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Sexual Abuse Helpline Saw 30% Spike After George Pell Was Found Guilty

The historic conviction of George Pell captivated the attention of the entire world. But for some people, it meant much more. 

Contacts to Australia's sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service surged by 30 percent in the days after Pell was reported to have been found guilty of sexually abusing two choirboys when he was Catholic archbishop of Melbourne.

Two weeks later, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

It was a particularly busy period for 1800RESPECT counsellor Clare*.

"People in Australia were calling us to say they had read about the verdict and they wanted to discuss their own experiences," she said.

"Or they were calling because they were worried about the impact of sexual assault on family or friends."

READ MORE: As A Survivor Of Sex Abuse By Clergy, Here's What Pell's Sentence Means To Me

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1800RESPECT is a vital support service for those impacted by sexual assault, domestic and family violence, and is responding to more calls for help than ever before.

The service was set up in 2010, when it received 20,000 calls in one year. Now it's receiving about 20,000 calls each month.

Last financial year, 98,466 contacts were made online or over the phone -- up 62 percent from the previous year.

Calls surged by 30 percent in the days after Pell's guilty verdict was reported. Image: Getty

Surges typically occur around high-profile cases reported by the media that can encourage survivors of abuse or assault to reach out.

“Media reporting around sexual assault can often prompt painful memories of peoples’ own experiences of abuse or that of a loved one, which is why we do see more people contacting 1800RESPECT in the days after high profile cases,” Clare said.

READ MORE: How Young Is Too Young To Teach Kids About Sexual Assault

READ MORE: #WhyIDidn'tReport: Sexual Assault Survivors Share Their Stories

Major sporting events, public holidays, Christmas and New Year are also spike periods.

Last October, the service prepared for an increased demand around the football finals, while its UK counterparts launched a campaign on the rise in domestic violence around England's game days during the World Cup.

An increased awareness of sexual assault, domestic and family violence through the #MeToo movement continues to drive more people to reach out.

“Significant community discussion has seen Australians reach out for support with the knowledge that they will be believed and listened to without being judged," Medibank CEO Craig Drummond said last August; Medibank in part runs the service.

“More people are talking to our counsellors and saying that this is the first time they’ve reached out for help – these people often say that they’re not really sure if what they’re experiencing is abuse."

Founder of #MeToo Tarana Burke marching in the Take Back The Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors March & Rally in November 2017. Photo: Getty.

With increased demand, the service welcomed the government's recent pledge for an additional $64 million over two years.

The funding, announced last month ahead of the Budget, is part of its $328 million domestic and family violence package and will go towards 575,000 calls or online counselling sessions.

But this remains a small proportion of those who choose to share their story.

According to a 2017 report by Australia's National Research Organisation For Women's Safety, nine out of 10 women who have been sexually assaulted do not report to the police.

*Names have been changed.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, dial 000. If you need help and advice, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, or Lifeline on 13 11 14. A range of domestic and family violence resources based around the country can be found here.

Need Support? Call the Blue Knot helpline on 1300 657 380 between 9 am and 5 pm Monday to Sunday AEST. You can also email helpline@blueknot.org.au

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au