Some people only disclose child sex abuse after decades, sometimes never. This is why

It is not unusual or abnormal for people to disclose sexual abuse suffered in childhood much later in their lives, sometimes decades after the abuse took place. And some may never disclose it at all.

This is according to Dr Shaheda Omar, director of clinical services at the Teddy Bear Foundation, an NGO tasked with helping abused children.

The topic of sexual abuse of children is under the spotlight again after a shocking report about practices of sexual abuse at Parktown Boys' High School in Johannesburg was released on Thursday.

The report called the abuse at that school a "generational practice" that has been ongoing for many years.

A former water polo coach at that school has pleaded guilty to 144 counts of sexual abuse involving 12 schoolboys. He has claimed he was himself abused when he was a pupil there.

READ: Explosive report reveals shocking practices at Parktown Boys

"Children feel they will not be believed. They don't know where to begin because they expect that the response will be that they're lying. How can they say something so horrible about such a wonderful person?"

According to Omar, stigma also plays a big part.

"They feel that they will be blamed or held responsible for [the sexual act], they feel that they have done something wrong or that they are bad or even unworthy of love. They see themselves as bad, dirty or ugly and that this happened to them because of those reasons."

Kids blame themselves

Omar says children often take responsibility for the ills and violations committed against them by adults.

"Adults often, as part of violating children, instil all kinds of fears in children, for example, 'if you tell anyone, you will not be believed', or 'you asked for it, you were responsible for it' or 'you are no good'; or there may be threats, intimidation, coercion, and for a child, that is real. If you tell a child these are the things that can happen to you or your family, or that people will view you like this, children are reluctant to speak out," says Omar.

Health24: The impact of child abuse can last a lifetime

"Something else that I often see in clinical practice is that - because of what has happened to them - they experience so much guilt. Initially it seems that the adult is very interested in the child, they pay a lot of attention to them, it seems innocuous to the victim, but this is part of the grooming process where the barriers and boundaries are slowly and gradually eroded. The entire relationship is built on ulterior motives of sexual expectations and favours.

"Because of that extra attention that children may not always receive at home, there is usually a lot of guilt where a child may feel they were part of this and that will also hold a child back. There is also a lot of confusion. Children feel this is someone they looked up to and trusted, or someone who is well-recognised, and that can also delay a person from coming forward."

'They just block it out'

Omar says trauma can also delay the process of disclosure.    

"Sometimes they just block it out; it's repression, dissociating with the incident or incidents - that is a way of protecting oneself. It's a defence mechanism to prevent oneself from feeling the pain or guilt that goes with sexual violation."

Health24: Know the signs of child abuse

Omar says there may be triggers later in life that motivate people to come forward about abuse they endured as children.

"Or the person might reach a point in their lives where they feel more comfortable or safer, or there might be a helping hand offering support - all of which may not even relate to this incident - that can also precipitate a delayed disclosure.

"There are numerous reasons why children do not always immediately disclose."

Disclosure is a process, not a single act

According to Omar, victims of sexual violations feel totally powerless, helpless and out of control.

"When you are traumatised, you become immobilised or stuck, to a point of not having the verbal capacity to express or articulate what has happened.

"It takes a lot of emotional and psychological energy to articulate and process what has happened."

Omar says sex is a taboo subject, even today, and sexual abuse is not something that is talked about freely.

"Disclosure is not a single event, it is a process. Some children will never disclose in their entire lives.

"Others may take more than 20 years before they make that disclosure," says Omar.

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