrated by older pupils: “They’ve put you in a home that’s essentially hundreds of miles from anyone you know”.[3] In particular, victims and survivors described staff in children’s homes and custodial institutions as “coming and going on different shifts”, which prevented them from building trust and feeling able to disclose.[4] Some also said that being moved frequently had an impact on their ability to disclose:

I never stayed in one place long enough to feel like I had any one adult who I could trust to report what had happened to me at the time.[5]

A76, Children in the care of the Nottinghamshire Councils investigation

A word cloud showing the range of reasons why victims and survivors chose not to disclose the sexual abuse they experienced as a child, at the time it was happening. Figure E.2: Reasons why Truth Project participants did not disclose child sexual abuse at the time of the abuse*

Long Description

Reasons why Truth Project participants did not disclose child sexual abuse at the time of the abuse

I was scared of the perpetrator:
I thought I was special:
I didn't want anyone else to know:
It was private:
I didn't have anyone to disclose to:
I felt guilty:
I didn't know it was not okay:
I didn't think I would be believed:
I didn't have the words to explain:
I just wanted to forget:
The perpetrator threatened me:
I thought I would get in trouble:
I thought they loved me:
I worried about what would happen to the perpetrator:
I was scared of what the institution would do:
I felt ashamed and embarrassed:
I didn’t want to hurt my family:

* Truth Project participants often gave multiple reasons for not disclosing child sexual abuse, therefore the percentages in this figure do not sum to 100 percent.

“I was so young, I didn’t know what was going on”

16. Some victims and survivors said that when they were children they did not recognise that they were being sexually abused. Victims and survivors abused as very young children often described having a sense that what was happening to them was “bad”, but they did not know it was sexual abuse.[6] As a result, they did not know that they should tell anyone what had happened. Malika’s stepfather regularly sexually abused her from the age of about eight, but Malika said “I was so young I didn’t know what was going on”.[7]

17. Victims and survivors who were frequently sexually abused from a young age sometimes said that they became “normalised” to the abuse.[8] This was described as a very powerful barrier to disclosure. Conall was physically and sexually abused by his headteacher in the 1960s; the abuse included being beaten while naked with heavy implements. Conall said that, at the time, he did not recognise this as sexual abuse, thinking it was just “a normal form of discipline at a boarding school”.[9] Ethan said that he did not tell anyone that he was being sexually abused because it had become normalised for him and society did not speak about child sexual abuse.[10]

18. Some sexual abusers appeared to show children love, affection and kindness. Victims and survivors said that, as children, this meant that they did not know they were being sexually abused or that they should tell anyone. CM-A22 described her confusion after being sexually abused by a man in the family she was sent to live with:

Because it was done in the guise of a loving father’s behaviour, I was completely confused about whether it was right or wrong and to say something about it – and actually it was normal? How could I say anything, not knowing … you don’t even know that you should report such a thing.[11]

CM-A22, Child migration programmes investigation


19. Young victims and survivors highlighted particular difficulties in recognising and reporting online-facilitated child sexual abuse. One 16-year-old said:

I was with my friends and saw messages, it was like, ‘Get your tits out’, we were just laughing about it … we didn’t see it as, ‘Oh my gosh, this man wants to see my boobs’”.[12]

Learning about online sexual harm research participant


“I felt deeply ashamed”

20. As children, many victims and survivors felt deeply ashamed about being sexually abused. Dewi said simply “as a child, I was ashamed”.[13] Shame often prevented children from feeling able to tell anyone what had happened to them. Shame was more commonly cited as a reason for not disclosing at the time by men (22 percent of male Truth Project participants) than by women (15 percent of female Truth Project participants).

21. Some men described being ashamed that they felt unable to fight back while being sexually abused. Drew said he felt ashamed that he did not “resist” being sexually abused by a maintenance man at school.[14] Men who were sexually abused by women often felt ashamed because of this. August had “so much shame” about being sexually abused by a female staff member at his school. His schoolmates thought it was just “a bit of a laugh”.[15]

22. Female victims and survivors often described shame related to sexist stereotypes. In particular, some girls felt that they would be viewed negatively for having “allowed” the sexual abuse to happen.[16] Miyanna reflected on this: “It’s like everything is always the woman’s fault”.[17] When Kiya was 12 years old, she was raped by a man who groomed her online. Her friend called her a “slag” and, as a result, Kiya felt “trapped … I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened”.[18] Sally was raped on her way home from school as a teenager. She was sure that she would be blamed if she told her family and thought of herself as a “slut”.[19]

23. Other victims and survivors said that they did not disclose child sexual abuse because of the shame it would bring to their family and community. Maksud felt deeply ashamed that he had been sexually abused by an imam while reading from the Quran. He said he found it impossible to tell anyone what had happened.[20] Ebrah never reported that she had been sexually abused to the police. She felt deeply ashamed, and worried that her mother would not be able to cope with the community knowing her daughter had been sexually abused.[21] Some female victims and survivors in South Asian communities described a fear that child sexual abuse would damage their prospects of getting married:

For a child sexual abuse to take place would basically [mean to] have sex outside of marriage, so it’s like this whole stigma attached to you as well as being damaged goods.”[22]

Child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities research participant


“I was too terrified to say anything”

