Causes of Child Sexual Abuse

Causes of Child Sexual Abuse


The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse conducted major studies into understanding what causes children to be sexually abused, focusing on institutional abuse. We have read the summary report Nature and Cause of Child Sexual Abuse provided by the Royal Commission. The information below is a summary of this report.

The Royal Commission heard from 6,875 survivors of abuse from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Their study admitted there was potentially a gap in the information, as those who spoke with the Commission were doing so voluntarily.

The commissioners found:

  • The majority of survivors heard from in private sessions (64.3 per cent) were male

  • More than half of all survivors who reported their age at the time of abuse told the commissioners that they were aged between 10 and 14 years when they were first sexually abused

  • Female survivors who attended private sessions generally reported being younger when they were first sexually abused than male survivors

  • 14.3 per cent of all survivors who attended a private session were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

  • 4.3 per cent of all survivors who attended a private session told the commissioners they had a disability at the time of the abuse

  • 93.8% of the survivors were abused by a male.

Common causes of child sexual abuse

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The commissioners found there were common characteristics between the roles of the perpetrators, which explained how and why the perpetrator of sexual abuse was able to offend without being questioned.

Such features included:

  • Unsupervised, one-on-one access to a child, such as travelling alone with the child

  • Providing intimate care to a child or an expectation of a certain level of physical contact

  • The ability to influence or control aspects of a child’s life, such as academic grades or authority over a child, particularly in situations with significant control such as a residential setting

  • Spiritual or moral authority over a child

  • The prestige of the perpetrator, resulting in the perpetrator being afforded a higher level of trust and credibility

  • Opportunities to become close with a child and their family

  • Responsibility for young children, such as preschool carers

  • Specialist expertise, as in the case of medical practitioners, enabled perpetrators to disguise sexual abuse.

Influences that can cause adults to sexually abuse a child

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The Royal Commission found:

  • A range of adults sexually abuse children – attempting to predict the likelihood of someone being a perpetrator based on preconceptions should be avoided

  • Adult perpetrators are predominantly male, although women do sexually abuse children in institutional contexts

  • The strategies used to sexually abuse children are influenced by the institutional context e.g. priests would isolate children under the guise of “helping” them, whereas school teachers could request access to a child under the guise of disciplining them

  • Adult perpetrators in institutional contexts may be strategic in the way they identify, groom and sexually abuse children, and groom others within the institution

  • Adverse experiences in childhood, such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect

  • Interpersonal, relationship and emotional difficulties, including difficulty connecting with other adults, intimacy problems and poor social skills, and emotional affiliation with children

  • Distorted beliefs and ‘thinking errors’ may facilitate child sexual abuse

  • Indirect influences, such as contextual or ‘trigger’ factors may also influence the abuser.

Research suggests that four pre-conditions must be met before an adult will sexually abuse a child. They are:

  • Motivation to sexually abuse

  • Overcoming internal inhibitions the perpetrator may have about sexually abusing a child

  • Overcoming external barriers to access a child

  • Overcoming the child’s resistance.

Why does child abuse occur within institutions?

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Many risk factors exist in contemporary institutional contexts. Throughout discussions with abuse survivors, the Royal Commission found:

  • Some institutions are more likely than others to enable adult perpetrators and children with harmful sexual behaviours to sexually abuse children and to make it more difficult for the abuse to be detected and addressed

  • The level of risk within a particular institutional context is influenced by the types of activities and services provided, the physical environment, the characteristics of the children in the institution, and, to an extent, organisational management

  • Some institutions, such as closed institutions, carry more risk of child sexual abuse than others and these institutions need to be alert to their heightened risk

  • Children are more likely to be abused in institutional contexts where the community has unquestioning respect for the authority of an institution

Three primary factors which have a role in assessing the likelihood a child will be sexually abused

#1. Cultural factors

Cultural factors include the organisational and leadership culture. This culture affects and shapes assumptions, values, beliefs and norms. These norms impact the way individuals behave when interacting with children, and impact the organisation’s perception of children, i.e. as liars or troublemakers.

#2. Operational factors

Operational factors cover off the day to day practices of running an institution, including the screening and training of staff and volunteers working within the institution. Operational factors can include “risk factors such as institutional hierarchies that inhibit identification of abuse and allowing perpetrators to remain in positions where abuse can continue.”

An example of operational factors at work in the institutional setting includes the lack of screening of officers working in the Parramatta Girls’ Home. These officers were disgusting individuals who were not qualified to work with children and yet were permitted unrestricted access to vulnerable teens.

#3. Environmental factors

This relates directly to the physical and/or online space that enable potential perpetrators to access children. Environmental risk factors relate to the ability to access children in isolated or unsupervised locations, and the use of online environments to groom and abuse children.

These factors play a significant role in determining whether a child is likely to be sexually abused in an institutional setting. For example, if a leader has frequently turned a blind eye to previous crimes against children, or there is an established culture of covering up crimes, perpetrators are more likely to offend as the risk of punishment and consequence are lower.

There are no set criteria determining why child sexual abuse occurs, however, there are certainly common themes amongst those perpetrators of abuse. It’s the responsibility of the institution to ensure the safety of the child, and it’s the institution’s failure to do so which has caused the abuse of thousands of Australian children over the years.

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