Childhood Vulnerability Journal

, Volume 1, Issue 1–3, pp 51–66 | Cite as

Revisiting the Child from Back Then. Reports on Sexual Abuse in Childhood and Systematic Perspectives on Vulnerability

  • Sabine AndresenEmail author
Original Article


In recent years there have been some social changes in dealing with child sexual abuse in many countries, in particular as a result of the discovery of sexual violence in the Catholic Church. The findings on perpetrator-friendly treatment, cover-ups and often non-existent criminal prosecution have led, after becoming known in many countries, to greater attention for child sexual abuse also in other contexts such as sport or the family. This article is based on written reports of victims and survivors to the “Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse” in Germany. Its mission is to investigate the extent, nature, causes and consequences of sexual abuse in institutions and in the family context in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from 1949 to the present day. In particular, it aims to provide a suitable framework for listening to victims and survivors as well as contemporary witnesses and in doing so create an opportunity to also report statute-barred injustices. A sample of 26 written reports out of 370 were analysed. The analyses focussed on three questions: How do adults report their experiences of the children they once were to an independent inquiry? What insights into the implications of child sexual abuse for the child can be generated from the memories? What are the resulting systematic perspectives for the concept of vulnerability?


Child sexual abuse Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Germany Reports of adult Survivors and Victims Societal processing Working through the past 


This article investigates how victimised and surviving adults of child sexual abuse talk about their childhoods. The empirical material of the analysis comes from written reports of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Germany.1 The analysis focuses on two research questions: How do adults report their experiences of the children they once were to an independent inquiry? What insights into the implications of child sexual abuse for the child can be generated from the memories? The results presented here focus on the overarching analytical perspective: What are the resulting systematic perspectives for the concept of vulnerability?

Sexual abuse of children and adolescents is defined according to Jud (2014) as follows: any attempted or successful sexual act and contact by a caregiver with a child, as well as any sexual acts without direct bodily contact. It is about actions taken against the will of children and adolescents, which they cannot consent to because of their mental, physical, emotional and linguistic development. As a result, perpetrators use their position of power and authority to pursue their own needs and interests. Sexual abuse can also take place among peer groups of the same age or among siblings (Rusack 2018; Tener and Katz 2018).

Child sexual abuse still constitutes a social taboo (Unabhängige Kommission zur Aufarbeitung sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs 2017, 2019). This assessment aims firstly to tackle the barriers in society to effectively protecting children and adolescents, to believe the victimised and surviving children and adolescents, and to stop the abuse, as well as to support victimised and surviving adults in coping with the consequences in a way that is effective and tailor-made to the individual. The concept of ‘making taboo’ does not refer to the silence surrounding the phenomenon of child sexual abuse, but rather to the dynamics of looking the other way, fading out, covering up and concealing. As a result, victims and survivors are often isolated. Secondly, the assessment that this form of abuse constitutes a taboo goes hand in hand with the observation that, in particular, the aspects that confuse power relations and established gender roles are ignored. An example of this is the dismay of male children and adolescents (Bereswill 2018). The facets of making child sexual abuse a taboo contribute to the fact that the complexity of this form of violence in childhood and adolescence as well as its prevalence are not sufficiently understood.

In recent years, however, there have been some social changes in dealing with child sexual abuse in many countries, in particular as a result of the discovery of sexual violence in the Catholic Church (Terry 2008; Dreßing et al. 2019). The findings on perpetrator-friendly treatment, cover-ups and often non-existent criminal prosecution have led, after becoming known in many countries, to greater attention for child sexual abuse also in other contexts such as sport or the family (Unabhänge Kommission zur Aufarbeitung sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs 2019). One result of this social debate is national, local or institution-specific commissions (Wright 2017) and a greater willingness to listen to and recognise the suffering and injustice that happened to victims and survivors (Assmann 2017; Andresen 2015, 2018; Goltermann 2017).

In the following second section, the issue of socially dealing with child sexual abuse is first contextualised in order to then explain the procedure of the Independent Inquiry in Germany. The author works voluntarily in the Independent Inquiry as its chairperson and as a childhood and family researcher she has carried out scientific studies based on the reports of victims and survivors. The analysis of this article is based on written reports of victims and survivors. The analysis aims to look at how adults describe the vulnerability of the child they once were. Vulnerability results here, in reference to Mackenzie et al. (2014), from the fact that humans are physical and social beings. This makes them fundamentally dependent, but in certain phases – such as childhood – they are especially dependent on others. How this dependence is structurally shaped is also an indicator of vulnerability.

The third section describes the research questions, the sample and the methodological approach; the fourth section deals with selected results. In the concluding section, a discussion will take place within the framework of the concept of vulnerability.


