One in five children or one child every 30 seconds is being sexually abused as society pulls a blanket of silence over the issue, causing children to feel guilty and unworthy, which can have a detrimental impact on their entire future.
Scottish playwright and actor Matthew McVarish is a survivor of child sexual abuse and is now in the middle of his 16,000 km walk across Europe to raise awareness and convince governments to change their legislation regarding the punishment of child sex offenders.
Matthew started his campaign on May 31, 2013, in London and will finish on February 7, 2015, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He arrived in Cyprus on May 17 and Nicosia is the 21st city he has visited during the 8,000 kilometres he has travelled so far.
“The reason why I am walking is to raise awareness of something nobody wants to talk about but I promise you I have no desire to walk, I don’t really like walking and I have been chased by thousands of wild dogs and snakes, but because I’ve walked so far I have been able to speak on newspaper, television and radio in 20 languages about child sexual abuse,” Matthew told The Cyprus Weekly.
During childhood, Matthew and his three brothers were sexually abused by their uncle, but conservative Scottish society at the time did not allow them to talk about what was happening.
Six years ago and while his three brothers were all suffering from and being medicated for depression, Matthew decided that it was time to put a stop to the irrational situation that was continuing, as his uncle maintained his job as a school teacher working with teenage boys.
“In Scotland you’re not supposed to talk about emotions and these things but by not talking about it we just let my uncle be free and pose a serious danger to children, so I wrote a play about two brothers who had been sexually abused in their childhood and I put the play on in Glasgow.”
The play was attended by his three brothers who according to Matthew “witnessed on stage how ridiculous the situation was”, which prompted them to speak openly about what had happened for the first time in their lives and press charges, sending their uncle to jail.
As Matthew points out, the four brothers were only able to file charges against their uncle because there is no statute of limitations in the UK, which means that there is no maximum time after an event that legal proceedings based on that event may be initiated.
“What I discovered was that in other countries in the EU that is not the case; if he had abused me in Hungary or Lithuania or various other EU states when I went to the police they would have said that the crime is expired, which is ridiculous because the danger has not expired.”
Cyprus is one of the few countries in the EU which does not have a statute of limitations due to the adoption of the British legal system, which pleasantly surprised the 30-year-old.
The realisation of this restriction in the majority of EU member states was the driving force behind Matthew’s decision to launch his Europe-wide campaign, in order to convince national governments to abolish the limitation or begin the process of abolishing it.
“We tapped on the door of the ombudsmen and parliaments, but there are still a number of countries like Bulgaria that said if there was an EU Directive and everyone in the EU must change this then they would too, so this is my next step.”
“The reason why we should abolish the statue of limitations and allow all these people to come forward is that the victims are the only ones who know what the offender is capable of, and that was the case with me and my brothers, only we knew what he was doing, no one else had any idea that he had done this, so I knew how dangerous he was,” Matthew said.
Commenting on the anger of the public and the discussion of bringing back the death penalty for child sex offenders, Matthew explains his opposition.
“If you brought back the death penalty for paedophiles or child sex offenders, they would use that to say to the victim ‘do you realise that if you ever say anything about what we did they will kill me? Do you want me to die? Is that what you want? So if you want to secure children’s silence, bring back the death penalty.”
A healing process
Stop the silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse is a US-based NGO that supports Matthew and his campaign and is dedicated to improving society’s response to and ending child sexual abuse.
“We are called Stop the Silence for prevention, but also stop the silence because your ability to heal and process that trauma relies on your ability to talk about it,” Matthew says.
The issue of stigmatisation due to child sexual abuse is compared to society’s view on breast cancer in the UK 20 or 30 years ago, when the word ‘breast’ was not acceptable due to its sexual connotations.
“Today we have professional footballers, straight men wearing pink to support breast cancer and we would never ask a woman with breast cancer not to talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable, that’s crazy.
“But we do that to victims of sexual violence and I think that some day we will reach a point when someone can say ‘I’m struggling because I was abused in my childhood’ and that people won’t get instant panic in the way we used to with breast cancer.”
On the journey of recovery, Matthew is quite far down the road, as he not only survived the sexual abuse he suffered in his childhood but is thriving past it to a point where he can talk openly about it to journalists and governments.
Speaking about the difference it has made to his life after having his uncle convicted Matthew said:
“It didn’t take away the damage that he’d done but it gave me the peace of mind that he’s not in contact with children, because until that point I felt like an accomplice to that crime.
