First they tell me that there is no tooth fairy, no Easter bunny, and no Santa Claus. When are they going to tell me there is no Jesus?" A little blond, blue-eyed girl sits in front of the therapist with her chin held high, lips tight, and a look in her eyes that goes way beyond her 6 years. Why should she trust this person? She trusted before and was betrayed by a person that was called by God.
Working with children who are victims of sexual abuse by counselors and clergy involves some special skills, because of the dynamic of betrayed trust by a highly placed person. There is an added burden in helping children who suffer abuse from clergy, because the whole question of God's involvement becomes critical. There are countless wounded, bleeding children (many in adult bodies) in congregations and communities. Not only do we need to be aware of the warning signs of sexual abuse and exploitation; we need to learn to heal and prevent this ever-expanding epidemic from destroying our future.
Child sexual abuse seduction
The dynamics of child sexual abuse are illustrated by five interrelated stages of abusive interaction: grooming, sexual activity, secrets, disclosure, and suppression. 1
Grooming. Grooming means to prepare another, to desensitize a child to participate in sexual activity with an adult. The grooming behavior begins with the offender treating the child as special. Often the intended victim is the first child in a group of children to be acknowledged and the recipient of the last word of contact. Special gifts, trips, and one-on-one time help to single out the intended victim from family or friends. There may be exaggerated promises of gifts, presents, or special times together. Unfortunately, parents and guardians tend blindly to trust professional caregivers, who may also be abusive—clergy, psychotherapists, health providers, and teachers.
In addition to the special bonding, the offender will start occasionally to add pleasant physical sensations. These may include tickling, brushing hair, back or body rubs, or hugs that last longer than hugs from others. The child begins to associate the pleasant physical sensations with the offender in addition to the feeling of being a special person in the offender's life.
Sexual activity. The process of engaging a child in sexual activity gradually expands with the addition of pleasant physical sensations. Up to this point, it is unlikely that any sexual abuse has occurred. Nudity is often introduced by providing opportunities for the child to observe the offender nude—after a bath or shower, or while changing clothes.
Pornography, whether video, audio, or printed, may be shared in a way that emphasizes the special bond and further promotes the secret aspect of the abuse process. The physical aspect of the abuse progresses from longer and longer hugs to kissing, fondling, masturbation, and eventually sexual intercourse. The perversely skilled molester will take the time to desensitize and make the child feel comfortable at each progressive stage.
Keeping secrets. The offender will attempt to isolate the child by bribery, threats, blame, intimidation, and, in the extreme, torture and violence. Bribery may include promises to buy treasured items if the child does not talk. Threats may include such statements as, "They'll send me to jail if you tell" or "You'll never see me again if anyone finds out." Statements of blame include "You didn't say no" and "You wanted to do it." Intimidation may come from saying something like "I'm an adult, and no one believes kids anyway. After all, I am a Sunday school teacher!"
Torture may include injuring the child physically during the sexual act or separate from the sexual act, and imprisoning the child for a short time. It can also include killing or harming a pet or animal while the child observes and/or threatening to harm the child's siblings or parents.
Disclosure. Sexual abuse is usually not reported. Because of the special relationship with the offender or the fear of reprisals to family members, the victim will often seek to protect the of fender. Also, children frequently do not have the verbal or cognitive skills to understand and clearly report what has happened to them. When abuse has occurred over a period of time, children become confused and think the abuse was their fault; they feel partially responsible because they did not dis close at the start.
When the child does disclose the abuse, it is important to validate the dis closure: "Thank you for telling me." Children usually do not lie regarding sexual abuse issues.2 It is important to let the child know that you believe the disclosure, not only to build therapeutic trust but to validate the child's struggle.
It is not necessary to have all the details and exact chronological order of events. (However, you may need to put them into chronological order later if you are going to testify in court.) Children remember by reference to holidays, school being in or out of session, and by their birthdays, rather than by months, days, or weeks.
It is important not to put words into the child's mouth about the abuse. This is not the time to correct misconceptions or discuss proper names for body parts. This type of digression often confuses the child and reaffirms that adults do not believe children.
