Telling the world about a history of sexual abuse is never an easy thing for anyone. Victims are rightly afraid of being judged; of being stigmatised; of having the totality of their existence reduced to the worst experience of their lives. For a child the question often is: “who is going to believe me?” and for the adult, it becomes, “who is going to love me? How will they see me?” And so victims are forced to seek refuge in the only place they think they can find it – a loud, lethal silence.
For one young survivor, however, this fear of judgement was in time replaced with a deep desire for justice. Matthew McVarish, former child-star now turned activist and advocate, says that speaking out about his abuse 12 years after the fact was mostly about one thing: justice. “Injustice makes me angry”, says Matthew, emphatically.
Though he does admit that in the initial stages anger had something to do with it. In his words,
“you’re first fuelled by rage, but then you have to find a different motivation. For me it was compassion”.
By compassion he means a desire to protect future victims, because justice in this regard
“…is not about revenge or compensation; it is about child protection.”
Matthew is a fair-minded, selfless and intuitive 33-year-old from Scotland who, along with his three older brothers, was a victim of child sexual abuse. Their uncle and Godfather sexually violated each of the four boys for much of their childhoods. And the experience, as expected, had devastating consequences for them all. Although each dealt with the trauma differently, the one thing they shared was a dangerous silence.
For over a decade they did not talk about the abuse, not even among themselves, but by 2008 each was battling severe depression, with Matthew’s brothers sometimes requiring medication. And yet their offender uncle was still working as a respectable schoolteacher, with continued access to potential victims. At this point Matthew, being the most emotionally stable in the group thanks to years of therapy (which was done in secret), decided it was time to initiate action.
He wanted his brothers to end their silence as a way to promote recovery because, as Matthew says,
“not speaking was like an emotional cancer…you don’t begin to heal until you disclose.”
More importantly, he says,
“I knew our silence was dangerous. By saying nothing we were allowing him to continue.”
And so Matthew decided he needed a way to begin the conversation. He did this by writing a play.
The play, inspired by their (he and his brothers) experiences, was about estranged twin brothers who were sexually abused by their uncle. Matthew’s hope was that the play would stimulate the necessary conversation and, eventually, action. And so it did. Within months, Matthew and his brothers all made statements to the police and their uncle was arrested, charged, prosecuted and sentenced for his decades-old crimes.
Recognising how useful the play was for his family, Matthew began wondering if it could help other victims as well. The play was taken to the United States and at every performance, Matthew says, attendees disclosed sexual abuse histories, with most speaking out for the first time. This served to further encourage Matthew to share the story with as many more people as possible.
They adapted the play for film, making a DVD version with all four brothers participating in the production. He describes the experience of making the movie as “cathartic” for his family, and the film was screened at universities across the US, sparking as much conversation as the play had. At this point, Matthew says, he “decided he wanted to show the film everywhere.”
This desire to screen the movie as widely as possible led to the creation of the “Road to Change”, an award-winning project that involved Matthew walking 10,000 miles across EU capitals in an effort to end the silence around child sexual abuse. The goal was to raise awareness about the issue on a “spectacular scale”, although a parallel objective was to begin a global political movement focused on instituting “specific social and legislative reforms.”
Matthew wanted to influence lawmakers to change the rules around the statute of limitations, a law that gives victims of abuse a limited time period to report their abuser and seek justice. “Perpetrators can’t be stopped because of an out-dated law”, Matthew says, and “chances of disclosure in childhood are low”. The result is that “when victims are ready to come forward, the time limit has expired.”
In response to the question of why it takes victims so long to report abuse, Matthew says that it is due to a “violation at the most vulnerable time” that is “hard to come to terms with.” Speaking for himself, he says,
“…It took 12 years because the crime was so horrific.”
He believes recovery begins with a thorough processing of thoughts and feelings and victims need conducive environments for this to occur.
Matthew also wants societies to “de-stigmatize healing” and for us to “reach a point in the future where you can speak about your abuse without having the room freeze.” He says he started seeing himself as a survivor when he began speaking out, through the play, and realised that he was becoming part of a global movement. He wants victims to understand, both intellectually and spiritually, that the abuse was “not their fault” and they are “not irreparably broken.”
He hopes the upcoming Global Survivors Forum organised by ECPAT International in partnership with the Council of Europe (CoE) will be a platform that contributes to a shift in public perception of survivors. Matthew would like to present his ideas to policy makers and to see a global movement in which child abuse and exploitation victims from around the world are able to unite and with one voice demand the creation and implementation of legislation that protects victims and prevents more children from becoming victimised.