The stark reality of Irish society is that one in four children is sexually abused. Child sexual abuse is an epidemic on a scale even more potent than Covid. More than a million Irish people’s lives have been affected by this experience, though we seldom hear from them. It is the most well-known secret on this island.

Through the series of inquiries and tribunals we have come to accept that the abuse of children was endemic in the Catholic Church, in scouting and in sports organisations. However, we like to view this as a historic problem where abuse was perpetrated by people other than ourselves.

We shrink from acknowledging that the sex offenders are people we know and perhaps love – in our families, our workplaces and our communities. Most children are abused by somebody they know.

They are targeted and are drawn into a secretive, destructive and manipulative sexual relationship which instils fear, shame and guilt as a core element of the child’s developing personhood.

This creates a sense of self which at its heart holds a toxic and corrosive shame, contaminating every aspect of the person’s life as they grow into adulthood. Shame silences the child and the adult they become.

Toxic shame is not confined to the individual survivor. It extends into the person’s family and the wider society beyond. Shame paralyses us. It causes us to close our eyes and ignore concerning behaviour. It permits us to disbelieve the statistics.

It allows us to create under-resourced child-protection systems and a criminal justice system that is unsuitable for vulnerable survivors. Shame enables us to tacitly discourage survivors from speaking out, silencing them.

Most survivors of child sexual abuse probably never seek professional help. Some may access medical treatment for anxiety or depression without ever connecting their maladies to childhood experiences.

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For others, the scaffolding of their lives – family, parenting, work and social activities – enables them to contain the dark feelings of grief, fear, anger and despair. But Covid and lockdown took away this scaffolding.

Isolated in their homes, people have had far too much time to remember and reflect. Painful feelings that could be ignored in the busyness of normal life began to surface. Many people found themselves in crisis, experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

Underfunded services

Large numbers of people reached out to organisations such as One in Four, desperate to speak to somebody. The real shame is that services for survivors are so underfunded that it was just not possible to meet the huge increase in demand.

With good professional support people can genuinely overcome the trauma and move on to lead fulfilling lives. That is why One in Four exists. We recognise that reaching out for help takes courage. We provide a safe place where people are met with compassion and understanding.

Reception staff aim to answer every phone call with warmth and kindness. Experienced and highly-trained psychotherapists create relationships where all the pain and distress can be uncovered and explored, and where shame can dissipate.

Skilled advocacy case managers support people to make informed choices about engaging with statutory processes, and will be with the client every painful step of the way. We also engage with policymakers and legislators to try to ensure that statutory procedures become more victim focused and trauma informed. This is what we do every day and it is difficult work.

It becomes even more difficult when we have to turn people away. In lockdown we had to close our waiting list for psychotherapy as the numbers contacting us went way beyond our ability to respond. All the other agencies have similarly long waiting lists.

For those who cannot access services, the fallout on their mental and physical health will be terrible. We desperately need extra resources to deal with this unprecedented situation.

We face a choice as a society. We can continue to be complicit bystanders, keeping this most well known secret. Or we can face the truth together and develop creative and well-resourced responses to ensure that no Irish child is ever sexually abused and that every survivor has access to the services they deserve.

Maeve Lewis CEO One in Four 

Published in The Irish Times 13/07/21