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Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse

 
A Statement by the Bishops' Committees on Women in Society and in the Church and Marriage and Family

 Part I: Introduction

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.

En Español

Child sexual abuse is the exploitation of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult. It may range from exhibitionism and fondling to intercourse and the use of children in pornographic materials.1 Child sexual abuse over the centuries has been cloaked in a conspiracy of silence because the abuse often occurs in the home and the victims are children. People tend to think that certain authority figures, such as parents, stepparents, teachers, or clergy, are above reproach; that "pillars of the community" could not abuse children. Abusive behavior often hides behind the masks of love and trust.

While the true incidence of child sexual abuse remains unknown, it is nonetheless significant.2 We state firmly and clearly that any act of child sexual abuse is morally evil. It is never justified.

Why Speak Now?

As the tragedy of child sexual abuse has come to light, we as pastors believe it is important to speak on this delicate and difficult issue, to offer a word of hope, and to help families touched by this tragedy. Priests and parish staff tell of sexually abused people approaching them with their experiences; many more may hesitate to come forth out of embarrassment and fear. Parish staff also tell of the tragedy that happens when family members become aware of sexual abuse but keep silent. We know, however, that when sexual abuse is acknowledged and dealt with, many people can and do move forward to form healthy relationships. We know, too, that some abusers can learn to change their behavior.

We are compelled to speak even knowing that the Church carries a heavy burden of responsibility in the area of sexual abuse. Some ordained ministers and religious brothers and sisters, as well as lay employees and volunteers, have sexually abused children and adolescents. We are acutely aware of the havoc and suffering caused by this abuse and we are committed to dealing with these situations responsibly and in all humility. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has established an ad hoc committee on sexual abuse by clergy to help church leaders take appropriate action. Each diocese has developed comprehensive policies concerning sexual abuse, which often apply to employees and volunteers, as well as to clergy and religious. We are fully committed to preventing child sexual abuse and to restoring victims to health.3

We speak, too, as citizens of a nation and a world that decries the exploitation of girls. While we recognize that sexual abuse of boys is significant—some studies estimate it at 20 to 25 percent of all child victims4—the overwhelming number of sexual abuse victims are girls. We are especially alarmed at the large number of victims who are girls under age 12.5 We join the United Nations, the International Catholic Child Bureau, and other groups in drawing attention to the vulnerability of girls throughout the world, including the United States of America.

To Whom Do We Speak?


  • To adults who were sexually abused as children
  • To young people who are, or have been, sexually abused, and to their families
  • To abusers and potential abusers who act out the impulse to sexually abuse those they are committed to love and protect
  • To priests, parish ministers, youth workers, women's commissions and councils, educators, and other church leaders who can assist those who abuse and are abused
  • To people of all faiths who are concerned about families in crisis
  • To all of society, which is coming to recognize the terrible toll of child sexual abuse and the need to take action against it
What We Hope to Do
We realize that emotional and spiritual healing can occur only when issues can be openly addressed. In this statement, we seek to bring the tragedy of child sexual abuse into the light, to give people needed information, and to offer the spiritual, sacramental, and social resources of the Church so that the healing process may begin. As with When I Call for Help, we intend this statement to be an introduction—along with some practical suggestions—to what parishes and dioceses and committed people of all faiths can do about child sexual abuse now.


Part II: Dimensions of Child Sexual Abuse

 

Those Who Are Abused

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.

Profile of an Abuser

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

One Scenario of Abuse

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.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

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.

Effects of Sexual Abuse on Children and Adults

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.

Effects on Faith and Spirituality

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?"

Healing, Forgiveness, and Repentance

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.

Healing for Those Who Have Been Abused

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.

For the Abuser

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."


Part III: Responding

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:

  • Offer physical safety and help for sexual abuse victims/survivors;
  • Bring about spiritual and emotional healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation for victims/survivors and their families, recognizing that it is not always possible to keep the family together;
  • Raise awareness about the issue by our preaching and teaching;
  • Offer help and support for abusers while holding them accountable for their actions;
  • Promote the education of pastors and church workers about the issue and encourage them to provide appropriate assistance.
We do not minimize the complicated nature of sexual abuse or the task involved in prevention, intervention, and support of people seeking to surmount the past. We believe, however, that parishes can play a crucial role in this process through the liturgy and sacraments, education, and support of empathetic and knowledgeable parishioners. A survivor attests to this, writing that she found God revealed in the liturgies of her parish community. She says:

"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

What Can We Do Together?

