What is Childhood Sexual Abuse?
“Sexual Abuse is when a younger or less powerful person is used by an older or more powerful child, youth or adult for sexual gratification. Sexual abuse can be contact or non-contact” (Canadian Red Cross, 2016). The document goes on to define both contact and non-contact forms of sexual abuse, listing various acts in each category, including oral, anal and breast area touch, and visually exposing victims to pornographic material or nakedness. Health Canada takes it further, stating, “Sexual abuse is inherently emotionally abusive and is often accompanied by other forms of mistreatment. It is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power over the child” (Health Canada Archives, 1997).
It is accurate to say that Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) is any act used for sexual gratification in any way by an older, larger or more powerful child or adult, and/or any act that disrupts or interferes with the sexual innocence of a child, whether through touch, visual exposure or in words.
While curiosity about sexuality, body parts and their function, is a normal part of child development, the way in which older children, teens and adults handle this curiosity has tremendous impact on each child’s sexual development. As with any learning, when a child receives age appropriate facts and positive information about his or her body, the child develops a healthy view of his or her sexuality, thereby building self-confidence and healthy self-esteem. In contrast, when the information is negative or abusive—whether taught in words or learned through abuse—the child suffers negative consequences.
Prevalence of the Childhood Sexual Abuse
Due to remaining largely unreported, it is difficult to determine just how extensive CSA is. Among many other issues contributing to the silence, victims often have a relationship with their offender, and fear imposing consequences on them. “An estimated 60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members […] About 30% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are family members.” (United States Department of Justice, n.d.).
In recent years CSA has become a more open conversation, thereby giving victims permission to find their voice, reclaim their power, and speak out to break the shame of silence. However, even in this changing culture, shame and the fear of not being heard remain a powerful force, preventing many victims from disclosing or reporting.
Within the context of religious culture, silence remains strong, making it virtually impossible to determine the extent of the problem, particularly in closed-culture communities, such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish and other similar groups. However, glimpses inside the culture reveal a hidden problem. In a case involving a Conservative Mennonite group, in Bancroft Ontario, a school teacher molested a high percentage of her students, including having intercourse with at least one, and forcing others to watch sexual encounters. (T. Metzger, personal communication [interview], January 13, 2016). In another similar small private Christian school, in Southwestern Ontario, of twenty plus students, over a period of approximately seven years, at least fifteen disclosed being molested either at school or in the homes, by older siblings, other students or an adult. (T. Metzger, personal communication [self disclosure], January 10, 2016). So, while accurate statistics are difficult to determine in Christian settings, the cases that do come to light, indicate near epidemic levels in some communities.
Understanding the Impact of CSA (Long-term/Short-term)
CSA is unlike any other abuse, in that it has the potential to produce physical pleasure while inflicting emotional trauma. When an adult hits a child, the child’s emotional trauma matches the physical response; the body confirms a wrong was committed. However, sexual touch potentially awakens pleasurable sexual response, and the body, in essence, forms an alliance with the offender against the victim, leaving the victim helpless and even desiring more of the same.
Further complicating the victimization, is the sense of being ‘special’ and ‘chosen’ by the offender, or receiving treats such as candy or money; a bond that is compounded by the feeling of ‘this is our secret’. While the child’s emotions are confused, and shame casts a long shadow over the joy of the rewards, ultimately the rewards win out for some victims. The result is mental and sexual confusion, self-loathing—because the victim’s body is against him/her, and they cannot resist the rewards—unhealthy obsession with sex, or an extreme repulsion of it, among many other negative impacts on the victim. The hypersexual victim acts out inappropriately, starting at a young age with re-enacting the abuse with other children, with dolls, or grabbing adults in sexual ways. When other children see or experience these behaviours, they tend to reject the offending child, further isolating the victim who already feels alone and different. In contrast, the child who responds with discomfort to all touch and becomes fearful of interacting with others, whether children or adults, is likely to behave in odd ways and also becomes isolated. Both become targets of bullying or being misunderstood, and apart from compassionate intervention, are likely to struggle for life.
In later life the consequences continue, as many victims suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to varying degrees. This plays into anything from the ability to hold a job due to relational issues or feelings of inadequacy, depression or mental distraction, and failed relationships, to name only a few consequences. In marriage, flashbacks and repulsion to sex interfere with sexual intimacy, making it difficult to form healthy marital bonds, and causing frustration for both partners. In parenting, the victim who has pushed down pain and buried confusion, also has deeply buried anger and functions with a short fuse, or emotional distance. The emotionally distant parent fails to bond well with his or her offspring, and draws comfort from the fact that he or she is not abusive, but in the process there is risk of extreme neglect; a reality that comes back to haunt in later years. Fits of unexplained rage leave the angry parent feeling frustrated, inadequate and hopeless; thus the cycle of abuse continues in the form of emotional abuse or physical violence in the next generation. And the parent who vacillates between anger and emotional distance, feels constantly torn, trying to perform well, while feeling ever on an emotional yoyo with the consequence and outcome of either response.
