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4 February 2021

Two-thirds of child sex abuse survivors kept assaults secret at the time

New research also finds that almost half of victims suffer from a long-term condition.

By Samir Jeraj

The majority – two-thirds – of child sexual abuse survivors in the UK did not tell anyone about the abuse they suffered at the time that they experienced it, according to research published by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

The IICSA was set up in 2014 in the wake of the investigations into Jimmy Saville – the deceased TV and radio personality who was found to have abused dozens of children throughout his career – and other high-profile cases.

The inquiry’s remit is to investigate cases and the systemic issues that led to child sexual abuse over a period of decades. The inquiry’s Truth Project, also launched in 2014, focuses on how organisations failed to protect children from sexual abuse.

Read more: Are social services failing black and Asian child abuse victims? 

According to the study based on 5,104 accounts sent to the Truth Project, abusers often told their victims that they would not be believed, would get into trouble, or would be sent away. The research paints a picture of both the experience of abuse and its long-term impact.

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Nearly nine in ten victims said their experiences impacted their mental health, with more than a third saying they experienced depression. Over half said their relationships had been affected, and four in ten said the same of their schooling/employment. Overall, nearly half of survivors have an illness or condition that still affects their daily life.

The IICSA and the Truth Project published 80 personal accounts from survivors as part of their research. One respondent, Denny, spent time in a youth detention centre in the 1980s. It was “run on fear” and violent assaults by staff occurred daily. At the time, he did not come forward about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of the head gardener there because he felt he would be “laughed at”.

Read more: The lost children of lockdown

A year after the abuse started he suffered a breakdown in his mental health and was admitted to hospital. Today, he still takes medication to help with his mental health. It took Denny 27 years to report the matter to the police, after hearing that others had reported their experiences of abuse at the centre. He told the inquiry he has not heard anything since his police interview, and feels angry and let down.

 “This appalling finding shows more must be done to normalise the conversation around child sexual abuse,” said Nujoji Calvocoressi, a member of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel for the IICSA.

Of the people who shared their account of abuse with the Truth Project, one in ten were disclosing it for the first time in their lives. The largest group to come forward were adults in their 50s, while seven in ten were women and nine in ten were white.

Read more: The UK’s mental health crisis: why people are struggling to access therapy

Another respondent, Joyce, told a friend at school about the abuse she was suffering at the hands of a sibling. The friend told a teacher, who then went to her parents. The family did not believe her and threatened to have her taken into care. “The abuse I suffered as a child has to a degree directly and indirectly impacted on every aspect of my life,” Joyce said. Even as an adult she says she struggles to trust anyone.

The Truth Project is closing in 2021, but survivors who would like to share their experiences can still do so by phone, via a video call or in writing. More information about how to share can be found on the Truth Project website. “Those who have been sexually abused need to feel there is someone they can reach out to who will listen to them and, most importantly, believe them,” said Calvocoressi.