As a community of Christians we have the means to shatter the walls of loneliness, shame, and fear that isolate those who are sexually abused and those who have survived abuse. They need us, and we need to hear their stories of pain, endurance, and courage. We also need to let abusers know that while we hold them accountable for their behavior, they can be forgiven.

Some practical suggestions for developing simple action plans at the local level:

For parishes (many of these suggestions can be adapted for use by dioceses)
  • Create an atmosphere of welcome, trust, and safety in your parish that encourages people to come forward: the abused, abusers, and all those affected by abuse, such as mothers who suspect that a friend or family member is abusing their child, as well as family members who may be in a position to offer support and security to the abused person.

  • Establish a procedure to respond when someone approaches a staff member about sexual abuse. Have available a list of referral agencies and resources to give to people who request help. Become familiar with state reporting requirements as well as diocesan policies concerning sexual abuse.

  • Develop a network of people with expertise in dealing with sexual abuse. Regularly publish a contact's name and phone number in your Sunday bulletin.

  • Mention of sexual abuse within a homily, when appropriate, lets people know that the preacher is aware of the issue. This sometimes opens the door for people to seek assistance.

  • Many abused persons and abusers turn to their parishes to find healing and reconciliation. Abused persons need justice and compassion; abusers need accountability, repentance, and support. A prayer service or special liturgical ceremony can help people as they set out on renewed lives.

  • Develop programs to teach people about sexual abuse issues. For children, programs should discuss appropriate and inappropriate behavior and include suggestions on where to go if they think they are being abused. Programs for parents should help them to talk with their children about their bodies and the right to privacy, as well as about personal safety and self-protective strategies.

  • Raise the questions of violence and the roles of men and women within the family as part of marriage preparation. Delicately introduce questions about how each prospective spouse was treated growing up, how their parents treated each other, and how they expect to act toward their spouse and their children.

  • Promote the use of language in parish programs and materials that reflects the equal dignity of women.

  • Share information and resources with other parishes and dioceses that are also trying to address sexual abuse issues.
For those who are, or have been, sexually abused and their families
  • Look on your parish as a source of support, strength, and assistance. In particular, locate one adult within the parish with whom you can talk about your experiences.

  • Realize that you are not alone; many others, men and women, have also experienced abuse. If possible, find a parish or community support group for those who have been abused. Such groups can help survivors of sexual abuse learn how to find healing and courage to build a new, hope-filled life.

  • Once the healing process is underway join in parish and/or community activities to combat sexual abuse. Reaching out to others can help the healing process.

A Word to Children

Although we have not addressed this statement to children, our hearts go out to them. Perhaps an adult in their lives who truly cares for them could share the following words with them:

Dear children, when Jesus walked on the earth he loved little children. Our Holy Father has said "How important children are in the eyes of Jesus!" Jesus treated children with kindness and respect. He understood when they were hurting. Like Jesus, we care when you hurt, especially when a grown-up has caused your hurt. We know that you are God's very special gift. God loves you, and we love you. You are our hope for the future.


Conclusion

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.


Notes

  1. Fact sheet No. 19, National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 1992.

  2. According to the Fifty-State Survey of Child Abuse and Neglect, an aggregation of state data collected by the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, in 1993 about 15 percent of all substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect concerned sexual abuse, representing approximately 150,000 children. According to David Finkelhor, Ph.D., co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, the true scope of the problem is better reflected in retrospective surveys of adults. Considerable evidence exists to show that at least 20 percent of American women and 5 to 10 percent of American men experienced some form of sexual abuse as children. See D. Finkelhor, "Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse" in The Future of Children, vol. 4, no. 2 (Los Altos, Calif.: The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, 1994), pp. 31-53.

  3. Statement of the General Counsel of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, February 18, 1988. See also Restoring Trust: A Pastoral Response to Sexual Abuse, vol. 1 (Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, November 1994).

  4. Basic Facts about Child Sexual Abuse, Chicago, Ill.: National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 1988.

  5. Child Rape Victims, 1992, brief by the U.S. Department of Justice.

  6. Summit, R. (1993). "The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome," Child Abuse and Neglect 7:177-193.

  7. Finkelhor, p. 31.

  8. For an extended discussion of some of these characteristics, as well as an analysis of recidivism, see Judith V. Becker, "Offenders: Characteristics and Treatments," in The Future of Children, pp. 176-197.

  9. Fact Sheet No. 19, National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 1992.



  10. Project Benjamin Handbook, Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 1990, p. 58.

Resources

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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