“Reflections on the Similarities and Differences in the British and Irish Approach to Cases of Child Sexual Abuse”

by Nick Bankes

Abstract: In this article the author reflects on the similarities and differences between the British and Irish approaches towards child sexual abuse. The extent and the manner in which such cases are recognised, acknowledged and reported are explored. Particular attention is paid to the unconscious reactions which both the general public and practitioners experience as a reaction to cases of child sexual abuse, particularly in relation to the perpetrators of the abuse. The author concludes that, in Ireland, practitioners are more in tune with these unconscious processes and are thus less likely to re-enact them in their work with clients.

Key words: child sexual abuse; unconscious processes; countertransference reactions; projection; projective identification.

I have recently moved to Ireland and am in the process of developing a resource that provides assessment, consultation, therapy and training for victims, survivors and perpetrators of child abuse and the professionals who work with these cases. This has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on some of the similarities and differences between the British and the Irish approaches to such cases. This short article describes these reflections.

The field of child sexual abuse in Britain and Ireland is a relatively new area for child welfare practitioners. That is not to say that children have not been sexually abused until recently. There is evidence (DeMause, 1974; Herman, 1981; Jackson, 2000; Masson, 1992; Rush, 1980) that the sexual exploitation of children by others has a long history – the earliest documentation coming from Ancient Greece. We should bear in mind however that the idea of sexual abuse is a socially constructed concept. Foucault (1986) points out that sexual behaviour between men and boys was “frequent and quite acceptable” (Ibid: pp 229) in Greek and Roman times. The post-modernist view would be that it is the way we conceptualise and the language we use to describe the phenomenon that defines it as ‘abusive’. It seems more likely then that it is the reporting of child sexual abuse as child sexual abuse (initially by woman who perceived themselves as having been sexually abused as children and more recently by children themselves) that is a recent phenomenon rather than the historical incidence of the sexual contact itself. In the USA the significant rise in the reporting of child sexual abuse and the subsequent interventions by child welfare practitioners dates back to the early 1970’s and in Britain a similar increase can be detected towards the end of the same decade (DeMause, 1974; Masson, 1992; Reder et al. 1993), largely driven by the feminist movement (Herman, 1981; Rush, 1980). In Ireland the reporting and investigation of such cases is even more recent and would appear to be connected with the historical incidence of abuse in state and religious institutions.

As the reporting of child sexual abuse has increased so have attitudes towards, and knowledge about the subject developed within the professional community. However, as recently as 1981 in the USA, Virkkunen maintained that the degree to which a victim was a willing participant in the abuse should be based on the perpetrator’s account rather than the victim’s (Virkkunen, 1981; quoted in: O’Connell et al., 1990: pp 3). This typifies the denial and/or ignorance which existed in the USA some ten years after the acknowledgement and awareness that child sexual abuse is a reality (Herman, 1981; Masson, 1992; Myers et al, 1999; Olafson et al, 1993; Rush, 1980). Similar levels of denial and/or ignorance amongst the professional community have been documented in Britain (Bentovim, 1992; Dale et al, 1986; Doyle, 1996; Furniss, 1991; Preston-Shoot and Agass, 1990; Reder et al 1993; Williams, 1996). This phenomenon of denial and/or ignorance of the existence of child sexual abuse is not new. As DeMause (1974) illustrates, nineteenth century physicians in France had sufficient case examples to indicate a substantial number of children who had been sexually abused by adults but this information was denied or minimised by the majority of the medical profession at the time.

Every week, sometimes almost every day, I read reports in the Irish press of sexual offences committed, in the main, by adult males in the Republic. Frequently the victims of these offences are children or were children when the offences took place and are now being disclosed retrospectively. The recent Laffoy Commission no doubt has had a significant influence on the apparent surge of disclosures and criminal proceedings of sexual offences in the Republic. Clearly, as these retrospective disclosures show, sexual offences have been taking place in Ireland for many years. Some would argue, and I would be one of them, that sexual offences have been taking place in Ireland, and elsewhere, for centuries but may not have been acknowledged or described as sexual offences per se. Others of course, for example the postmodernists, would argue from differing points of view but it is not my intention in this article to get into that debate. I take as my starting point my own conviction that sexual abuse towards adults, children and young people does take place and does cause the victims of the abuse psychological harm, the severity of which will depend upon the severity and chronicity of the abuse as well as the victim’s own internal psychological make-up and resources.

