Publish date: 05 Mar 2023

Lady Smith, Chair of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI) has today Wednesday 13 July published her findings following a roundtable event that examined ‘The Psychology of Individuals Who Abuse Children’.

A panel of eight experts, including forensic clinical psychologists and others experienced in child protection, discussed the characteristics, motivation, and techniques of those who abuse children in care.

Part of SCAI’s remit requires it to consider how to protect children in care from abuse.

The two-day event in March 2022 aimed to draw together expert knowledge and experience, to examine areas of commonality, divergence, and any gaps that may need further consideration.

The learning will help inform Lady Smith’s recommendations to help prevent and diminish the risks of children in care being abused.

Lady Smith said: “During the roundtable sessions, I had the benefit of hearing from experts who participated willingly and gave generously of their time. I am extremely grateful to them for their frank, open, and thoughtful contributions both written and oral.

“The findings record what I identify to have been the most significant points that emerged from the roundtable discussions, particularly those that may have relevance for future recommendations for the protection of children in care from abuse.”

The experts’ knowledge and experience was drawn principally, but not exclusively, from cases involving the sexual abuse of children in residential care and also of children living in other circumstances.

Prior to the roundtable, a series of questions had been issued to each of the experts to assist in their preparation for the discussions; they all drafted papers in response, the final versions of which are on the SCAI website.  

Inquiry Counsel led the discussions which focused on the following areas:

  • The characteristics of abusers
  • Abuse by members of religious orders and whether celibacy is relevant
  • Denial, minimisation, and acceptance by abusers
  • Abuse by individuals and abuse by groups
  • The differing treatment of children within the same care setting
  • The role of attachment
  • Grooming of children by abusers
  • Whether victims of abuse are more likely than others to become abusers
  • Risk, recruitment and training with a view to protecting children from abuse

Among the key findings to emerge from the Roundtable were:

  • There is no single abuser type nor is there homogeneity in their characteristics.
  • There is no definitive answer as to why the abuse happens.
  • The abuse of children is likely to arise from the actions and choices of a person with a particular bio-psycho-social make-up and their own unique history when they interact with children in particular circumstances.
  • Some who sexually abuse children are completely driven to do so and will design their lives accordingly but others act in response to opportunities presented to them rather than created by them.
  • The presence or absence of secure attachment, ideally established in early childhood, was highly relevant when considering both those who abuse children and the children they abuse or may seek to abuse. A child who has had secure attachment in early life is less likely to fall victim to abuse and even if it does happen, less like to suffer psychological impact.
  • It may have been easier for abusers from religious settings to perpetrate abuse including because of them being able to take advantage of habitual deference by others to the power of the religious. They could rely on routinely being held in high regard and that could operate as a mechanism to silence children. That may have enabled the abuser to feel he had permission to abuse children, it may have helped the abuser to feel he could “act with impunity”.
  • Participants were clear that the culture of an institution is highly influential; those within it conform to its norms. The Catholic Church reinforced that sense of permission to abuse children. As an institution, there was this message ‘avoid bringing scandal on the church’, which essentially translated across institutions into ‘protect the institution and its reputation before you protect the child or the young person’.
  • There is no established causal link between celibacy and the abuse of children. Sexual abuse of children is not the result of sexual frustration and celibacy is not likely to shift a person away from their primary sexual orientation.
  • Culture within an organisation and the working environment is critically important. Managing the culture and the environment in a way that properly addresses risk may be easier than trying to change an individual; the focus should not simply be on the abuser or potential abuser.
  • Recruitment processes are not sophisticated enough to identify those who are going to be a risk to children if appointed to the role for which they are applying. All agreed that disclosure under, for example, the PVG scheme was of limited value, yet it utilises much energy and focus that could be better directed.

A full copy of the findings can be found here.

Roundtable no.1 - The Psychology of Individuals Who Abuse Children