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Disclosure of non-recent (historic) childhood sexual abuse: What should researchers do?

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Sergio A. Silverio, Susan Bewley, Elsa Montgomery, Chelsey Roberts, Yana Richens, Fay Maxted, Jane Sandall, Jonathan Montgomery

Original languageEnglish
Article number21
JournalJournal of Medical Ethics
Early online date10 Nov 2020
Accepted/In press6 Oct 2020
E-pub ahead of print10 Nov 2020
Published1 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: We thank N. Tominaga, I. Kagawa, K. Hayashida, A. Miyazaki, T. Arakawa, H. Sano, Y. Kojima, T. Sakai, K. Sato, I. Yamanaka, K. Nomura, and H. Kanda for technical assistance and providing us with the materials. We also thank H. Bono, H. Goto, K. Kadota, M. Garibordi, and P. Carninci for helpful advice. This study has been supported by Research Grant for the RIKEN Genome Exploration Research Project from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of the Japanese Government to Y.H., and Special Coordination Funds for promoting Science and Technology from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of the Japanese Government to Y.O. This study has also been supported by CREST from Japan Science and Technology Corporation to M.O. Publisher Copyright: © Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2020. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ.


King's Authors


Non-recent (historic) childhood sexual abuse is an important issue to research, though often regarded as taboo and frequently met with caution, avoidance, or even opposition from research ethics committees. Sensitive research, such as that which asks victim-survivors to recount experiences of abuse or harm, has the propensity to be emotionally challenging for both the participant and the researcher. However, most research suggests that any distress experienced is usually momentary and not of any clinical significance. Moreover, this type of research offers a platform for voices which have often been silenced, and many participants report the cathartic effect of recounting their experiences in a safe, non-judgemental space. With regard to the course of such research, lines of inquiry which ask adult participants to discuss their experiences of childhood sexual abuse may result in a first-time disclosure of that abuse by the victim-survivor to the researcher. Guidance about how researchers should respond to first-time disclosure is lacking. In this article, we discuss our response to one research ethics committee which had suggested that for a qualitative study for which we were seeking ethical approval (investigating experiences of pregnancy and childbirth having previously survived childhood sexual abuse), any disclosure of non-recent (historic) childhood sexual abuse which had not been previously reported would result in the researcher being obliged to report it to relevant authorities. We assess this to be inconsistent with both law and professional guidance in the United Kingdom; and provide information and recommendations for researchers and research ethics committees to consider.

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