The Media and Child Abuse

The Media and Child Abuse

Fred Powell and Margaret Scanlon (University College, Cork)


The media has played a key role in the construction of child abuse as a major social problem. From a largely unacknowledged issue (prior to the 1960s), reportage of child abuse has now reached saturation point (Kitzinger 2004: 36). Moreover, the issue has been covered across a range of genre (including news programmes, TV drama, films, call-in shows, soap operas) thereby reaching a diverse range of audiences. While acknowledging the importance of the media in raising awareness, a number of commentators have also noted that the media’s interest is very recent and has generally relied on others (e.g. activists, professional groups) to lay the groundwork. Rather than being in the vanguard, the media has generally brought up the rear. The groundwork for the recognition of child sexual abuse, for example, lay in early activities by feminists and survivors, and involved international links within the women’s movement across the world.

In relation to the ‘rediscovery’ of physical abuse in Britain during the 1960s, Parton (1985) argues that the media, far from campaigning in its own right, simply reflected the views and publications of the NSPCC Battered Child Research Unit. Similarly in the US, it was only after the publication of the “The Battered-Child Syndrome,” that the national media began to take an interest in the subject (Myers, 2011). Despite the fact that there had been widespread abuse of children in church-run institutions in Ireland throughout the 1950s and 60s, this issue was not reported in the media until the 1990s. However. when the media did finally become involved in highlighting the issue of abuse, the impact was enormous. Extensive media coverage helped to transform tragic events – such as the death of Victoria Climbié and Baby P – into national scandals, requiring substantial government intervention. Moreover the media has been instrumental in calling powerful institutions – notably the Catholic Church – to account for their handling of child abuse allegations.

Media representations of sexual abuse not only transformed public knowledge, but also had profound implications for ‘private’ knowledge. In her research, Kitzinger (2004) found that, up until the mid-1980s, survivors of abuse often struggled to make sense of what had been done to them within the inadequate conventional categories available to them at that time. Because of the culture of silence around incest, abused children and adult survivors had to process their experiences in an almost total cultural vacuum. They often had no words to define what was happening to them, other than the explanation offered by their abusers. However, from the 1980s onwards media representations began to provide victims of abuse with a framework for thinking and talking about their experiences:

One of the key moments in media coverage of child abuse in the UK came in October 1986 with the broadcast of a major BBC programme, Childwatch (Kitzinger, 2004: 35, Parton 1991: 91). The Childwatch programme was accompanied by a remarkable expansion in attention to child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, from other TV formats as well as the print media. Reporting of sexual abuse in The Times newspaper, for example, increased by 300 per cent between 1985 and 1987 (Kitzinger 2004). Moreover sexual abuse within families became the subject of a number of flagship UK documentary series, including Brass Tacks (BBC2 1987), Everyman (BBC1 1988) Antenna (BBC1 1989), and Horizon (BB2 1989). Kitzinger (2004:36) has also noted the importance of fictional genre in highlighting this issue. By the early 1990s child sexual abuse had begun to appear in British and American drama series and became the subject of ‘true crime’ features. It also featured in soap operas, most notably Brookside (Channel 4) which ran a two-year storyline on a family traumatised by an abusive father.

In Ireland, some of the most shocking and influential media coverage concerned clerical child abuse. The first major clerical child sexual abuse scandal concerned the case of Brendan Smyth, a priest with the Norbertine Order, who in 1994 pleaded guilty to 72 charges of indecent and sexual assault and was sentenced to 12 years in prison (Keenan, 2012). Through a ‘brilliant piece of investigative journalism’, Chris Moore, a reporter with Ulster Television’s Counterpoint programme, showed that the clerical authorities had known for years of Smyth’s crimes, but dealt with it by moving him on and essentially covering up his actions (Ferguson, 1995: 247). The infamous Smyth case opened the floodgates for further revelations.

Of particular note, was the broadcast of a number of powerful documentaries detailing the abuse of children in institutional and community settings, including: Dear Daughter (RTE 1996), States of Fear (RTE, 1999), Cardinal Secrets (RTE, 2002) and Suing the Pope (a BBC documentary broadcast in the UK and Ireland in 2002). These landmark programmes lead to the setting up of the first inquiries into the church’s handling of allegations of abuse. Moreover media coverage of child abuse prompted some survivors to come forward and provide testimony to the inquiry teams (Ferns Report 2005, Dublin Report 2009). The media also provided opportunities for survivors themselves to raise public awareness of the issue and campaign for change. Representatives from survivor organisations, such as One-in-Four, have participated in numerous TV news programmes and panel discussions, provided interviews to journalists and convened press conferences, particularly in the aftermath of child abuse inquiries.

Notwithstanding the many positive aspects of the media’s interest in child abuse, it must also be acknowledge that there are a number of drawbacks. According to Franklin and Parton (1991) media reporting of child abuse has been sensational, simplistic and often factually inaccurate. Moreover the issue has been presented and framed within the parameters prescribed by dominant and traditional social values. Discussions of the rights of children and feminist critiques of patriarchy which seek to go beyond these narrow confines, have been largely ignored. Fitzgibbon (2011) highlights the increasingly intrusive and voyeuristic manner in which abuse is reported. She contrasts the ‘computer-assisted voyeurism’ which attended the death of Baby P (in 2007: 24) with the more ‘respectful’ coverage of the earlier Colwell case: ‘If Maria’s death was a tragedy, a family gone wrong, Baby Peter’s is sadistic torture in which the lurid descriptions with their macabre visual aids add up to an emotional horror movie populated by monsters and helpless victims’. Kitzinger (2004: 47) raises concerns around the ‘new identity of victimhood being pedaled by discussion shows’ and the way in which the media have ‘psycho-pathologised’ survivors.

