Stephen Barber, Safeguarding officer, Diocese of Oxford

LONG ago, when I was beginning as a social worker, I thought that the sexual abuse of children was horrible but fortunately rare.

Now we have all had to learn that, though indeed horrible, it is all too common.

The Children’s Commissioner for England has done extensive research on this and their report, ‘Protecting Children from Harm’, has just come out.

They did their homework thoroughly.

They collected data from every police force in the country, read all the research, talked to hundreds of people who had survived sexual abuse and travelled around the country to get views.

Their most startling finding is that only one in eight cases come to the attention of the authorities. The problem is that, unlike fractures or injuries, sexual abuse is not easily recognised, and we put far too much reliance on children coming forward to tell adults about what has happened to them.

This is asking too much of children.

For the adults, whether family members, professionals or others, it is hard to spot the signs of sexual abuse.

They may not have had much training for this task or practice in doing it.

So what should we do about it?

Training and procedures need to be improved, as one would expect.

But what caught my eye in the report was a recommendation that ‘all schools equip all children, through compulsory lessons for life, to understand healthy and safe relationships and to talk to an appropriate adult if they are worried about abuse’.

This would involve taking Personal, Health, Social and Economic Education much more seriously.

Children need to learn about behaving considerately and decently long before they mature sexually, and we cannot assume that all parents will help their children do this.

But the most important change is that parents and others should be prepared to believe what they are told, because it may well be true.