It is secretive, often unseen, often unreported but, as Rosemary and Mike Riddell discovered, the impact of child sexual abuse is long-lasting and corrosive.
For any parent it is a reasonable conversation. Your teenage daughter comes home late at night, slurring her words, mud on her knees. “I said, anything could have happened to you,” recalls church minister turned writer Mike Riddell. “You could have been raped.” Her reply was shattering. “It’s a bit late for that.”
That night he learned his daughter had been raped by a stranger two years earlier. She was just eleven. “It was like a bullet through the heart,” he explains in a recent interview with Frank Film.
Soon their “quintessential, quiet middle child” would drop out of school, work the streets to support a drug habit, overdose, attempt suicide.
As her mother, actor, director and former family court judge Rosemary Riddell, writes in her recent memoir To Be Fair, “It was like demons in her soul.”
In 2009 her daughter was raped again. As Polly wrote in her victim impact statement, “X’s offending, the world of hurt it re-triggered, the negative way it impacted my friends and relationships, and the knowledge of a possible trial looming – those were all part of the reason for my attempting suicide.”
She and five other victims went to court. The perpetrator pleaded guilty but when he appealed the sentence, Polly decided to attend.
“I thought, perhaps this is going to help her,” Rosemary tells Frank Film. “She thought it would be empowering, a chance to close the chapter on the whole ordeal. We were so wrong – it was an absolute disaster for her.”
She reads her daughter’s words: “‘It unravelled me. I felt victim-blamed, slut-shamed. And for this to happen in front of three male judges was excruciatingly difficult.’ Here was my Polly just listening to an appeal, saying that was worse than the actual rape. That hollowed me out in new ways.”
In 2018, Polly celebrated her 40th birthday with her brother in Switzerland. She returned calmer, looking forward to moving into a new home close to her parents in Oturehua in the beautiful Ida Valley in Central Otago. Five weeks later she died of a suspected drug overdose.
“There was some kind of relief knowing it wasn't suicide,” says Rosemary. “But I do wonder how different her life would have been but for the sexual abuse at the age of eleven. I'm horrified by not only it happening to her, but it seems to be something that happens to so many people and leaves so many people wounded in their souls.”
It does. Recent Crime and Victim Survey results show one in five females and one in 19 males have been a victim of forced intercourse in their lifetime. Still, only 8% were reported to police. Of those charges of rape that were brought to court in 2020, only 25% resulted in a conviction.
Yet the impact is huge. Child sexual abuse is a recognised risk factor for depression, addiction, relationship difficulties and suicide. “A lot of people do recover and have a good life,” insists Maggy Tai Rākena, manager of sexual abuse support service START. “Some will be alright but then, oh god, puberty happens, someone is hitting on them at school, someone is wearing perfume the abuser wore – and they are back there again. Others will need a lot of help.”
For children in particular, telling someone what happened “back there” is not easy. Sexual abuse is a “secretive kind of business,” says Tai Rākena – the harm is not always visible, children do not always have the words to describe what happened, “and there’s a lot of mind games that allow people to do it and keep people silenced.”
That silence is compounded by the fact that, in more cases than not, the perpetrator is known to the children. “People who come into your home, who your parents like, who babysit you or go to sports with you.”
Child sexual abuse is also ruthlessly democratic. Those with fewer protections around them are more vulnerable, “but in wonderful families with loving relationships, children also get abused. I’ve been here 27 years and there wouldn’t be a school uniform we haven't seen through my door.”
There are measures parents and teachers can take.
“Kids need to know what is ok and what is not ok and have good language for those kinds of things. Teach them no people need to be touching you under your knickers or your togs and if someone does that it would be really good to tell a big person about it because our country says they are not allowed to do that.”
Whether that big person is a parent, a grandmother or teacher, “You are giving children practice telling things they are worried about and being taken seriously. If they tell you they really don't like going to so-and-so’s house – even if there is no sexual stuff going on, you need to say ok, when we go to that house I’ll always go with you or we won't go to that house. You give voice, you listen, you take notice to what the kids’ guts are telling them.”
As Polly’s experience shows however, that sense of validation can become unravelled in the court system. Prolonged time intervals, belittling language, cross-examinations questioning the survivor’s memory, recall and reputation, and the presence of a jury have all been found to compound the stress of the complainant.
“I think there is a better way of conducting those deeply personal cases of sexual offending,” says Rosemary Riddell. “That way in my view is through an inquisitorial approach, where the judge is collecting the information, instead of the lawyers being able to have a go at the witnesses. I just don't think that works. And it results in very low conviction rates too. That’s suffering it all over again, isn’t it? If it has happened to a woman and she is not believed?”
In its 2015 report the Law Commission acknowledged the risk of re-traumatisation of victims of sexual offences within the justice system. Its recommendations included reducing the delay in getting cases to trial, using less traumatic methods of giving evidence for complainants, providing specialist training for judges and increasing support for complainants.
While jury trials, it conceded, are not well suited to determining guilt in sexual violence cases, it did not have the resources to examine the alternatives in depth.
Some of its findings are being followed up. The Sexual Violence Legislation Bill sets out to reduce the re-traumatisation of victims of sexual violence by allowing complainants to give evidence and be cross-examined by audio-visual link or pre-recorded video, tightening the rules around disclosure about a complainant’s sexual history, giving more authority to judges to intervene in inappropriate questioning, and to address common “rape myths” that downplay or justify sexual violence.
But its progress through Parliament has been snagged on concerns around the use of pre-recorded cross examination of complainants and restrictions on the admissibility of complainants’ previous sexual experience.
The roll out of a pilot specialised sexual violence court, established within the District Court system in Auckland and Whangarei, has been stalled through lack of funding. University of Canterbury Law Professor Elisabeth McDonald, who was part of an evaluation of these pilot courts, found shorter time frames, more use of alternative ways of giving evidence, less inadmissibility of irrelevant evidence, more judicial interaction with the complainant – using their name, explaining what was going to happen and thanking them after evidence. Many of these, she concluded, could be enacted at little expense. But even in the pilot courts, she says, the manner and tone used in the cross-examination of complainants – the belittling comments, the repetition, the badgering – remained unaddressed.
“The questioning practices, which complainants report being retraumatising and unhelpful, have not changed.”
Talking to Frank Film producer Gerard Smyth in a snow-swept Blackstone Cemetery where their daughter is buried, the Riddells see all too well the damage that can be caused by an adversarial justice system and the experience of child sexual abuse.
“When somebody at a young age has a crisis like rape, they haven’t got the resources to know how to deal with it,” says Mike. “They’re not old enough, they haven’t had enough life experience. So it becomes even more damaging than it might be otherwise. It was certainly so for Polly.”
If you or someone close to you has been impacted by sexual abuse, help is available:
Safe to Talk – 0800 044 334 or text 4334
Rape Crisis – 0800 883 300
Te Puna Oranga – 03 381 8472
Male Survivors Aotearoa – malesurvivor.nz
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234
What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds)
ACC Sensitive Claims – 0800 735566 or findsupport.co.nz
Women's Refuge – 0800 733 843
Shine (for domestic abuse) – 0508 744 633
Kidsline (for people up to 18 years) – 0800 54 37 54
If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111
Producer/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth.
Editor: Oliver Dawe.
Research: Jessy Rolleston Palmer.
Written Word: Sally Blundell.
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch.
Sound Design and Mix: Chris Sinclair.
Sound Editor: Amanda Reid.
Colour Grade: Mike Kelland.