The Truth about child sexual assault

Research Brief 16




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In January 1924, an article in Sydney Truth alerted its readers to a spate of crimes against children that had recently appeared before the courts. Sexual offences against three girls and one boy had been committed in various suburbs around the city within a matter of weeks.

While the Truth lamented the absence of ‘graphs or charts prepared by criminologists and penologists showing the rise and fall of this class of offence as compared to the total population each year’, it was quick to point to the ‘startling’ number of children to be found among the victims of sexual offences (Sydney Truth, 27 January 1924, p. 8). From a list of 158 sexual matters, 14 offences had been committed on girls under the age of 10, with another 71 on girls between 10 and 16 (almost exclusively crimes of carnal knowledge and indecent assaults). Crimes against boys formed an undisclosed proportion of 22 arrests for indecent assaults on males of various ages and 10 ‘unmentionable’ crimes. Added to the number of arrests, scores of other matters appeared on summons.

Numbers can be very useful things. They can highlight the scope and extent of particular problems both real and imagined, and provide impetus for social and political reform. When the Truth marshalled statistical evidence of sex crime in the mid-1920s it did so to call for greater parental supervision of young people and changes to the legislative and education system. But the statistics gathered for this campaign tell another story too. They indicate that Australians in the first half of the twentieth century were readily turning to the criminal law to respond to sexual assaults against children.

Accounts like this raise critical questions about historical responses to the sexual maltreatment of children. Many popular assumptions of the problem imply that the prosecution and punishment of offences is a very recent historical phenomenon. Early research from the Prosecution Project shows that public prosecutions have a longer history. Mothers, siblings and friends did turn to the police to investigate and prosecute such crimes as the figures provided by Truth suggest, even if institutional abuse remained largely hidden.

As part of our ongoing research, we have identified 220 cases of sex offences taken to trial and involving child victims in the three jurisdictions of Western Australia (28 cases), Victoria (110) and Queensland (81) in just two sample years: 1900 and 1950. Extrapolations from our provisional sample suggest very significant intervention occasioned by the sexual assault of children: perhaps as many as 15,000 cases prosecuted in the six main Australian jurisdictions between 1900 and 1950. We know that around two-thirds of our sample was convicted; however, less than half the cases received sentences of imprisonment.

Of course, numbers may be as important for their absence. Largely missing from the courts are offences perpetrated behind the walls of religious homes and state reformatories. Prosecutions of men like the governor of the Wooloowin Boy’s Home in Brisbane in 1906 were the exception rather than the rule (Brisbane Truth 4 February 1906, p. 5). Wards of the state and their guardians were generally exempt from the mechanisms of surveillance and notification evident in the policing of families and public spaces.

If some voluntary organisations like the Scouts potentially have remained more open to complaint and possible police action, abuse within total institutions has been notoriously resistant to state intervention. The consequences of this silence continue to frustrate scholarly research. More fulsome data from the Prosecution Project promises to help us understand the context and circumstances of the policing and prosecution of crimes against children and the antecedents of contemporary policies and governance.


Author: Professor Mark Finnane, ARC Laureate Fellow and Dr Yorick Smaal, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

To cite this research brief: Mark Finnane and Yorick Smaal, ‘The Truth about child sexual assault’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 16, (2 September 2015, viewed 19 July 2016).

Further reading on the prosecution of sexual assaults against children can be found in our forthcoming chapter, Some questions of history: prosecuting and punishing child sexual assault. Published in Yorick Smaal, Amanda Kaladelfos and Mark Finnane, eds The sexual abuse of children: Recognition and redress, Monash University Publishing forthcoming.