From denial, disbelief and deflection, towards Truth

Dr Rebekah Eglinton is Chief Psychologist to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Here she highlights the experiences over 6,000 victims and survivors have shared with the Inquiry’s Truth Project, and the importance of their accounts in contributing to change for the better. The Inquiry’s Final Report is due to be published next year.

Part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the Truth Project provided over 6.000 victims and survivors of child sexual abuse with an unprecedented opportunity to share their experience with the Inquiry and to help protect future generations. In October 2021, a further 70 of their accounts were published. These contributions cannot be underestimated; victims and survivors’ experiences have been pivotal in building a clearer picture of the extent of child sexual abuse, its impact, and what needs to change to help better protect children in the future. This is the reason so many have told us they decided to come forward. 

Soraya sees the Truth Project as a vehicle for positive change. She feels by taking part she has been given an opportunity to help make children safer in the future.

Sharone says her main reason for speaking out is that she wants to try and help others and ensure that other children don’t have to go through what she did. ‘I’ve been through so much, but I’m a good mum and a strong person … my duty now is to try and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.’

Disclosing sexual abuse is a sensitive and personal process. The latest analysis of Truth Project accounts records that one in 10 of those who came forward are speaking about what happened to them for the first time, after years or even decades of silence. Many survivors said they tried to tell adults around them what was happening but were met with disbelief, punishment and even further abuse. They told us that this failure to listen and to act to protect them as children was as damaging as the abuse itself, severely affecting their trust in others. Feeling heard is important to all of us; for someone who was ignored and blamed as a child, knowing that someone is there to listen to their experience and bear witness can be a significant and restorative part of their recovery journey. From what victims and survivors have told us, this is far from an easy road. 

Whilst the attention of the public eye is commonly drawn to the nature of the sexual abuse itself, less focus is placed on the far-reaching impacts it can have on so many survivors’ lives – and we know that these effects can be enduring. Almost all of those who have shared their experience with the Truth Project spontaneously reported some kind of negative impact, with 88 per cent describing an effect on their mental health in general and over a third reporting symptoms of depression. More than half told us about a negative impact on their relationships, and 42 percent spoke of repercussions at school or on future employment. For so many victims and survivors, the lasting effects of sexual abuse were compounded by feelings of shame, guilt, and a lack of opportunity to disclose what happened.   

More than two thirds of those who spoke to the Truth Project didn’t tell anyone about the sexual abuse at the time it was happening. They may not have had anyone they could talk to about the abuse. They may not have had the words to describe it or have been directly threatened or manipulated by the perpetrator to stay silent. They may have been worried, ashamed, confused or so terrified of speaking up that they didn’t tell anyone about it for years, sometimes even decades. Many survivors sexually abused within an institution described the powerful status held by the perpetrator and the culture of deference that surrounded them. Perpetrators appeared to groom not only the child, but their family and even the entire community, creating a significant barrier for the child to be heard and believed. Through the Truth Project we have heard how denial, disbelief and deflection have operated at an individual and structural level within organisations, increasing opportunity for perpetrators to access children, and further silencing victims and survivors. 

As an Inquiry, and through our learning from the experiences shared with the Truth Project,  we’ve grown to appreciate the necessity of a shift in cultural attitudes, and their vital role in breaking down the silence which so often surrounds child sexual abuse as a taboo subject. The accounts shared with the Truth Project amplify the voices of survivors and their suggestions for change, helping to address society’s reluctance to discuss child sexual abuse, and seeking to better protect children in future.

The Inquiry’s Interim Report says of cultural change:

‘The Inquiry considers that children ‒ and adult victims and survivors of child sexual abuse ‒ will be better protected and supported if society is prepared to discuss the issue openly and frankly.’

As we acknowledge the 6,000 victims and survivors who have so courageously shared their experiences with us, the need to do more to open up the conversation around child sexual abuse and prevent the same failures happening again is brought into sharp focus.

- Revisit our 2020 interview with Dr Eglinton, and find more on the Inquiry in our archive.

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