The Societal Processing of Injustice in Childhood

In Germany, the right to a non-violent upbringing has been enshrined in the country’s Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB) since 2000: “Children have a right to a non-violent upbringing. Physical punishments, psychological injuries and other degrading measures are inadmissible” (Section 1631 (2) of the BGB). This amendment to the code can be understood as a turning point for addressing parental/carer relationships: with the banning of violence in raising children implemented in civil law, violent practices against young people can be classified as injustice. This is a key message, especially for the victims and survivors of violence during their upbringing. As long as physical violence, mental injury and degradation were considered legitimate parts of raising children, the hurdles for victimised and surviving children and adolescents to talk about, seek and receive help, were particularly high.

In confidential hearings of the Independent Inquiry with victims and survivors who have experienced sexual violence in their families, it was often said that as children they began to regard their experiences of violence as normal. Such shifts in normalities after the first assaults are typical of children’s experiences and also make it difficult for them to confide in someone. Blurred perceptions of normality are reported, made worse when the violence took place over a long period of time and social isolation was a consequence. In addition, the hearings also look at the difficulty the children have in understanding what is happening to them. Victims and survivors recount that they did not know whether the violent, assaulting behaviour of the father, grandfather or mother was wrong because they had no standard in the family and no trustworthy contact point outside of the family. For a child to understand that sexual violence is injustice is not made possible by an amendment of the law alone; an environment needs to be created in which the awareness of injustice and the associated recognition of suffering can unfold (Rosa 2016). It is in this sense that the legal amendment can be understood as a turning point. In the context of the work of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, it becomes clear that a sense of injustice for violence against children must be established within the social context.

By classifying violence in childhood upbringing as injustice, it is possible to further develop a language for violent events and their consequences and thus make it possible to address the topic beyond the language of scandal. A further experience of sexual violence of victims and survivors follows: it was not only in 2010 that victims and survivors were responsible for the fact that violence and, above all, child sexual abuse came up for discussion.2 They also refer to attempts by children and adolescents at different times and in different violent contexts to raise the issue of the violence they have suffered. But the often-shared experience is that their revelations were either not believed, or their accounts were trivialised. This systematically raises the question as to why children are usually less likely to be believed and trusted when recounting than adults are. This dynamic of silence, breaking the silence but then not being heard, the questioning of credibility and renewed silence could prove to be the key to clarifying the relationship between child raising and violence. It is about the position of the child in the generational order, about the understanding of and need for child raising, as well as the readiness not to underestimate the perceptions and narratives of young people. Pedagogical research and discussion can try to contribute to the clarification of these systematic questions on the basis of their theories and methods.

When it comes to finding focused clarification processes, the language and the possibilities of addressing sexual violence are of key importance. Children and adolescents have the impression that adults find it difficult to talk to them about sexuality and sexual violence (Andresen et al. 2015). This has also proven to be the case in several German and international studies, which looked at the point of view of the interviewed adults in their roles as mothers, fathers or teachers and specialists. Studies have thus far failed to shed light on the specific criteria that lead a child to trust an adult. But assertions can be deduced about the quality of pedagogical settings. In a quantitative and qualitative study (2009–2015), Zvi Eisikovits and Rahel Lev-Wiesel interviewed 15,000 Israeli children and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 16 about their experience of and feelings about abuse. Fifty three percent of the children and adolescents interviewed described themselves as victims and survivors of some form of mistreatment, 13.8% specifically of sexual abuse. This study will then go on to discuss the structures of help, advice and support that either enable or hinder disclosure. Three specific factors for not telling someone about mistreatment and above all sexual violence are particularly emphasised. These are: the individual feelings of the child; fear of obvious consequences and negative reactions of the surrounding environment and; too little information about available help. Factors that had a beneficial effect were: external influences by certain trusted third parties, a good climate (e.g. at school), or the willingness of the responsible adults to ask specific questions (Eisikovits 2014; Lev-Wiesel 2014). The latter in particular gives cause for reflection, because with the knowledge about injustice in parental/carer relationships and the ethical framing associated with it, it may be an easier approach, at least for educators, to ask children themselves and then to listen to what they say.

These considerations will be reinforced by further systematic reflection. The awareness and knowledge of injustice through violence during childhood upbringing offers the opportunity to break through the oppressiveness of intimacy. Having to experience violence has a very intimate side and is usually accompanied by shame. Sharing and disclosing these experiences of intimacy is an obstacle until adulthood. This, too, is something that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has learned, particularly in the confidential hearings. Questions concerning the implementation of a non-violent upbringing can follow on from these experiences. For example, it is necessary to think about the design of spaces outside therapeutic settings in which victims and survivors can speak and in which they experience that they are being listened to.

