Child sexual abuse committed under guise of medical treatment, survivors tell Inquiry

New report from Independent Inquiry.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has published new research into child sexual abuse in healthcare contexts, which finds that healthcare practitioners abused their positions of trust and authority to sexually abuse children under the guise of medical procedures. 

Based on the accounts of 109 victims and survivors who came forward to the Truth Project, the report analyses experiences of abuse across a wide range of healthcare settings from the 1960s to the 2000s. Accounts describe sexual abuse in hospitals, psychiatric institutions and GP surgeries.

The report provides an insight into the role of healthcare in victims and survivors’ lives, revealing that for many participants, their healthcare needs related to the physical, psychological and sexual abuse they suffered at home. They spoke of attending health institutions seeking treatment, care and recovery, but instead were subjected to sexual abuse by professionals in violation of their duty to protect their patients. 

Perpetrators were commonly male GPs or healthcare practitioners with routine ‘clinical’ access to children, meaning that their behaviour was not questioned by other staff, parents or children, even when they recommended procedures that were not appropriate or necessary. 

Many described how the sexual abuse took place under the cover of clinical ‘examinations’, which in some cases involved the use of medication or medical instruments.

“Under the guise of performing a medical test, called a high vaginal swab, he used that as an opportunity to rape me. I thought I was dying, but I also thought I had to be very quiet, because it was the right thing to do.” - Truth Project participant sexually abused in a healthcare context

The report identifies certain factors which enabled the sexual abuse to take place, including physical isolation in private consultation rooms, the victim’s lack of knowledge about medical procedures, and the position of trust and authority held by healthcare professionals, allowing them to instruct patients without being questioned.

“You’ve got to bear in mind, he was a doctor. I thought, by God, this is really weird, but I didn’t think how weird and how wrong it was - do you understand?”Truth Project participant sexually abused in a healthcare context

Victims and survivors highlighted the extensive effects of the sexual abuse, with the majority describing a significant impact on their mental health, such as anxiety and depression, whilst others talked about a fear of healthcare professionals, and psychological and emotional distress. Over 20 perent of participants experienced a direct impact such as pregnancy or a physical injury. For many, the effects have been lifelong. 

“I just see [the perpetrator’s] fingerprints on everything...I look at my life and I just see his fingerprints.“ - Truth Project participant sexually abused in a healthcare context

Many participants described barriers preventing them from speaking out, such as having no-one to tell, fears of questioning authority, and feelings of guilt and shame. Where they were able to disclose, they were often ignored, disbelieved or discredited, and dismissed by healthcare professionals as sick or ‘crazy’.

Julienne Zammit, Senior Researcher at the Inquiry said: “In this report, victims and survivors describe how perpetrators in healthcare contexts would exploit their routine access to children to commit sexual abuse, which often took place under the guise of medical procedures. Participants feared questioning the power and trust held by healthcare professionals. 

“It’s clear that not being believed was a significant barrier to children reporting sexual abuse, as were feelings of self-blame, embarrassment and a fear of speaking out against authority.”

The Inquiry’s Truth Project is closing in 2021, but for now it is still open for survivors of child sexual abuse to share their experiences in writing, over the phone, by video call or in person. for more information or email [email protected]

- Read more about the Truth Project in this interview with Rebekah Eglinton.

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