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The quality of silence: observations on reporting child sexual abuse

Published: 3 Jul 2017

Observations of societal factors obstructing child victims and adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse from reporting their abuser.

42 page PDF


42 page PDF


The quality of silence: observations on reporting child sexual abuse
Worst Practice

42 page PDF


Worst Practice

While one of the aims of the Road to Change project was to shine a light on best practice, I was more often frightened for survivors in many nations when I encountered negligent operations or misguided beliefs of their authorities and agencies.

Romania apparently practices an emergency measure for abuse cases that involves removing the offender from the home for only 48 hours. This can sometimes mean the abuser must sleep on the street for two days but is then simply allowed back into the home, to live with their victim again but are now furious at the child for causing them to sleep outside for two days. I cannot comprehend what this is intended to achieve.

In the Netherlands, I could only find one organisation that specialised in supporting victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse. 'Kinder Misbrouk Nee' was not supported in any way by their government but was run by married couple that sold soap to fund their organisation; they made the soap in the same garage where they welcomed the swathes of desperate Dutch seeking their support. I was amazed when they explained that survivors in Holland must not speak to a therapist before they have made a report to the police, despite most victims requiring therapy in order to feel emotionally equipped to speak to the police. It is perceived that discussing histories of abuse with any psychologist will in some way dilute or pervert the victim's memory and so their testimony becomes invalidated. This practice is entirely backwards in relation to Scotland. My brother's provided written reports from their psychiatrists and psychologists that contributed as supporting evidence in the criminal case against our uncle. This unique policy is literally another 'Quality of Silence', only obstructing disclosers from survivors within the Netherlands, who may not feel emotionally equipped to proceed with criminal charges without first seeking psychological support, which is moral and logical option open to practically all other survivors across the western world. By the time I had reached Edinburgh on foot, Kinder Misbrouk Nee had shut down, due to lack of finance.

Anecdotally, as well as the senior police of Bulgaria refusing to believe that children are sexually abused in their country and the Spanish lawyers convincing the child victim's parents to drop the charges, as they themselves were too uncomfortable to defend them in court, I met a survivor in Slovenia who had been told by the police that she was lucky such an attractive man had even looked at her let alone had sex with her. Sadly, I can't imagine that these horrific incidents are unique and while we can hope they do not occur in Scotland we have legal parameters in place to prevent such treatment, or to redress them when they do.

Of all the frightening misconduct I witnessed in 32 nations, the most alarming situation is in the Republic of Ireland. Despite the steady rise in child sexual abuse disclosers, the Dublin based organisation CARI (Children at Risk Ireland) have had to downsize and even close other regional offices due to lack of funding. The media frenzy Ireland has hosted over the past decade, with high profile clerical and institutional abuse cases covered by all national newspapers, has created an advantage for adult survivors. CARI staff suggested the climate has changed so much that any adult coming forward now is practically guaranteed a court hearing and compensation, due to some governmental PR agenda to be seen to be tackling child sexual abuse. While I feel this is in many ways wonderful, unfortunately this reactionary solution appears to have shifted the focus of resources disproportionality towards adult survivors, leaving behind the many children currently still at immediate risk. Today, thirty thousand reported cases of child sexual abuse in Ireland lie dormant on social workers desks. Extremely vulnerable children are living with their offender in homes that have been professionally assessed as high risk but the workload is too huge to tackle; yet when an adult speaks out the authorities act immediately. The complexity of this problem is in part created by the relatively sudden progression of liberalism within the culture and changing attitudes towards the Catholic Church but I had never imagined I would discover a situation where encouraging survivors to end their silence on mass would in fact make matters more dangerous for the children of the country.

In Malta, I discovered that the only services to support adult survivors were run by the church. Of course these would not be appealing for those who had been victims of clergy or members the church. A survivor there read about me in a newspaper and approached me on Facebook, we met and he explained that he wanted to start his own organisation, independent from any denomination. I then met with the Malta's Minister of Social Dialogue and commented on the country having no services out-with those created by the church and their urgent need to establish one, but also informed her that I had met a survivor who currently hoped to do just that. As part of her remit is to support NGOs, she expressed an interest in meeting him and so I introduced them to each other and I kept walking. I've have since heard that positive talks have begun, funding is being identified and they have already asked me to be a patron of their new 'Recovery Academy', the nations first independent service for adult survivors of child sexual abuse.


A police constable of Police Scotland joined me on for a few hours as I walked through his hometown of Prestwick. He explained that he can be called to take a statement from a survivor wishing to report a historic abuse case, during or at the end of a busy day attending more immediate situations yet in the middle taking of this statement he might have to suddenly abandon the survivor if another officer requires emergency back up. How can we create a system where survivors who may be extremely emotionally vulnerable are not left feeling unheard and undervalued during possibly the most traumatic event since the abuse itself, decades before? As sexual crimes now equate to nearly 70% of the cases in Scottish courts each year, could we establish of a unit of special police officers who solely manage cases and actively communicate with victims of recent and survivors of historic childhood sexual abuse?

In August 2014, a friend in Glasgow called as I was walking through Croatia, to tell me that he had finally phoned the police to report his offender and that officers was on their way to take his statement. That phone call had taken him nearly forty years.

I'd known about his situation for many years and how the psychological damage the abuse left him with had lead him to alcoholism and him still being medicated for depression. He has now been sober for twelve years but his addiction transferred to an eating disorder. The devastation the sexual abuse he suffered in childhood has wrought in his adult life is entirely typical of the predictions within the ACE study.

His abuser was a scout leader in Scotland the 70s and 80s, but still lived in a high-rise across from a school. My friend's statement sparked a wave of reports from other survivors that has meant the case against their abuser has grown considerably, though the man is pleading innocent. I was distressed to learn that my friend had to reveal every intimate detail of what had happened to him to the first response officers who attended after his initial call. It then took five days before he was contacted by the police to inform him what action was being taken. When emotionally vulnerable survivors make the long-awaited step of contacting the police, they can be left with crippling sense of helplessness and need to be reassured that the police are taking action.

One year on, the man is still living at home across from a school and my friend is still waiting to hear what's happening. Out of frustration, he phoned the Procurator Fiscal, who said they could not share any details of the case with him. Interestingly, he mentioned my name to them and explained that I am an activist for child protection and the rights of survivors and they then agreed to meet him to discuss his case.

This meeting was not sensitively handled. At the reception he was quizzed on what he there to discuss, and so - to a receptionist- he was forced to explain that he was there to discuss the status of the case against the man who had sexually abused him throughout his childhood. Other members of the public were present in the room. Staff of the PF who encounter victims of various crimes, in person or via telephone should be trauma informed as their words and actions could negatively impact the victims recovery.

The details he was given were still vague yet the PF assistant promised to call him once a month to update him on any progress. Four months later and he had not received any calls. This is not supporting a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in anyway. As a close friend, I am fortunate enough to be able to advise him on what support services are available to him but the neither police nor PF had advised him of any.

A hearing was finally set but then deferred as the accused, now aged 91, apparently was unable to stay awake during proceedings. National press reported on the abuser falling asleep in court which lead to more survivors coming forward, yet the article also identified my friend to the public, which he had not consented to.

A second attempt at a hearing was scheduled for Hogmanay 2015. My friend could not attend as he was too anxious yet no one from the PF were communicating with him on developments. He called numerous but was told that as it was New Years Eve, the staff would be leaving as soon as possible and he would have to wait until the fifth of January to hear what had happened in court that day. By then he would quite probably have learned in the newspapers what had occurred in the cases between himself and his offender. Finally, after pestering the office of the PF all morning, a member of staff agreed to arrange for someone to call him. Victims/survivors should not be made to feel they are burdening the service by simply requesting to be kept informed of proceedings, which affect their own life so severely.

This hearing too was deferred, as the accused was apparently absent due to illness. The now eighteen month wait, during which at no point was my friend even offered a leaflet on where to find support, was now delayed a further month. Understandable, my friend was emotionally exhausted and returning to his GP to review his own depression medication.

A phone call from the PF on January 8th 2016, informed my friend that his abuser had died. They offered to meet him to answer any questions but confirmed that the process will now simply stop.

At present, my friend is quite emotionally devastated and unsure what to do with this entire experience but certainly does not feel any sense of closure from having attempted to seek justice. It appears, offenders of a certain age are attempting to delay proceeding via any means until their own death, to avoid punishment.


Email: Julie Crawford,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road