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Here, then, is the message we heard from him [Christ] and announce to you: that God is light; and in him there is no darkness . . . if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another . . . (1 John 1:5-7).In our 1992 statement When I Call for Help, we spoke out to condemn domestic violence against women and stated unequivocally that neither the Scriptures nor the Church condoned abusive situations. Now we speak out against another kind of violence: child sexual abuse, particularly in a home or family setting.
Sexual abuse occurs in all racial and cultural groups; in rural,
suburban, and urban areas; and at all socioeconomic and educational
levels. Authorities believe that many cases go unreported because they
involve family or friends.
Reported victims of sexual abuse are most often children of school age. However, evidence indicates that sexual abuse may begin at an even younger age. At least one major treatment center reported in 1993 that 25 percent of its patients are five years old or younger.6
Sexual abuse usually takes place in secret and is kept secret because the abuser fears discovery. Sexual abuse is often more difficult for a child to acknowledge than physical or emotional abuse, and the sexually abused child may feel more isolated. Children often blame themselves for the abuse; therefore, it is important to reassure the child that he or she is not responsible. The adult, not the child, is responsible for violating the boundaries that the child could not maintain alone.
Abusers come from all walks of life, all economic backgrounds, and all
ethnic groups. Men commit 90 percent of sexual abuse, and 70 to 90
percent is committed by persons the child knows. Family members make up
one-third to one-half of the perpetrators against girls and 10 percent
to 20 percent of the perpetrators against boys.7
It is impossible to reliably identify potential sex abusers. Various studies indicate that they may be more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; may have been abused as children or have witnessed abuse; have low self-esteem; consider a sexual relationship with a child easier and less threatening than with an adult; maintain rigid expectations of roles within the family, and view anyone outside the family with suspicion; rationalize their actions; and do not consider their abuse to be morally offensive. Some sex abusers, however, display none of these characteristics, while others display only a few. Others may display many characteristics and never even contemplate abuse of children.8
The process of abuse is complex and varied. Typically it unfolds over
time. In preadolescent and younger children it often begins as a
"special" game between the child and the abuser, something no one else
is "privileged" to share. Most often the sex abuser is in a position of
authority over the child, someone the child loves and trusts.
At the outset, abusers may try to explain their actions. They may tell a preadolescent youth curious about sex, "This is your sex education." When a child is upset, the abuser may say, "This will help you feel better." Children do not understand what is happening and often go along willingly, especially at first.
When fondling progresses to more intimate sexual encounters, abusers often tell the child, "This is our secret, just between you and me." Sometimes there is a threat of punishment or injury to others if the child tells anyone. Then, when feelings of shame and guilt surface, children are isolated. They are too terrified to seek help. Revealing a "family secret" to the outside world is unthinkable.
Sexual abuse may be indicated by certain physical and behavioral signs
as well as by indirect comments made by the child. There are several
clues to look for when one suspects the possibility of child sexual
abuse. Physical signs include irritation, pain or injury to the genital
area, and genital or urinary infection. A child may withdraw or show a
sudden, unexplained change in behavior. Other signs may be nervous,
aggressive, hostile, or disruptive behavior toward adults, especially
parents. A child may manifest eating or sleep disturbances, including
nightmares or insomnia. One should also be alert to knowledge or actions
of a sexual nature that are not age-appropriate. One sign alone may not
be a positive indication, since any of these signs can point to other
conditions as well. However, if a number of signs are present, the
possibility of sexual abuse should be considered and appropriate action
taken, including seeking medical evaluation.
The degree of harm a child experiences as a result of sexual abuse
depends upon various factors, including the nature of the act, the age
of the child, and the child's general environment.9 Sexual
abuse may result in physical harm such as cuts, disfigurement, and
deformity. Mental harm may include a poor self-image; pervasive feelings
of guilt; feelings of isolation that lead to social withdrawal;
inability to trust or to maintain friendships; inappropriate sexual
behavior; inability to relate sexually with spouses; and symptoms of
posttraumatic stress syndrome, such as flashbacks, addiction to alcohol
or drugs, and depression. As one expert notes, "While child sexual abuse
may not always lead to permanent injury, one should assume that all
sexual abuse experiences are potentially harmful."10 We know, too, that the cycle of abuse, unless broken, may continue in succeeding generations.
