Healthcare professionals who sexually assault children often did so under the guise of medical treatment, which was not contested by other staff, even if unnecessary or inappropriate due to their position of trust, research shows.
An independent investigation of reports of child sexual abuse to health care abuse between the 1960s and 2000 found that the perpetrators were mostly male GPs or caregivers with routine clinical access to children. As a result, their behavior was not questioned by colleagues, the children or their parents.
In many cases, patients’ care needs related to physical, psychological and sexual abuse at home. They talked about visiting health facilities seeking treatment, care and recovery, but were instead exposed to sexual abuse. This included stroking, exposing children to adult sexuality, and invasions of privacy. More than half who shared their experiences described sexual abuse through penetration.
One survivor said: “Under the guise of performing a medical test called a high vaginal smear, he used that as an opportunity to rape me. I thought I was going to die, but I also thought I had to be very quiet because that was the right thing to do. “
Only a quarter indicated that they could report sexual abuse as a child. In some cases, children who reported abuse were dismissed as ‘sick’ or ‘crazy’ by caregivers.
Accounts describe sexual abuse in hospitals, psychiatric facilities and general practice practices and have sometimes involved the use of medication or medical instruments.
The report, published Thursday, found that in addition to the position of trust and authority of health care professionals, other factors that have enabled sexual abuse include physical isolation in private consultation rooms and victims’ lack of knowledge of medical procedures.
Another survivor said, “I’ve been going there since I was in the womb, you know. Like it was a GP, it was just down the road … a trusted person to me. “
More than 20% of the victims and survivors experienced a direct impact, such as pregnancy or physical injury, as a result of the abuse. The majority described significant impacts on their mental health, such as anxiety and depression.
Similar to findings of participants who were sexually assaulted in other institutional contexts, they suffered for life. Participants feared health care professionals, thus avoiding contact with them later in life. They also reported feeling betrayed by colleagues of the perpetrators who did not intervene to prevent or stop sexual abuse, leading to greater distrust of authority, systems and adults.
“I just see [the perpetrator’s] fingerprints on everything … I look at my life and I only see his fingerprints, ”said another survivor.
The 109 victims and survivors submitted their reports to the Truth Project, which is part of the investigation focused on England and Wales, which gives victims and survivors of child sexual abuse the opportunity to share their experiences.
Of the 4,295 people who shared an experience between June 2016 and July 2020, 3% described sexual abuse that took place in a care setting.
Julienne Zammit, the senior research manager on the study, said: “The participants were afraid to question the power and trust of healthcare professionals. Clearly, disbelief was a major barrier to children reporting sexual abuse, as well as feelings of self-blame, shame, and the fear of speaking out against authority. “