Research report

The impact of delayed reporting on the prosecution and outcomes of child sexual abuse cases

29 Aug 2016

Children and young people who have been sexually abused sometimes disclose that abuse soon after the event or events occurred, or at least later during childhood. However, many children and young people do not tell anyone about the abuse until decades later, long after they reach adulthood. An unknown number, the ‘dark figure’, never tell anyone or if they do, do not report it to the police.

Delayed disclosure and reporting are associated with various characteristics of the victim and perpetrator, and the relationship between them. Older children, for example, are more reluctant to disclose than younger children, and boys are more reluctant than girls. Delayed reporting is particularly common in cases of institutional child sexual abuse; for example, where the abuser is a trusted church member, a teacher, or a staff member in a boarding school or residential care facility. In some cases, the victim has told someone at the time, but has not been believed, or the complaint has not reached the police.

Where an adult has reported sexual abuse committed against them as a child, particular forensic difficulties stand in the way of prosecution that do not apply to contemporary reports. These include needing to prove the offence as it was on the statute book at the time it occurred, and addressing issues about the reasons for the delayed complaint. Another barrier to successful prosecution is the likelihood of ‘degraded evidence’. As time goes on, memories fade and evidence which may have corroborated some aspects of the complainant’s account may have been lost; for example, due to the death of another witness.

This report examines 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, which is often referred to as historical child sexual abuse. The research investigates the trends in delayed disclosure and reporting of child sexual abuse, and maps the prosecution process and outcomes associated with varying degrees of delay in 18 reporting to the police, together with other case characteristics such as the age of the complainant victim, and the relationship between the complainant and the alleged offender.

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