For some women, it’s an early morning knock at the door from police that brings the life-altering news. For others, it’s an accidental and horrifying discovery on their husband’s computer.
Every year in Australia, thousands of people (mostly men) are arrested on charges relating to child sex abuse or online child abuse material.
But for every man who is arrested, there is likely to be an unsuspecting partner or family whose life is thrown into turmoil by his crime. “There’s a misconception that the partner must have known,” says the Peer Support Manager at PartnerSPEAK, a non-government organisation that supports the partners and families of people who have accessed child exploitation material or offended against children sexually.
“I suppose most people think: that wouldn’t happen to us, we would see the signs, we wouldn’t be stupid enough to fall in love with someone who engages in something like online sexual exploitation of children.”
In her experience, most partners aren’t aware of their husband’s behaviour, but sometimes looking back they can piece together a patchwork of clues.
In fact, the prevalence of child abuse offences is underestimated by many people.
Last month, a landmark study found that one in six Australian men harbours sexual feelings for children under 18, and that 30 per cent of them want help. It also found that men who commit such offences are more likely to be married.
We spoke to three women whose partners have been convicted of child sex crimes. This story was carried out with the assistance of PartnerSPEAK, which is the only organisation of its kind in Australia. Despite only receiving funding in Victoria, it supports hundreds of non-offending partners every year, nationwide.
“I discovered my husband was a child sex offender. I stayed with him”
When her husband confessed that he had been filming children, Sarah*, a mother of four, chose to stay and support him
It was the last night of our holiday when I found out. It was late at night. The kids had gone to bed and my husband and I were talking when he just started crying. He said there was something he needed to tell me.
He explained that he had filmed children while they were changing at our house. Our old house had a swimming pool, and when we’d invited friends over for a swim, he would set up his phone to record them while they were changing.
It had happened a handful of times, and he’d always deleted the videos – and the app – afterwards. Each time, he told himself he’d never to do it again. But each time he did. It hadn’t happened for a while, but lately, he’d become more worried about his thoughts. He was concerned he would put our kids or other kids in danger if he didn’t say something.
When he finished telling me, I could see he was terrified. He had no idea how I would react.
I went into shock. It felt as though my life was blowing up in my face. We’d been together for nine years and had four children. The youngest was a baby.
I went into shock. It felt as though my life was blowing up in my face.
We’d met through friends, at a regular church get-together. We just clicked. We had a solid friendship that progressed into a relationship. He is warm, open, welcoming – not the sort of person anyone would be scared or suspicious of.
That night, we talked into the wee hours. I asked him lots of questions: had he ever touched a child? Did the children he’d filmed know? He said no, and I was satisfied he was telling the truth. He was an absolute mess, and as well as trying to gauge the scope of the situation I was also trying to gauge whether he was suicidal.
We had to check out the next day, so as well as grappling with his revelation I was also very focused on the practicalities. I needed to get sleep. I had to get us home.
He cried the whole next day. He couldn’t even look at me. He couldn’t look at the kids. I had never seen him like that.
We decided that it was best that he owned up. At the time he was working for a church, and so he told his employer, knowing that that would trigger mandatory reporting protocols and they would report him to police. When he voluntarily confessed to police, they charged him then and there with filming a person’s private parts.
A week later, at 8am on a Saturday morning, the police raided our house. We knew it was going to happen, but it was still shocking. I had just made pancakes and the kids were eating breakfast. It felt as though there were dozens of police – they were everywhere. They searched the house, and once they realised nothing was hidden, they all sat around our dining table and plugged their equipment into every device we owned.
A week later, at 8am on a Saturday morning, the police raided our house.
At one point a female officer pulled me aside and told me my husband was going to jail for 20 years. She asked why I was still with him. Another told my husband he was a horrible person. Afterwards, they asked me to follow them outside and told me they would be reporting me to Child Protective Services because they had concerns about me. I felt quite traumatised. I thought I would lose the kids.
It’s been nearly a year since that morning and my husband has been convicted. He is now on a two-year community corrections order, which means that the local corrections branch check in on him.
He’s also on the Child Protection offender registry for 15 years, which makes it hard for him to get a job; he was recently turned down by a supermarket.
We are still together. In those first few weeks, I had to make a decision every day: am I staying or leaving today? I knew that being a single mum with four little kids would not be easy and that the kids would really, really miss him. I also knew how much he wanted help, and, as much as possible, I wanted to be there for him. My religious beliefs haven’t been a factor. I’m not against divorce, but I’ve tried to make a ‘head’ decision rather than a ‘heart’ decision.
