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3.1 What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse

Sexual abuse of children involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.[1]

The activities may involve physical contact, including abuse by penetration or non-penetrative acts (such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside clothing). They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse including via the internet. Child sexual abuse includes child sexual exploitation.

Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator.[2]

The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact, it can also occur through the use of technology.

This section of the report draws together what victims and survivors have told the Truth Project, online consultation and Forum meetings about the sexual abuse they suffered as children. It also includes evidence provided to the Inquiry’s investigations, along with the Inquiry’s review of existing research on the effects of child sexual abuse.

Brutality, violence and threats

Victims and survivors have told the Inquiry that child sexual abuse can frequently be brutal and violent. The sexual abuse can be carried out by more than one perpetrator, and can leave victims with bruises, broken bones, burns and cuts, and internal injuries.

From as early as she can remember and until she was sixteen years old, Suzanne’s mother and her mother’s family abused her ‘in every way they could think of’. From three or four years old she remembers being beaten ‘so hard [she] couldn’t feel it anymore’ and at six, her maternal grandfather began sexually abusing her. ‘My life was worth absolutely zero’ she recalled.

An anonymised summary from a victim and survivor, the Truth Project


… that’s when the main attack happened, where I was picked up off the corner of the main road, by a … driver who offered to give me a lift home. But it, obviously, didn’t turn out like that, he took me to his house and he invited four other people there. So, altogether that one night there was nine men.

Victim and survivor, the Truth Project

The Inquiry has heard that some perpetrators use violence to instil fear and stop children speaking up about the sexual abuse they have suffered. This allows them to continue abusing and reduces the risk of being caught.

I was beaten frequently throughout my ten years at Fairbridge. Some of it was for a punishment, but much of it was simply a way of making me know my place and who was in charge.

A witness and former child migrant who was sent to Australia in the 1950s at the age of six

Parents and siblings can also be physically or emotionally threatened so that the child is fearful for their family’s safety as well as their own.

Exploiting vulnerability

Through the Truth Project and its investigations, the Inquiry has seen that perpetrators can make deliberate, carefully planned efforts to create opportunities to sexually abuse children. They can target children they consider to be vulnerable, such as those who have already endured emotional trauma (for example, the loss of a parent or domestic abuse), or whose circumstances can make them more vulnerable (for example, children in residential settings and in close proximity to adults responsible for their safety and welfare).  

Sarah remembers how difficult this period in her life was, coping with the loss of her mother, the lack of warmth and affection and feeling left out of the family. Her step-brother began to show her attention and affection, which she now recognises as him grooming her, prior to sexually abusing her.

An anonymised summary from a victim and survivor, the Truth Project  

Reflecting back, Jessica commented that he chose her because she was vulnerable and experiencing difficulties in her home life, he stayed away from the well supported, confident girls. She believes there were indications of his inappropriate behaviour noticed by other coaches and parents, but these were never raised or addressed.

An anonymised summary from a victim and survivor, the Truth Project

Some children will always be particularly dependent on the adults around them for care and support ‒ for example, children with learning or physical disabilities. Perpetrators may target these children because they believe that their disability makes them less likely or unable to report sexual abuse.

Grooming and gaining trust

Perpetrators can manipulate and groom children to gain their trust and compliance over time. This can involve the giving of gifts, providing alcohol or drugs, or using compliments and flattery to make them feel special and wanted.

Paid work; yeah, I’d get a bit, yeah … so we might have a Saturday afternoon … he’d get us a pair of nice jeans or something like that so it was quid pro quo sort of thing but then obviously it turned to sexual favours, you know. Well it weren’t sexual favours it was rough …

Victim and survivor, the Truth Project

The Inquiry has been told that children can feel as though they ‘owe’ the perpetrator for the presents and attention they have received. Some have told the Inquiry that they mistook the sexual abuse they suffered for love because they had little experience of warm and loving relationships. Tragically, some victims and survivors said that they believed the sexual abuse was their fault.

What I was struck by was, particularly with regard to non-reporting of abuse, is the fact that very often the survivor feels the only person who is showing them any care in the first place is the person who is abusing them.

Participant, criminal justice system seminar

Children are not the only targets of grooming by perpetrators of child sexual abuse ‒ they may also manipulate and befriend the close friends and family of their victims. This is to gain their trust, and maintain access to children and their opportunities to abuse.

Anyway, we went to … church where I also went to school there. But a new young … priest came to our parish, and my mother sort of adopted him, he came to our house a lot, he even came to Sunday dinners sometimes. He didn’t come Christmas Day but he came Boxing Day. And he was really made to fit in, he was very jokey, very, very childish, you know, liked a game, and used to tell us ghost stories, and things like that, and mess about. Sort of like pretty harmless stuff. And he was very popular ... in the parish, being young blood I suppose.

Victim and survivor, the Truth Project

In discussing the abuse they suffered with the Inquiry, victims and survivors have alluded to the careful planning and deliberate steps taken by some perpetrators so that they can continue to abuse ‒ for example, creating plausible reasons for being in contact with a child, just in case concerns are raised.

I thought, ‘She’s covered herself’. She’s already said that I need help getting washed and what have you. Now, that covers them for touching me. I mean, it’s something I might not have put together as a child if I’d read them records, but as an adult ... and police have got these records. Then she said I was a tell-tale. I wasn’t a tell-tale.

Victim and survivor, the Truth Project

Abusing positions of trust and authority

Perpetrators in professions or positions of trust may use their authority and position to create opportunities to be alone with children and to shield themselves from suspicion. They know that their reputation and authority can be used to deflect and discredit accusations if concerns are raised.

The person I have described was well respected and a pillar of the local establishment ‒ a Headmaster, Justice of the Peace and Freemason. It was an open secret that he molested the boys in his charge. But like Jimmy Savile, he hid in plain sight. Anyone who might have objected to his behaviour would have had the daunting task of taking on someone with powerful friends and considerable influence. All child molesters are lowlifes. But some are lowlifes in high places.

Victim and survivor, the Truth Project (‘Have your say’)

The boarding school I attended was rife with sexual abuse. The prefects abused their authority over the younger boys (aged 11+) to sexually abuse whomever took their fancy. When the prefects left school the masters (teachers) picked up where the prefects had left off and had an endless supply of pre-groomed boys to satisfy their sexual proclivities. The masters who lived in the school with us were the worst ‒ they had their studies and bedrooms where they could indulge themselves without fear of disturbance.

Victim and survivor, the Truth Project (‘Have your say’)

A significant proportion of the victims and survivors taking part in the Truth Project have said that they were abused by people in a position of trust. Nearly one in three (28%) were abused by family members and around a quarter (23%) have said that they were abused by teaching or educational staff. A further fifth (20%) were abused by perpetrators such as friends of the family or trusted members of the community, and nearly one in eight (12%) have indicated that they were abused by other professionals, such as medical practitioners, social workers and police.

So, I was given an injection, which I believe was a Largactil injection. And I, sort of, resisted that but I was forcibly given that. … But I have very clear memories of waking up in the night with this man, this nurse on top of me, raping me. And I know it happened. I also know that I was really affected by the drugs, but I know very clearly it happened.

Victim and survivor, the Truth Project

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