Who Should Tell: On Child Sexual Abuse

Sandusky, Boy Scouts Canada, and revived memories of Mount Cashel and the Roman Catholic church – there are a lot of people reading and thinking about child sexual abuse these days.

We’ve come a long way since the coverups of earlier decades, but as the Scouts Canada controversy shows, many people still don’t understand how or why child sexual abuse is reported.

There seems to be a misconception that a child is abused, tells a trusted adult, and the situation is dealt with in the courts and through the judicial system. In actual fact only a small percentage of children disclose their abuse in childhood. And of those that do, a large percentage are faced with an adult who either doesn’t believe them, doesn’t respond appropriately, or doesn’t take the required action. 

“Why didn’t they tell?” is a common reaction to allegations of past sexual abuse. Some even take the position that if a child didn’t tell when it was happening, then it is possible it never happened at all. Marketing campaigns aimed at children – badly aimed in the opinion of one survivor – tell children to disclose. But we have done little as a society to address the real issue – that of the bystanders who suspect but never say a word.

In her essay on the subject, Good Men Project contributor Gretl Claggett wrote: 
"But why didn’t you say something?" people ask; and, unintentionally or not, their tone often incriminates. Perhaps that’s because they only see me, the adult—not the five, nine or 13-year-old I once was. While ‘good touch, bad touch’ talks may help, children can’t be expected to carry the burden of awareness and prevention.
And yet this is often what we ask and even expect them to do. We’ve all seen the ads directed at children telling them that they should tell someone about their abuse. But as one survivor says, “no child would notice those ads. There are no flashy colours, bright toys, tasty treats. When I was a kid I noticed Toucan Sam and the Cocopuffs rabbit, not some sad-eyed kid talking on the TV.”

And no advertising campaign will ever make up for all the inhibitions against disclosure. As that same survivor, who choses to remain anonymous says:
 Childhood is a confusing time. We’re told that hitting isn’t right but our parents spank us and friends hit us and no one suffers any repercussions. We’re told that stealing isn’t right, but Daddy brings home pens from the office and Mommy picks up a dime dropped in a parking lot. There’s no gray zone in a child’s mind. What adults do is right. What they say is hardly ever true. Even if an adult had sat down with me and said ‘no one should ever touch you like that,’ I would’ve taken it in the same way I took in statements that my brothers shouldn’t hit me. They did. That was life. Should and shouldn’t didn’t enter into it.
And the fact is, between abuses, I didn’t think about it. Or tried not to. If my abusers weren’t around, I could live a ‘normal’ life. And if they were around, they were surrounded by adults that facilitated them and turned a blind eye. Of course I knew it was wrong. It hurt. It terrified me. But so did getting my scraped knee cleaned. I could normalise the experience. I had to in order to survive.
Expecting children to disclose abuse is ridiculous. Looking at the numbers from Scouts Canada, of 486 cases of abuse reported since 1947, 328 were already known to authorities before Scouts Canada became aware. Those 328 cases are likely instances where an individual became known to authorities through other actions such as purchasing child pornography, or where an adult came forward years later to report abuse.
In a study released by Save the Children Sweden, titled “Why Didn’t They Tell Us: On Sexual Abuse inChild Pornography,” authors looked at the cases of 22 children who had been sexually abused and were old enough and physically able to talk about it. None of the children self-reported the abuse. Most of them suffered at least a year of abuse. “The children had kept this to themselves and had not talked about this to parents, friends, siblings, relatives or to some other adult. This is a very compelling argument that children do not at all, or very reluctantly, talk about sexual abuse. This is also a very formidable contrast to the idea that children invent or make false accusations of sexual abuse.”

Authors found that the average amount of time the children – and this was a small subset of children whose abuse was later discovered without them reporting – lived with their “secret” was 44 months. Other reports and studies have found an average of five years before a child reports any abuse activities. This does not mean that all cases are reported within five years, but that of that small percentage of cases that are disclosed by the victim, it takes approximately five years for the disclosure to happen.

Those are not the important numbers, though. The important numbers are those like the 129 files on reported abuse from 1947 to 2011 that Boy Scouts Canada never passed on to authorities. Or if that’s too hard to remember, think of the number three. Only about one in three children report their abuse. Most have to report it to at least three adults before someone takes action.

In every case of child sexual abuse, there is someone who knows, who suspects, or who just feels funny about it all. Predators groom children who are easily taken in. They also groom the adults around them by making it hard to believe they would do such things. But adults have better ability to discern when they are being manipulated. Adults have a responsibility to care for vulnerable children. Children do not have a responsibility to take care of themselves.

“I did tell,” one survivor says, “I told one person.  Maybe I didn’t use the right words. Maybe I didn’t make it clear enough. But what child can make anything clear? She didn’t do anything about it. I assumed no one would. So I just lived with it.”