In those first few weeks, I had to make a decision every day: am I staying or leaving today?
I read a lot of journal articles and it seemed to me that if people are willing to go through therapy and have a supportive network they could be really successful in never reoffending.
Last year, my husband has completed a six-month SafeCare course, which is aimed at men who have abused or are at risk of abusing. The program looked at childhood issues, relapse prevention strategies and offered empathy training, where he had to write an apology letter to their victims.
Having gone through therapy, he has realised that he experienced abuse as a child but never processed it. The person involved doesn’t remember it happening. However, his parents, looking back, say that he was a really happy toddler until he was four or five when he became really angry. His mum blames herself for what has happened, even though we’ve told her it’s not her fault.
His mum blames herself for what has happened, even though we’ve told her it’s not her fault.
We now enforce privacy rules in our house and the kids shower and dress behind closed doors. We have had lots of conversations about what has happened, and we’re trying to teach our kids that you don’t have to hide your emotions.
We have lost some friends. I have proactively asked friends what would make them feel safe, and for some it means the kids going to their house instead of coming to ours. And I get that.
I still love him, but it’s different. I no longer have that “you’re my world” feeling. But I respect him for standing up and doing what he did. I know there must be people who think I’m absolutely stupid, and that I’m endangering my children, and I’m aware that hearing my story will be triggering for people who have been abused because all they can think of is their own abuse.
But I trust my own judgement and I know what to look for now: him staying up late on the computer or seeming withdrawn. Honestly, walk a mile in my shoes. This whole experience has taught me that we make so many judgments about people without knowing their situation. Our relationship has a lot of honesty now. I know his deepest, darkest secret. How many people can say that about their partners?
“I kept hoping I was overreacting”
It was Linda* who discovered her husband’s stash of child porn and called the police.
I met my husband when I was 22. He was a little bit quirky – not like the “bad-boy” types I typically dated. He was attentive and intelligent, and still lived at home with his parents. He was an IT contractor and I loved that he wasn’t interested in sports.
Our relationship was a whirlwind. Within five weeks of meeting, I’d moved cities to be closer to him and within six months I’d fallen pregnant, even though I was on the Pill.
For a while, everything chugged along nicely. I was a stay-at-home mum to our two daughters, and then went back to uni. But once life settled down and I was in a job I was happy with, I started to realise the relationship felt ‘off’.
It was just little things; more ‘pink flags’ than ‘red flags’. He would speak in his native language to his parents in front of us, and when I asked him not to, he ignored me.
It was just little things; more ‘pink flags’ than ‘red flags’.
In retrospect, he was also quite controlling. We always did things with his family, never mine. When I was at home with the kids, he told me that if I wanted to spend more than $100 I had to call him first. He subtly discouraged me from maintaining friendships.
We’d never had much of a sex life, but after a while we even stopped going out together – even to celebrate our anniversary.
So, I made an appointment with a lawyer to talk about leaving. About a week beforehand I realised I needed documents from my husband’s computer and that’s when I found the folders. Each one was labelled with a different girl’s name and each folder contained photos of a different girl. Their ages ranged from three or four through to adults, and they were often posed in a singlet and underwear.
I ran to the toilet and vomited. I was in shock. They were clearly sexualised images.
I ran to the toilet and vomited. I was in shock.
It took me a couple of days to get my head around it. The next day I rang my sister and showed her the photos on FaceTime. I needed to know that what I was seeing was real… because it didn’t feel real. She took one look, and said ‘Holy crap’.
I knew I needed to call the police – that wasn’t a debate whatsoever. But I didn’t want to destroy my kids’ lives. I didn’t want him to be arrested in front of them.
I called the police and they came on a Tuesday morning once the kids had gone to school and my husband had gone to work. They looked at the first photo and I remember they stepped back, looked at each other and said they needed to get a search warrant and would be straight back.
Up until that point, I’d still been hoping that it wasn’t what I thought. I knew the pictures weren’t savoury and I knew they made me uncomfortable but maybe I was overreacting? Maybe the photos were right on the edge of the law? But when they said they were getting a search warrant I knew.
We had a lot of computer equipment, and they ended up finding hundreds of thousands of images. They arrested him at work later that afternoon and about 5pm the police called and said he wanted to speak to me. I said no. I could hear him crying in the background. The police officer told me my husband wanted me to know he was sorry and that he loved me. When I got off the phone I was shaking.
