Public Defenders

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Executive Summary

Case Commentary


Note: This is one of three Bar Book chapters considering the specific impacts of different forms of child abuse and neglect. This chapter should be read in conjunction with:

Child Abuse and Neglect (forthcoming) 

Childhood Exposure to Family Violence

Childhood Sexual Abuse

Executive Summary

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A 'robust body of research evidence now clearly demonstrates the link between child sexual abuse and a spectrum of adverse mental health, social, sexual, interpersonal and behavioural as well as physical health consequences'.1

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that the impacts of child sexual abuse are 'interconnected in complex ways', making specific impacts difficult to isolate.2

The trauma caused by child sexual abuse 'may interrupt normal psychosocial development in victims' and affect the biological, social and psychological development of a child.3

Childhood sexual abuse is a 'substantial risk factor for the development of subsequent mental health problems'.4 Adverse mental health consequences can include major depression,5 increased risk of alcohol and drug dependence,6 often as a means of coping with the psychological trauma of having been abused,7 aggressive behaviours and social anxiety.8

Survivors of child sexual abuse may also be at greater risk of engaging in risky behaviours, particularly risky sexual behaviours, both during adolescence and adulthood.9

Other adverse consequences may include:

  • negative health outcomes;10

  • poor educational outcomes;11

  • underemployment;12

  • housing insecurity;13 and

  • ongoing distrust and fear of institutions and authority, especially where the abuse occurred in an institutional context.14

The potential relevance of evidence of childhood sexual abuse in sentencing proceedings includes an assessment of moral culpability; moderating the weight to be given to general deterrence; and determining the weight to be given to specific deterrence and protection of the community. There may also be issues relating to the likelihood of hardship in custody, a finding of special circumstances and the shaping of conditions to enhance prospects of rehabilitation.

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[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, The Long-term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse (CFCA Paper No 11, 2013) 23.

[2] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report (2017) vol 3, 11.

[3] Ibid 85.

[4] Margaret C Cutajar et al, 'Psychopathology in a Large Cohort of Sexually Abused Children Followed Up to 43 Years' (2010) 34 Child Abuse & Neglect 813, 819.

[5] Australian Institute of Family Studies, The Long-term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse (CFCA Paper No 11, 2013) 8.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report (2017) vol 3, 11.

[8] Australian Institute of Family Studies, The Long-term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse (CFCA Paper No 11, 2013) 8.

[9] Ibid 13.

[10] Australian Institute of Family Studies, The Long-term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse (CFCA Paper No 11, 2013) 18.

[11] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report (2017) vol 3, 146.

[12] Ibid 152–3.

[13] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report (2017) vol 3, 155.

[14] Ibid 138. The Royal Commission reported that 32.7% of survivors who gave evidence to the Royal Commission in private sessions discussed a lack of trust in authority as a result of their experiences of abuse.