We are still failing sexual abuse victims

VERY few societies were forced to confront their denial about how deeply rooted the evil of child abuse was in their culture as dramatically as this one was. Very few societies were forced to confront their inadequate responses to the legacy of child abuse as dramatically, as painfully — or as shamefully — as this one was.

A decade of dreadful disclosures, detailing many decades of the most harrowing abuse, would suggest we might have felt duty bound to put in place a world-leading support service for the child victims of sexual predators but, tragically, and again shamefully, we have not.

The cross-generation toll of institutionalised sexual and physical abuse was — and is — enormous. Thousands of victims carried the scars all of their lives. Some, only the most resilient, managed to live something approaching a normal life, but many more lived half lives overshadowed by a past that no child should have had to endure, and could hardly forget. Many have become dependent on State support, some have spent lives in and out of prison. Others compound their awful childhood experiences with an adulthood destroyed by alcohol or drug misuse. Some cannot sustain a relationship. Most struggle to find contentment, much less happiness. Many more struggle with physical and mental health issues. Apart at all from enormous personal cost to the victims, there was, and is, a huge cost to the State.

Initially many of these victims found it hard to have their stories accepted, though it is not unreasonable to suggest that the authorities discounted their allegations, even though they knew they were true, rather than confront the powerful cancer at the very heart of our childcare system.

It is fair to say too that none of the victims got the kind of timely counselling that might have helped them re-balance their lives. It is fair too to suggest that most of us imagine that such circumstances could not be repeated, that the revelations were so very seismic that a range of supports are in place and that any victim of a sexual attack, a child or an adult, can quickly and easily access the health and counselling services appropriate in such circumstances.

How naive that belief, that reasonable hope is. Just yesterday a mother, obviously at her wit’s end, spoke on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland of her two-year struggle, so far unsuccessful, to get counselling for two of her sons who were abused. She described the drawings made by one of the young boys, showing anger, fear and the continuing presence of the abuser. Yet, despite her best efforts, she cannot get the State counselling services so obviously needed.

There are long and unacceptable waiting lists in many health areas and many thousands of unhappy people are denied basic services. Economic and demographic predictions suggest this situation may get worse. Maybe it’s time we had a debate about how we spend public money on what seem, in the context of delayed health services, peripheral, optional projects. We must also do more to redirect spending from dealing with the consequences of failure to preventing that entirely predictable failure.


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