Media reporting has also been criticised for scapegoating the professionals (usually social workers) connected with child abuse cases (Franklin and Parton 1991). The British tabloid press, in particular, have launched a series of personal attacks on those practitioners implicated in major child abuse inquiries (see Fitzgibbon, 2011). Moreover the tabloid’s recent preoccupation with attacks perpetrated by strangers (‘stranger danger’) may divert attention from the fact that most abuse is perpetrated by individuals already known to the child. According to Silverman and Wilson (2002), the explosion in media interest in child sex offences has also helped to fuel a ‘moral panic’, at a time when there is no evidence to suggest that these offences are on the increase. It can be seen, therefore, that while the media has undoubtedly played a key role in raising awareness of child abuse, this has sometimes been a mixed blessing.

The media – through a series of television documentaries and investigative reporting – played a major role in raising public awareness of clerical child abuse, and in pressurising the Irish government to take action over the issue. Particularly significant was the BBC documentary Suing the Pope which reported the allegations of abuse against Father Sean Fortune, and the mis-handling of the case by the (still serving) Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey. First broadcast on the BBC in March 2002, Suing the Pope was later shown on RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster) and was the subject of a Primetime (current affairs) programme and extensive press debate. The ensuing controversy lead to the resignation of Bishop Comiskey, and the initiation of a preliminary investigation (by George Birmingham SC) into allegations of child abuse in the diocese of Ferns, which in turn lead to the setting up of the Ferns Inquiry. The crucial role of the BBC documentary in setting in motion this series of events is acknowledged in the Ferns Report (2005: 6). Significantly, some of the revelations of clerical sexual abuse broadcast in Suing the Pope were already in the public domain: it was known that Fr. Sean Fortune had been facing criminal charges, but committed suicide before his trial in 1999. However, it was only when the issue was broadcast in all its shocking detail (including first-hand accounts from several of Fortune’s victims) to a national and international television audience that the Irish government decided to take action.

Similarly, RTE’s documentary series States of Fear (1999) played an important role in highlighting the issue of institutional abuse (in industrial and reformatory schools) and the Irish government came under considerable pressure to respond. On the 11 May, 1999 the day on which the final States of Fear programme was broadcast, the government issued a public apology to victims of child abuse and announced the establishment of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (see Donnelly and Inglis, 2010: 14) which later reported its findings in the land-mark Ryan Report (2009). Commenting on the setting up of the Commission, Donnelly and Inglis (2010: 15) argue that ‘the government was predominantly motivated to investigate the inadequacies of Church and state facilities for children in response to media pressure’.

RTE broadcast another key programme during 2002, Primetime: Cardinal Secrets, which included allegations of sexual abuse within the Dublin archdiocese, and the Church’s repeated failure to act on these allegations. The Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, came in for particular criticism. Survivors of clerical abuse, as well as their families, were interviewed as part of the programme. In addition, Fr. Tom Doyle, a canon law expert and ‘international expert on clerical child sexual abuse’, provided damning commentary on the Diocese’s handing of child abuse allegations. He asserted that there had been a ‘cover-up’ and ‘collusion’ amongst clergy at all levels to not report clerical sexual abuse, concluding that there was ‘something radically, radically wrong’ within the archdiocese. The visual imagery of the documentary was particularly striking in evoking the apparent duplicity of the church. In one scene, for example, victims recount their ordeals against the backdrop of Archbishop Connell performing mass, dressed in all his Episcopal regalia and blessing celebrants as he leaves: the pomp and ceremony of the church contrasts with the harsh reality experienced by some of its youngest members.

Following the broadcast of Cardinal Secrets in 2002, a major police investigation was undertaken into clerical child sexual abuse complaints including those relating to clerics in the Archdiocese of Dublin (Dublin Report, 2009: 84). The controversy surrounding the allegations of abuse in this programme also paved the way for the setting up of the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation.

The overall impact of the media in the public exposure of child abuse has been considerable, even if it came late to the issue.


Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009) Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Volumes I-V [known as The Ryan Report]. Dublin: Government Publications.

Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (2009) Report by the Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. Dublin: Government Publications. Available at:

Donnelly, S. and Inglis, T.(2010) ‘The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: reporting clerical child sex abuse’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 25(1): 1-19.

Ferguson, H. (1995) ‘The paedophile priest: a deconstruction’, An Irish Quarterly Review, 84 (335): 247-256.

Fitzgibbon, W. (2012) Probation and Social Work in Trial. London: Palgrave.

Franklin, B. and Parton, N. (1991) ‘Media reporting of social work: a framework for analysis’, in B. Franklin and N. Parton (eds.) Social Work, the Media and Public Relations. London: Routledge.

Keenan, M. (2012) Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organizational Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitzinger, J. (2004) Framing abuse: Media Influence and Public Understanding of Sexual Violence Against Children. London: Pluto.

Murphy, F.D., Buckley, H. and Joyce, L. (2005) The Ferns Report: Presented to the Minister for Health and Children. Dublin: Government Publications.

Myers, J. (2011) ‘A short history of child protection in America’, in J. Myers (ed.) The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Parton (1991) Governing the Family: Child Care, Child Protection and the State. London: MacMillan.

Parton, N. (1985) The Politics of Child Abuse. London: MacMillan.

Silverman, J. and Wilson, D. (2002) Innocence Betrayed: Paedophilia, the Media and Society, Cambridge: Polity.


Fred Powell is Professor of Social Policy at University College Cork (UCC). Margaret Scanlon is a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Applied Social Studies, UCC. They have co-authored a book entitled Dark Secrets of Childhood: Media Power, Child Abuse and Public Scandals, to be published by Policy Press. Their research has been funded by the Irish Research Council.