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Childhood sexual abuse in schools – every child has a right to be safe!


The nature and extent of child abuse and neglect is one of Australia’s most significant social problems. Institutional child sexual abuse has been occurring for generations. Despite greater awareness and legislative changes to better protect victims of abuse, sexual abuse in the school environment is still shockingly rampant, explains Attwood Marshall Lawyers Compensation Law Senior Paralegal Sue Davidson.


This week marks the 3 year anniversary of when the Royal Commission presented their final report to the Governor-General, detailing the completion of a five-year inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse and related matters.

The report found that almost one in three of all sexual abuse survivors (2,186 survivors or 31.8 per cent) were sexually abused in a school setting as a child.

Of these survivors:

  • three-quarters (75.9 per cent) said they were abused in non-government schools, of which 73.8 per cent identified a Catholic school and 26.4 per cent identified an Independent school
  • one-quarter (24.9 per cent) said they were abused in government schools
  • almost three-quarters (71.8 per cent) said they were abused in a religious school, while 4.1 per cent said they were abused in a secular non-government school
  • one in three (30.4 per cent) said they were abused in a boarding school setting, of which 96.8 per cent told us it was a non-government boarding school and 3.2 per cent identified a government boarding school. Of the non-government boarding schools, 57 per cent identified a Catholic school and 43.2 per cent identified an Independent school.

Survivors told of the abuse occurring in 1,069 schools, of which 55.8 per cent were non-government schools and 44.2 per cent were government schools. There were many instances of abuse ‘clusters’ in non-government schools, where a perpetrator would abuse multiple students over time.

Of the survivors of school-based abuse who provided information about the perpetrator’s age, 88 per cent advised they were sexually abused by an adult, and the vast majority (96.2 per cent) of these survivors advised that the abuser was male.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that many victims did not disclose abuse for many years. Often the lack of evidence to substantiate the crime and the experience put on the victim in making disclosures of abuse deters a victim to report their mistreatment.

Over 16,000 individuals contacted the Royal Commission with more than 8,000 personal stories being heard in private sessions. Over 1,000 survivors provided a written account of their experience.

Many parents, spouses and siblings also provided evidence on behalf of their relatives, many of whom had died, some by suicide.

Child abuse – a significant and ongoing social problem

It can be extremely difficult and painful for many survivors to talk about past events and revisit traumatic experiences which have seriously impacted their lives and livelihoods. For many victims, sexual abuse is a trauma that affects every aspect of their life.

The world we live in is constantly changing, however some of the deep-seated issues remain. Most parents believe that when they send their children to school each day in the care of teachers and role models, that they are in a safe, positive environment, free from harm. After all, this is what schools promote – safety, wellbeing, the development of social and life skills, cultural and religious values. Given all the education and awareness about historical abuse and abuse of powers in institutions, too many children are still falling victim to predators.

Recently, an elite school on the Gold Coast has had two teachers stood down and an external investigation established after students were asked to remove their trousers during an adventure training session whilst a teacher supervised the activity wearing night vision goggles.

The same elite school has also admitted to paying compensation to 11 child sex abuse survivors, with at least an additional 18 former students still awaiting compensation.

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is any action towards a person under 18 years of age, that harms or puts at risk a child’s physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing. It can be a one-off act or continue over a long period of time.

Recognising inappropriate and predatory behaviour

Close bonds between children and educators are not uncommon and typically not a cause for concern. However, for parents and students it is extremely important to recognise when an educator uses their position of power to groom and exert authority over students only to later take advantage of their position of power and that trust.

Perpetrators who groom a child for future sexual abuse will deceitfully:

  • Manipulate the child to cooperate with them, which reduces the likelihood that the child will disclose this behaviour and increases the likelihood of repeated abuse;
  • Reduce the chances of abuse being detected; and
  • Reduce the chances of a child being believed if disclosure occurs.

It is imperative to have heightened awareness around the relationships children form with their peers and educators. This will enable you to recognise when boundaries are being crossed. This is the key to stopping abuse before it occurs.

