An end to silence

Former psychologist and abuse survivor Russell Wilson, of Dunedin, is breaking the silence on...
Former psychologist and abuse survivor Russell Wilson, of Dunedin, is breaking the silence on male sexual abuse. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Male sexual abuse is New Zealand's dirty big secret, say victims and those working with them. Bruce Munro talks to those trying to shatter the silence for the sake of boys being sexually abused today.

Tears well, tongue trips, as words break through the wall of emotion.

"But older boys were also at school early that morning," former psychologist Russell Wilson says.

"One thought it would be fun to manhandle Russell. To hold him down ... and play with his genitals.

"That happened repeatedly over three months." Mr Wilson is talking about himself.

About a vulnerable lonely boy; about the trauma of sexual assault; decades of mind-distorting silence; and the daily struggle to be a survivor.

Without his artistic outlet, sexual abuse survivor Daryl Smith, of Invercargill, believes he...
Without his artistic outlet, sexual abuse survivor Daryl Smith, of Invercargill, believes he would be still getting in trouble with the law. Photo by Robert Landreth.
The sexual abuse of boys is an unlanced boil festering beneath the skin of many societies and cultures including our own, say those who will acknowledge the issue. We have some idea of its size and the damage it is doing, but do not seem keen to take a close look.

Ken Clearwater, who is national manager of the Christchurch-based Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust (MSSAT), reels off some disturbing statistics: New Zealand studies suggest one in 10, or one in eight, boys are sexually abused; United States and Australian studies put it at one in six; he suspects the real figure in this country is closer to that of estimated female sexual abuse victims, one in four; we warn about "stranger danger", but up to 90% of sex offenders are known to the family.

Ministry of Justice figures reveal there were 2899 convictions for sexual offences against males under the age of 16 in the past decade. Last year convictions were a bit lower than average - 251 for the whole country and 10 in Otago - for offences including indecent assault on boys under the age of 12 and inducing boys aged 12 to 16 to perform indecent acts.

The impact of male sexual abuse is as well-documented as it is devastating. The common threads of fear, guilt, anger, distrust, isolation, depression and harmful behaviour form a potent lattice choking tens of thousands of shattered lives.

Not that you would necessarily know from the outside.

Mr Wilson, who lives in Dunedin, grew up with drugs, alcohol and domestic violence in Queensland, Australia, in the 1960s. He went on to became a consulting clinical psychologist working in Australia, New Zealand and England.

It was trying to escape his dysfunctional home environment that led to him being sexually abused at the age of 12.

"I was never comfortable being at home - I was being raised by an aunt - so I used to leave as early as possible each morning," he recalls with welling emotion.

That was when the predator pounced.

"I was surprised, shocked, ashamed, violated, desperate.

"I thought, what's wrong with me that I'm being made to experience this?

"I was terrified. I didn't know what I could do to protect myself." Telling someone did not seem an option.

"Because of all the other stuff [at home], when the sexual abuse happened I was well into the habit of not telling anyone what was going on." Eventually, he escaped by going to Mass, which was held every morning before class at his Catholic school.

But the damage had been done.

"I removed myself. I did what I had to to feign sickness, or whatever, to get out of group activities.

"I felt the loneliest of alone people in the world." Mr Clearwater says a Canadian study suggests sexually abused children are five times more likely than the general population to attempt suicide by the age of 18.

A 2002 Irish study shows almost 60% of men in prison for non-sexual offending were sexually abused as children. Another study says more than 60% of men in psychiatric care have been sexually abused.

If we know the damage it is doing, we also know something about how much is being spent in New Zealand trying to staunch the flow.

A government "stocktake" of the ministries of Social Development, Health, Justice and Women's Affairs, the ACC, New Zealand Police and Department of Corrections concluded they spent $26.2 million in 2009-10 on preventing sexual violence and providing services for victims and perpetrators.

