Childhood Sexual Abuse; Prevalence & Impact in Christian Communities

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.

References

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
https://www.nsopw.gov/en-CA/Education/FactsStatistics

Part of Healing is Learning to Think of Others

In honesty, writing a blog tonight is not easy. I could think of a thousand and one things to say, I’m sure, but all fall flat as I think about the tragedy in Paris, France. It’s a current crisis and dreadful thing for any human to suffer, ever…  And it is not a crime against one city, or one nation. It is a crime against all of us, as is every careless and violent act political or otherwise.

Inevitably, because this is a crime that does not fall into sexual victimization, my heart is drawn to the importance of taking time from our own pain and working through things, as victims of sexual violence, to think of others in pain.

Together let’s remember Paris, France, and the families and loved ones of those left behind, and stand in solidarity with them, praying for them. Remembering them doesn’t mean that sexual abuse victims are less important than victims of terrorist attacks. Nor does it minimize the pain and suffering of those who have been violated sexually, or make less glaring the wickedness of sexual violence.  One is an act of terror against the body and the country, and ultimately the world–instilling fear, causing grief  and forever changing lives of those left behind–the other is an act of terror against the mind, body and spirit–instilling fear and shame, causing grief and forever changing the life of the victim.

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There is always the risk in grief, that we forget to see the pain and suffering of others, and become so deeply lost in our own pain that it even consumes us, and robs us of a full life. So it is good to look away, every now and then, even when we are in the deepest throes of personal sorrow.

With time, we will look away most of the time, and every now and then remember what we once suffered. But until then, we have to be intentional about it.

Love,
~ T ~

© Trudy Metzger

The Loneliness of Sexual Victimization: Am I the only one?

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The perception that abuse doesn’t happen in Christian or religious circles is a setup for one of the most hopeless and agonizing sufferings; isolation. As if the hopelessness of believing there is no way out, no way through isn’t enough, this loneliness pushes us to the edge of survival and sanity. And, having survived that desire to die–for those of us who do survive–many of us shut down every emotion and live without feeling, without passion and without purpose to avoid ever standing on that cliff again.

God has so much more for us all! He stepped into time and death, to walk with us and enter into our pain and suffering. He cried out on that gruesome cross, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken Me?” He understood our loneliness; that heart-rending ache that screams silently against our pain, longing to be understood. Or at least not to be left so alone.

Representing God with most incredible grace, love and compassion, one couple stepped into my messy world twenty-six years ago. No one had ever dared to touch the unclean thing done against me. I was the only one who had suffered it, I thought. Our family was the only family so messed up and broken. Of this I was certain.

And then the couple dared to enter in… With time I learned that they had helped others, and that their ‘learning’ had come from walking with their own daughter. Their love, apart from any wisdom they shared–and there was that–along with the understanding and listening ear, gave me hope and carried me through the first two years of the most painful part of my life. And it taught me how to care for others.

It’s quite uncomplicated, really. Step into the darkness of a wounded heart, offer a listening ear without any judgment for the struggle, and encourage the victim. Speak life, if you speak at all. Let them know they are not alone. Keep healthy boundaries, because a lack of them will simply add to the victim’s pain, and set you both up for a hard fall. Don’t try to rescue. Don’t be the hero. Simply care.

I do this in the context of faith, and in that context I turn the hearts of victims to their Heavenly Father in relationship. He loves them. He cares for them. He can handle their struggle. And mostly I do this without words, by trying my best to exemplify it. Sometimes I say it for added impact.

My faith in my Heavenly Father, my trust in His unconditional love, and the wonder that He–the Holy One, God, the Creator of the Universe–would dare to get His hands bloody and feet dirty to heal my suffering… That reality has healed my heart, above all. And for that reason I share it.

Ultimately it is relationship without condemnation that draws victims to the Father’s heart in trust. And that is something we all can offer, if we dare. It is something Jesus calls us to offer, because He called us to walk in His footsteps. And the Jesus kind of unconditional Love always heals the wounded heart.

