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Page 1

Toward
Transformative Justice

A Liberatory Approach to
Child Sexual Abuse and other forms of

Intimate and Community Violence

A Call to Action for the Left and the
Sexual and Domestic Violence Sectors

June 2007

Page 43

survivors, as it can be for those who are sexually
abusive, for bystanders, and for the social
networks to which they all belong.

When done in ways that are culturally
insensitive, particularly by people outside of the
community, disclosing child sexual abuse can
reinforce silence, create greater unsafety, prevent
the possibility of transformation, and, at worst,
reinforce the conditions that allow it to occur. An
important aspect of the Transformative Justice
approach to child sexual abuse is to address
these barriers to naming by creating an
environment in which people are more willing
and able to disclose. Identifying people and
supporting them to speak about their own and
other’s experiences in a way that is culturally
relevant can reduce isolation and respect safety.
This can in turn promote a broader and more
open conversation about definitions of and
responses to child sexual abuse.

This involves creating spaces and
encouragement for child victims, adult survivors
and people who are currently sexually abusing
children to disclose their past and present
experiences of child sexual abuse. Disclosure by
people who abuse is a form of accountability that
will only happen if backlash (in the form of
punishment or hostility) is not the first and only
response. This disclosure can also be the start of
a healing process that can contribute toward
prevention of child sexual abuse. Disclosure can
begin a process of healing for victims and
survivors by breaking not only the personal but
also the social silence about their experience. It
is also vital to create spaces and encouragement
for those people who feel they might sexually
abuse children in the future to be able to share
their concerns about potential acts of child
sexual abuse. This is an important part of building
a broader sense and practice of accountability.

For those who have experienced child sexual
abuse, naming those experiences often leads to
further trauma through denial, blame, family
break-up, isolation, and so on. It is important that
such naming begins the process of healing by
breaking not only the personal but also the social
silence about the abuse. The Collective should
take the opportunity provided by these

expressions of concerns and disclosures of
experience to talk about the conditions that
allow child sexual abuse to happen. Naming child
sexual abuse is also about making these
conditions visible. This practice can be
transformative in the way that it broadens the
discussion of who/what is responsible for child
sexual abuse and who/what should be held
accountable. In this way, the longer-term goal of
prevention does not get lost. At the same time, it
is helpful to link expressions of concern and/or
the naming of experience to processes for
assessing these concerns and experiences in
terms of how best to respond.

In addition, bystanders need to be encouraged
to name their concerns about actual or potential
acts of child sexual abuse. Bystanders can play a
role in identifying abusive dynamics and
relationships, without reaffirming oppressive
stereotypes and attitudes. In educating bystanders
about their role in naming child sexual abuse, it is
essential to emphasize that abusive behavior,
rather than the person doing the behavior, is the
focus of concern. Care must be taken not to
demonize the person suspected of sexual abuse.
It is also helpful to look at signs and identification
markers of abuse, framing these not as deviant
but as indicative of other kinds of domination,
control, violence and violation expressed across
any given community or society. Again, the
emphasis must always be to remind people of the
frequency of child sexual abuse and the
conditions of oppression that produce specific
acts. Acknowledging child sexual abuse as
common diffuses some of the stigma that keeps
people from speaking about it.

Increasing people’s acceptance of and reducing
the taboos against bystanders naming a concern
about child sexual abuse is also a form of capacity
building. This includes being able to speak about
the dynamics between any given child or children
and any given adult(s) and/or the behavior of
either that might indicate sexual abuse or other
kinds of abuse, violence or exploitation. This
becomes easier when there are more incentives.
Incentives might be options outside of State
targeting and intervention, resources to support

Section 3: Developing Transformative Justice Practices

37

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the impact of disclosure, mechanisms for safety,
accountability and healing, etc.

Managing the risks of disclosure
When encouraging disclosure, it is essential to

prioritize the safety of child victims in ways that
prevent exposure to further abuse while helping
victims start to heal. This will involve paying
attention to the importance of maintaining
relationships of trust with safe adults in the child’s
life as well as to managing the relationship
between the survivor(s) and the person or
people that sexually abused them. This also means
putting in place protections from backlash.
Survivors, those who are sexually abusive and
those who are in relationship with either or
both, may likely face such backlash during any
process of identifying child sexual abuse.
Preventing backlash involves creating a thoughtful
process for public naming and disclosure, which
include considering issues of confidentiality.

Relationship to public systems
Negotiating the potential relationship to

public systems is a critical aspect of the
Collective’s work on naming child sexual abuse.
It is helpful to be clear about the choices facing
the Collective and have criteria for determining
which choices to make in which situation, namely:

� Using a Transformative Justice approach –
making this choice involves being clear about
the possibilities and risks and planning for po-
tential State responses, as well as being pre-
pared to make a different choice given new
information or a changing situation.

� Leveraging the public system as a mechanism
of coercion for someone who is unaccount-
able for their sexually abusive behavior – mak-
ing this choice involves developing criteria for
when to use the threat as well as when to act
upon it.

� Engaging the system – making this choice in-
volves making a plan to deal with what that
entails, including a commitment towards con-
tinuing to work outside of the system towards
healing, transformation and accountability
while addressing the conditions that allow for
child sexual abuse.

Confronting these choices and discussing
them openly is a moment of politicization; it
creates space for people to say, “I am going to do

it differently and not use the system.” If this is
the choice, then it may involve taking the
collective decision to engage in what may be civil
disobedience by not fulfilling mandated reporting
requirements. This requires preparation in the
form of political, legal, and media support in case
of targeting.

When taking this decision, it is important to
be clear about politics, vision and hope while
letting people know they have a choice. The
different paths and risks that are opened up by
engaging or not engaging with the State system
need to be explained and assessed. It is also
necessary to assess the different consequences
for different communities, families, situations and
the level of concern about immediate harm. The
Collective should discuss the consequences of
reporting and not reporting and frame this in
terms of preparedness for dealing with either set
of consequences. Many times people will see the
system as a last resort when community-based
justice approaches are not successful in moving
people from collusion to response. However,
people should also be prepared for collusion with
violence by the State. Examples of this are the
numerous cases of child sexual abuse against the
Catholic Church that went to the State but could
not be submitted as evidence due to statutory
limits. In these cases, survivors were pressured
to settle out of court.

Defining child sexual abuse
The process of naming can open a

conversation about defining what child sexual
abuse is to that community. In opening up this
conversation, it is important for the Collective to
balance cultural and community relevance with
clear lines about which behaviors are abusive and
not acceptable. This is not an either/or but finding
a process within the cultural context that names
and confronts collusion with abusive behavior.
Creating a collective definition of child sexual
abuse can itself be a transformative process.
Coming together to collectively define child
sexual abuse creates the opportunity to challenge
and transform harmful norms. This is because
defining child sexual abuse requires an
exploration of shared understandings of
sexuality, abuse, age of consent, and notions of

Section 3: Developing Transformative Justice Practices

38

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