ACC-funded counselling for male victims of sexual abuse alone has cost more than $6.6 million in the past six years.

But the real extent of this problem has not been quantified. The Government Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence estimates 90% of sexual offences go unreported.

Mr Clearwater says MSSAT, which primarily supports and advocates for male sexual abuse victims, gets about 100 new clients a year at each of its Christchurch, Hamilton and Auckland branches.

"But that's just the tip of the iceberg," he says.

So why are we still only guessing how big the problem is?

And why does it go seemingly unchecked?

Silence. Silence by perpetrators certainly, but also silence by victims and the rest of us, say those in the know.

For victims, particularly young ones, the thought that they were somehow responsible can stop them speaking out, Mr Wilson says.

Unchallenged, that thought can stick.

"The rational part of my mind believes I was in no way responsible. But another part of your mind trawls over it endlessly ... I'm always left with that nagging doubt in the back of my mind," he says.

Perpetrators play on this, Mr Clearwater says.

"Paedophiles seem to be able to pick out the vulnerable children and families.

"One former abuser talked about how he groomed the whole family."

The myth that the abused inevitably becomes the abuser is "probably the biggest killer for men coming forward", Mr Clearwater says.

Dr Tess Patterson, a University of Otago clinical psychologist specialising in children and adolescents, says while there are risk factors, it is not true to say sexual abuse causes someone to become an offender.

Research indicates about 40% of male adolescent perpetrators have themselves been sexually abused, Dr Patterson says. That leaves 60% of offenders without an abuse history.

The silence of the general population comes from a different source but seems to run equally deep.

Sexual abuse is a "very difficult subject to talk about - and male sexual assault even more so", Dr Clare Healy says.

Dr Healy is a Christchurch GP, forensic examiner, and chairwoman of Doctors for Sexual Abuse Care (DSAC).

"It is so difficult because of all the connections with blame and guilt and discomfort which people feel about this topic. Some find it very difficult to imagine and others find it too easy," she says.

Mr Clearwater is less sympathetic.

"As a society we don't want to think or know about it.

"We just cover it up really well because it's too shameful to talk about.

"Why isn't there a public outcry? We don't want to believe it's happening here. What we don't know about, we don't have to deal with."

Some steps are being taken to expose and tackle sexual abuse in New Zealand. But male sexual abuse often appears to be an add-on.

Sexual abuse research has been focused on females, with a lot less done on the impact of abuse on males, Dr Patterson says.

Based in Dunedin, she has begun a two-year pilot study to examine the impact of sexual abuse on boys in the hope of finding out why some go on to sexually offend while others do not.

"It will help us understand ...what some of the risk and protective factors may be." DSAC aims to educate and train health professionals providing medical services to sexual assault victims, Dr Healy says.

The training of health professionals in this area, including male sexual abuse, has been "a bit hit and miss" in New Zealand, she says.

"It is acknowledged, but it fights with all the other topics [being taught] to be heard," Dr Healy said.

Sexual abuse victims can get 16 sessions of free counselling when they lodge a "sensitive claim" with ACC.

But Mr Clearwater believes it is too few sessions for men who often have long-standing trauma. ACC clients can apply for additional funded counselling. But in the past 12 months, of the 1151 men who have received the counselling, only two have been approved for more than 16 sessions.

The Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence reported back to the Government in July, 2009. One of its findings was that there were few services for male victims.

In its response more than a year later, the Government described the report as "the most comprehensive road-map on sexual violence prevention and services that any New Zealand government has ever received".

It also committed to two years extra funding of sexual violence prevention education programmes, improving support to victims going through the criminal justice system, new guidelines to help the police in dealing with adult sexual assault, and a stocktake of government expenditure on sexual violence services.

That stocktake, showing the $26.2 million annual spend, was finalised in the middle of last year. In response the Government established an Advisory Panel on Sexual Violence Services "to provide advice on how to deliver a well-integrated sexual violence service system which delivers high quality services that are readily accessible for service users".