Love,
~ T ~

© Trudy Metzger

(…) The Church’s Response to Abuse (Part 2)

Don’t come to Church!
There comes a time when an individual can be asked not to come to church. But it is not the right answer every time.

The identity of a teenager who offends, in many countries if not most, is protected. While there should be vigilance–always, always–public exposure is not usually an option, by law. The teen needs help and guidance and whatever ‘judgment the courts determine to be appropriate, but banning from church is not one of them. At least not most times, though there may be an exception.

The adult who has victimized people in church, people who must face their offender and be continually traumatized, is a different story. In my opinion, an offender ought to have enough remorse to choose to go somewhere else, to protect the child. It’s easy math. And every now and then they do.

But, as it stands, more victims leave churches than abusers, based on the people I deal with, because the ongoing trauma becomes overwhelming. They forgive, they try to move on, but Sunday morning, when they should be hearing the truth of the Gospel, they are confronted with the trauma of flashbacks to naked genitals or breasts, or some other sexual exploitation in the past. A wife goes home with her spouse after church, and struggles all week with intimacy because the flashbacks make her feel gross and disgusting. The husband how remembers being molested, goes home and withholds himself, and possibly turning to pornography, feeling completely inadequate. (Let me inject that, surely we can try to understand that this is not about a lack of forgiveness–as is often the accusation–but about post-trauma anxiety and flashbacks.)

Why would an adult who has molested someone choose to impose such a thing on a victim, Sunday after Sunday, robbing couples of intimacy and forcing them to relive the violation? Is it not reasonable, in such a situation, to encourage the offender to find a church family elsewhere?

Instead, it seems victims are the ones who eventually uproot and find some other church family, or simply stop attending, spiritually stripped, having endured accusations of being unforgiving or making things up. The lack of healthy care and understanding for victims, combined with religious demands to ‘forgive and forget’ has done it’s share of damage, and has in essence told victims to either ‘shape up or get out’, while offering little in the way of healing.

Get Out!

I spoke recently with yet another victim of a now-church-leader; the third that I am aware of, who eventually just left, while the offender went on to become a leader. The victimizations ranged from coercing a peer in early teens to reaching under skirts, yanking down panties to molest–something I recently discovered is/was a very common occurrence with hired ‘maids’ in some homes–and grabbing and groping… well into his twenties. And in every case the victims ended up paying the price, while the offender managed to fly under the radar, with nothing more than a mild slap on the wrist for ‘sexual immorality’. That should not be. And yet it happens repeatedly.

If an offender refuses to take ownership, and comply with the laws of the land and church-imposed boundaries, or if there is any indication they are causing ongoing trauma, it is not asking too much to tell them not to show up. There is no repentance in self-preservation and rebelling against those boundaries, and that person should be deemed unsafe in every way.

Feel Free to Attend, but with Supervision and Boundaries
In the case of the church I worked with in 2014, a team of people met with the intent of creating accountability. There was no agenda to cover up or protect the offender, but neither was there any agenda to destroy. In all my life I’ve never seen such a healthy approach as I saw in that meeting, and in the  months that ensued.

A recommendation was put up for discussion, to allow the offender to attend church, but to always have someone supervise. Every trip to the bathroom, every exit from the auditorium, every event, someone would be assigned to watch over the offender. There would be zero opportunity for offending again. There would be guidelines of not working with children, or being involved in any way that would compromise their safety. Had his presence made victims vulnerable, I might have felt differently, but as it was I thought it was brilliant.

The thought of being ‘babysat’ was offensive to the perpetrator, saying he felt the church was not proving forgiveness. As a result, and of his own free will, he chose to leave the church and find a new church family. If my memory is reliable, the pastor felt it his responsibility to contact leadership at the new church to inform them of the situation, not out of spite, but for the protection of the children there.

All in all, the situation was handled responsibly, and in the best interest of the victims and church family.

