Through its rigorous collection of testimony and allied research agenda, the currently sitting Royal Commission Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has led us to understand that there was something particular about the institution that led to the widespread sexual assault of children in all kinds of care. The institutions (including Churches; orphanages and children’s homes; the Scouting movement; schools; indigenous child institutions and so forth) allowed child sexual offenders barely hidden access to their victims. There were multiple reasons for the proliferation of sexual crimes within institutions: the lack of parental or guardian supervision over children; the minimal protection offered to children by staff; the lack of surveillance over staff allowing offenders the opportunity to begin and continue offending; cultures of secrecy; the tendency of many institutions to discipline offenders internally, rather than through the criminal justice system; and in some cases, the ability to build up networks of abusers who operated with relative freedom within the institutional setting. The Royal Commission has highlighted, in a spectacular fashion, the vulnerability of the child to sexual violence within the institution.

Yet, what happens when we investigate CSA in the broader society that bred these institutions? Using a series of case studies from the 1980s – a period when child sexual abuse was coming under increased scrutiny – this paper will argue that there were a raft of ways that the community ignored, overlooked or did not deal with CSA outside of institutions. It suggests that official and unofficial inaction on child sexual abuse was pervasive and under-acknowledged beyond the institution. Paradoxically, there was widespread and ever increasing knowledge about CSA by the 1980s, amongst activists, feminists, lawyers and clinicians, but also in mainstream publications ranging from women’s magazines to the daily broadsheets. Child sexual abuse was debated regularly and in great detail in the mainstream media. CSA was, in the 1980s, neither a hidden nor a silent topic. Yet despite the increased discursive interest in CSA, I argue that there remained significant areas of malaise at best, and outright inaction at worst.

Sex Crimes in the Fifties
Dr Lisa Featherstone and Amanda Kaladelfos