Suppression. Often, after disclosure, the child may attempt to return to the pre-crime state by suppressing, denying, and/or rationalizing the abuse. The child may even articulate the desire of wishing that he or she had not dis closed. "I wish I never had told. My life has been a constant up and down ever since! Nothing would have happened if I hadn't told."
It is important to acknowledge the need for times of respite and to provide physical and emotional safety for the child. The therapeutic environment should foster these things, and the therapist should become one to whom the child retreats for affirmation, support, and encouragement. Understanding the ambivalence and emotional distress of the disclosure/suppression process is crucial for the therapist working with child victims.
The impact on the child
When the offender is a person associated with God, the child is robbed of one place of safety and hearing. God may become identified as a co-conspirator with the offender to bring harm instead of hope to the child. Listen to the fol lowing as children tell their stories.
I grew up knowing that God loved me. I just thought it was because He had to, not because I was worthy, deserved love, or was valuable. I was just another obligation.
Jesus loves me when I am a good girl. Larry hurt me, and I didn't like it. He said I was a bad girl. Jesus doesn't love me anymore.
All you have to do is call on Jesus to save you and He will. Well, He didn't! And you want me to come to church and hear a bunch of false promises again? No thanks!
I can't get close to my heavenly Father. My biological father was a preacher who would preach hellfire and brimstone on Sundays and touch us girls in ways no father should. God is my father's God—not mine! I would rather have nothing than endure the hypocrisy of the church. Every time I look at a preacher I want to scream "Liar, thief! If there is indeed a God, I hope He will condemn you to the hellfire and brimstone my father was so fond of."
These abuse experiences become the building blocks of pain, despair, and depression that can last a lifetime. As stewards of these children, we need to heed the warning signs, listen to the children, and feel and acknowledge the pain that has left them with long-lasting scars. Our children look to us for truth in words and actions that is consistent with God's Word.
Treating the children
The treatment process must respect the five seduction elements outlined above. In addition, healing includes equipping children to challenge inappropriate uses of authority in their lives effectively.
Numerous models exist for child sexual abuse treatment, with the processes divided into two phases: (1) crisis intervention and (2) treatment. Crisis intervention often requires complete life-support help for the victim and family. Central tasks involve reporting, providing protection, investigating, and planning and coordinating the range of social, legal, medical, and mental health services needed. The treatment process should be handled by trained, licensed, and competent therapists, experienced in child abuse cases.
Options therapists employ
Group therapy for children. One of the benefits of working in a group is that a child realizes that he or she is not the only one who has been abused. Each child can relate to other children who have endured abuse and have been told "not to tell or else." As children spend time together in therapy they learn to trust themselves, their peers, and the adult leader(s). The leaders carefully monitor the group process so that a child is not pressured to admit to something that did not happen, nor repress something that did occur.
As group trust develops, the children learn appropriate social skills and sexual boundaries. They learn how to handle differences within the group structure and how to resolve conflict without threats, intimidation, or violence. Self-esteem that has been damaged and changed by the abuse can be healed, encouraged, and strengthened in an atmosphere in which the child is respected, valued, and cared for.
Group therapy for adolescents. Group therapy is a good choice for adolescents because of the power of peer influence, if that peer pressure is harnessed by the counselor for therapeutic benefit. Peers who have experienced similar trauma can be highly effective sources of support, care, challenge, and persuasion for teens who are dealing with the fear, rage, and confusion of abuse and family upheaval. They can also model inappropriate rage, avoidance, and annoying distractions.
The most effective groups are open: experienced members help new members; members are free to discuss and explore any issue; and members can ask questions and know they will receive clear answers. The most effective counselors are those who model godly values and appropriate behavior, who guide the discussion without controlling it, and who facilitate peer influence for the best interest of victims.
Family therapy. The goal of family therapy is to restore families to an open and nurturing system with the under standing that protecting the child from further abuse must be a priority before family reunification. Families in therapy for sexual abuse are usually in disarray, are divided, and frequently are battling the criminal justice and social service systems. They are angry, frightened, resentful, and often in treatment involuntarily. The family therapist must firmly and compassionately maintain an abuse focus or the family will deny and defocus this central issue.
