‘I was sexually abused throughout my childhood’
‘We need better programmes to help child sex abusers, as well as preventative programmes’
‘I remember being five years old in my bunk bed and I would hear Gerard coming home.’ Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
Sophie* is a psychotherapist with a clinical practice in Dublin. She has a PhD in psychology from a major Irish university.
I was sexually abused by my stepfather throughout my childhood. I remember being five years old in my bunk bed and I would hear Gerard coming home. He always wore these cowboy boots and my little heart pattered when I’d hear him coming down the hall to my bedroom.
When I was going through puberty I would wake to him standing over me, touching my developing breasts, or watching under the door after I got out of the bath. He was so abusive to my little sister, Grace. She’s six years younger than me and has always been tiny and sensitive. She had the misfortune of being born on his birthday; he was obsessive about this and said it had been ordained by God.
He was not a paedophile; he was interested in sexual relationships with grown women, and true paedophiles are only attracted to pre-pubescent bodies. No, he was a child sex abuser; it was all about control and power. If mum even went to the shop, he would check the odometer to see how many miles she had gone, and that she hadn’t gone any further than the shop.
I was really little when I told my mum about Gerard touching me and that I didn’t like it. She would say something to him and he would tell her that I was lying, or that it was a father’s job to teach his daughter about sex. Then it would stop for a while, but it would always happen again. I wasn’t really believed, or maybe she was in denial.
It went on in one form or another until I was about 15, when he was charged with sexually abusing my sister, although he was never convicted for abusing me. He went to prison for six years. It was a big shock to him as he had always used religion to justify what he was doing.
Gerard was the centre of my world until I was 16. He was so controlling, and I had to be constantly hyper vigilant. I walked around with a lot of anxiety, fear and shame. I still loved him: Mum was neglectful and Gerard was always there, so I thought of him as my dad. When he was gone from my life, I didn’t know who I was. It was a really confusing time.
Right after Gerard was convicted, my body wracked with sobs as he was brought to prison she said, “Don’t worry, he’ll get . . . raped in prison.” This took all the darkness and only made it darker. I had a feeling that I didn’t want any more pain and hurt in the world.
He got out when I was about 23. He was supposed to register as a sex offender, but instead he fled the country and was living with a woman and her children there. A warrant went out for his arrest.
Now he is dying of brain cancer. When I found out, I rang him. I needed a resolution. He said he would take all the cancer in his body to have my forgiveness, and that he did what he did because he was not right with God. He just started spouting about religion; I didn’t feel any satisfaction.
My sister, the daughter he was convicted of sexually abusing, went to see him, and he asked her for a hug even though she didn’t want to. It triggered a lot of post-traumatic stress for her. I’ve thought about going to see him before he dies. If I do, I will bring my husband as a support, I wouldn’t go alone.
I’ve also thought a lot about how he was never convicted for abusing me. When abuse happens in the family and is never acknowledged, you feel as if your own trauma has never been acknowledged or your experience validated.
Abuse can be inter-generational
I’ve had further complications in my life. When I was three, my biological father, Will, was arrested for sexually abusing my sister, his stepdaughter, Rose. She had, for complicated reasons, gone to live with him. She is now a recovering drug addict. Will had never touched me.
My mum was abused, her sisters were abused and my cousins were abused. Two of my mum’s brothers were abusers. We were in a religious fundamentalist family and we were taught, from a very early age, that we were not permitted to set our own boundaries or communicate freely. Children and women were supposed to always be submissive to men. The hierarchy is man, woman, male child and then, at the bottom of the pile, girl children.
I remember that Gerard would give me a spanking. Every part of my little body wanted to run far away from him, but I had to hug and kiss him afterward or I’d be in huge trouble. I didn’t know how to speak up for myself and was afraid and ashamed.
We grew up in a tiny home; at one point, it was me and three siblings in a small bedroom. Boundaries and space were a luxury we didn’t have. We were perfect victims, really. Will beat my mother when she was eight months pregnant, and she had to go to a shelter for battered women. Her life had been a cycle of abuse from childhood.
