Workshop Review: Working With Adults Who Have Sexually Abused Children

Facilitators: Davina Walsh and Gearoid Manning.

by Anne Marie Dixon

On Saturday 28th April 2007, fifty accredited psychotherapists attended an IAHIP workshop at the Ashling Hotel; Parkgate Street, Dublin 8 entitled “Working with Adults who have sexually abused children”. It was presented by Dr. Davina Walsh, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Gearoid Manning, Psychotherapist and Group Psychotherapist, Granada Institute.

Davina and Gearoid gave an overall view of the work of the Granada Institute in the assessment and treatment of sex offenders. This work consists of individual and group work- the group work being the most significant as many sex offenders lead very individual and isolated lives. In the group they get support and are challenged to face the blocked pain of childhood trauma which can often be a cause of offending later on. For many their childhood experience has been very negative e.g. poor parent-child relationship, lack of stable environment, abuse and neglect. This creates vulnerability, the message that the child received is not “good enough” “stupid” “bad”. The vulnerability is thus compounded by isolation and low self-esteem. Invariably there is a poor relationship pattern. The issues and problems of puberty and early adolescence are magnified for the vulnerable child especially because of isolation and lack of a secure adult figure who can be confided in at this time.

The main issues to be coped with in adolescence are

  • Hormonal changes
  • Physical changes
  • Erections
  • Wet dreams
  • Emotional confusion
  • Sexual confusion
  • Problems with peer and romantic relationships
  • Masturbation- fantasies
  • Use of sex as means of coping

The vulnerable adolescent becomes emotionally and sexually stuck at this stage so offending often can start here. The most common age of offending / abusing is sixteen years.

The adult who emerges from the above Developmental Trajectory to Sexual Abuse has –

  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
  • Problems trusting others
  • Impaired ability to communicate
  • Poor awareness of own needs
  • Difficulty expressing needs to self and others
  • Limited ability to identify and express emotions
  • Emotional congruence with children/ adolescents
  • Projective identification with children/ adolescents
  • Persistent attempts to correct for unmet developmental needs- emotional and sexual, resulting in sexual abuse.

In the afternoon we were presented with a case study “A Family in Crisis” to illustrate possible issues involved in sexual abuse disclosure. It raised very diverse questions and we participated in some group work looking at issues for us as therapists, as professionals, for us at a personal level, and for the members of the family where the abuse occurred. It certainly brought home to all the complexity of this whole area. It affects such a huge number of people not just the child or the adult who abused.

Davina and Gearoids’ wealth of experience and knowledge in this area of practice was very evident throughout the day.  They reminded us that contrary to popular belief sex offenders are less likely to re-offend once they are caught, than any other category of offenders except for the murderer. They also drew our attention to the phenomenon of sexual abuse in the media which often promotes early sexualisation of children through advertising and the prominence that is given to certain pop-stars, while vilifying sexual abusers. They also called us to look at how the Internet can provide an unhealthy escape from reality where the isolated individual can get sucked in to visiting chat rooms which can lead to conversations and fantasies of pornographic nature.

For me the day provided a very practical, stimulating learning environment through lively dialogue with many experienced therapists. There were questions and discussion on every aspect and their implications for us as therapists. It was a most interesting and informative workshop.