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Panic rules reality in child abuse debate

The current moral alarm over child sexual abuse masks statistical realities

Bettina Arndt, Sydney Morning Herald, March 19, 2002

The public outcry at Senator Bill Heffernan's vile attack on Justice Michael Kirby is well justified. But we only have ourselves to blame for creating a climate where the senator thought he could get away with it. For 20 years this country has been in the grip of hysteria about sexual abuse in which wild claims have flourished in the absence of rational, informed inquiry.

We have been led by the nose by zealots of all persuasions - from arch-conservatives, self-claimed sexual healers to anti-male crusaders - who played on parental fears to create a panic about sexual offenders, exaggerating their threat to society.

This is not to deny the very real harm serious sexual abuse poses to children - abuse shamefully under-acknowledged in the past with serious consequences for the victims. But guilt over past inaction has made us vulnerable to excessive claims and distortions - claims that incest affects one in three girls, that sinister, ritual cults infiltrated kindergartens across the country, that thousands of predatory pedophiles drawn from the highest ranks of our society run the nation's porn rings.

We have allowed ourselves to be grossly misled about the prevalence of sexual abuse and the likely impact of that abuse on children. As Melbourne University academics Dorothy Scott and Shurlee Swain point out in their book Confronting Cruelty (Melbourne University Press), the false notion that childhood sexual abuse is the most likely cause of emotional problems in adulthood has led to a gross distortion of the real risks to children, drawing attention away from the neglect and emotional and physical abuse which affect far greater numbers.

It hasn't helped that so many professionals remain wilfully ignorant of the statistical realities. International research now shows that less than 1 per cent of children are sexually abused by their fathers. So it is shocking that a recent survey commissioned by the Department of Family and Community Services showed 35 per cent of female health, education and welfare professionals believe up to 24 per cent of fathers abuse their children.

Paul Mullen, forensic psychiatry professor at Monash University, is one of many researchers whose analysis shows that in up to half the cases of sexual abuse there is no lasting damage, and that the serious abuse likely to have long-term impact - which usually involves penetration - affects between 5 and 10 per cent of children.

Mullen is regularly attacked when he presents data at professional conferences showing a child is rarely permanently emotionally damaged from mild abuse such as witnessing a man exposing himself or a single incident of fondling. These are the most common forms of sexual abuse.

Given this level of prejudice and ignorance, it is hardly surprising that we have witnessed many suicides of people falsely accused of such crimes. Yet these tragedies have failed to curb the hysteria. Nor have the gaping holes which have appeared in basic tenets promoted by true believers -  such as the infallibility of recovered memories and of diagnosis using genitally correct dolls.

Paul Jenkins traces the cyclical history of bouts of public hysteria about sexual molestation in his powerful book Moral Panic - Changing concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America (Yale University Press, 1998) and suggests the tenacity of the current moral panic is due to the pivotal role
of former victims. Jenkins suggests that, for the first time in history, millions of people "construct their self-identity in terms of the experiences of sexual victimisation", with the result that victims now drive the political and moral agenda.

The Queensland Attorney-General, Rod Welford, has just promised to double prison terms for child sex offenders. Prominent sex abuse campaigner Hetty Johnson said the reforms "sounded fabulous".

"Is it Christmas?" she asked. She's talking about crimes which include "indecent treatment" such as fondling or exposing a child to an indecent video. In the case of a child under 12, these crimes already attract a maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment in Queensland - more than is sometimes given for serious assaults resulting in permanent injury or even death.

There are real questions as to whether sex crimes already carry disproportionate penalties. A recent report by the Victorian Law Reform Commission found a drop in conviction rates for sexual assault which could, in part, be a reaction by juries to maximum penalties they find unduly harsh. Also, many believe public prosecutors are responding to criticism they received in the past for failing to prosecute abuse cases by running many cases which have no possibility of success - at vast public cost.

It seems that much of the obsessive public interest in child sexual abuse is driven by prurience, rather than genuine public concern. How else do we explain that an incident involving a Sydney schoolboy rubbed through his clothing with a wooden dildo captures the headlines for weeks on end, while reports of the most vicious bullying and physical abuse in schools and institutions rarely attract lasting attention?

Voices of sanity are sorely needed to shake off the latest dose of moral panic and gain some perspective on this issue.

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