A new study reveals that almost every seventh German has experienced sexual abuse during childhood. The German commissioner for child abuse says politicians must devote more resources to prevention.
Experts had hoped that the numbers would drop, but a recent representative studyconducted by the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Ulm in southern Germany reveals the opposite. In 2011, about 12 percent of interviewees reported experiences of sexual abuse during childhood. An increase from 15.2 to 18 percent was documented for women. The 9.5 percent for men did not change compared to 2011. Researchers spoke to 2,500 representative German interviewees ages 14 to 94. In an interview with DW, the independent commissioner responsible for questions relating to child sexual abuse, Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, said that political decision makers have not yet realized how urgent the matter is.
DW: Mr. Rörig, were you surprised about the increase in cases?
Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig: No, I was not surprised that there was no drop in numbers. Neither police crime statistics nor research on unreported cases has indicated any sort of decline. Commitment to the protection of children and adolescents from sexual abuse has become stronger but we have not yet reached the point where we have nationwide protection. And because we do not make use of all the possible options, the number of incidents remains high.
Why hasn't there been a breakthrough yet?
We need to invest more in prevention and intervention than protection. The round table working group on child abuse made recommendations in 2011. We know how to improve protection for children and adolescents and what type of help is urgently needed by children and adolescents who have been abused by family members or people they know. But all the possible options have not been used or provided to the children. And we are working very hard, for example, on our "schools against sexual violence" initiative. We have established a cooperation between all 16 state culture ministers so we can help children get out of the predicament of abuse in their family. But unfortunately, seven years after the big abuse scandal involving Catholic schools came to light in 2010, we are only at the beginning.
What do politicians have to do to better protect children and adolescents?
We need to create work conditions that are also designed for the long term. Many of the projects we carry out are only temporary. For example, my contract is temporary and politicians have limited the duration of the treatment commission. Child sexual abuse cannot be contained by short-term measures. It is a long haul. In order to work with full force against sexual abuse and to thwart the strategies of perpetrators, politicians must provide more funding. It means - and this is what I keep asking for - that the allocation of public funds, like funding for top class sports organizations, should be linked to the implementation of protective measures against child abuse in these institutions.
Why haven't politicians done what should be done?
A campaign encourages victims of abuse to break the silence
The subject of child sexual abuse is disturbing and it sets off defensive reactions. Many people in politics think that enough has been done. For example, they think that an abuse commissioner is enough. But that is not enough. Child abuse is a major social problem. If 7 percent of children and adolescents are confronted with sexual abuse when they are growing up and if one considers the severity of the consequences that sometimes persist over a lifetime, then you can see the discrepancy between the political sermons and the political actions. We must reach the politicians who provide funds but are far removed from child protection issues. I am fighting for this and I hope that concrete measures for the improved protection of children and adolescents will be presented in the platforms of the political parties that are currently preparing for the parliamentary elections. I am banking on our new president, Frank Walter Steinmeier, becoming a clear supporter of our efforts on this front. We need well-known people who support the fight against child sexual abuse.
How much attention does the subject of abuse get in society?
Sensitivity has been heightened since the abuse scandal of 2010. But responses still are not consistent. For example, when a school principal says, "We want to introduce protective measures against child sexual abuse," then he is sure to face resistances in many cases, for example from teaching staff who say, "That is not our job. And why should we worry about it anyway? We haven't had a case here." It is often misunderstood by parents as well, in the sense that a school that wants to do something to protect children and adolescents is then put under general suspicion. In Germany, we have not yet left the taboo zone.
What are the consequences of sexual abuse?
A prevention campaign by the Charité hospital in Berlin offers help to potential abusers
Abuse generally triggers a wide range of psychological ailments. Those affected suffer, for example, from sexual problems or problems in relationships. Some people completely withdraw from society; others turn to alcohol or drugs. Children and adolescents can become aggressive, anorexic or obese because of the abuse. The consequences for those affected are serious; they even include suicide.
The economic consequences are also huge. There is a study that estimates that trauma costs 10 billion euros a year. This takes into account not just the cost of treatment but also the costs that arise when people, for example, cannot work because of the trauma. The costs for social security, like pension or health insurance or compensation for the victims, are huge. That is why I require a sufficient response from politicians. When politicians ask me, "Why do you want to achieve more?" I realize that they cannot link what the children have suffered to the subsequent costs for our social systems. Fact is, apart from the terrible suffering, major economic damage is also caused by sexual abuse.
Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig has served as an independent commissioner for questions related to child sexual abuse since 2011. The office was set up in 2010 after the Round Table for Sexual Abuse revealed the extent of child sexual abuse in schools and church organizations in Germany.