Societal Processing of the Past and its Meaning for the Present

In 1957 Theodor W. Adorno formulated reflections on processing the past as a critical examination of the need to eradicate National Socialist violence (Andresen 2018). In Adorno’s 2005 English translation “Aufarbeitung” is translated as “working through the past”. This is aimed at processing National Socialism and the Holocaust, and the testimonies of survivors and remembering those who were murdered are central to this. The processing of these facts is dependent on legal, criminal law clarification, on historical research, it aims at the recognition of injustice, at the memory of victims and survivors and at education and sensitisation for injustices committed by society here and now. Concepts of “transitional justice” are also connected here (Mihr et al. 2018).

In order to systematically locate the concern to deal with past child sexual abuse, Adorno can be followed up methodically. Societally processing child sexual abuse is based on the understanding that past injustices have consequences for the present and the future and that victims and survivors are vulnerable due to a lack of insight and processing. Processing requires clarification, documentation and (historical) analysis. It aims to identify structural, cultural and social causes of injustice and violence. As a procedure, a process of coming to terms with the past depends on clear responsibility and institutional independence. In addition to legal and scientific clarification, documentation and analysis, the focus is on a political educational process, which also touches on questions of justice. When it comes to child sexual abuse, the issues are intergenerational justice and the recognition of the child’s dignity as a child. Finally, in the style of Adorno, processes of “working through the past” are closely connected with memory and remembrance.

More recently, international attention has focused on dealing with injustice against children and adolescents within society. There are various reasons for this, including the right to a non-violent upbringing (Andresen 2018). At the end of the 1980s a process started in Ireland in which clergy and employees of the Church began to process sexual violence against those under their protection in the Catholic Church (Ryan). Other countries like the USA (John Jay), Australia and the Netherlands followed suit (Andresen et al. 2016).

Katie Wright’s systematic analysis of the Australian processing assumes special prominence here. In an international comparison of the commissions for processing past violence against children in institutions, she distinguished between two types: those that are equipped with legal means of access (such as interrogating the accused); and those that do not have far-reaching powers and are primarily research-oriented. However, most commissions and research projects within them are also concerned with listening to the experiences of victims and survivors who are adults today. This is also at the heart of the Independent Inquiry in Germany, which has no legal powers.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Germany

Since 2010, greater attention has been paid to the extent of child sexual abuse in Germany and its cover-up, as well as to the implications for victims and survivors. Most notably politicians could no longer deny the publication of crimes and, in particular, social contact with perpetrators in well-known schools. At the national level, a “Round Table on Sexual Child Abuse” (2010/2011) was established and led by three ministries, an “Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse” (since 2010), the establishment of a Council of Victims and Survivors (since 2016) and the establishment of the “Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse” (2016). In addition, funds were approved for research in the field of medical research on sexual abuse as well as on child sexual abuse in educational institutions.

Social science research in particular was based on the following assumption: dealing with injustice against children affects ideas about and practices of child raising. This is especially the case in families, where a large proportion of victims and survivors of sexual abuse experience violence. But institutions within which children grow up, such as schools or institutions of care, are also being asked critical questions about their attitudes towards children – whether one believes children, for example – and about protection concepts. Dealing with injustice against children makes it perhaps particularly clear that criminal clarification is only one part of the work that needs to be done.

The Independent Inquiry’s initial time span started in 2016 and ended in March 2019 with the submission of a comprehensive detailed review (Unabhängige Kommission zur Aufarbeitung sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs 2019). The Inquiry has received an extension of five years. Through this, politicians have signalled their willingness to take responsibility for the failures of the past. The Inquiry’s mission is to investigate the extent, nature, causes and consequences of sexual abuse in institutions and in the family context in the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR from 1949 to the present day. In particular, it aims to provide a suitable framework for listening to victims and survivors as well as contemporary witnesses and in doing so create an opportunity to also report statute-barred injustices. The members of the inquiry come from various fields (Research, Politics and Justice) and work on a voluntary basis. They are accompanied by representatives of the German Council of Victims and Survivors and the politically appointed Independent Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse Issues. The operational level is significantly supported by an office of the Inquiry.