Individual therapy. Child sexual abuse treatment for younger children centers around expressive therapies: art, music, dolls, puppets, dance, and play therapy. These are also helpful for older, even adolescent children who are with drawn into depression or hostility. Traumatized children who are unable to verbalize their abuse experience respond well to the arts. These active, expressive therapies provide an effective forum for the communication and resolution of the abuse.
Art therapy includes several mediums, such as drawing, painting, paste and paper, finger painting, and collage. The visual image enables victims to ex press and communicate what they are not able to express verbally. With art therapy, children can change and alter the circumstances of the abuse, learn safety measures, and practice those measures. For example, by using a puppet they can learn to say "No, I don't want to. I am going to tell my mom now."
Treating children abused by ministers
When a child is abused by a clergy-person or Christian counselor, the significance of that person's role in the life of the child contributes a great deal to his or her harm. As a result, the fol lowing treatment issues become critical in the healing process.
Feelings of ambivalence toward the offender. Help the child resolve these feelings by accepting the necessary experience of a range of feelings and encouraging the child to express the full range. It is also important to help the child differentiate between genuine love and physical touch.
Struggles with the image of God. The child often has feelings of uncertainty toward God and may raise difficult questions. The counselor needs to distinguish the evil behavior and the offender's refusal to do God's will from God's grace. The child needs to understand that Christ suffered and can help heal. Gently affirm God's care, but give the child lots of room to work through the pain of felt abandonment and betrayal.
Fear and anxiety. Children will need assurance of protection from reprisal by offender, parents, siblings, church members, and others. They will need help to express fears and to sort out realistic fears from unrealistic ones.
Guilt and low self-esteem. Help the child vent feelings of guilt and encourage the child to receive God's unconditional love. Frequently rein force the message that the child did not cause the abuse, nor is the child responsible for the chaos that follows disclosure. Identify and affirm the child's good qualities.
Trust and role confusion. Acknowledge the real harm that occurs when an important person betrays a child. Give the child lots of room to learn to trust you as another person in authority—but do not push the child to rely on your good qualities. Be careful to respect boundaries such as touch. Respect the child's wishes.
Anger and depression. Often children are outwardly depressed and inwardly hostile. They feel powerless because of the type of harm and may tend toward self-destructive or suicidal behavior. Gently lead the child to re lease pent-up feelings of anger and aim to support them unconditionally. Group therapy may be a good place to model constructive anger release.
Difficulty in talking about the abuse. If the child lacks language skills to talk clearly about the abuse, the counselor can show alterative ways to express feelings and thoughts. Encourage the child to talk openly and to break the pattern of keeping secrets enforced by the offender.
Preoccupation with sexual issues. Because of evil violations, the sexual innocence of children is lost. They are prematurely conditioned by sexual feelings and often become preoccupied with sex in inappropriate ways. Educate the child regarding sexual feelings and inappropriate sexual behavior and relating. This is done by modeling, dis cussing, and allowing for open sharing about sexual matters without ever crossing inappropriate boundaries.
One of the harshest judgments against sin is Jesus' declaration against those who harm children: "And who ever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matt. 18:5, 6, NIV). One can scarcely imagine the horrific end of those who will face God one day with lives blackened with this unrepentant evil.
Naturally, the best thing would be for men and women to heed the warning and avoid harming children. When this does not happen, counselors must be prepared to help the little ones afflicted with harm. The wise counselor will be at least adequately prepared to treat children who are victims of sexual abuse and will continue to learn the most efficacious ways to provide that treatment.
Adapted from a chapter in the book Sexual
Misconduct in Counseling and Ministry, by Peter
Mosgofian, M.A., and George Ohlschlager,
M.S. W., J.D. Copyright 1995 by Word, Inc.,
Dallas, Texas. All rights reserved. Used by
1 See Roland Summit, "The Child Abuse
commodation Syndrome," International Journal
of Child Abuse and Neglect 1 (1983): 177-193.
2 But, as Grant Martin so cogently states,
"children do He." See his Critical Problems in
Children and Youth (Dallas: Word, 1992), p. 107.