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Healthcare practitioners used position to abuse children, inquiry finds

Healthcare practitioners abused their positions of trust and authority to sexually abuse children under the guise of medical procedures, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has found.

Research into child sexual abuse in healthcare contexts based on the accounts of 109 victims and survivors who came forward to the Truth Project found sexual abuse occurred across a variety of settings including hospitals, psychiatric institutions and GP surgeries.

Julienne Zammit, Senior Researcher at the Inquiry said: “In this report, victims and survivors describe how perpetrators in healthcare contexts would exploit their routine access to children to commit sexual abuse, which often took place under the guise of medical procedures. Participants feared questioning the power and trust held by healthcare professionals.

“It’s clear that not being believed was a significant barrier to children reporting sexual abuse, as were feelings of self-blame, embarrassment and a fear of speaking out against authority,” she added.

The report analyses experiences of abuse across a wide range of healthcare settings from the 1960s to the 2000s and provides an insight into the role of healthcare in victims and survivors’ lives, revealing that for many participants, their healthcare needs related to the physical, psychological and sexual abuse they suffered at home.

Victims and survivors reported attending health institutions seeking treatment, care and recovery, but instead were subjected to sexual abuse by professionals in violation of their duty to protect their patients.

Perpetrators were typically male GPs or healthcare practitioners who had routine ‘clinical’ access to children, meaning that their behaviour was not questioned by other staff, parents or children, even when they recommended procedures that were not appropriate or necessary.

Many victims and survivors described how the sexual abuse took place under the cover of clinical ‘examinations’, which in some cases involved the use of medication or medical instruments.

The report identifies certain factors which enabled the sexual abuse to take place, including:

- Physical isolation in private consultation rooms

- The victim’s lack of knowledge about medical procedures

- The position of trust and authority held by healthcare professionals, allowing them to instruct patients without being questioned.

Victims and survivors outlined the effects of the sexual abuse:

- The majority described a significant impact on their mental health, such as anxiety and depression

- Others talked about a fear of healthcare professionals, and psychological and emotional distress.

- Over 20 percent of participants experienced a direct impact such as pregnancy or a physical injury.

Many participants described barriers preventing them from speaking out, including:

- Having no-one to tell

- Fear of questioning authority

- Feelings of guilt and shame.

Where victims and survivors did disclose abuse, they were often ignored, disbelieved or discredited, and dismissed by healthcare professionals as sick or ‘crazy’.

One participant concluded: “I just see [the perpetrator’s] fingerprints on everything...I look at my life and I just see his fingerprints.”

The Inquiry’s Truth Project is closing in 2021, but for now it is still open for survivors of child sexual abuse to share their experiences in writing, over the phone, by video call or in person. Visit www.truthproject.org.uk for more information or email share@iicsa.org.uk.

Child sexual abuse in healthcare contexts

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