The trouble with Abuse …What does the Public really hear?

Once again, the public has heard about Childhood Sexual Abuse—this time in Northern Ireland in facilities run by the state, local authorities, the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the children’s charity Barnardo’s. More disclosures, more justifiable anger, regrets, unreserved apologies and frustration—and I have no doubt that these responses are sincere. There was a similar response to revelations from Footballers about Clubs in England. On 16th November 2016 Andy Woodward, a former Crewe, Bury and Sheffield United bravely told the Guardian he was sexually abused as a youth player. Since that date, we know that at least 98 clubs have been impacted, 21 Police Forces are involved in investigation. And sadly, hundreds of adults have come forward to speak up about their suffering. Like the recent Northern Ireland Enquiry, we have all heard all of this. But in truth, what are we really hearing?

Whatever we have heard about these and other scandals has been filtered through the lens of our own experience, prejudices, motivations, as well as the trends in culture and today’s attitudes. This can be confusing for those of us who are Survivors of childhood sexual abuse: I’m sure I’m not alone in my experience of confusing personal reactions to the Football Club revelations. This thought has lead me to take a closer look at my own response, in the hope that I could shed some light onto the messages that the Public may be hearing.


When I first heard Andy Woodward speak out I had an extraordinary reaction. Jealousy. Jealous that he was being heard, jealous that he could speak. Jealous that he had an audience to hear; and jealous that audience appeared outraged. But I found this emotion unsettling, so I paused to think about what I might really be feeling— “jealousy” didn’t feel right at all. I rummaged around in the experience of my abused self and discovered that the actual emotion was Envy. And furthermore, I wasn’t envious of Andy Woodward—how could I be envious of a fellow Survivor’s plight? No: I was envious, quite simply, of being heard.

When Andy spoke out, I wonder if the significance of his bravery and breaking the Silence was recognised by the Public. I wonder if those who have not experienced childhood sexual abuse are aware of the enormity of lugging around this filthy burden of a secret down the decades throughout adult life. I ask myself too if the public understands the relief of being heard, finally. Being heard is in stark contrast to the Silence Andy will have endured over the years. Will the Public understand that abuse happens in Silence. Abusers groom their victims then threaten them if they break the Silence. And my personal experience was that my mother, the first person to whom I revealed the childhood sexual abuse greeted me with Silence.

And now the Silence is shattered. Or is it? does the Public still collude to maintain Silence? Have people made appropriate noises of indignation and shuffled off to get on with their lives? Do people feel they’ve done their bit?

I do hope that Andy and the other men who have come forward have adequate support, care and attention. I do hope this is also the case for Survivors from those institutions in Northern Ireland.  I wonder if Andy’s personal message is still heard above our sound and fury about Authorities? For me, my revelation became a drama played out between the authority figures of my parents—my father protesting his innocence while dramatically flinging his clothes downstairs and into the car. My Mother clinging to the bonnet begging him to stay. Me? I just had a bit part in the drama—the real distress and dramatic intrigue belonged to the “Authorities”.  I sincerely hope that Andy, and others who have Survived these very public revelations,  is not experiencing a similar feeling.

Without doubt, when Andy spoke out, the spotlight moved swiftly to other dramatis personae. In this case, The FA, the Paedophiles, the Schools, the Police. The media is now telling us that we should be outraged because the Authorities ignored the warning signs. It is quite right to call Authorities to task and to ask questions about who knew what, and when. But we must remember that we are hearing about behaviour that took place in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This is “historic” abuse and we’re assessing the roles of the people who should have protected young people within a framework of 21st Century knowledge and culture. This is quite confusing for Survivors (even the necessity for the term “historic abuse” is questionable. Although we need to protect the reputation of organisations whose culture has changed, the term can mess with our minds and it plays neatly into our tendency to minimize our experience.)

My personal tendency to minimize the childhood sexual abuse began with the Silence of family members and minimization was aided and abetted by attitudes in the 1980s. Remember Cleveland? Even the Department of Health requested that all the files of the 121 children removed from their homes in 1987 be destroyed—it was such a scandal that no one in authority wanted to get near to the truth. Collectively we were unable to allow this inconvenient truth, the enormity of the scandal, so they blamed the Doctors and returned all the children to their homes. Then there was the Group called PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange). It was a group of men who openly campaigned for adults to have sex with young children. The Group wanted the age of consent to be axed—they claimed that children had a right to sexuality; and they were invited to speak at University Campuses throughout the UK under the banner of Young Liberals. They even expressed dismay when they could not garner support from the Guardian newspaper, which was a Liberal newspaper. So, is there any wonder that the Public puts Childhood sexual abuse on the “all too difficult pile” if a Survivor like myself finds it hard to find a social context for the crime?

That was Then. However, we really have moved forwards—though much remains to be done. I’m sure that a group like PIE could not survive so openly as it did 40 years ago. The national response to Jimmy Savile and to the current revelations in professional and amateur football are testament to this. So, I do hope that Andy feels he’s not been forgotten while the spotlight sweeps over the other actors in this national drama. Yes of course there will always be those who, like my mother, would say “Why now? Why bring it up now,” which is a subtle method of Victim Blaming and perpetuating the Silence. But despite this, I hope that Andy continues to draw upon his undoubted courage to continue his work to help other Survivors and to seek justice. I have no idea what form this justice might take but I do admire his quest.

To return to my original question—what has the Public heard? I cannot be certain. But when I listened to Andy Woodward I heard a brave voice; and I saw a beacon for everyone who wants to help Survivors. I wish him every success. Like Andy I am drawn to help people to reach their full potential. Much of my day involves helping people to return to work or find work; and whenever I work with Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse I feel humbled and greatly privileged to bear witness to their stories and to walk alongside them, if only for a little way.  My challenge is to continue that work, without becoming jaded or cynical. My challenge is to help one person at a time and to ensure that the needs of Survivors are not lost in the rumpus over failings on the part of institutions.

Serena Bradshaw

Serena is a Consultant Tutor at Goddards, an employability specialist and National Speaker. She also happens to be a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse.