People who have been abused as children live shorter lives than those who have not been abused, a psychiatrist has told a royal commission.
Dr Carolyn Quadrio, from the UNSW School of Psychiatry, said on Monday that children who have been abused have a life expectancy about 10 to 20 years shorter than those who have not.
“They don’t live as long as children who have not been traumatised,” she told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Ballarat.
Trauma produced both physical and psychological damage, affecting children’s development, including their personalities and sense of self.
Children’s brains and immune systems were also affected, making them more prone to a range of auto-immune diseases.
“They (also) often have unhealthy lifestyles so they’re prone to substance abuse and poverty and unemployment … and all of that adds up to something like 10 to 20 years less life for a child who’s been traumatised,” she said.
There was also a “strong link” between child abuse and suicide, which could be influenced by a variety of factors including depression and substance abuse, which exacerbated negative thoughts.
Rather than the sexual abuse itself, “what’s most damaging is for the child to feel worthless, betrayed, to feel they have no value, that they’re just there to be used or abused and that’s extremely damaging to a child’s psychological development”, Dr Quadrio said.
It was the first time the royal commission had heard evidence from a psychiatrist specialising in assessing and managing trauma and the consequences of sexual abuse.
Sometimes, victims took their own lives because they could no longer tolerate symptoms such as experiencing flashbacks of the abuse, Dr Quadrio, who has worked with victims and been involved in offender rehabilitation programs, said. Survivor witnesses have previously told the Commission that they believe many of their peers at school were also abused as children, and had since taken their own lives.
Twenty-five to 30 per cent of girls and about 5 to 15 per cent of boys suffered some form of sexual abuse, the commission heard. In institutions this was higher, with 30 per cent of girls and 20 per cent of boys abused.
Child sexual abuse could be more marked in Catholic organisations because of the church hierarchy’s control over their congregations. Dr Quadrio did not think the clergy’s vow of celibacy drove child abuse but she said that paedophiles were drawn to the priesthood. Some, including young men with sexual development issues, liked it because “they have access (to children), they have authority and they have the cover of a very respected profession”.
About 20 to 40 per cent of child abuse victims did not display signs of trauma because they were naturally “resilient”. But some of this group would be psychologically triggered later in life, she said.
All psychiatrists and psychologists should be trained in trauma counselling and be required to continue learning about it after they are qualified to practice, she said. Psychiatry was pre-occupied with diagnosis and medication, rather than how to manage trauma.
To minimise child abuse, institutions needed to have a screening process for potential abusers and operate transparently, with an avenue for children to complain if they had problems. There had not been “any effective screening to date with the religious organisations”.
“We have to keep that level of reality testing that adults are prone to abuse children in their care so we have to have scrutiny of these institutions,” she said.
The commission has heard how the church moved clergy, including former priest Gerald Ridsdale, between parishes despite abuse allegations against them. Dr Quadrio said the church should look to a person’s history and any psychological troubles to help screen potential offenders out of their organisations.
There was no “fool-proof test” and identifying potential sex offenders was difficult, with many not showing any psychological abnormalities.
Source: The Age