It doesn't matter whether we want to admit it or not. It is still very probable that child sexual abuse is happening in our congregations.
"Clinical experience indicates that many of the offenders attend religious services regularly."1 Statistically it would be highly unusual to find a congregation that has managed to avoid such abuse toward children. The abuse is usually intrafamilial in nature. And it is no respecter of income or social status.2 Thus, for the sake of the children, pastors need to be aware that such abuse does happen within the church. Pastors also need to know how to recognize the symptoms of such abuse and what to do by way of intervention.
It's nothing new
In the Old Testament there is evidence of incestuous relationships. The story of Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19 is a good example. Also extrabiblical sources indicate that incest has appeared in virtually all cultures and has even been approved of in some.3 Chapter 18 of Leviticus is clear in its intent to prohibit such practices. "None of you shall approach any one near of kin to him to uncover nakedness" (verse 6, RSV). This verse marks the beginning of a very specific list of intrafamilial sexual prohibitions.
In the New Testament 1 Corinthians 5:1 is a reference to incest: "It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife" (RSV). So it is clear from both biblical and secular sources that incestuous relation ships have existed since the earliest days of humanity.
In our day society is at last daring to address this most secret of sins. Perhaps we are being forced to do so by the rapid rise of child pornography and the growing awareness of the damage that is done to the victims. It is truly amazing that despite that harm, some even condone the abuse. "Sex before eight, or it's too late" is one of the most disturbing of modern slogans. Yet the group that holds this statement as their motto claims more than 2,000 parents and psychiatrists as members.4
Unfortunately the slogan describes the harsh reality that millions of children must face. "In a random survey by the Kinsey team, 25 percent [of women] were found to have experienced a sexual en counter with an adult before age 13." 5 Other studies confirm the Kinsey report. One researcher puts the problem in concrete terms: "In any classroom of 20 children there will be at least three sexual abuse victims." 6 The victims are usually girls. Boys are also victimized, but for a variety of reasons are less likely to report the incidents. 7 As far as the perpetrators of the abuse are concerned, the vast majority are male and the acting guardian of the child. 8 So the definition of incest has now been shifted to the broader sense of "sexual abuse of children" and includes the extended family of neighbors, adult friends, aunts and uncles, etc. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect now defines child sexual abuse as "contacts or interactions between a child and adult when the child is being used for the sexual stimulation of that adult or of another person." 9
Symptoms of child abuse
Three in Every Classroom, a booklet for teachers, lists several warning signs of sexual abuse. 10 The foremost indicator is a child who demonstrates sexual knowledge or behavior inappropriate for his or her age. This might include explicit drawings, explicit language, playing with dolls in an explicit manner, or approaching other children sexually. Other major symptoms include recurring and unexplained infections of body openings, self-inflicted injury (headbanging, etc.), and unexplained gagging. For older children, chemical dependency, running away, teenage prostitution, and suicide at tempts may occur. In addition to these specific symptoms there may be some more generalized behaviors. Bedwetting, severe nightmares, fear of bed, depression, irritability, hyperactivity, and frequent physical complaints such as headaches may be manifested. Blair and Rita Justice add one more major indicator: fear of being alone with a specific individual.11
Incest always damages the child. The degree of damage will vary with the situation. The age of the victim, the intensity of the encounter, and the duration of the relationship are but a few of the variables. 12 And the hurt of incest runs far deeper than physical injury (which may or may not occur). With the passing of time, "the legacy of damage includes severe depression, inability to trust, low self-esteem, chemical dependency, sexual and relationship problems, suicidal tendencies, feeling 'crazy,' anger, perpetuation of the abuse with other children, disruption of development, and physical health problems." 13
Consider the victim
Why don't children simply tell on the abuser? Why do an estimated 63 percent of girls and 73 percent of boys collaborate in a "conspiracy of silence"? There are several factors.14 First of all, the child has likely been warned by the perpetrator to keep quiet, "or else." The child may also have been educated to believe that the incestuous contact was somehow his or her fault, because any pleasure the child found in the relationship is quickly held up by the perpetrator as proof of blame. Another reason for secrecy is family loyalty. Older children may be unwilling to expose the family to public embarrassment. Some victims try to tell but encounter disbelief or denial and finally stop talking about it. Perhaps two of the most tragic reasons for not reporting involves especially the younger victims. First of all, if the parent they love and trust more than any other person they know is doing this thing, then it must be all right. Second, some of these children are simply too young to have the necessary verbal skills to describe what is happening to them.15
Consider the immense feelings of isolation, betrayal, and fear that a 9-year-old girl experiences as she hopes and prays that she will get through the day without being molested. Add to this the confusion the victim feels if the sexual encounter brings pleasure to him or her as well as to the perpetrator' (which is not unusual). Finally, there is the constant threat of punishment for not complying and the natural pressure a child feels to obey guardians.