“I spoke about it, I’m doing a lot better than my brothers who never spoke about it and are still being medicated because the damage is done.”
Matthew compares what happened to him and his brothers to a broken leg or back, where one can go through physiotherapy and start walking again, but the scars will always be there.
“I’ll always have that and I can’t erase the memories, so all I can do with that is accept that it’s a great disaster and try and take the energy of that and use it positively, otherwise what’s the point?”
Impact of sexual abuse on children
Child sexual abuse is the biggest issue that society is secretly dealing with, as it has a detrimental impact on a child’s life in a way that can change their future in an invisible way.
As Matthew explains, sexual abuse interrupts the child’s mental development, which can actually be seen in a brain scan of a child who has been sexually abused compared to a child who has a healthy development environment, as the two scans will show physiological differences.
“This trauma manifests later in the child’s life, in their psychology, behaviours and the way you see the world and yourself. It affects everything, the job you take, whether you push yourself to go to university, the entire trajectory of your life.
“That’s the reality and that’s happening in every fifth child and the problem is that in most societies and Cyprus is not unique in this, there is no country I have walked to where people are comfortable talking about sex and children.”
Matthew adds that the bigger the country the easier it is to press charges because of the anonymity, but there are still societies where the issue is stigmatised, such as previously Soviet-occupied territories where adults are conditioned to never speak out or cause trouble.
“We just need to educate people at how damaging it is and how much it is costing us individually and societally, it’s happening every 30 seconds and that’s why we have to stop the silence, if we’re all silent it just allows it to continue.”
Commenting on recent reports involving child sexual abuse which implicate a well-know businessman in Cyprus, Matthew said that claims regarding the child leading on the offender is “the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard”.
“There is no question that it’s always the adult’s fault, it is never, never, never the child’s fault and I try to explain that to children.
“I was continuously abused throughout my childhood but when it got revealed nothing happened, so what does that teach me as a child? It teaches me that bad things can happen to me and I’m not even worth pursuing justice for it.
“That’s what kids are learning because in a child’s logic when something bad happens one should be punished for that; so when the punishment doesn’t happen, it’s teaching kids that the world doesn’t care about them, which isn’t true.”
According to Matthew, child sexual abuse may be the root of many other problems faced by society, including depression, anxiety, alcoholism and drug abuse.
“All of these things that the government spends all of this time and money trying to fix, would actually be reduced if they comprehensively addressed and reduced child sexual abuse.
“It’s no coincidence that 97% of teen runaways have been sexually abused, 97% of teen prostitutes were sexually abused in their childhood, how does a wonderful child become a prostitute? First of all, somebody violates them and it compromises their sense of self and that throws their entire life choice and their future into a dustbin.
“In a deep basic understanding of the world, by abusing a child you’re taking away the person that they could have been and that’s irreplaceable.”
‘To Kill A Kelpie’
Matthew McVarish’s play ‘To Kill a Kelpie’ was the starting point for himself and his brothers to talk about what had happened to them for the first time and led to their decision to file charges against their uncle.
As Matthew explains, the play is about twin brothers who had the same experience and had been affected differently, because they’d been abused by the same person but one went to therapy and one didn’t.
“The play demonstrated what I was finding with my brothers who were lost and depressed while I was getting my career going and I was healthy and going to therapy if I needed to,” Matthew said.
The play was put on for the first time professionally in Glasgow and then toured the US with the support of the organisation Stop the Silence: Stop Child Sexual Abuse with shows in San Francisco, Chicago, DC and then funded by the Scottish government in New York.
After every performance Matthew would get back on stage and tell the audience that what they had just seen was a true story, prompting people in the audience to disclose their own stories of sexual abuse, often for the first time, in the presence of local service providers and NGOs to offer practical advice.
“That is what art does when you see a story that connects with you it opens you up in a sneaky way, you’re not expecting to be taken there.”
Nevertheless, the high cost of putting on the play led Matthew to turn his play into a movie, which was filmed professionally and is screened in some countries during his campaign.
Make a donation
During his walk, Matthew is accompanied by a van which provides him with assistance, food, water and a place to sleep for the night. During the campaign, he is accompanied by his assistant Amanda Thompson, who travels to the various cities ahead of time to set up meetings with local authorities, governments and the press to promote the cause. The team has not yet been able to secure sponsorship and relies on the generosity of the public and various organisations to make a donation.
If you want to donate and help Matthew lift the silence on child sexual abuse visit www.roadtochange.eu