What happens when we don’t listen to children who tell us they have been sexually abused?
We take no action on what they say. Worse, we are likely to dismiss them as if they are telling petty tales. And this can create a ripple effect that can tear families and communities apart. And worse. It robs the innocence of a child who believes that parents and other adults will keep them safe from harm.
In New Zealand last week a trusted school vice-principal, Jamie Parker, was given a preventive sentence for sexually abusing vulnerable boys. The offending went undetected for thirteen years – despite the fact that in 1998, Parker’s live-in girlfriend raised her concerns about him having boys on weekend sleepovers, with the principal at Orturu School where Parker was first employed as a teacher. The principal spoke with police about it, who then warned Parker not to put himself in a “risk position.”
When Parker began teaching at Pamapuria School the offending continued and, in 2009, three boys sounded the alarm at a time when Parker knew that he “had reached a point where he couldn’t stop himself.” One of those boys was aged nine and in the victim impact statement he read in court, said that his family didn’t believe him and told him he was lying.
“This made me start to hate my family,” he said. His bad feelings were compounded when he was pulled out of class by Mr. Parker and told that what he was saying could cause him to lose his job. Under such pressure, and not believed by his parents, he and the two other boys withdrew their allegations. He was then made to apologise to Mr. Parker. Not being believed made him feel angry inside and he began smoking cigarettes and weed to try to forget what Parker had done to him.
His mother spoke of her guilt for not believing him and added, “I thought to myself that I could have intervened and I could have helped stop what happened.”
The other person who could have intervened was Pamapuria School principal, Stephen Hovell, to whom police sent the following warning in a letter in 2009 as a follow-up to the three boys’ allegations:
In my view it is clearly inappropriate for a school teacher to invite young children to their residence outside of school hours and have them sleeping over. I would suggest that this practice must stop immediately.
Mr. Hovell’s only action was to advise Parker “not to take students home because it would reflect badly on him.” He took him at his word when he said he wouldn’t do it again. The tragedy is that Mr. Hovell, who admitted on 3rd Degree that he has “personally had similar experiences” himself, didn’t follow this up even when three of his staff told him that Parker was continuing the sleepovers.
Unfortunately a ripple effect was in place for Parker, whose lawyer told 3rd Degree that Parker had revealed that he was sexually abused by teenage boys when he was eight and then again around the age of twelve.
One of the profound disturbances with sexual abuse is that a person’s world view drastically changes; the world is no longer a safe place and anxiety sets in that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To cope with the emotional turmoil of having one’s boundaries violated and being used as an object for someone’s sexual gratification, feelings are often shut down to the extent that a person then cannot feel the pain of the victims they, in turn, may offend against later.
Parker would surely have known that what he was doing was wrong, yet made a conscious decision to continue his offending. It seems that it had become a fully fledged sexual addiction. And that is what paedophilia is. It is how one paedophile can abuse literally hundreds of children after winning the trust of families and even whole communities, as Parker did. When children are used as a sexual object like this, they are dehumanised. It is one of the most excruciating wounds to inflict on a child; a wound from which recovery is slow and painful. Many never fully recover.
After thirteen years of offending and a number of red flags, finally, in 2012, after Parker had abused 20 boys (aged 9 to 16 at the time of offending), another boy was brave enough to come forward. This led to Parker’s arrest and conviction on 74 charges representing at least 300 incidents of indecent acts, unlawful sexual connection and sexual violation between 1999 and 2012.
A prominent Pamapuria elder, Waireti Walters, told Radio New Zealand that the boys lost their innocence, and asked, “What will happen to them in 10 years, 15 years, when they have families, when they start growing up and going into relations? What’s going to happen to those poor little souls?”
Liz Jamieson-Hastings partly answers this in her book, Still Standing: From Debutante to Detox, in which she describes her descent into, and painful journey through alcoholism, anorexia and bulimia to recovery. After recalling the time her grandfather put his fingers inside her she wrote:
To this day I can remember the revulsion, the sense of betrayal, and the fear that was established by that one act. Over the years I have discovered that literally hundreds of men and women in the upper social strata of society have had similar (or more traumatic) experiences to mine from family members. Women and men, some of whom still carry the scars that have affected relationships, marriage, job, and careers. Too frightened, too ashamed to do anything except try to bury the memories and the feelings. I have never met anyone who has managed to erase memories such as these. Anaesthetised them with alcohol or prescription chemicals, yes. Transferred and projected their anger onto individuals and society in general, yes. Repeated and perpetuated the behaviour in their own families, yes. But erased the memories – never. (pp.28-29)
Yes, sexual abuse can happen even in the best of homes. And the harm done by dismissing what children say about someone sexually abusing them – through our disbelief – can be incalculable. We need to ask tough questions and have the courage to confront the unthinkable – even with people who command our respect and trust. Otherwise the secrets kept will go underground where the aftershocks can continue for generations to come. I have witnessed this first hand as a counsellor dealing with the excruciatingly painful recovery process of childhood sexual abuse. While a few children can learn to navigate successfully through the minefield of abuse, other children’s lives fall apart – sometimes in dramatically disturbing ways, as shown in the videos below.
At the same time Parker was brought into court for sentencing last week, it was also announced in parliament that High Court and District Court judges could impose new civil orders on people who are tried for serious offences against children such as incest, sexual grooming or sexual violation – even if they are not convicted of the offence. This means that those considered at risk of harming children can be prevented from associating with children for up to 10 years, even if they are not convicted of a crime. Proposed tougher security screening will also be set in place for all government and state-funded organisations whose staff regularly work with children, along with a raft of other proposed changes aimed at protecting New Zealand’s vulnerable children.
In New Zealand, suspected sexual abuse can be reported to the police who will hand the investigation over to detectives from a specially trained Child Protection Team.
Featured below are three stories that clearly show how much heartbreak and misery could have been prevented if someone had listened, and then taken appropriate action to rescue a child from sexual abuse.
The three videos of an interview with Marlene Parnia, from Gang Girls Documentary, are shown in correct order here. In this first video, Marlene talks about the hurt the sexual abuse involving her uncles caused, and how it later sent her to the gangs looking for someone to look after her and understand her pain.
In the following video, Marlene describes the painful way in which the uncles downplayed the sexual abuse when approached by her parents. They said it was “natural” and that they slept with their daughters after having an argument with their wives. Marlene said she grew up hating adults after that. When she talked about her abuse later as an adult she was told to “keep her skeleton’s in the closet” because no one wanted to know. As can be seen here, this then also locked in her anger, grief, and hatred from which she was not able to move on.
In this final, video Marlene describes how sexual abuse had given her a life sentence of misery. No matter what she does, Marlene said that the “picture’s ingrained in my brain like a tattoo. It will never go away.”
Interview with Tuhoe ‘Bruno’ Isaac: The Life of an ex Mongrel Mob Gang Leader
There was sexual abuse in Tuhoe’s childhood also. He has written a book, True Red about his gang experiences and how he learned to forgive.
Interview with Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens was a convicted rapist known as the Parnell Panther. He was regarded as one of the most frightening criminals to walk the streets of New Zealand. This is the story of how he turned his life around after being sexually, physically, and emotionally abused in childhood.
Liz Jamieson-Hastings, Still Standing: From Debutante to Detox, HarperCollins, New Zealand