The independent inquiries or commissions of other countries have so far primarily dealt with child sexual abuse in the institutional sphere. However, a large proportion of victims and survivors have experienced sexual abuse in the family. This is why the Inquiry in Germany is also investigating the sexual abuse of children within the family. Over the past three years, the Inquiry has continued the previous work of the women’s and self-help movement (Kavemann and Lohstöter 1984), but has also broken new ground institutionally. Germany has no previous experiences in dealing socially with violence against children in the family. The fact that the vast majority of people who have made themselves known to the Independent Inquiry have experienced sexual violence within the family also confirms the scope of this approach. Child sexual abuse in the family and the role of youth welfare offices and family courts were a first focus in 2016. In addition, child sexual abuse in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (Sachse et al. 2017; Mitscherlich et al. 2019), in the Catholic and Protestant Church in Germany and their treatment of perpetrators and victims and survivors (Kowalski 2018) as well as organised sexual violence (Nick et al. 2018, 2019) were dealt with during the first term. Further research and development focuses in the second term are, among others, abuse in sport, people with disabilities and their experiences of abuse and pedophilic networks in the 1970s to 1990s.

The Independent Inquiry has developed various formats of processing. A key format is confidential hearings with victims and survivors and other contemporary witnesses. These conversations last about two hours, are recorded, logged and partially transcribed. They take place on the basis of an interview guide, in which the victims and survivors themselves decide how and what they want to report. The offer of the hearings has been well received, and many victims and survivors have placed their trust in the Independent Inquiry: by the end of the first term (2016–2019) in July 2019, almost 2000 people had registered. The majority of those (1670 people) agreed to attend a confidential hearing and some (370 people) opted to present their experiences of violence to the Inquiry in a written report. Written reports are another format for victims and survivors to share their accounts. More than 80% of the victims and survivors who have made themselves known to the Independent Inquiry are women, the largest group being between 40 and 60 years old.

Its methods include organising public hearings on specific issues in which victims and survivors also report publicly. The aim of this format is to share information and raise public awareness. So far, three public hearings have been held with around 200 participants and extensive media coverage. The topics were sexual violence in the family, in the GDR and a hearing on the responsibility of both churches in Germany in dealing with child sexual abuse. The fourth format is the so-called workshop discussion, to which victims and survivors are always invited and in which the development of specific content is dealt with in a confidential setting.

In Wright’s (2017) typology, the German Inquiry falls into the research-oriented category, due to a lack of legal jurisdiction. The Independent Inquiry’s main focus is on hearings of people who are now adults, and who have experienced sexual violence as children and/or adolescents. This is about the social responsibility to allow victims and survivors to speak freely, but not about an obligation for individual victims and survivors to break their silence as they often have very good reasons to remain silent.

It should be noted that all commissions in the international context aim to generate collective knowledge about violence in parental/carer and intergenerational relationships (Wright 2017). Wright also points out that the work of commissions, the methods used and the discourses initiated in their respective countries are also controversial and require legitimation. This is particularly evident in the processing of child sexual abuse. A (temporary) institutionalisation of the attempted processing would therefore have to integrate forms of critical evaluation from outside. In addition, the independent commissions need the opportunity to uncover and address social and political contradictions.3


Methodological Approach and Ethical Basis of the Study

As with the confidential hearings, there are guidelines for the writing of the reports, which are accessible to victims and survivors. Many authors adhere to these guidelines closely, while others follow their own writing logic. The written reports therefore contain heterogeneous material. To date, the Independent Inquiry has received more than 370 written reports. They are very personal; some are very extensive and detailed (for example in the description of the violence); others are very concise.

A corpus of 26 written reports was selected for contrast for the evaluation carried out here. The criteria for choosing the 26 were: form and scope of the report, gender, context in which the violence occurred, year of birth and age of disclosure of the reporting person, and number of perpetrators.4

The following table shows in which contexts the violence occurred in these 26 cases:

Breakdown of contexts in which the violence occurred




Family and social environment


Social environment


Institution (school, sports and foster care)


Family and organised sexual abuse/ritual violence


Third party offenders




For the evaluation, the methodological approach was based on a structuring content analysis (Kuckartz 2016: 97 et seqq.). To this end, all 26 reports were first read and edited in depth (initiating textual analysis), then main thematic categories were developed. They serve to structure the material and, on this basis, the reports were coded. For the purpose of the combined analysis, the categories were selected that could be related to this article’s research question, how the child that one once was and the experienced childhood is remembered.

A heuristic category system was developed in advance to deal with the two research questions: the categories for the first question “How do adults report their experiences of the children they once were to a commission on child sexual abuse?” were: family members, education, school, leisure and friends. The categories of the second question “What insights into the implications of child sexual abuse for the child can be generated from the memories?” were: compliance, retreat, fear, pain, understanding and resistance. The evaluation was carried out along the predefined categories and main categories were developed from these. These were aimed at the concept of vulnerability and how victims and survivors describe it.

