Researchers seek siblings of sexual abuse victims for study

Small studies show brothers and sisters of abused often feel guilt, anger and despair

DCU researcher says siblings can have more mental health difficulties than their sibling who was abused due to survivor guilt

DCU researcher says siblings can have more mental health difficulties than their sibling who was abused due to survivor guilt


Researchers trying to study the impact of sexual abuse on the brothers and sisters of victims say only 23 people out of hundreds of thousands affected in Ireland have come forward to be surveyed.

Dr Rosaleen McElvaney of Dublin City University (DCU), who is co-leading the study, said the reluctance of the “hidden group” to speak about their own ordeals exposes the country’s continuing shortcomings in dealing with an “epidemic”.

“People can get complacent and think there is a lot of awareness now about sexual abuse, and that we have it nailed,” she said. “We most certainly do not have it nailed.”

Ms McElvaney, an assistant professor in psychotherapy, and Dr Simon Dunne, an assistant professor in psychology, started the study, which is the first of its kind, two months ago.

Little is known, nationally or internationally, about the struggles of siblings who believed they grew up in a normal family until the abuse was exposed, but small sample studies show they often feel guilt, anger and despair.

The DCU academics were hoping to finish the study by the end of the summer, but are having difficulty getting people to take part in a confidential online survey.

Survivor guilt

“Even though we are talking about an awful lot of people out there who have been affected, it still appears to be very sensitive and very difficult for people to have their feelings heard,” said Ms McElvaney.

“Sometimes the siblings have been impacted just as much – sometimes more so – than the individual who was sexually abused, and there hasn’t been any attention paid to that.

“Individuals are all different. You could have someone in a family who was sexually abused who is managing just fine, but their sibling is eaten up alive with the guilt, and the fact that they couldn’t protect their sibling.

“The person who wasn’t abused could even be more stressed, suffer more mental health difficulties because of that survivor guilt.”

Citing the figure from the 2002 Savi report into the scale of sexual abuse in Ireland, which found one in four of the adult population have been abused, Ms McElvaney said the number of siblings would be at least hundreds of thousands.

“It is huge,” she said.

“Given the scale, some would refer to it as a public health epidemic. Yet, we are having difficulty getting people talk about it.

“And if we don’t address it, we can’t develop services, we can’t know how to help siblings if we don’t know what the issues are.

“In terms of services and government policy, we need to look beyond the person who was sexually abused – not to minimise their need for support – but to realise by supporting the people around them, we are also supporting those who were sexually abused.”

DCU survey on sibling experiences of child sexual abuse