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Responses to child sexual abuse

Justice for vulnerable victims
Informing policy change and law reform, promoting education and breaking down walls of injustice

Researchers at the University of Sydney Law School and Sydney Institute of Criminology are working with victims, police, prosecutors, courts, law reform agencies and governments to influence policy change and law reform that recognises the needs and lived experiences of victims and promotes fair justice processes.

Child Sexual Offence Matters

Recently, Professor Judy Cashmore and Professor Rita Shackel evaluated the NSW Child Sexual Offences Evidence Pilot concerning the role of witness intermediaries at the police investigative interview and at court in pre-recorded hearings to reduce the stress and improve communication with child witnesses.

Professor Cashmore and Professor Shackel are currently conducting research funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant on prosecutorial discretion in child sexual offence matters. This research focuses on the way that police and prosecuting lawyers make decisions about which cases should proceed and what charges should be laid, and how the police and prosecutors consult with complainants and families in this process. This research is being conducted with their colleagues Professor Jane Delahunty-Goodman (Charles Sturt University) and Professor Martine Powell (Director of the Centre for Investigative Interviewing at Griffith University), and Adjunct Professor Nick Cowdery and former colleague Professor Patrick Parkinson (now Dean, University of Queensland Law School).

Institutional reform

The national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2013 to examine how Australian institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. It reported in December 2017. It was the “largest royal commission in Australia’s history, measured by financial investment, length of operation, volume of evidence taken, and number of commissioners, witnesses and submissions” and “one of the most important public inquiries into institutional child abuse globally,” Wright, Swain & McPhillips (2017).

Professor Cashmore and Professor Parkinson, along with Professor David Hamer and Professor Shackel, conducted research, provided advice on research, and gave evidence during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from 2013–2017.

“While the remit of the Royal Commission was institutional responses to child sexual abuse, its impact has gone well beyond that with implications for the way the community has long underestimated the often serious negative impact on individuals, families, and communities,” said Professor Cashmore.

“It revealed sexual abuse in a wide range of institutions and the shocking cover-up and failure to respond by trusted institutions –  including churches, schools, sporting and other institutions – as well as the various challenges for the criminal justice system.”

Professors Cashmore, Shackel and Parkinson examined how the criminal justice systems in New South Wales and South Australia deal with complaints of child sexual abuse reported to the police in childhood, compared with those in which the report is delayed until adulthood.

Professor Hamer advised the Royal Commission on the evidentiary obstacles to proving child sexual assault. Given the nature of the offence, evidence can be in very short supply. The prosecution may have little more than the complainant’s allegation, making it difficult to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. “For this reason, it is crucial that where other evidence is available, it is not excluded without good reason,” said Professor Hamer.

“One further source of evidence that is often available comes from other alleged victims. However, this may be excluded by the trial judge due to the risk it would prejudice the jury against the defendant,” he explained. “This raises the fundamental policy issue whether the risk of prejudice is sufficient to keep this important evidence from the jury.”

The Royal Commission recognised this as the most significant issue in the criminal justice system’s response to child sexual assault. Professor Hamer provided a report showing that many other jurisdictions were more prepared than Australian courts to admit evidence of other allegations. The Royal Commission also drew upon his testimony and published research, and recommended that Australian law be reformed to give juries greater access to the evidence of other alleged victims in child sexual offence prosecutions.

Child sexual abuse and the Church

Child sexual abuse within the church has received significant attention in recent years, as disturbing realities of power abuse have been uncovered. Professor Parkinson, now Dean of Law at UQ, was an influential voice in calling for the Royal Commission, and the National Redress Scheme, which relied extensively on his evidence. Among his many contributions to judicial reform, his research has aided in identifying breaches of protocol, and highlighted the need for situational prevention strategies. He is the author of the ground-breaking book Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches (2003), and he has advised the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the Victorian Parliament on independent oversight of religious institutional responses to CSA.

Meet our experts

Professor Judy Cashmore AO FAcSS (UK)
Professor of Socio-legal Research and Policy

  • Appointed member of Judicial Commission of New South Wales since 2004
  • Member, NSW Office of Director of Public Prosecutions Review Committee on Sexual Assault Prosecutions, 1990 – current
  • Member, NSW Child Safety Standing Committee for Survivor and Faith Groups
  • Member, Sydney Institute of Criminology

Professor Rita Shackel
Associate Dean Education
Co-Director, Sydney Institute of Criminology

  • Inaugural Chair, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights’ Children’s Rights Subcommittee
  • Member, Sexual Assault Review Committee (NSW)
  • Member, NSW Child Safety Standing Committee for Survivor and Faith Groups

Professor David Hamer
Professor of Evidence Law

  • Academic Advisor, Criminal Law Committee, NSW Bar Association
Professor Judy Cashmore AO FAcSS (UK)
Professor of Socio-legal Research and Policy
Professor Rita Shackel
Associate Dean, Education and Co-Director, Sydney Institute of Criminology
Professor David Hamer
Professor of Evidence Law