The head of the police child abuse squad has warned that statistics reveal the crippling crime is mostly committed by trusted friends or relatives rather than strangers on the street.
Det-Sen. Sgt Simon Hubbard said despite its prevalence, the extent that predators were close to their victims often remained hidden, leaving parents at the risk of believing the “stranger danger” myth.
The warning comes during National Child Protection Week, with police saying that more than 30,000 children are abused or neglected every year in Australia.
Advocate Bravehearts said one in five Australian children would be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday.
In 85 per cent of cases the offender knew the child.
More than 80 per cent of victims who called an Adults Surviving Child Abuse support line between April 2009 and May 2013 were abused by an immediate or extended family member.
Another 10 per cent were preyed on by a family friend, while 17 per cent abused at the hands of religious leaders, teachers or other in institutional care. Only 2.4 per cent were abused by a stranger.
Bravehearts executive director Hetty Johnston said children needed to be encouraged to speak out because silence, secrecy and shame were the sex offender’s best friends.
Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Cathy Kezelman said child abuse often went under the radar because society struggled to acknowledge such a crime could occur in the sanctity of the family home.
Det-Sen. Sgt Hubbard encouraged parents to seek help if they noticed any changes in their children’s behaviour, such as being withdrawn, angry, displaying sexualised or inappropriate-aged behaviour or not wanting to see a certain person.
The human stories of child sex abuse are just as varied as the potential warning signs.
Elizabeth was six years old when she described in her diary what her step-father had been doing to her.
The sinister entry revealed abuse that would for years mar the very hopes and dreams she had also been harbouring as young girl.
When her stepfather found the diary he told her not to tell anyone what he was doing. He told her he would marry her – a claim her mother brushed off whenever she innocently repeated it.
For the little girl who never before had a father figure, it was enough to keep her silent through terrible sexual abuse that continued into her mid-teens.
“He never had to threaten me… I wanted him to like me because my family was very fractured and I never saw my father,” the 42-year-old singer and mother of three told The West Australian this week. “As a child you just want to belong and be loved and you kind of adapt yourself to whatever is going.”
“It’s so confusing and you know it’s wrong. You just really don’t understand the situation… that you have rights to say no…. you feel that you are somehow doing the wrong thing and that you are going to get in trouble as well yourself if it does all come out. You become sort of complicit in the silence.”
At age 15, Perth lawyer John was a promising cricketer when a new coach joined his local club.
It was the 1970s. No one spoke about paedophiles or sex abuse.
When the influential and charismatic coach began touching him under the guise of giving him advice on girls, the teen was initially too naïve to understand what was happening.
But as the abuse escalated John knew what the man was doing was wrong. He did not reveal what had happened but distanced himself from the coach and the club, his love of cricket waning.
In the years that followed, the coach occasionally called John, who believes the contact was a bid to intimidate him and prevent him speaking out.
Over time he contemplated speaking to former team-mates about what happened but could never bring himself to act.
Decades later, John went to police and made a formal complaint.
A television news story about the 1990s royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in New South Wales struck a chord that what happened to him was illegal and needed to be reported.
But the case languished after prosecutors failed to have his abuser extradited from interstate over his 2001 complaint.
Since then, the coach has been jailed for sex offences against other children in the 80s and 90s.
John admits feeling aggrieved he never had the chance to take the coach to court. But the later conviction was some vindication.
“It was bittersweet because I’ve wrestled with the guilt of not coming forward earlier and maybe being able to stop him doing more damage,” he said. “The really bad thing about sexual abuse is the taboo about it, even though you’re the victim you somehow feel shame that it’s happened to you and you don’t want to talk about it.”
When he finally told his parents of the abuse a few years ago, they told him they had heard rumours at the time about the coach’s behaviour at another suburban club.
Now in his 50s, the father of two has spoken publicly for the first time to remind parents to be vigilant to protect children from paedophiles.
Jess, 31, sits in a northern suburbs café and describes vividly how as a five-year-old all she had wanted to do was watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on television when a neighbour and friend of her parents began molesting her. “The first thing I thought was I hope no one comes and sees because I thought I would be in trouble,” the university student and mother of two recalls. “I felt like the only child this was happening to.”
“You switch off, you just become a shell. You are there physically but emotionally you are not,” Jess said.
The coping mechanism is a common one but, as described by Elizabeth, comes at a cost.
The dissociation that started with “sending myself to the top of the room”, lying motionless or pretending to be asleep during the abuse eventually evolved into a general detachment that permeated her adult life.
“You just feel so shut off emotionally, you can’t trust yourself. You can’t trust your gut feelings,” Elizabeth said.
In Jess’s case it was the fear that her already dysfunctional family life would get worse and her little sister would share in the aftermath that stopped her from revealing the abuse as a child.
Looking back, she believed paedophiles were very cunning and patient, biding their time until they gained people’s trust. At age 15, another family friend sexually abused her.
More than a decade later the case came close to trial but was dropped when prosecutors reassessed their chances of conviction.
Jess has never asked her parents for the full name of the man she claims abused her when she was five. For two years she cut off all contact with her parents and despite rekindling communication in recent years she still feels betrayed by her mother. “I felt that if I shared how I feel with my parents it would come at a cost,” she said.
For some, the breach of trust made a terrible crime even worse.
“I think when it is family… it is even more damaging,” Elizabeth told The West. “It makes you feel even more valueless, worthless. These are people who are supposed to love and care for me.”
While Elizabeth remained close to her step-sister, her relationship with her mother had suffered.
“In a way I have blocked my mother emotionally. I love her but I do hold her at arms length… I know she feels that, but I think at least we are still in each others’ lives.”
Alarmingly, figures suggest child abuse is most often committed by relatives or family friends, followed by teachers and religious leaders. Such cases are heard in Perth courts on a weekly, if not daily basis.
Such crimes remain largely hidden from public view. Laws hinder the reporting of details that could identify victims, and, consequently, offenders.
Plagued by shame and fear, many victims take years to report abuse with the passage of time making prosecution more difficult.
“I think the most crippling thing was shame… that you asked for it maybe, or you deserved it,” Elizabeth said. “You think that it’s going to be a Pandora’s Box, like if I scratch the surface it’s all going to come flooding out and I am not going to be able to stop the pain and I am going to lose it.”
“The truth is that doesn’t happen, at least it didn’t happen with me.”
In her late 30s Elizabeth went to police. Her stepfather pleaded guilty to some abuse and was jailed.
The conviction was a big step in the healing process, Elizabeth said. But just as important was the need to raise awareness of a crime ripping lives and families apart.
“I healed myself step by step. It’s by speaking out that you can make a change,” “Everyone just has to little by little put their hand up and speak out and say this isn’t right,” Elizabeth said.Names of the victims in this article have been changed for legal reasons.