After the child grows into adulthood, the active victimization usually ceases. However, the crippling effects of the abuse can continue through a lifetime. A typical pattern can be illustrated by the story of Betty, an imaginary woman whose case is representative of many incest victims. Betty was molested by her older brother for the first time at age 6, arid the abuse continued until she was 13. Although she felt something was wrong with what they were doing, she began to enjoy the contacts they had and even initiated them at times. However, as she grew older, she became increasingly uncomfortable in the relationship and protested that she wanted to end it. Her brother, on the other hand, did not. He cajoled and then used threats to compel her to continue the sexual contacts. When the contacts finally ended, Betty was a mass of guilt and rage. In high school she became promiscuous, partly to turn the tables and have "power" over males, and partly to punish herself for being so "totally worthless" as a person.
Eventually Betty settled down, found "Mr. Right," and married. That's when her troubles became apparent to her. No longer able to hide behind one-night stands, she found herself in a serious intimate relationship, a relationship that reminded her strangely of the past. In moments of closeness, she found herself seeing her brother and not her husband. Revulsion swept through her again and again, until the marriage became intolerable for her and ended in divorce.
Such circumstances are not unusual. As pastors we need to do everything in our power to prevent this kind of tragedy. Fortunately there are several things that we can do.
How to help
The first step for a minister who wants to help is to have an awareness of the scope and nature of the problem. This article provides only an overview. Books such as Sexual Abuse: Let's Talk About It serve as a good introduction to the subject. Daddy's Girl is the autobiography of a former sexual abuse victim that gives sensitive insights into the pain and damage incest brings. It is often used therapeutically to help victims realize they are not alone. Three in Every Classroom is an excellent choice as a concise, practical guide for recognition of and intervention in child sexual abuse.
As ministers we need to learn all we can about incest and how to deal with it. Then we can help in three specific ways: prevention, reporting, and referral.
First of all, we can work to prevent the problem. "Since sexual abuse does have moral as well as legal implications, it would be helpful if more religious leaders were involved in the identification of the problem as well as in preventive efforts. Clinical experience indicates that many of the offenders attend religious services regularly and experience little guilt or sense of responsibility for their actions. Perhaps discussion of this problem with the congregation would encourage more offenders and their families to seek help." 17
And we can encourage children to report any uncomfortable touching or talking incidents to parents, teachers, pas tors, or others in positions of authority, regardless of who the perpetrator is or what he has said about secrecy. The child needs to know that "no one has a right to touch your body in any place that you do not want it touched. You are a separate person, and you have the right to say no to that kind of touching." 18 The same author also notes that "since most abuse begins before children are 12 years old, education must begin early. Experiments have shown that children can learn to deal with the problem of sexual abuse much as they learn to avoid traffic on a busy street, learn to respect fire, and accept other safety precautions."19
Many local law enforcement agencies and child welfare organizations have preventive education programs available for elementary schools and other young people's groups. Churches that operate parochial schools ought to consider using those resources. The first choice for solving any problem is always prevention!
