Sexual abuse of people with an intellectual disability – a perpetrator case study

Ms Gail Ritchie1, Professor Christine Bigby1, Professor Jacinta Douglas1

1La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The sexual abuse of people with an intellectual disability is a significant social issue. This is evidenced both in the limited scholarly literature and also by the Australian Government’s recent decision to hold a Royal Commission into abuse of people with a disability. Despite this, underlying causes of the sexual abuse remain unclear. Central to the issue is that perpetrators and their sexual abuse is not well understood.

The aim was to understand more about the characteristics of sexual abuse perpetrators within a care organisation. We conducted a case study using grounded theory combined with symbolic interactionism and critical theory to analyse data. The data included court reports and grey literature such as newspaper reports of allegations and convictions. The perpetrators’ convictions were for sexual abuse of children and young people with intellectual, behavioural and learning disabilities.

The perpetrators targeted the most vulnerable victims, at times together and demonstrated a lack of remorse for or acknowledgment of the abuse. They positioned themselves in leadership roles in the organisation where they had ready access to victims. Perpetrators moved between locations and countries adding to the complexity of redress proceedings. Characteristics of the abuse included associated violence, coercion and extended duration.

This research provided greater insight into the characteristics of perpetrators and the sexual abuse.  Propositions for future research were presented as were implications for staff recruitment, investigation of complaints and response to allegations.


Gail Ritchie has a background in public welfare in the disability field. This includes both in case management as well as service quality. Gail is currently completing a PhD at La Trobe University.

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