A woman who was raped as a child and kept it secret for decades named her abuser last week. Should others do the same?
Sarah was nine when the family lodger started sexually abusing her. "When my parents went out he would come into my room and lie down on the bed with me," she recalls. "He would ask me to take off my pyjamas and mess around with me, or ask me to do it to him. I had no idea what was happening: it was outside my understanding. I just remember feeling strange and bewildered. He told me we were playing a game and that I should never tell anyone about it: it was `our little secret'."

Like Diane Williams, who last week publicly accused her childhoom abuser after having suffered in silence for 45 years, Sarah didn't tell. Diane, 51, was only six when her next-door-neighbour, Alan Guthery, now 65, began raping her: she told police what had happened a month ago. "I couldn't talk about it to anyone," she says (she's waived her right to anonymity in the hope of helping other victims). "I didn't want to hurt my family. I felt dirty and ashamed. I tried to put the memories out of my head even though they have always haunted me."

Reporting an abuser after many years can have far-reaching consequences. While there are several organisations dealing with abused children, there is no national body or helpline to support or advise adult survivors. As a result, the NSPCC receives several thousand calls a year from desperate adults, as do ChildLine, the Samaritans and Relate. Other victims contact local rape crisis centres or women's groups. These organisations do their best to help, but none has the facilities to deal with the magnitude of the problem - no one can even hazard a guess as to how many adult survivors there are in the UK - or the complex issues that arise from it.

Now aged 27 and a successful journalist, Sarah has never reported her abuse. "I put it out of my mind for years," she says. She has told her father but she still hasn't reported her abuser to the authorities. "It's a huge dilemma," she says. "Ideally, I'd like to put the whole thing behind me and forget about it, but morally, it's not that simple. I'm not out to cause trouble or for revenge but I feel I have a duty to report my abuser. This man now has two children of his own and the idea that he might be abusing them repels me.

"I'm afraid of not being believed, of losing my anonymity and of the repercussions if I do tell, but my biggest fear is that if I don't, I'm contributing to a conspiracy of silence that allows other children to be abused. I just don't know where to go for a definite answer."

Officially, the police encourage all adult survivors to report incidents of childhood abuse. According to a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police, such reports are treated like any other sexual assault: "There is no time limit for complaints of sexual assault to be made. Any allegations, whether they are an anonymous tip-off or a specific complaint, will be investigated fully. The victim or complainant is the primary concern in the investigation and will be given help and sympathy and dealt with by specially trained police officers."

When details of systematic sexual abuse in children's homes in Cheshire, Merseyside, North and South Wales and elsewhere were revealed, the police urged victims to come forward and this resulted in several convictions. But for individual complainants, the chances of a conviction are small. After decades, evidence is scarce and the Crown Prosecution Service often decides not to prosecute. This happened in Diane Williams' case. After she reported the abuse, the police arrested Guthery and, to everyone's surprise, he confessed to rape and indecent assault. Yet, although he had to sign the Sex Offenders' Register, the CPS decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute - he escaped with a caution.

Victims of abuse who do come forward in adulthood have to be prepared for this - as well as the possibility that the police may be less than sympathetic. Liz Kelly, director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at the University of North London, is co-author of a report into the legacies of childhood sexual abuse. She says reporting past abuse is "like playing the lottery. How well adult survivors are treated and whether their cases are taken on depends on where they report the incident.

"There are pockets in the police and the CPS that are doing good work, but I know of many instances where people haven't been well-treated, where the police say `It's too late now, forget about it'. For those who have been treated unsympathetically, reporting the abuse has been damaging - just another hurdle to overcome."

Diane Williams has nothing but praise for the officers who dealt with her allegations: "Everyone I spoke to was sympathetic and kind," she says. "They explained everything and told me I could stop the process at any time. They never misled me - they said there was little chance of prosecution - and they didn't ask why I'd left it so long to come forward."

Peter Saunders, a charity worker, was not so lucky. He was 39 when he decided to report his childhood abuser - a family member - to the police. He met with an extremely hostile reaction: "At first the policeman was actually threatening. Then he said `He's messed up half your life, don't let him ruin the rest.' I was told that even if my abuser made a full confession the CPS wouldn't proceed with the case and I was warned I'd be arrested if I went to the school where my abuser now taught. Despite this, I went to the school the very next day and told the headmaster. My abuser was suspended and resigned a few days later. I soon discovered I wasn't his only victim."

Achieving a conviction is not always the primary motivation for reporting past abuse. Liz Kelly says many adult survivors feel a sense of injustice which is resolved by the very act of reporting their abuser. "They believe they're paying a price for being abused - and will continue to do so, while their abuser pays nothing. For them, reporting the abuse is a validating experience which allows them to move on with their lives."

But using the legal system to validate your feelings is a dangerous game. Ann Galloway, a consultant clinical psychologist who specialises in working with survivors of sexual abuse, says that reporting past abuse before beginning to resolve its emotional impact could further complicate emotional difficulties. "Many people who have been abused are already very traumatised: they may suffer from a variety of problems such as depression, and they can have difficulty forming adult relationships. If they're going to report their abuser, its essential that the timing is right.

"All people who've been abused need space to talk through the issues and resolve them. They need to know why they want to report the abuse. They don't have to talk to a therapist - they could discuss the issues with a friend, their GP or even the Samaritans."

Peter Saunders rang ChildLine at the age of 39 because he felt he had nowhere else to turn. "I felt stupid, but I was desperate. They tried to help, but in the end they couldn't point me anywhere." He is convinced that his own experience would have been less painful had he been able to contact a specialist organisation for support and so he is now chairman of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), a fledgling charity established with the help of the NSPCC which hopes to launch officially later this year and plans a telephone helpline.

Peter is "95 per cent comfortable" with his decision to report his abuse. "I still feel discomfort that it rocked my family - some members didn't speak to me for a couple of years - but I know I had a moral obligation to do what I did because other young children were in danger."

Still he wouldn't put pressure on other victims of abuse to do the same. "You can't put that responsibility on to survivors' shoulders: it's down to individual choice. I fully understand the pressures people who report are under and the reasons why they back down. But I really believe everyone who speaks out sends a message to abusers that they can't get away with it."

Diane Williams agrees. "Alan Guthery may not have gone to prison, but because of the publicity everyone knows he's a paedophile. What's more, every other paedophile in the country now has to realise that they'll never be safe: the law can get them after 20, 40 or even 50 years.

"I'd encourage anyone who has been abused to speak out. Picking up the phone is the hardest thing you'll ever have to do, but it puts you back in control of your life. Before you speak out you're part of the problem, but once you've opened your mouth you're part of the solution. I'm a new person now. I didn't realise I'd only been half a person for the last 45 years. I'm not a victim anymore."

You can write in confidence to NAPAC c/o 42 Curtain Road, London, EC2A 3NH.

The Samaritans Helpline (tel: 0345 909090).