It is safe then to make the assumption that sexual abuse is a universal phenomenon and that most, if not all, societies sanction against it. What seems to vary between different societies is the degree to which they recognise, acknowledge and report the abuse. In Ireland, as previously stated, it is only in relatively recent times that this has taken place. And at the moment it seems that only sexual abuse committed by adult males is recognised, acknowledged and reported in Ireland. Yet in other European countries, in North America, in Australia and New Zealand, sexual abuse which is committed by children and young people and females is increasingly being recognised, acknowledged and reported. This is not to say that there are not practitioners in Ireland who do not recognise, acknowledge and report such abuse, but rather, that it is my impression that the public, the media and organisations do not recognise, acknowledge and report it. I would imagine that, within three to five years, sexual abuse that is committed by children, young people and females will also become increasingly recognised, acknowledged and reported in Ireland. Indeed there are already services that exist or are being developed in Ireland to help children and young people who sexually abuse. Typically this is an area of work which is practice driven (bottom up) rather than policy driven (top down). It is therefore practitioners, both in Britain and Ireland, who are at the forefront of service delivery and development in this field.

A similarity between Ireland and Britain (and probably the rest of the world) is the manner in which sexual abuse is recognised, acknowledged and reported. When we hear of incidents of sexual abuse it shocks us. The more we work, as professionals, with people who are victims, survivors or perpetrators of sexual abuse, the more immune we become to this sense of shock. And yet we will still hear things, in the course of our work, which have the capacity to shock us. So for other people, who are not professionally involved in the field of sexual abuse, that sense of shock is immediate and raw. How do human beings react to shock? There is often a sense of numbness followed by an adrenaline rush. ‘Fight’ or ‘flight’ are the typical reactions following the adrenaline rush. Sometimes the individual remains in a frozen state of numbness. The latter reaction is often seen in children who have been chronically abused (the frozen stare) and is linked to the phenomenon of dissociation: it is typified by a sense of powerlessness. The fight or flight reactions, however, are survival instincts. All of these reactions operate largely out of conscious awareness.

What has this got to do with the manner in which sexual abuse is recognised, acknowledged and reported? I believe that one way of understanding these processes are the psychodynamic concepts of ‘splitting’ and ‘projection’. In Britain, during the middle part of the twentieth century, Melanie Klein developed Freud’s psychoanalytic theory by focusing on the relationship between mother and child during the first two years of a child’s life. Klein (1975) proposed that unconscious processes are determined by an interpersonal dynamic whereas Freud attributed unconscious processes to an intrapersonal dynamic. In other words, Klein described the process by which the child unconsciously relates to the mother’s breast or absence of breast as being characterised, respectively, by good internal feelings which are ‘introjected’, or internalised by the child, just as the nourishment of the mother’s milk is taken in, or by bad internal feelings which are ‘projected’, or externalised by the child, just as the unwanted parts of the nourishment are expelled as human waste. The child is unable to contain or tolerate both bad and good internal feelings in relation to the mother/breast (the paranoid-schizoid position) and deals with this by ‘splitting off’ the uncomfortable internal feelings and projecting them onto an external object (the mother/breast). The mother experiences these projected uncomfortable feelings as her own (projective identification) and responds to the child’s distress.

Fourteen years ago, as a psychodynamically trained social work practitioner working in the field of child protection, I became aware that friends and acquaintances in my social circle found the notion of children being sexually abused abhorrent. The subject evoked an emotional response of horror, outrage and disgust. In a wider social context I similarly became aware of the emotive reporting of child sexual abuse in the press, particularly in the tabloids. Frequently such reports demonstrated a polarised view: the ‘bad’ perpetrator on the one hand and on the other, the ‘good’ newspaper reporter, as the child’s advocate, bringing these ‘evil’ deeds to the public’s attention. Often the press depicted the child welfare practitioners as ‘bad’ for failing to protect the victim, or taking children away from non-abusing parents as in the reporting of the Cleveland or Orkney cases or other infamous cases of child abuse in the UK (Franklin and Horwath, 1996; Kitzinger, 1996; Li et al, 1990). Only in notorious/extreme cases – highlighted by the media – is society made to acknowledge the existence of such phenomena. In these cases the press habitually refer to the perpetrators of the abuse as ‘evil’. Indeed a quick word search of articles in the Guardian and Times newspapers reveals that the word ‘evil’ is used almost three times as much in the reporting of cases of abuse than all other subjects put together. In order to defend against allowing the powerful feelings that child sexual abuse generates overwhelming us we employ the defence mechanisms of splitting and projection to allow us to maintain our safe, comfortable view of ourselves and our society. We project the unthinkable, dark side of ourselves onto the Monster/Beast/Devil perpetrator. To understand this process in Kleinian terms, it is similar to a baby who unconsciously fears that the introjection of the ‘bad object’, in other words the mother who withholds the nourishment of the breast, will literally destroy him/her. To defend against this overwhelming fear the baby projects this sense of inner badness onto the mother. The mother becomes the recipient for the baby’s rage and the baby can retain its sense of inner goodness.