What About The Law?
The law was involved early on, in the case of the church I worked with; even before the church was made aware. So, for an example of law, I will share from a conversation I had with a police officer in the past month.

My conversation with the officer led me to believe that when it comes to religion, she is on the outside, looking in, and trying to make sense of it all, and she wondered at the driving force behind that behaviours of churches and Christians, as it pertains to obeying the laws of the land in regards to child abuse. I tried to explain–not justify–from my perspective, what I see; fear, pride, the belief that we Christians are subject only to God’s law and not the laws of the land, among other things. I’ve had the same conversation with 4 police officers since May, where they talk about the religious community covering up and not getting victims or offenders the help they need, and it leaves them shaking their heads. It should.

But what this last officer shared, didn’t stay there. After questioning, she mentioned how several years ago she had a case unlike any other. A pastor, she said, had walked in one morning, accompanied by an offender who had molested his daughter. Immediately after having done so, he went to his wife, and told her, packed his bags and left so his daughter would be safe. The pastor was drawn in, and that is where the man stayed until morning, when they stood in front of the officer saying they have a crime to report. The entire police staff was flabbergasted, she said. Not one had experienced such a thing before.

She told me how the man ended up doing jail time, getting counseling and was eventually reinstated in his home, but is not allowed to be with children unsupervised at any time. He is humbly compliant, and understands that this is to make 100% certain it never happens again. This situation, is the ideal, when it comes to handling abuse cases, she told me.

I wasn’t involved with that situation, and don’t know the people, but from where I stand looking on, I see redemption, while complying with the law and facing consequences. The church is aware of what he has done, and works to make it a safe place for children all around, while allowing him to be part of his family and the church.

A Tragedy Cannot be Undone, only Redeemed
There is no way to make a bad thing good. It can’t be done. There is only redemption of evil in the lives of God’s people, and in the working of society. What our enemy means for evil, God will use for good, but the wickedness can never be made good. We have to accept that, and call the wickedness what it is.

That said, we undermine the grace and mercy of God, when we refuse to extend the work of Jesus on the cross to all sinners… including those who molested a child, or children. There must always be forgiveness for them. While the practical working out of healing should be done with great wisdom and seeking God’s heart–and God always fights for the children and the vulnerable–to sentence offenders to hopeless judgment, doesn’t sit right in my spirit.

I’ve worshiped in prison with those who murdered someone. And I’ve hugged them if they wanted to be hugged. It makes zero difference to me, at the foot of the cross, what you have done; you are my brother and my sister. Besides, I remember that “but for the grace of God, there go I”. And I mean that. Coming out of the sexual confusion of my childhood, it is nothing short of the grace of God that kept me from growing up to be in prison with the murderers and pedophiles. When it comes praying ‘thank God I am not like the sinner beside me’, the words choke heavy in my throat and I cannot spit them out.

Instead, I thank God for His liberal grace and generous wisdom so that we might be forgiven, extend forgiveness, while still choosing to respond carefully in every situation. Bitterness and hate destroys lives, as does overlooking sin and neglecting to address and deal with abuse. Somewhere, in seeking the wisdom of God, there is a better way…

We were molested, many of us, and we inevitably hurt and grieve the loss of innocence. We need to be given space to do that, and to express that hurt without being judged. But, horrific as that moment was, or the thousand times over, none of us really want to stay stuck in that darkness. Advocating for other victims, fighting for the safety of children and creating awareness are some of the many ways to take back our freedom, our God-given voice, and to bring good out of evil, without empowering evil through bitterness.

Together we are a powerful force for good, for redemption and for hope, if we avoid the pit of bitterness, and a sense of being entitled to live in it and speak out of it. Our life purpose is not defined by what happened to us, but it can empower us for greater things. The choice is ours. Always.  And I, for one, want to care for the hearts of all, but I want only to partner with those who bring hope out of darkness…

Yes, together we are a powerful force for good, for redemption and for hope!

Love,
~ T ~

© Trudy Metzger