Ethical Considerations

Like the hearings, all reports have been given a pseudonymisation identifier and have been pseudonymised according to defined criteria. The pseudonymisation identifiers and the pseudonymised reports are stored in access restricted folders and are evaluated encrypted-only. The victims and survivors will be informed in detail about the use of the data and the existing evaluation formats when they register on the Inquiry’s website and later in a letter of thanks. For the publication of the quotes, the victims and survivors were contacted again and asked for their consent or informed of their actual use, if consent had already been given.

The Independent Inquiry communicates to the victims and survivors and other contemporary witnesses that they are heard and believed. There is also no verification of the statement in the scientific analyses, rather just the account. Unlike in court, it is not a question of checking credibility, but of taking note of many subjective truths. The analysis presented here is also based on the assumption that subjects tell their biographies and do not knowingly report untruths. Consequently, no additional documents such as youth welfare office files or newspaper reports are used to verify a single case. Instead – also in this analysis – content overlaps, common experiences or references to attitudes and practices in families and institutions are manifest.

Findings: “Through Writing, I can See the Child from Back Then”5

Each report recounts personal experiences of childhood. What victims and survivors experienced as children and how they felt is an important topic for almost all of them. The quotation in the chapter heading therefore makes it clear that victims and survivors themselves, but also researchers, can, metaphorically speaking, see the child of that time through the reports.

In almost every report the family and individual family members, the everyday life, the fears, experiences in school or with the youth welfare office are described. Frequent isolation from other children and adolescents is an experience of many.

Reports about one’s own childhood in care institutions also provide information about earlier family experiences, but are then mostly concentrated on the violence suffered, on very stressful situations, and the hopelessness for the child at that time. The level of detail and precision in the description of the sexual abuse varies greatly from person to person. Some also stress that they do not want to write about it in detail. Unlike in the confidential hearings, writers have no concrete counterpart and therefore no idea how their depictions of violence are received. This seems to prevent some from explaining exactly what happened to them.

Following these considerations, injustice in carer relationships must be examined to better understand ways of approaching this. The analysis will follow this idea. It focuses on the question of how victims and survivors describe the child they were, and the childhood they often describe as lost. This will result in perspectives on vulnerable childhoods.

The research questions will be dealt with below along six main categories. These are: the recalled beginning of violence and the effect on childhood (a); the recalled perspective of the child on sexual violence (b); the lack of love in the surrounding environment (c); further experiences of violence (d); the child’s longing for comfort (e), and the child’s attempts to end the abuse (f).
  1. a)

    How the Sexual Abuse Began and Directly Affected the Child’s Life

Many victims and survivors recount the beginning of their story of abuse. Some also try to activate their memories of a beginning, which is extremely difficult especially when abused at a very young age. But there is a need to be able to make a start. In this way they can also clearly show that their childhood can be divided into a “before” and an “after”. Some reports describe the abuse suffered as a biographical watershed moment that divides childhood into good childhood and lost or bad childhood.

“The abuse first ended my normal, sheltered childhood” (BR 183).

With the interpretation of a watershed moment, the consequences for victims and survivors can be mapped out well up to the present day. For example, a victim and survivor remembered many good childhood experiences up to the time of the moment that abuse by a private tutor began. He then explained how this threw him off course as an adolescent and drove him into a gambling addiction.
An important aspect in these descriptions of the beginning of the abuse are also their impressive descriptions of how victims and survivors as children tried to understand what the father, grandfather, mother, friend of the father, tutor, priest, educator or nun, trainer or stepfather wanted from them. One victim and survivor, whose report consisted of over 53 pages and only at the end began her account of her violent childhood – for 750 days she had been abused and the other days she had lived in constant fear – described her misery after the sexual abuse began:

“I didn’t say anything right away because I didn’t understand what was happening and then I thought it was too late. And I thought that was proof of my guilt. In every process I suffered terrible pain, deep sorrow and the loss of all childishness. For example, I didn’t play or laugh anymore. I began to cry a lot, especially in public, which earned me scorn and ridicule and made me more and more of an outsider. I tried everything to defend myself. Unfortunately, due to my stepfather’s insidious strategy, everything failed” (BR 191).

If the experience of violence was described as recurring, the description of the beginning – as in this story – is usually followed by a description of the dynamics, intensity and frequency with which sexual abuse inscribed itself into the children’s lives.
  1. b)

    How Sexual Abuse is Reported from the Child’s Perspective

The reports contain differently detailed and concrete descriptions of the abuse. But they all attempt to portray the experience of the child they once were. They describe how they initially did not understand what was happening to them and above all describe the total alienation of the perpetrator in the violent situation. Many victims and survivors find words for the trauma from the child’s perspective:

“Horror, something so totally overwhelming... his noises, sounds... the fear beforehand and afterwards: wanting to scrape off this defensive feeling related to my own body, my own skin... alone and lost... wanting to get away... quiet crying...