Some of the warning signs to be aware of can include:

  1. When an educator or person of authority gives frequent compliments to a student;
  2. Unauthorised alone time with a student;
  3. Likeability – Abusers work hard to be likeable and often spend a lot of time around groups of students, talking to them, going to places they go etc;
  4. Unusual behaviour from the student – nightmares, loss of appetite, mood swings, not wanting to be hugged or touched.

Reporting incidents of child abuse

Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused and/or neglected, or is at risk of being abused, can make a report to child protection authorities.

Child Protection Authorities

Nationally in 2015-2016, members of the police force, followed by school personnel, medical professionals and family members were the most common sources to make a report to child protection authorities which lead to investigations.

Unfortunately, the current data available on child protection statistics only tells us how many children come into contact with child protection services. This data excludes cases where the abuse or neglect was not perpetrated by the parent, as these cases are considered police matters rather than child protection matters.

Many incidents of abuse go undetected and unreported due to the private nature of the crime, which means the number of victims would be significantly higher than what is reported.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey

The Australian Bureau of Statistics undertakes the ‘Personal Safety Survey’ every 4 years, with the survey due to be completed this year. The data available from this survey tell us that sexual abuse is widespread.

In the 2016 Survey, it was recorded that over one in ten Australians aged 18 years or over (13% or 2.5million) have experienced abuse before the age of 15. This includes an estimated 1.6 million people who experienced physical abuse and 1.4 million who experienced sexual abuse.

Around one in six women, and just over one in ten men, experienced abuse before the age of 15.

There are still known gaps in the statistics with a significant number of cases going un-reported.

Queensland Statistics:

  • In 2018, children and young people between 0 and 24 years made up 71.5% of reported sexual assaults in Queensland (86% of these were female).
  • 48% of reported male victims of sexual assaults in 2018 were boys aged under 15 years.
  • 4 million people who are now adults experienced childhood sexual abuse.

Few instances are reported or prosecuted:

  • 87% of women who experienced sexual assault by a male since the age of 15 did not report their most recent incident to police.

There needs to be a whole-of-government approach to supporting abuse victims.

The National Redress Scheme

In response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the National Redress Scheme started on 1 July 2018 to provide support to victims who experienced institutional child sexual abuse.

The scheme is intended to run for 10 years and:

  • Acknowledges that many children were sexually abused in Australian institutions;
  • Holds institutions accountable for this abuse; and
  • Helps people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse gain access to counselling, a direct personal response, and a Redress payment.

Unfortunately, not all institutions have joined the Scheme and sometimes it is not the best avenue for compensation and recognition. We often deal with the responsible institution directly and obtain a better result for our clients.

How can Attwood Marshall Lawyers help?

Everyone has the right to be safe from all types of abuse and neglect, and for children that includes being safe at home, at school and in the community.

There are no longer time limitations for child abuse victims to bring a claim and sue those responsible for the crime committed against them. This allows survivors of historical abuse the time they may need to come to terms with their experience and seek support and retribution when they are ready.

Each state and territory have differing laws in relation to abuse, which means the claims process is slightly different depending on the situation and your location.

Attwood Marshall Lawyers are here to support you through the entire process. We understand the magnitude of making a claim in this area and how confronting it can be to have to discuss your matter.

Our trained lawyers are here to listen to your story. We can help you understand your rights and will make the process of making a claim as stress free as possible.

We act on a “no win, no fee” basis, which means there will be no out of pocket expenses during the claims process, and if your claim isn’t successful you won’t have to pay our fees.

If you want an experienced and empathetic abuse claims Compensation Lawyer on your side, contact our team for a confidential and complimentary initial appointment. Call Compensation Law Department Manager, Kelli Costin, on 07 5506 8220 or email

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Sue Davidson - Senior Paralegal - Compensation Law

Sue Davidson

Senior Paralegal
Compensation Law

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The contents of this article are considered accurate as at the date of publication. The information contained in this article does not constitute legal advice and is of a general nature only. Readers should seek legal advice about their specific circumstances. 

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