24. Many victims and survivors did not tell anyone that they were being sexually abused as a child because they were scared of what would happen if they did. Linda described her childhood fears: “Would I be taken away? Would I be moved away from the school? Vilified? Would he hunt me down and kill me?[23] Many feared being taken into care. Lorena was sexually abused by her adoptive father and brother, but did not tell anyone because “I knew I would end up in a children’s home and that could be worse”.[24] Some LGBTQ+ victims and survivors said they were terrified that their sexuality would be found out if they disclosed child sexual abuse. One member of the Victims and Survivors Forum said that this “was such a threat in my mind that everything had to be kept quiet”.[25]

25. Often victims and survivors were threatened by the person who sexually abused them. LA-A25 said that the housefather in her children’s home threatened that “he’d kill me … he said he could get me locked up and no-one would believe me, and I’d be away forever”.[26] Threats silenced victims and survivors. Many described feeling frightened, powerless and trapped, unable to escape the sexual abuse:

I was on my own in the sick bay and [the head of house] proceeded to anally rape me. I thought I was going to die from the pain caused by the rape. During the course of the rape, [the head of house] said to me: ‘Say that I’ve been here and I’ll kill you’. I was 11 years old at the time.[27]

Colin Watson, Children in custodial institutions investigation


“I asked myself, who’d believe you?”

26. Some victims and survivors did not tell anyone that they were being sexually abused as they were worried that no one would believe them:

I thought people wouldn’t believe me. I might get in trouble. My friend wouldn’t want to be friends with me anymore.[28]

Kerry, Support services for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse research participant


27. Often this fear stemmed from being explicitly told by perpetrators that they would not be believed. Sharan’s stepfather used to say: “you tell your mother and she’ll believe me over you”.[29] Perpetrators’ power and status also led to a fear that victims and survivors would not be believed:

I believe that a man who is a padre was a man of God and being in the army he was a higher rank than my father and so I didn’t think anyone would believe me.[30]

AN-A15, Anglican Church investigation


28. Many victims and survivors reflected on the inherent power imbalance between adults and children. Cultural attitudes towards children were seen to enhance this imbalance. Victims and survivors worried that they would be assumed to be lying if they said they were sexually abused. Hurriya was sexually abused by her primary school teacher in the 1970s. She did not tell anyone about the abuse at the time because “nobody really believed children back then”.[31] LA-A154 said: “the message I received repeatedly, including from schoolteachers, was that they believed adults, not kids”.[32]

“I didn’t have the words”

29. As children, some victims and survivors did not know how to describe sexual acts and so felt unable to tell anyone what was happening to them. Aruna grew up in the 1970s. She was sexually abused by a male family friend when she was around six years old. She said: “I knew what he was doing was wrong, but I didn’t tell anyone. At that age, I didn’t know how to even say it”.[33] Often this was connected to not understanding what constituted sexual abuse. Isla-Rose grew up in the 2000s. She described the boundaries in her house as “skewed”; she was not allowed any privacy and her father regularly walked around naked. Isla-Rose did not know when her father began raping her. She only understood that it was rape aged 13, when she attended a talk on sexual assault at school: “I had been trying to tell people for years, but I couldn’t because I didn’t understand what it was that was exactly wrong. I didn’t have the words for it”.[34]

30. Others felt unable to describe what was happening to them because they did not think they were allowed to speak about body parts or sexual acts. Aniyah was raped by her neighbour on a weekly basis. She said: “Sometimes I thought about telling my mum, but I didn’t know what words to use and I wasn’t allowed to use ‘rude’ words”.[35]

31. Victims and survivors who communicated non-verbally sometimes described being unable to disclose abuse. Gianna is Deaf but was not allowed to use sign language at school. She was hit with a ruler whenever she tried. As a result, she was unable to tell anyone that she had been raped by two men.[36] Veronica is deaf but was placed in a children’s home run by staff who could not sign. One of the staff members sexually abused Veronica, including trying to penetrate her with a rounders bat. Veronica said that not even her social worker could sign and, as a result, she could not tell anyone about the sexual abuse.[37]

32. Other victims and survivors who had communication difficulties said that they tried to tell someone that they were being sexually abused but their disclosure was not understood. The mother of LA-A26 described her daughter as having “significant communication difficulties[38] and wondered whether her “allegation had been dismissed because of her disability”.[39]

“No one asked”

33. Victims and survivors commonly felt that, as children, no one asked whether they wanted to tell them anything or if they were being sexually abused. Vayla said that on two occasions the police raided her family home, which she suspected was in relation to child sexual abuse images. However, she said that the police never spoke to the children and the sexual abuse by her father continued: “I couldn’t say anything, but I wanted them to rescue me. I wish I’d had a voice”.[40] Florence’s father was imprisoned for sexually abusing her step-siblings. Florence said that after serving his sentence, he was permitted to return home, where he regularly raped her. Neither the police nor social services “asked me if anything had happened to me, despite the fact my father was convicted of abusing lots of others”.[41] Evie went from being a “high-achiever” to not attending school, taking drugs and attempting suicide at 16 after being sexually abused in the 2000s and 2010s. She said: “nobody ever asked me any questions. Not once”.[42]

34. Some victims and survivors felt that adults did not ask the “right questions” to support them to disclose sexual abuse.[43] Sinead said: “if I had been asked ‘Is anyone hurting you?’, I would have told”.[44] RS-A7 described what would have supported him to disclose that he was being sexually abused:

The way I answer questions is very literal, I think because of the nature of my learning difficulties. So, for example, if, instead of skirting around the subject, [the teacher] had asked me straight out if [the Head of Care] touched my private parts, then I would have told her ‘Yes’ he did.[45]

RS-A7, Residential schools investigation


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