One in six adults 'sexually abused as children'

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Medical Correspondent

One in six adults say they were sexually abused at some time in their childhood but more than half were too frightened or guilty to tell anyone, a new survey claims.

Around a third of the sample surveyed said they still found it difficult to talk about their childhood abuse experiences. The abuse ranged from full or attempted sexual intercourse or buggery (4 per cent of the sample) and indecent exposure (almost 10 per cent), to some form of physical contact.

Less than a third of those abused say they were able to stop the molestation by telling an adult or the police. Another 32 per cent said they were only able to stop the abuse by avoiding the perpetrator or leaving home.

The research - commissioned by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - suggested abuse was happening to an "unacceptable extent". The charity said it raised fundamental questions about the quality of support and protection given to youngsters.

However, John Bowis, the health minister, dismissed the findings as scaremongering. "Successful child protection needs to be sharply focused on children at risk, not clouded by emotion and headline-grabbing figures," he said. "By suggesting that abuse is this widespread there is a danger that attention could be diverted from serious child abuse cases."

He said that the survey was based on a wide definition of sexual interference, and the way it was researched and compiled was "unclear".

A total of 1,032 adults aged 18-45 took part, and 168 (16 per cent) claimed to have been abused sexually. Of the victims, 57 per cent were women and 43 per cent were men. One in three were allegedly molested before the age of 11.

The findings were published as the NSPCC launches its new agenda for change in dealing with and supporting those who have been abused. Words into Deeds calls for a commitment to children's rights by the Government; a review of the child protection system; and improvements in the way the judicial system handles cases involving children.