The panel was due to report back this month but is not now expected to do so for several months.

Mr Clearwater was involved in the original taskforce, which he said showed MSSAT was the only agency in New Zealand focused on the support of male survivors of sexual abuse.

The trust's catch cry is "freeing the voice of adult survivors to enable today's children to break the silence".

In addition to branches in Christchurch, Hamilton and Auckland, the trust has support groups in Dunedin, Nelson, Blenheim and Wellington.

What Mr Clearwater sees as a lack of apparent progress since the taskforce report leaves him sceptical about the likely help boys being sexually abused will get from the Government's Action Plan on Children.

The action plan was set up to "find solutions" to improve the lives and long-term outcomes of New Zealand's estimated 163,000 vulnerable children.

A White Paper on the action plan is expected to be released in late August or early September. It will go to Cabinet for consideration.

Dr Healy thinks the action plan should be some help, but believes something else is needed to get male sexual abuse "on the public agenda".

Think how difficult it has been to change widely held attitudes about depression, Dr Healy says.

"What we need is a John Kirwan-type figure to head up a public campaign".

If such a champion is not forthcoming, it will depend on survivors and ordinary citizens to collectively break the silence.

Mr Wilson is willing to be such a voice.

He kept his silence until three years ago.

"When you come from the background I did, your places of safety are your study and work. For various reasons my places of safety fell over."

Three years ago, by then a patient at Dunedin's Ashburn Clinic therapeutic community, he met another male survivor who talked about his sexual abuse. It made all the difference.

And now Mr Wilson wants to make a difference.

"All my life I haven't had much hope I would be able to build a life for myself, but I've tried to help others.

"The majority of people never talk about it. It needs some silly fool to put his name out there and say this is what's happening."

Parent a child's best defence
The best protection from sexual abuse is a loving parent who is aware of who is in their child's life and listens to and believes their child, says Ken Clearwater, national manager of the Christchurch-based Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust.

That was not the case for Daryl Smith.

Mr Smith lives in Invercargill. But as a boy in the early 1970s he attended Campbell Park School, in Otekaieke, North Otago. It was a boarding school for children with behavioural or learning difficulties and "a very evil place", Mr Smith says.

He was bullied and raped by other boys at the school.

He didn't speak out until 10 years ago.

The turning point came when his parents wrote to him in prison, stating they now believed what he said had happened to him as a child.

"When I was 7 years old ... I told my mother I was being abused. She hadn't believed me ... she hit me for saying it," Mr Smith says.

He now uses art as therapy and to express solidarity with others who have suffered trauma.

Mr Smith also kept quiet for fear others would "think dirty" of him.

Abused boys often try to tell someone but are rebuffed because the adult cannot believe someone they know would do that, Mr Clearwater says.

"They try to minimise it, so the child feels treated as a liar and starts to wonder if it was that bad, if a trusted adult didn't think it was. Then they can go into denial."

An older man, a farmer who was "horrifically abused" as a boy, continues to question whether he is an imposter in an abuse survivors support group, Mr Clearwater says.

"He said to me, 'I don't think I should be here'. I said, 'why?'. 'It probably wasn't that bad,' he replied. 'Why,' I asked?

"He said, 'because my grandfather loved me'."

An end to silence - stopping the abuse
More information
• Ken Clearwater, the national manager of the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust, will speak at a free public meeting in Dunedin on Wednesday, July 4, 7pm to 8.30pm, Alexander McMillan Room, Community House, corner of Moray Pl and Great King St. Mr Clearwater will be talking about issues facing male survivors of sexual abuse and the work of the Trust.

• Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust, Dunedin support group, phone Dave on (03) 489-4070 or (027) 348-6724.
• Victim Support, phone (0800) VICTIM.
• ACC, sensitive claims, phone (0508) 222-233 or email
• Police, phone your local police station.

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