But this is the real world, and prevention is an ideal that isn't always achieved. Sooner or later pastors and other people working with children will find situations in which abuse is either obvious or highly suspected. In such cases there is no option. Most states demand prompt reporting of sexual abuse and suspected sexual abuse to the proper authorities (usually law enforcement or social welfare agencies). Failure to report can result in fines and/or imprisonment. In addition, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that failure to report would incur civil liability. 20 Thus failure to report may also leave one open to malpractice suits.
"Incest carries criminal penalties in every state. Yet there is something about incest that seems to elevate it above the common statutes of man: to most people incest seems to be a violation of God's laws." 21 I believe that even in the absence of legislation the pastor has a moral obligation to report. The child's happiness, perhaps his or her very life, is at stake. Moreover, most states force the perpetrator into getting help. This is important because very few abusers will seek help without some form of compulsion.
Naturally, reporting sexual abuse can be traumatic for pastors. It can involve prominent church families that we know and love. It can mean incurring the wrath of many individuals within the church and without. Reporting is not always easy. May God give us the courage to protect the children!
A final area in which pastors can be of service is in dealing with adult victims of child sexual abuse. Rule number one with such individuals is that no pastor or even general family counselor is equipped to deal with all of the issues involved. Referral is the word a pastor needs to know in helping adult victims with their past trauma and present pain. Failure to refer will in all likelihood do more harm than good to the victim and could even put the pastor in a compromising position, because seductive behavior toward the counselor is not uncommon in the early stages of treatment. 22 There are, of course, spiritual needs that the pastor can deal with, but I stress again, adult victims of child sexual abuse should be referred to agencies that specialize in helping incest victims.
Local counseling agencies usually have a list of the nearest centers for therapy. The book Sexual Abuse: Let's Talk About It also lists agencies by state and regional area. Most treatment centers involve group therapy with other victims as well as individual counseling. The group provides the openness the victim needs to address his or her experience.
There is a bright note. Knowledge in this particular field has advanced to the point where most victims can be helped.23 Migraines disappear, depression ends, and marriages are saved. As pastors we can extend a great deal of hope to any who suffer in the aftermath of abuse.
To sum up, child sexual abuse is here and it is here to stay. As long as we live in an imperfect world, children will be victimized and will enter into adulthood crippled by the experience. Kids are such special people. "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." But, for the sexually abused child, life is anything but heaven. By God's grace churches should take a clear stand. A stand that does everything possible to prevent the abuse and help the abused.
1 Linda Muldoon, Incest: Confronting the Silent
Crime (St. Paul: The Minnesota Program for
Victims of Sexual Assault, 1979), p. 99.
2 Florence Rush, The Best Kept Secret: Sexual
Abuse of Children (New York: McGraw-Hill Book
Co., 1984), p. 2.
3 Susan Forward and Craig Buck, Betrayal of
Innocence: Incest and Its Devastation (New York:
Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 11, 12.
4 Ibid., p. 16.
5 Rush, p. 5.
6 Ruth Soukup, Sharon Wickner, and Joanne
Corbett, Three in Every Classroom: The Child
Victim of Incest, What You as a Teacher Can Do
(Gonvick, Minn.: Richards Pub. Co., Inc., 1984),
7 Margaret O. Hyde, Sexual Abuse: Let's Talk
About It (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984),
8 Muldoon, p. 14.
9 Hyde, p. 15.
10 Soukup, Wickner, and Corbett, p. 5.
11 Blair Justice and Rita Justice, The Broken Taboo:
Sex in the Family (New York: Human Sciences
Press, 1979), p. 166.
12 Justice, pp. 167, 168.
13 Soukup, Wickner, and Corbett, p. 12.
14 Hyde, p. 30.
15 Soukup, Wickner, and Corbett, p. 5.
16 Forward and Buck, pp. 21, 22.
17 Muldoon, p. 99.
18 Hyde, p. 22.
19 Ibid., p. 11.
20 Forward and Buck, p. 146.
21 Ibid., p. 145.
22 Lecture by Fern Kepler-Roth, Brainerd State
Hospital, Brainerd, Minn., Apr. 22, 1985.
23 Forward and Buck, pp. 163, 164.