Above all the ‘I don’t understand’. I wouldn’t have had any words if there had been someone there to talk to.

I didn’t know at all what it was or what it was about.

I remember a large handkerchief with which he removed any traces”. (BR 146)

Some reports also deal with the lack of knowledge about “normal” family relationships. One female victim and survivor tells us that there was always a double bed in her room and that she didn’t know any other way than to have her father next to her at night several nights a week after he raped her. To feel that it is wrong for adults to take advantage and to experience it as normal everyday life at the same time is an extreme burden for children and adolescents. The written reports and hearings also describe in this context that, for example, a visit to another family showed them a completely different, peaceful life.
  1. c)

    A Lack of Love in the Surrounding Environment

A striking feature is the lack of love. Regardless of the year of birth of the victims and survivors, many of them describe their experiences with unloving adults, mothers, fathers, educators, grandparents. The lack of care, the lack of interest, the lack of tenderness and security make up the emotional background from where the abuse took place.

“Nobody asked me back then: ‘How are you today?’

Maybe I’d have thought about it.

When I was a kid, no one cared.

At this very time, this kind of caring question was exactly what I needed” (BR 218).

The climate of lovelessness in victims and survivors’ childhoods lasted for a long time and also burdens them as adults in later life. In a letter to her brother, a victim and survivor describes in a few sentences the “horror” of her childhood and wishes to communicate with her brother about it:

“Our childhood lacked love; it was cruel, sadistic and full of our repeated abuse as children. That’s what it means: horror. When, in the presence of my father, I was raped by a ‘friend’ of the family, the flood gates of horror opened. I’m sure this has also attracted other perpetrators; what have you suffered?” (BR 193)

She asks her brother to speak, but she wants to be heard herself, too. In this reading, speaking and listening are associated with liberation from the prison of a childhood that lacked love:

“Otherwise, we as siblings will not only maintain the speaking ban, but we will also remain in the mental suffering and emotional coldness of our childhood and become the very things that killed us” (BR 193).

  1. d)

    What Other Violence Was often Associated with Sexual Abuse?


Lack of love shaped the basic mood of many of victims and survivors in their childhood. This lovelessness is an important part of understanding why not only the perpetrators often had no compassion for the child in need of protection and no empathy for their pain and suffering, but also why the wider surrounding environment was unwilling or unable to do so. In addition, many described numerous experiences of violence in addition to verbal degradation, acts of humiliation, deprivation of food, neglect and blows with the hand, fist, belt or other objects. If they were injured by the violence, the wounds were rarely treated.

The Independent Inquiry also received reports from people who had been humiliated and discouraged since their early childhood in their family or institution. Girls and children with physical or mental disabilities were the ones who were particularly affected by and suffered from this.

“Especially for mother I was a big disappointment, her only daughter a little stutterer, stupid and ugly, a flunker. She has always wanted a smart, gifted and intelligent daughter to be proud of; I was the opposite... My parents taught me that they didn’t want to hear my stuttering. ‘You should basically remain silent; only speak when we ask you something’” (BR 134).

The role of older siblings or older children and adolescents in schools or institutions is also of particular importance in this context. In many cases they made a considerable contribution to violent everyday life.

“I was a very frightened, insecure and quiet child. For example, I was afraid of dolls. My brothers and sisters – sometimes two or three of them – surrounded me with dolls to try and scare me more. I cried. Our mother was in the kitchen, she could hear it, but she didn’t intervene. My brother very often teased me, and our mother looked away” (BR 146).

  1. e)

    The Child’s Longing for Comfort

Acts of humiliation and above all the sexual violence suffered leave the victimised and surviving children feeling unprotected and helpless. This is described in the reports in very personal words. Readers are also shown how the victimised and surviving child gradually starts to understand that their dignity is being violated. The struggle for ways out and ways to end the abuse is described (see next section). But children (and adults) want comfort after a distressing or painful experience. Some reports testified to this longing for a comforting caring gesture, especially from the mother. One victim and survivor, who didn’t get any help whatsoever, sought comfort in an unwashed shirt of their unloving mother:

“I can’t remember a conscious longing for her. Possibly instinctively, however, I seem to have had a secret desire for attention and protection from her. There is no other explanation for the fact that I sometimes secretly took a used vest from my mother’s dirty laundry and hid it in my bed. It was the only comfort that I can remember; to secretly cuddle this shirt, which at least smelled like my mother” (BR 085).