We are concerned about the effects of sexual abuse on the overall
development of abused children and adult survivors; as pastors, we are
particularly concerned about spiritual development and religious
practice. Children, for instance, usually base their image of God—who
God is and how God acts—on the adults they meet in their families and
parishes. When the person who abuses them sexually is also their parent
or another trusted adult, children may find it difficult to imagine,
much less develop, a relationship with a loving God. This difficulty may
be intensified if the abuser is perceived as active in the Church.
Children may feel angry at God and act with hostility toward those who
are God's ministers. Some may be terrified of God, because of distorted
images of God embedded in their early experiences. Many are unable to
pray, and they reject their religious faith.
Survivors of sexual abuse may find that feelings of rage, betrayal, and guilt make spiritual growth difficult. Survivors may find themselves prone to self-hate and self-destructiveness. Since they do not love themselves, they cannot believe that anyone else, including God, can love them. They may ask angrily: "Where was God in all this? Why didn't God help me?"
Scripture reminds us that Jesus extends his healing power in the most
desperate circumstances. Recall, for example, the story of Jairus's
daughter, whom Jesus restored to life (Lk 8:41-56).
In that seemingly hopeless situation, Jesus reached out to the girl, enkindled that spark of life, and returned her to the community. His solicitude was very human. Give her something to eat, he told the onlookers, when she began to walk about the room.
Survivors of sexual abuse call out for healing. They long to be free from the heavy burden carried within them. Abusers, too, seek healing, after they come to acknowledge and grieve the terrible pain they have inflicted.
Today, Jesus continues to restore the human spirit through the prayer
and sacramental life of the Church. The eucharist, a sign of God's love
for us, is a celebration of ongoing healing and reconciliation. Many
people have received peace and strength from healing services or from
praying with a group for "healing of memories." In addition, the
sacrament of reconciliation provides an opportunity to turn people and
past events over to God, realizing that his love can bring good out of
evil. As the Letter to the Romans assures us, "We know that all things
work for good for those who love God" (8:28).
As part of the healing process, we realize that forgiveness is one of the biggest issues that survivors struggle with. Forgiveness is rarely easy, but for survivors of sexual abuse it can seem impossible.
Forgiveness is both a gift and a process—a gift from God and a process that involves the work of human minds and hearts. The process, often a long one, begins with a survivor acknowledging the abuse, dealing with feelings that may have been long suppressed, and developing a positive self-identity. We caution against rushing the process. We cannot push the survivor to forgive just because we, the Christian community, feel uncomfortable dealing with the issue. Rather, we need to stand with the survivor, to show the same gentle, loving, patient concern that Jesus showed to those who were hurting.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, nor does forgiveness consist in excusing the abuse or in absolving the abuser, which only God can do. We again stress that the abuse is not the survivor's fault, but we realize that some survivors struggle with having done things that were perhaps painful and destructive but which were a means of coping with the abuse. We encourage survivors to be gentle with themselves in letting go of inappropriate self-blame for the abuse.
In regard to abusers, we must remember that justice plays a role in the
forgiveness process. Imitating Christ, the Christian community reaches
out to the abuser while clearly holding him or her accountable. Some in
the Christian community may believe that, in releasing the abuser from
his or her suffering, they are being charitable and Christlike. In order
to be healed, however, the abuser must recognize the harm done. We
emphasize that the community, including the family, needs to call the
abuser to accountability. We need to say: "Abusive behavior is wrong and
we hold you accountable for it. We will stand by you as you suffer the
consequences of your behavior, but we expect you to acknowledge the harm
done and to ask for forgiveness."