When I got off the phone I was shaking.
He was released on bail to his parents. When I told my younger daughter he had been arrested, I didn’t explain why. She packed a bag of overnight clothes for him and put a little note in saying how much she loved him.
Weeks later, the detective called me to explain that my husband hadn’t just been looking at images of children, he had been making images too. He was arrested a second time, and charged with indecent assault and using a child to make child abuse material. This time he was incarcerated.
My main priority has always been my daughters. My younger daughter wasn’t abused by him, but my older daughter is on the spectrum and went through a period where she didn’t speak to anyone. Her behavioural changes were in line with somebody who had been sexually assaulted. However, if she was abused she has blocked it out.
From the day he went to jail, I haven’t spoken a word to him.
Even three years later, it doesn’t feel real, as though this all happened to someone else. My husband was the typical guy next door, the nice guy, the great colleague…The type of person who would do anything for his mates. If anyone needed help with their computer he’d offer to go around and help.
My husband was the typical guy next door, the nice guy, the great colleague…
And he seemed like the perfect attentive father. He would always offer to take the girls and their friends places. I worked shiftwork and he would always feign concern, saying I’d had a hard day at work and he would look after them. Now I know it was to access their friends.
My daughters and I have all received therapy. My elder daughter went through a period where she blamed me for everything that had happened, but now understands that he was manipulating me.
If I could offer any piece of advice, it would be to trust your intuition. If something seems off it probably is.
“There’s a misconception that wives always know”
Rachel, a trainee psychologist and mother of two, was shocked when she discovered that her husband had been viewing child abuse material.
Five days before my husband was arrested, I found out he’d been cheating on me.
I’d been feeling suspicious for a few years, but despite being a strong, resilient woman, he totally gaslit me. Then one day while he was in the shower, I asked to use his phone – and he completely overreacted. He kept questioning why I needed it and why I couldn’t wait until he was out of the shower. He made the whole thing bigger than Ben Hur.
I knew something wasn’t right. So, I demanded that he show me his phone and let me go through it – and the look on his face was pure guilt. It turned out he had been cheating on me, on and off, for our whole 15-year relationship.
I spent the next few days staying with relatives. During that time I was running on adrenaline, I was constantly shaking. I couldn’t even read a sentence.
Then, one morning, I woke to a voice message. The person on the other end of the phone line introduced themselves as being from the child exploitation unit from the Australian Federal Police. As soon as they said that, I knew it had to have something to do with children. But I was horrified to discover he was being questioned about child abuse material. I just collapsed. They told me they were at our house and were interviewing my husband and needed someone to be at home with my daughter. (My son was at school camp.)
I drove back to our house on autopilot. It turned out that the police had found him through a spiderweb of other perpetrators. He had gone into chat rooms and had looked at images of babies, toddlers and teenagers. They found about 700 images.
The police had found him through a spiderweb of other perpetrators.
He was arrested that day and he is currently in prison.
I was supportive of him for a long time. As a mother, I needed to protect my kids but as someone who believes in psychotherapy, I also thought: we can get him help.
But shortly before he was sentenced, he breached bail by going back on the apps, and I snapped. I told him he wouldn’t see or speak to the kids until they’re adults.
Since then, I’ve realised the children need some sort of contact with him. So, once a month we sit down and write an email to him together. As a result, they know he has access to a pool, and has made some friends. As much as I hate hearing how good the prison conditions are, it’s been good for them to know that their Dad, who they love, is ok. I’m just trying to take it day by day and go with what feels right in the moment.
I’ve realised the children need some sort of contact with him.
We are divorced now but I feel an ongoing sense of grief. There’s continual disorganisation being thrown into your life. I’m constantly weighing up what’s best for the children. The other day my daughter told me she wished her dad would come back. Her older brother tried to explain that although we still love him, we don’t need him. He’s just 11 and he has such high emotional intelligence for his age. But she said she’ll always love him – he’s her dad.
The kids are going through different life stages. It’s my son’s graduation soon, and he does wish his dad was there.
I know we have come out of this stronger. We’re not people who are easily fooled. There’s a misconception that wives always know. But I had absolutely zero suspicions – and I’m studying psychology.
Men who do this are experts at deception. I really think it could happen to anyone.
If you would like to learn more about the signs of child abuse and how to keep young people safe, visit Childsafety.gov.au or visit the eSafety Commissioner for online safety tips for parents and children.
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