In many reports, victims and survivors described their disgust and the feeling of having been dirtied. They described washing themselves after another act of abuse, wiping sperm off their stomach and trying to be a child again and to become “healed”. Victims and survivors, who as children lacked this everyday experience of appreciative care and attention and whose dignity was violated by sexual abuse, described unexpected gestures of care by adults, including strangers, as a strong comfort. One victim and survivor reported how female strangers took care of her after a traffic accident and how she experienced this:

“The car was half collapsed after the accident. I remember getting someone out of the car and onto the bus. Some women (bus passengers) dabbed the outer wounds apparently caused by splinters with handkerchiefs and combed the bits of glass out of my hair. I remember that as sooooo comforting” (BR 085).

  1. f)

    Attempts of the Child to Stop the Abuse

It is part of the process of abuse that children usually make a variety of attempts to end the sexual abuse. This, too, is a dominant theme in the reports. The “strategies” described depend, among other things, on their process of understanding, the concrete scope for action and the degree of their isolation. Some described themselves also as resistant, they ran away several times, built out caves or huts in order to create a retreat and shelter and put food aside.

“When I was about 10 years old, I moved to Asche6 for the first time. I built myself a place to live there. At Asche I could find a lot of things, including blankets and food. I lived primarily at Asche from the age of 10. Most of the time I only went home when the police discovered me on the streets and brought me home. On Asche you find what you need to survive. I washed my laundry in the pond with curd soap. I often skipped school” (BR 225).

Some also describe a kind of second watershed moment in their childhoods marked by sexual abuse: the moment when they physically defended themselves against the perpetrator. The decision to turn to someone for help was also named as a watershed moment. The described preparations for such a step, which are relevant from the child’s point of view, are revealing. Examples include finding out the opening hours of an authority and how to get there, pocketing money and preparing the younger siblings:

“Then came the day when I decided to go to the police with my sister. I made a mental note of the opening hours and talked to my sister about them: that was a mistake, because she ratted out my plan to my mother. I was determined to go with my sister to the police. Unexpectedly, my mother came home from work, and said: ‘If you go there, this family no longer exists’” (BR 218).

It was reported that children – especially those who were victims and survivors at a young age and in the family – often tried to help themselves by putting on several pairs of trousers before going to bed, or by not washing themselves any more. These descriptions are then followed in the reports by the regularly recurring experiences that such a “protective wall” made the helplessness of the child and his or her being at the mercy of others, even more clearly visible.

Overall, the reports also bear witness to the alarmingly high number of children who report unsuccessful contacts with the local youth welfare office. Even if the Independent Inquiry is not able to present in detail the perspective of the other side – i.e. those responsible in the youth welfare office – here, the reports make a plausible argument, that children often did not receive the appropriate support. They were not listened to with competency and attention, their parents were brought in very quickly, and they were sent back to their homes without assessment. From the point of view of children and the knowledge of today’s adults, the child’s right to protection was clearly disregarded.

Discussion: Perspectives on the Injured Child and the Vulnerable Childhood

In many cases survivors describe their childhood as a “lost childhood”. This is characterised as the loss of a protective space. In the model of Erikson (1950, 1968), the psychosocial moratorium for the young is a phase of protection and care by close adults, of freedom for learning and development, of exemption from responsibility. The idea of the moratorium set the norm for ideas about and design of childhood and youth from the second half of the twentieth century onwards. In reality, there were numerous deviations, along class and gender lines. Experiences of sexual violence and other forms of violence are at odds with this and at the very least cannot be understood as a class-specific phenomenon. The victims and survivors who report to the Independent Inquiry spent their childhoods in the second half of the twentieth century, the majority in the 1950s to 1970s. The analysis of the written reports shows how victims and survivors recount their experiences of violence, against the background of a “normal” childhood and refer directly or implicitly to the psychosocial moratorium. This means the written reports create a special “history of childhood”. In these reports, the individual stories of child sexual abuse are condensed into a violent story in which the experience of children is the focus of attention. In this way, violence in childhood can be shown as being experienced by people who are in the process of development and are thus particularly vulnerable. The presented findings of the main categories show systematic aspects of vulnerability. The results point to the child’s dependence on others, the lack of control over his/her own environment and the people he/she spends time with (Finkelhor 2008), and their emotional needs as a social being whose body is prone to pain (Mackenzie et al. 2014).

Some specific details about their everyday lives, relations with others, physical weakness and feelings of guilt and shame offer rich perspectives on the concept of vulnerability and the structural conditions. The reports provide numerous, often well-sorted information about time schedules and concrete consequences for the child after the first act of abuse. Many of them lost confidence in their environment immediately after the first attacks, and they had no strength left to involve themselves with their group of classmates as before. In other words, many stories tell of their journey to becoming an outsider in the group of children of the same age, and for some this experience runs through their entire adult life.

