Dealing with it requires the mobilisation of many civil society groups, government departments and tougher penalties

Dr Louisa Borg Haviaras

More and more people are finding the courage to report their cases of sexual abuse to the authorities. The results of studies from different parts of the world as well as comparative analyses highlight Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) as a global problem.

One of the characteristics of CSA is that it is accompanied with negative long-term consequences that relate to personality development and interpersonal relations. There is also co-occurrence of CSA with other forms of abuse such as physical abuse, maltreatment and neglect. The familiar guilty party is usually a person within the child’s inner circle, either a friend, acquaintance or relative. Research results show that in the majority of cases the suspect comes from within the family of the child, while in the rest of the cases reported, where the suspect was not a family member, again the majority were cases in which the suspect was known to the child and usually part of the child’s circle of trust. Sadly, one in four children is sexually harassed in Cyprus before they reach adulthood while sexual abuse is often more committed by males.

In the last ten years, reported child sexual abuse increased worldwide, likewise online sexual abuse. From one million reports of child sexual abuse material in 2010, the number of reports increased to 17 million in 2019. At the same time in Europe, reports of online child sexual abuse material increased from 23,000 to 800,000, with Cyprus reporting 2,502 cases in2019 and 3,302 cases in 2020. From January to October 15, 2017 police investigated 134 cases of child abuse, 47 of which were filed in court. From January to October 15, 2018, police investigated 135 cases of child abuse, 71 of which were filed in court. From January 2018 until October 2019 the Social Welfare Services (SWS), and the police referred for investigation 268 cases sexual abuse against children. Out of those, 230 cases were referred only in 2019. In 2020 the police investigated 181 complaints concerning the treatment of 206 children.

The law criminalises child abuse. The penalty includes one year’s imprisonment, a fine of up to 1,700 euros ($1,870), or both while jail sentences range from 25 years to life imprisonment. The cases before court reveal the pain caused to the small victims. One case, the judgement of which was delivered on 10/3/2021, involved a 12-year-old girl (criminal appeal no: 156/2017). Another case, the judgement of which was again delivered on 10/3/2021, described the ordeal of a child whose sexual abuse started when the child was only five years old and continued up until the child was fourteen (criminal appeal no:109/20). Another appalling case, the judgement of which was delivered on 25/2/2021, involved the sexual abuse of two siblings by their uncle ((criminal appeal no: 126/19). The defendant was also involved in another case and his victim was again one of his nieces (case 13376/18).

CSA is a serious public health issue due to the long and short term physical and mental health problems, coupled with the costs of the necessary short and long-term psychological support to victims and the need for immediate medical treatment in many cases. As such it needs to be addressed at various levels and it essentially requires the mobilisation of many groups of civil society as well as the organisation of a wide-ranging information campaign.

The increase in complaints and incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse of children and child pornography should lead to a comprehensive review of the whole process, both for preventing and more generally for tackling such incidents by the competent government services. Furthermore inter-agency effective cooperation is of crucial importance. The sustainability of the communication process of all officials involved in cases of sexual violence against children, as well as their cooperation and the transfer of knowledge, is a key to successfully addressing these cases. This includes the justice ministry, the education ministry, the Social Welfare Services, the state law office, the police, the Mental Health Services and the medical services.

Many experts support that paedophilia is an unchangeable sexual preference and child abusers will reoffend repeatedly which makes the need for increasing the surveillance and control of child sexual abusers a must.

But what are the remedies offered? One is castration. The first recorded castration for psychiatric reasons was performed in 1892 in Zurich, Switzerland, by the psychiatrist August Forel. Denmark legalised surgical castration in 1929 and Germany, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia and Sweden followed relatively fast. However, many countries abandoned the practice. In 2009, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture stated that ‘surgical castration is a mutilating, irreversible intervention and cannot be considered as a medical necessity in the context of the treatment of sex offenders’. Today, treatment typically consists of drugs or psychological therapy, often both with medication likely to be a temporary cure: for example, this treatment is voluntary in the UK and even the worst offender can choose to stop taking the medication at any point. Other countries such as Poland and certain US states use medication as a mandatory part of a prison sentence or release package. For many doctors enforced chemical treatment is against their principles. Chemical castration, like any other deliberate harm inflicted by the state, is viewed as punishment and governed by considerations of proportionality and finality.

So what is the solution? Is harsher punishment or longer sentencing the solution to the problem? Should sexual offenders be divided into tiers based on their crimes and receive the appropriate punishment? The average sentence for a sex offender is relatively short: five years and three months. Sex offenders will eventually let out of prison. The national legislator should amend the law where needed. The police and probation services and all other officers from all the ministries involved should have their eyes open and collaborate closely. Early parenting skills training is also vital in order for parents to be able to communicate with their children promoting disclosure and confidence and thereafter better and correct handling.

A child is not a number or a file on a pile of paperwork. The signs are there and it is how we all as society respond to the problem, and protect our children. The urgent societal problem is the protection of children.

Dr Louisa Borg Haviaras holds a PhD from Oxford Brookes University