Risk factors for abuse
Now, from my clinical experience, I know that most people who sexually abuse children are not true paedophiles, in the sense having an exclusive sexual attraction to children: they are people with poor boundaries, low self-esteem, narcissistic traits and without a good sense of self. They abuse so they can have power and control over another human being.
People without good boundaries or self-esteem often tend to find each other. Unhealthy relationships can often be a pattern through our own lives, and they can be intergenerational. Sometimes abuse can happen simply because some families are more chaotic, and predators have easier access to them. If, on the other hand, a family has good communication, appropriate boundaries and respect for each person within the family system they tend to be a little more careful about who comes into the family and how they are allowed to operate. Would you leave your kids alone with someone who you don’t have a good, healthy sense of?
During a college course on child sex abuse prevention, we heard from older teens who had abused. We asked how they picked their victims and they said they looked for families – perhaps their aunt, uncle or friend’s – that were a little more chaotic, or vulnerable. One of them was 17 years old and she would look for families where they needed a baby-sitter, and then she would abuse the children. Another was five years old when he was abused as a child by his baby-sitter; when he was 12 and his sister, who was five and had special needs, brought her friends over, he abused them and was reported.
Abusers often groom their victims to make them feel special and gain some trust. They tell them they are special and they may take them on outings or give them gifts. This adds to the child’s confusion: this person is kind to me but they did this thing that makes me feel terrible and scared. This can be so murky for children.
The impact of abuse on children
When you are abused, you feel robbed of your own power and given shame and insecurity instead. So of course it can lead to problems in later life: addiction, violence, depression, anxiety, abusive relationships. Some people who were abused become abusers; but most survivors do not abuse and are horrified and traumatised at the suggestion that they would hurt a child.
Children who are abused can become detached from their body. We call it disassociation and it happens with different traumas, and especially chronic or long-term trauma. It can make it difficult to know how you are feeling. It is a coping mechanism. It’s taken a lot of therapy and work for me to understand boundaries, to know that I can say no when I want to.
In my early 20s, I had a lot of sex on dates that I didn’t really want. It wasn’t that I said no or offered my consent; it was that I froze and never even checked in with myself and with my own body to see whether it was something I wanted at all. This wouldn’t happen anymore.
We often think girls are more likely to be the victim of sexual abuse, although the statistics show almost as many boys as girls are abused, and we still believe it may be under-reported for both males and females. We still don’t understand very much about paedophilia, except that it is rare and that paedophiles are attracted to young bodies. It doesn’t mean they will act on it.
Keeping children safe
If we had better systems available to help deal with child sex abuse and paedophilia, we would likely be more aggressive in asking people to come forward and get help so they never harm a child. But because so many have been hurt, and there is so much understandable anger and confusion, a paedophile would not want to risk being ostracized. And of course if it became public knowledge that someone was a paedophile, they would worry that they could lose their family and friends, they could lose their job, they could be locked up or even killed. So they don’t seek help and then children pay the price.
Of course because of my own trauma I can easily feel outraged when I hear of a child being abused. That is why I hope that there will be better sex education in schools to help young people understand consent.
There should also be better programmes to help child sex abusers, as well as preventative programmes where paedophiles can go and get help. There are successful programmes that reduce offending rates in prisons, but we need other preventative measures: a reduction in income inequality would create more stable homes and healthy, supportive families, better mental health awareness for children and families.
In conversation with Peter McGuire
This article was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund
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*Sophie is not her real name.
The first articles in this series were published in The Irish Times Weekend Review on October 15th. Read them online: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/i-was-eight-when-my-brother-started-coming-into-my-room-1.2829863
RESOURCES: HELP AND SUPPORT
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact:
One in Four at oneinfour.ie
Cari (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm) at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Samaritans on 116123 or email@example.com
HSE counselling services on 1800-235234
Rape Crisis Helpline on 1800-778888
Childline on 1800-666666
Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on 01-6794944
For details of sexual assault treatment units, see hse.ie/satu
You can report concerns to Tusla, and learn more about how the support process works, at tusla.ie/children-first/ how-do-i-report-abuse
To report online child sex abuse material, see hotline.ie
The Department of Justice’s Office for Internet Safety is at internetsafety.ie