The experiencing of time and the dynamics of violence in children’s everyday lives describe the feelings of a victimised and surviving child and make the deep distress visible. The violence completely upset the order of their lives. While, for example, schoolchildren who did not experience sexual abuse were more likely to spend their weekends doing leisure activities, or perhaps even being bored, the weekly schedule for a victimised and surviving child was given a different meaning. One victim and survivor, who experienced sexual abuse in a care institution, describes that he was particularly at the mercy of the perpetrator, a priest, at the weekend. While many other children drove home on Saturday and Sunday, he – the parentless child – remained alone with the perpetrator.

Some reports deal with the lack of knowledge about “normal” family relationships and “normal” or “good” childhoods. Victims and survivors impressively report their own feelings of shame and disgust, physical reactions such as nausea, and many take it upon themselves to put the great physical pain into words. A commonly cited experience of the child was their fear of death and of suffocation when they have been raped orally. Many spoke of having suffered near-death experiences.

For the victimised and surviving children, there was usually no safe space if almost the entire surrounding environment was violent or one without the respecting of boundaries. Many reports impressively describe the absolute lack of privacy and the obligation of the child to be under observation or control even in very intimate situations. Part of the fundamental nature of childhood and growing up is to be dependent on the physical care of caregivers such as a mother or a father. Through this care, if it is loving and tender, children receive the existentially necessary recognition that human beings require.


All in all, the written reports bring the concrete experience, the disgust, and the massive physical pain very close. On this basis, it is possible to raise awareness of the consequences of sexual abuse and to reject any form of trivialisation.

This is an important point of discussion as the trivialisation of stressful experiences reported by children points to a lack of respect and a structural component of vulnerability. This will be aggravated if child sexual abuse and the “minor” and “major” transgressions often experienced in advance are not taken seriously. Here it should be discussed whether a broad concept of violence better captures vulnerability in childhood as opposed to a concept of violence that is more closely oriented to criminal definitions.

This article refers to the importance of the codified right to a non-violent upbringing. This will continue to have an impact on childhood and youth in the future. However, the right to a non-violent upbringing may also create a ‘resonance space’ (Rosa 2016) – an environment in which awareness of justice and suffering can unfold – for adult memories. This connection between the willingness to overcome sexual violence against children and adolescents in the past and the right of young people to non-violence should be systematically investigated.

The written reports and their analyses offer insights into the vulnerability of childhood. This results from structural shortcomings, such as when children cannot go to a supervisory authority independently of adults. They also provide fundamental information on the social position of children in the family and in society as a whole; for example, when they, as girls or as children with physical or mental disabilities, have no control whatsoever over themselves and their living conditions. This is exacerbated when families isolate themselves socially and in doing so aren’t able to gain insights from an outside perspective, pertaining to the interests of the child with special needs. These reports also clearly show the significance of not only a lack of knowledge about child sexual abuse, but also about help structures.

The empirical approach to how the wounded child is described is particularly impressive. Here, the burden of violence and the child’s attempt to understand it are impressively illustrated, as are the many conflicts of loyalty. The insights into the perception of time and the emotional aspects in the lives of victimised and surviving children are also informative. The exacerbation of suffering through the longing for comfort and healing, the lack of it or the rejection by other adults clearly demonstrate the dimensions of vulnerability. The reports show that children experience their particular vulnerability, but they also look for strategies to protect themselves. Especially in the often-experienced futility of protecting oneself, the perspective interweaves with the vulnerable child and the vulnerable life phase that is childhood.

The Independent Inquiry gives victims and survivors a space where they can report their experiences, and with the courage of the authors, society will hopefully gain a sense of the vulnerability of abused children. Adorno’s “working through the past” in this context means revisiting the child from back then.


  1. 1.
  2. 2.

    In 2010, the media picked up on reports from victimised and surviving pupils of a Catholic school in Berlin and a respected progressive education school. Their scandalisation put politics under pressure.

  3. 3.

    The processing of child sexual abuse in Australia, for example, is endowed with ample resources and far-reaching legal jurisdiction. At the same time, there is a policy that places refugee children in camps for long periods of time in miserable conditions and knowingly surrenders them, without any protection, to violence, including that of sexual violence.

  4. 4.

    I worked on this sample with Dr. Anja Büchner.

  5. 5.

    I would like to thank the authors of the reports for their intensive presentations to the Independent Inquiry.

  6. 6.

    The proper name of a dump.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interests

The author declares no conflict of interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Goethe University FrankfurtFrankfurt am MainGermany

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