In a professional context I became aware that child welfare practitioners, myself included, also tended towards this type of polarised view. In this case the ‘bad’ element might be the perpetrator, the mother who failed to protect the child, managers for failing to provide sufficient resources or even the child him/herself for being unwilling to be helped – child welfare practitioners inevitably viewing themselves as the ‘good’ protector or rescuer of the child.

Also in the professional context I noticed that the perpetrators of sexual abuse themselves were equally prone to adopting polarised views: often seeing themselves as either the victims of the ‘bad’, persecutory nature of the professional community, or, as ‘good’ perpetrators whose sexual behaviour towards children was educative, a demonstration of love, or not as bad as other more serious abusers. ‘Rule 47’ (segregated) prisoners in Britain, most of whom are sex offenders, are the most reviled within the prison population. But even amongst sex offenders there is a hierarchy of revulsion. ‘S’, a 45 year old man, had served a prison sentence for sexually molesting seven prepubescent girls (including his daughter) over a 4 year period. He told me that when he was in prison he and others would revile other prisoners who had committed worse sexual offences than him. To ‘S’ they were the Monster/Beast/Devil perpetrators. Thus, he too sought to project the unthinkable, dark side of himself onto others: they were the ones that truly deserved to be in prison and have the keys thrown away, not him.

Confronting the existence of sexual abuse generates powerful feelings in us that many would prefer not to confront – anger, fear, disbelief, guilt, helplessness and sadness. It seemed to me that I was working in a context of community, societal, professional and familial denial (Bankes et al. 1999) – a denial born of these powerful feelings that the subject evoked: the unconscious need to project or externalise shameful or painful feelings (the internal perpetrator or victim) being overwhelming.

In Britain and the USA the prevailing theoretical model for working therapeutically with people who sexually abuse is the cognitive-behavioural model. Whilst there are indications that this method is effective, (Allam, 1998; Barbaree et al. 1993; Beech et al, 1999; Morrison et al. 1994) I have been able to find nothing in the literature which explores the unconscious processes between practitioner and client and how this might affect the therapy, beyond an acknowledgement that such work has an emotional impact on the practitioner (Morrison, 1990). It is my contention that such an omission enables practitioners to unconsciously ‘act out’, or project, their countertransference onto their clients in ways which are counter-productive to the therapy (Bankes, 2003). In other therapeutic settings similar processes have been documented (Britton, 1981; Carr, 1989; Lewis, 1979; Menzies, 1988). For example, the cognitive-behavioural approach to working with people who sexually abuse includes challenging or confronting the client’s denial or minimisation in order to encourage the client to take full responsibility for their abusive behaviour. This is clearly a commendable aim. However, the confrontational or challenging aspect of the treatment can mask a practitioner’s own anger towards the individual client (or towards people who sexually abuse in a general sense) by legitimising such an approach. The practitioner can unconsciously act out their countertransferential rage under the conscious guise of therapeutic imperatives (Bankes, 2002).

Despite this similarity between the impact of this type of work on practitioners in Britain and Ireland there appears, to me, to be a greater acceptance by Irish practitioners to acknowledge these unconscious processes and adopt a more holistic approach (including an awareness of countertransference reactions, projection and projective identification) in their therapeutic practice than is currently seen in treatment approaches to people who sexually abuse in Britain. In Britain and the USA practitioners and researchers are beginning to talk about adopting a more holistic approach to the work, particularly when working with children and young people who sexually abuse (O’Callaghan, 2002; Ryan, 1999), but this holistic approach does not yet, with a few exceptions, acknowledge the unconscious dynamics which take place. In this sense then practitioners in Ireland can take heart in the knowledge that they are at the forefront of developments in this field which, within the next ten to fifteen years, will become commonplace.

Nick Bankes is an independent social work consultant, trainer and counsellor and has worked in Britain as a child protection specialist since 1989. This has included work as a co-ordinator, investigator, assessor, counsellor and supervisor. Nick’s interests are in the area of staff care and supervision.  nickbankes@hotmail.com

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