In the Gospels we see that Jesus healed in different ways. He offered
physical healing as well as a deeper, spiritual healing. His words,
spoken in truth and love, also brought healing, even when they made his
listeners uncomfortable. He responded to those who sought healing for
themselves, as well as those who interceded for others.
Like Jesus, the Church reaches out to offer healing and reconciliation to people who seem to be without hope. Desiring to restore wholeness to the victims/survivors of sexual abuse and to their families, and wanting to break the cycle of abuse, we seek to:
"As I walked the dirt roads of Calvary . . . I knew that Jesus, like me, experienced all of the same brutal pain I was experiencing. I knew this Jesus the church elevated during the Eucharist was indeed a human Jesus . . . and in the midst of the assembly I experienced his healing and compassionate love."11
In this statement we have spoken out against the tragedy of child
sexual abuse. We have described this abuse and its effects on children
and adults. Our statement has emphasized the need for healing and
forgiveness, as well as the need to hold the abuser accountable, and has
offered some practical suggestions for dealing with sexual abuse. In
offering this statement we acknowledge our moral responsibility to put
children first, to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.
We know that sexual abuse raises many more issues—moral, legal, psychological, and others—that are not discussed here. They need to be addressed with understanding, compassion, and justice. We hope that communities of faith, accepting their moral obligation to children, will formulate their own responses. We would like to hear from them to learn how they are dealing with survivors, abusers, their families, and their friends.* Working together and trusting in the Spirit's wisdom and guidance, we can confront the evil of child sexual abuse, break through the darkness, and walk in the light.
*Contact the Committee on Women in Society and in the Church and the Committee on Marriage and Family, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194.
Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence,
936 North 34th St., Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98103 (206-634-1903). The
Center has many resources available, including curricula on child sexual
abuse prevention and videos on child abuse. See in particular: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse, Ages 9-12 and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse, Ages 5-8, two curricula designed for use by religious educators; and Sexual Abuse Prevention: A Study for Teenagers. Suggested videos include Hear Their Cries: Religious Responses to Child Abuse and Bless Our Children: Preventing Sexual Abuse.
National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, 332 South Michigan Ave., Suite 1250, Chicago, IL 60604 (312-663-3520).
Ad Hoc Committee on Clergy Sexual Abuse, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-1194. The Committee has pulled together important resources, including diocesan policies on child sexual abuse, treatment centers, and reports by experts in the field.
A suggested Prayer Service for Healing and Reconciliation, which may be adapted to local needs, is available from the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194 (202-541-3040).
On a related topic:
When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence against Women (U.S. Bishops' Committee on Women in Society and in the Church and the Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family). This pamphlet provides information and concrete suggestions for women who are abused, their abusers, and parishes and dioceses which seek to address the problem. Available in English and Spanish from the USCC Office for Publishing Services (1-800-235-8722).
When You Preach . . . Remember Me (Bishops' Committee on Women in Society and in the Church). This 12-minute, discussion-starter video shows how preaching can help break the cycle of domestic violence. It features experts in the field of domestic violence, priests who have preached about it, and women who have experienced it. Available from USCC Office for Publishing Services (1-800-234-8722).
Broken Vows: Religious Perspectives on Domestic Violence is an award-winning video featuring the stories of six formerly battered women. Available from the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence (206-634-1903).
Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse is a collaborative statement of the NCCB Committee on Women in Society and in the Church and the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family. It was prepared in the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth under the supervision of the above committees. Publication was approved by the Administrative Committee in September 1995. The statement is further authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Monsignor Dennis M. Schnurr, General Secretary, NCCB/USCC
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible © 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Copyright © 1995, United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
To order Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse in its official published format, contact the USCC Office for Publishing and Promotion Services, 800-235-8722 (in the Washington metropolitan area or from outside the United States, 202-722-8716). English: No. 5-000; Spanish: No. 5-001. 16-page brochure.
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