How Does CSA Impact Individuals in Religious Cultures?
In religious communities, nothing really changes in so far as the basic responses and consequences of CSA. However, what does change is the added dynamic of religious teaching and beliefs, often for the negative, though sometimes for positive, not the least of which is faulty teachings on forgiveness. News stories where victims of crime, for example the murder of a family member, speak out and offer forgiveness, draw deep emotion from masses. Many are moved to tears at such undeserved grace, while others groan. Forgiveness, in its purest form, is a beautiful gift that sets the victim free; it releases the victim from the power the offender has over him or her. Tragically, in religious settings forgiveness is often partnered with forgetting, and presented in such a way that it ends up freeing the offender, requiring victims to ‘overlook’ the crime, push down negative feelings and interact with the offender within social context, thereby further victimizing them. This becomes a double-edged sword, particularly in sex-related crimes, first by desensitizing the community to the crime, thus creating an environment for sexual crimes to flourish, and secondly forcing the victim into silence and shame. If or when the victim acknowledges the crime and its impact, he or she is quickly rebuked, and told that to speak of it shows a lack of forgiveness. Biblical references are pulled out of context to support this kind of response, citing that God also forgives and forgets. In reality, the Bible says that God ‘remembers our sins against us no more’, which is a far cry from forgetting. Nonetheless, the approach effectively shuts down many victims, especially those in environments that discourage questioning what is taught.
Furthermore, religious people who commit sex crimes represent God by their claims to faith in Him, particularly when in a position of religious leadership or trust, such as pastor, parent, or Sunday School teacher, causing even deeper confusion. The victim cannot separate the offender and his or her faith, from the God whom he or she professes to serve, making God accessory to the crime. It is not unheard of for CSA victims, whose fathers or pastors have molested them, to close their eyes in prayer and see only their offender’s face, because that offender represents God. Consequently, victims who view God as someone who partners with child molesters, live in debilitating terror of this Cosmic Being to whom they must surrender, and who, in turn, commands them to obey the parents and leaders who would do such things.
High standards of ‘holiness’ and the need to portray a ‘perfect’ religious image, combined with a tenacious sense of loyalty within some Christian communities—particularly in more closed-culture groups—further suppress many victims. To speak out means facing rejection within church circles, family relationship, and the broader Christian community. The fear of isolation, and the inevitable emotional consequences of that isolation, holds victims hostage to pain, forcing them to suffer in silence. Those who have spoken out and faced that consequence, sometimes say in hindsight that the latter is worse than the former, and they regret speaking out.
In stark contrast, victims of CSA in a religious setting for whom the abuser and God remain completely separated, find solace in having Someone bigger than life to turn to; Someone who will, in His time, redeem the impact of the pain, horror and mental suffering. These victims find hope in a higher justice, and in believing that Someone has a redemption plan. Because of promises in the Bible, this victim believes that, while the crimes committed can never be good, indeed good things will one day come from the dark experiences of childhood. Reaching for the hand of God in comfort at night, trusting that His angels stand guard in the dark, and hearing gentle whispers of belonging and purpose, fill this child with resilient courage, even in the midst of fear and anxiety.
And the victim who comes forward in a Christian setting where support is offered, thrives like no other. Surrounded by people of faith, who also believe that God will heal and restore, and who encourage the victim to speak openly and honestly, while holding the offender accountable for the crimes, gives the victim a sense of community, safety and security. While the crime is always a tragic one, these victims stand a chance at full healing.
How Do We Positively Impact & Minimize Risk of Victimization?
This paper addresses many general issues and some unique to Christian settings, but it stands to reason that all cultures have unique dynamics. The secret in any culture, then, is to become familiar with its strengths and weaknesses, and work with respect to both. By building relationships within the community, establishing trust and partnering together, we open doors. By focusing on the strengths of a community, while avoiding the pitfalls, and being respectful of and sensitive to cultural norms, we maximize impact. Finally, by inviting the culture into the solution, we eliminate the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, and empower the community to contribute to their own, and change from within. Relationship-based solutions create sustainable impact and lasting change.
Canadian Red Cross. (2016). Definitions of Child Abuse & Neglect. Retrieved January 10, 2016 from http://www.redcross.ca/how-we-help/violence–bullying-and-abuse-prevention/educators/child-abuse-and-neglect-prevention/definitions-of-child-abuse-and-neglect
Health Canada Archives. (1997). Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved January 10, 2016 from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/H72-22-2-1997E.pdf
United States Department of Justice. (n.d.). National Sex Offender Public Website, Facts & Statistics. Retrieved January 10, 2016 from