Children shouldn’t have to “live with it,” and they shouldn’t be made to feel like it is their responsibility to stop it. It is our responsibility to step out of the bystander role and take action for our children. According to a CBC report, of those 129 unreported Boy Scout cases, commissioner Steve Kent said “We found examples of individuals being unsure of how to report abuse, or whether it was necessary to report. In some cases, an offence was thought to be inappropriate for a Scouts leader, but not necessarily criminal in nature, and therefore did not require reporting to authorities.”

That’s not good enough. Maybe instead of asking why children don’t tell and trying to teach them to tell, it’s time we concentrated more effort on making it clear that adults must tell.


  1. (I'm sorry for posting this anonymously, but it's of a sensitive nature - I follow you on twitter and will let you know via DM who I am)

    This article could not come at a more pertinent time in my life. My older sister disclosed at the age of 30 the sexual abuse that she had suffered as a child. I have two older sisters and both of them were abused by an uncle. The one told, the other didn't. And the action taken was not enough. The uncle in question was sent to counseling and it was hushed up (I was not told until my 20's).
    Now, 30+ years later, the question of telling has come out. Should we pursue legal action against this man now, after all these years? My sisters want to and are planning to tell his family (his wife knows, but not his adult children) and other members of the extended family.
    It seems like it was exactly the case with them as you described. They told my parents, but they were so groomed by my uncle that they had a hard time believing it was anything but a mistake - and they were unaware (because of my oldest sister's secrecy) of the repetitive nature of the abuse.

  2. Totally agree with what you have written here. Abused children have enough to deal with without the burden of resolving the situation for themselves being thrown on top. What child can possibly understand enough of what is happening to them to be able to deal with it? It is a poor testament when the bad elements of society actively seek to harm our children but the good elements by and large just inactively sigh and shake their heads. People need to take action, to speak up and, most important of all, learn to listen.

  3. I do completely agree with your point. I think too we need to know more about the signs and symptoms in the child and that it's okay to listen to them. I never would have told my parents but they wouldn't have been listening to me anyway. They don't listen to me now and I'm 36. And I've noticed that when my six year old daughter has a problem, she tells me, just not always in words.

  4. What a heartbreaking read. I know all this (lived all this) but it still hurts to read. I couldn't agree more. We all have the responsibility to report. Regardless of the circumstances. There is no circumstance uncomfortable enough for us to decide to sacrifice a child's well being.

  5. Excellent Working Dear Friend Nice Information Share all over the world i am really impress your work Stay Blessings On your Work...God Bless You.
    geo news pakistan
    Pakistan News
    Latest News

  6. I am also posting anonymously. I was sexually abused by a cousin when I was 9, 10 and 11. (Cousin was 19, 20 & 21.) I also suspect he abused my brother at the same time, but my brother says no. I told my mom. She was too unwilling to anger her sister (the cousin's mom) and said nothing to anyone else.

    When I was in counseling in my 20's, I confronted mom about why she didn't do anything. She said she didn't know how, didn't want to upset her sister, and thought everything would be fine if she just didn't have cousin babysit us at night anymore.

  7. The older brother of a friend of mine from when I was at school has recently been jailed for voyeurism. He was a school caretaker and had drilled holes in the ceiling of the girls changing rooms so he could watch them while lying on the floor of the space above. He was spotted by the headmaster and some of the teachers by chance.

    When my father told me about it I had to deal with stuff that I'd come to terms with from when I was a teenager. On a couple of occasions when we were out with friends in the local countryside the two of us were alone and he persuaded me to allow him to touch me where he shouldn't have. Being young and inexperienced I allowed him to.

    I never said anything about it to anyone, partly because I had a bit of a crush on him, and partly because my own sexuality was still forming.

    Every so often the memories came back with the worst being when I was doing a child protection training and some of the material left me shaking on my way home.

    Trying to decide what to do was hard, even now I'm in my 40s. Do I go to the police? Would I be seen as an infatuated youth and what happened discounted? Would the police have enough evidence to successfully prosecute already? If I went forward and they didn't would I be able to give evidence against him, would it help? So many questions, so few answers. In the end I didn't go forward and he was convicted anyway. His life is over, he's on the sex offenders register and will never be able to work with children, he's going to have to move away, change his name probably because if he stays where he is then someone is going to decide justice hasn't been served and beat him up.

    As for me I'll put it behind me again until such time as something triggers the memories.

  8. This is excellent information. It offers a new perspective on responsibility, because we do try so hard to tell our children that adults asking them to keep secrets from their parents is not okay, ever. But the information here was enlightening, and I absolutely agree. It's very hard sometimes to fight the "no, this couldn't be happening - they would never do that", and so we hesitate and do not take the action we should. This article has made me more aware. We should not expect so much from the children. We should expect more from us, the parents and other responsible adults. Let us become a culture that will never tolerate this abuse and will always act to stop it when we suspect it. For heaven's sake, let's protect our kids!


Have something to add? Let us know: