Child abuse is preventable, not inevitable – an overview of the National Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Symposium

Ahead of Jesuit Social Services establishing a pilot of Stop it Now! Australia, a phone helpline for people worried about their own or someone else’s sexual thoughts and behaviours towards children, the organisation recently facilitated the National Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Symposium. The event brought together a variety of local and international experts to discuss why child abuse is preventable, not inevitable.

The issue of child sexual abuse is a confronting and challenging one – but one that needs to be understood and tackled effectively to keep children, and by extension the broader community, safe.

Offending doesn’t occur in a vacuum and that includes socially and culturally. We can work towards a more just society where everyone flourishes and reaches their potential.


Julie Edwards

CEO, Jesuit Social Services

Jesuit Social Services recently facilitated its National Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Symposium. The all-day online event featured a variety of speakers spanning academics, practitioners, victim survivors and law enforcement.

The purpose of the Symposium was to ultimately inform child sexual abuse prevention policy and practice in Australia by exploring how secondary prevention programs could help protect children.

Late last year, The National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse was released by the then-Federal Government. With a newly elected Federal Government in place, now is a time to work in collaboration with victim survivors, families and practitioners to ensure that initiatives to prevent child abuse, outlined in the strategy, are adequately funded and implemented.

The Symposium’s introductory session involved a keynote discussion between Carol Ronken, Director of Research at Bravehearts and Dr. Emma A. Jane, Associate Professor, School of the Arts & Media – University of New South Wales. Dr Jane recently published a book which explores the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

The discussion touched on how to best respond to people concerned about their sexual thoughts about children, with Dr Jane saying that “we have a moral obligation as a society to support people who are not acting out on urges,” adding that ‘public shaming’ approaches are unhelpful.

The session also saw presentations by Prof Daryl Higgins (Institute of Child Protection Studies, Australian Catholic University), Michael Salter (School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales), Dr Susan Rayment-McHugh (Sexual Violence Research and Prevention Unit, University of the Sunshine Coast), Rebekah Kilpatrick (National Office for Child Safety) and Anne Hollonds (National Children’s Commissioner), covering the prevalence of child sexual abuse in Australia, the current child sexual abuse prevention landscape and an overview of the National Strategy.

The next session focused on young people with harmful thoughts or behaviours. Dr Gemma McKibbin from the University of Melbourne provided an overview of the Worried About Sex and Pornography Project, which tracks pathways of onset of harmful sexual behaviour. The scoping study has identified 11 drivers of harmful sexual behaviour, including child sexual abuse victimization, physical and emotional abuse and living with family and domestic violence.

Matt Tyler, Executive Director of Jesuit Social Services’ The Men’s Project, then facilitated a panel discussion exploring reasons for these behaviours and policy gaps in Australia. Panelists included Dale Tolliday (Children and Young People’s Sexual Safety Program, Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network), Jenny Wing (Australian Childhood Foundation) and Lesley Ayland (the Good Way Model).

Dr Graham Gee, Senior Research Fellow at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute delivered the keynote address for the next session about Perpetrator focused prevention – the perspectives and expectations of victim-survivors. Dr Gee talked about how child sexual abuse “is a human rights and global health issue that affects all nations and cultures,” and some of the challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in disclosing child sexual abuse, such as cultural safety due to racism, ignorance, and cultural assumptions.

Dr Jodi Death, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology provided an insight into the perspective of victim survivors about the CoSA (Circles of Support and Accountability) model. CoSA establishes a ‘circle of support and accountability’ via community volunteers to high risk adult sex offenders after release from prison. Dr Death found that many victim survivors are supportive of the CoSA model, in acknowledgement of the fact that “you can’t lock people up forever, so support and surveillance is necessary”.

Dr McKibbin and Dr Gee then joined Lula Dembele (survivor advocate and Bravehearts Ambassador) and Associate Professor Kelly Richards (School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology) for a panel discussion.

The final session focused on adults concerned about their own sexual thoughts or behaviours, a topic that has been of interest to Jesuit Social Services in recent years, after completing a scoping study into the feasibility of an Australian Stop it Now! service in 2019.

Stop it Now! is an anonymous and confidential phone helpline for people worried about their thoughts and behaviours in relation to children.

Donald Findlater, Director, Stop It Now! UK and Ireland, which the Australian helpline is based on, spoke about the work the service has done over more than 20 years to build recognition, trust and support. Since Stop it Now! UK and Ireland was established in 2002, it has helped 54,572 individual people, the majority relating to concerns about online-based offending.

Donald outlined that callers to the service are split roughly half between people worried about their own thoughts and behaviours, and people who are concerned for others.

He said that the success of Stop it Now! UK and Ireland has shown that “child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable”.

After securing a grant in 2020, Jesuit Social Services will launch a pilot Stop it Now! Australia service in coming months. Click here to read a recent article about the service.

Georgia Naldrett, Manager of Stop it Now! Australia, spoke about Jesuit Social Services’ work in establishing the local service, and the importance of a collaborative multi-agency approach to child sexual abuse prevention. Georgia previously work at Stop it Now! UK and Ireland.

Jonathan Rouse APM, Manager Operations and Victim Identification, Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation shared reflections about how the nature of online child exploitation has changed across his career in law enforcement. Jonathan, who has more than 35 years of service with the Queensland Police, said that 70 per cent of child abuse material brought before the Centre is self-produced, and that there is organized crime involvement in some of the larger online exploitation communities.

Jonathan’s support for a service such as Stop it Now! is born out of the fact that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem” as well as a lack of other self-help avenues for people who are concerned about their sexual thoughts towards children.

“If they don’t have an alternate solution to get help, they go online – they end up down rabbit holes that encourages the production of content,” he said.

The final panel discussion brought together Donald, Jonathan, Natalie Walker (CEO, PartnerSPEAK), Dr Danielle Harris (Griffith Youth Forensic Service, Griffith University) and Prof Richard Wortley (Professor of Crime Science, University College London).

Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Advocate Sally Treeby closed the Symposium with a reflection on the role of philanthropy and cross-sector coalitions, and the importance of private philanthropy in funding project that large-scale funding bodies will not.

In Jesuit Social Services’ CEO Julie Edwards’ closing remarks, she reflected that “courageous conversations are critical for paving the way for intervention, and that we need to have these challenging conversations if we want to prevent harm.

“Children have a right to live free of abuse, and a right to live free of causing sexual harm. Adults have a role to play in protecting these rights,” she said.

“Offending doesn’t occur in a vacuum and that includes socially and culturally. We can work towards a more just society where everyone flourishes and reaches their potential.”

We thank all speakers, panelists and attendees for contributing to these valuable conversations.

For more information about Jesuit Social Services’ Stop it Now! Australia, visit https://jss.org.au/what-we-do/the-mens-project/building-and-delivering-effective-interventions/