Children who are sexually abused are not only robbed of their
childhoods but often go on to suffer severe problems in later life.
Natalie Valios reports.
Colm O’Gorman was five the first time he was raped. His abuser
was a male babysitter, a friend of his father. At the age of nine,
he was raped once a week for about a year by a neighbour who gave
him violin lessons.
“By this time I knew how I was expected to perform, I was much
more compliant,” he says.
When he was 14, he became involved in church youth activities.
Here he met Father Sean Fortune who sexually abused him for the
next two years. At this stage in his life, O’Gorman believed his
role was cut out: “I thought I’m here to meet other people’s needs.
I believed I deserved it, because I must have done something wrong.
The words don’t exist to describe how bad I thought I was.”
O’Gorman ran away from home in Ireland when he was 16 and had no
contact with his family for four years. There were many reasons
behind his decision, but a catalyst was Father Fortune offering him
money to find another boy to abuse.
He moved to London, lived on the streets, then got a job and his
life moved on. By 1995 he had reached the point where he wanted to
do something about what had happened and he made a criminal
complaint against Fortune. It triggered an investigation which
resulted in seven other men coming forward with allegations of
child sexual abuse against the priest.
Fortune faced 66 charges of child abuse and the trial was set
for March 1999. But he committed suicide while on bail. O’Gorman
was devastated. The one thing he craved – that society acknowledge
what had taken place and that it wasn’t his fault – would now not
happen. O’Gorman is still fighting the Fortune case through the
legal system because he alleges the Church did nothing about the
Roman Catholic priest although it had received allegations against
him over a number of years.
In 1999 O’Gorman set up One in Four, an organisation run by and
for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. It was named after the
shocking statistic from research by the University of London, that
one in four children will experience sexual abuse before they are
Children naturally trust adults. When that trust is betrayed it
has a long-term impact. The consequences of child sexual abuse in
adult life can take many forms, including low self-esteem,
difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships, problems with
being a parent, sexual problems, suicidal thoughts, depression,
self harm, eating disorders and drug and alcohol abuse.
“The image we have of child abuse is of young children. We need
to move that forward so people recognise that abused children
become abused adults. Unless help is given to work through that
trauma, it still exists and in fact it becomes compounded,” says
But where does that help come from? There is no legal obligation
for local authorities to fund or provide long-term therapy to
children who are sexually abused while in their care. They may feel
they have a moral obligation to put short-term counselling or
support helplines in place at the time of a subsequent trial, but
this is as far as their responsibility need go.
But what happens to adult survivors who never make it to court,
who haven’t reported the abuse, or who need more than a referral
for short-term counselling?
Therapeutic help for adult survivors falls under the remit of
the NHS because child sexual abuse often manifests itself as a
mental health issue in later life. The recognised route is through
a GP, who can refer them to a local counsellor or a clinical
psychologist team. But survivors often don’t want such an
intrinsically private matter included on their file. They also
don’t want the double stigma of sexual abuse coupled with mental
Even with a referral, GPs will usually only fund short-term
counselling of between six and 12 weeks. If you are going to
unearth the kind of trauma caused by child sexual abuse this
clearly is not long enough.
Although survivors can go independently to a private counsellor
or therapist, it is expensive and they may want more support,
particularly from other survivors. GPs, health, and social services
are increasingly referring adult survivors to the few specialist
services sprinkled around the country, but failing to fully fund
O’Gorman believes that child abuse is at the root of many of the
significant problems we see in adults in our society today but it
is not being addressed. “The government and local authorities
should be doing something because I don’t believe at the moment
they are doing anything. That may be unkind but at best it’s patchy
and at worst there’s nothing,” he says. He says that a national
inquiry into child abuse is needed.
O’Gorman was spurred into starting One in Four because of the
lack of available support. When he wanted help himself after going
to the police in 1995, he found none. In desperation he phoned Rape
Crisis to hear a message saying it only dealt with girls and
A quarter of the calls to One in Four are from men, and in the
last year, it has been contacted by 3,500 people.
The Waterhouse inquiry in North Wales was the UK’s biggest
inquiry into sexual abuse of children in local authority care. The
inquiry asked the Bridge Child Care Development Service to support
all adult survivors who gave evidence and their families.
The Bridge’s chief executive, Renuka Jeyarajah Dent, feels
strongly that social services departments and police have a moral
duty to put a swift counselling service in place for survivors they
approach during an investigation.
“What we know about abuse and grief in general is that it’s not
packaged and put away for evermore. At points in one’s life,
triggers evoke the emotions again and people have to be helped to
deal with that.”
During the North Wales experience, a major trigger for survivors
to talk for the first time about their abuse was the publication of
the Waterhouse inquiry. They were offered a six-month NHS waiting
list for counselling. So, the Welsh Office funded a helpline run by
the Bridge, enabling them to be picked up swiftly and matched with
services. For the survivors, this was crucial.
“We have a moral duty to help people at the time that they are
ready to talk,” says Dent.
But obtaining that appropriate treatment for people with a
chronic problem rather than a crisis problem is very difficult, she
says. “If they have a schizophrenic incident or are having suicidal
thoughts, the NHS steps in, but if they are living with chronic
unhappiness it is difficult to get appropriate help at the
At a local level Dent wants health services and GPs to know
where specialist services are, so that even if they are not local,
there is somewhere they can suggest for referral. They should also
have a broader outlook when diagnosing, for example, depression.
Rather than just put them on anti-depressants, doctors should think
about what may be the root cause, she adds.
So, who is taking responsibility for adults who are sexually
abused as children? Nobody, according to Liza Morgan, chief
executive of Axis Counselling. The Shropshire-based organisation,
which provides counselling and psychotherapy to survivors of child
sexual abuse, has seen nearly 3,000 clients in its seven years.
Axis is organising a conference in June, inviting agencies working
with adult survivors of child sexual abuse with a view to setting
up a national network and campaigning for effective services.
Originally a sex therapist, Morgan set up the organisation after
she found 80 per cent of her clients with a sexual dysfunction had
been sexually abused. “It was clear this was the first time they’d
been able to disclose it,” she says.
But Morgan has had to fight for funding from the start. For the
first two years, all therapists worked for nothing. The
organisation now has three centres, in Shrewsbury, Ludlow, and
Telford and Wrekin.
GPs, social services, community mental health teams and
psychiatrists are happy to refer clients to Axis, but don’t fully
fund the service, says Morgan. This year it faces a £60,000
shortfall in funds which it will have to raise itself.
Consequently, five therapists will be working free of charge at the
Telford and Wrekin centre for the next year.
Sexual abuse is the ultimate betrayal of a child. Denying them
the appropriate support services in adulthood to deal with the
consequences of that abuse is a further betrayal. There was nowhere
for O’Gorman to speak as a child, and he felt his pain would
“contaminate” other people. It is that fear which keeps children
and adults from speaking out. Their stories are hard to hear, but
they must be heard and acted upon. As O’Gorman says: “We won’t
accept being silent anymore.”
– One in Four 020 8697 2112
– Axis Counselling 01743 357777