Thursday, May 28, 2015

Child Sexual Abuse and the Church

MY EXPERIENCE

I am a survivor of child sexual abuse.  With my first abuse memory starting at age five, I was sexually abused by eight different perpetrators - a half-brother, two cousins, a stranger on a porch, a Santa Claus, a friend of the family, an adult friend of a girlfriend, and a young man at a party.

At age ten, after reporting and testifying to have one perpetrator sent to prison, I was given court ordered counseling.  This counseling was nothing more than reliving something I much preferred to forget.  I forgave my perpetrators, and after talking about it numerous times to law enforcement and counselors, I was no longer traumatized by the thoughts of it.

As an adult, while seeking help for some relationship problems, I stumbled across some information about how sexual abuse breaks boundaries and how those broken boundaries affect relationships.  It was then that I realized there was a lot more to recovering than just talking about what happened and how it made me feel.

After a significant amount of recovery work and progress, I began working to help others.  I started as a volunteer through the Kempe Center and an organization called WINGS (Women Incested Needing Group Support).  I helped with research and fund-raising, led orientations for new members, and eventually went on to work with women in groups and one-on-one as a new age spiritual counselor, under the title of clergy.  Sexual abuse recovery became one of my areas of expertise and many of my colleagues referred clients to me for work on those issues.

I participated in the "Believe the Children" campaign, which involved selling buttons and bumper stickers at fairs to raise awareness that when children speak of sexual abuse, they should be believed.  I attended the meeting at the Presbyterian church in Denver where Roseanne Arnold first came out with her story of incest.  And I was given the honor of meeting Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, the former Miss America who survived incest and has worked tirelessly to help others.

What I learned from Marilyn was that our greatest weapon against child sexual abuse is talk.  I learned that sexual abuse thrives in silence, and speaking out is like casting a light into a dark room.  It makes it more difficult for perpetrators to do their dirty deeds, and silence perpetuates the problem.

Not too long ago, sexual abuse simply was not spoken about.  It was often said that sexual abuse was not taboo - only speaking about it was.  Now, it's not quite as taboo to speak of it, but it certainly is not acceptable for survivors to admit any actual, lasting harm was caused.  If they do, they are looked down upon as unforgiving people who must have mental health issues.

You would not believe the pressure on survivors to "forgive, forget, and put on a happy face."  Survivors are allowed to talk now, just as long as it's censored.  The old rules of child sexual abuse, "Don't talk, don't trust, and don't feel," still stand.  Don't talk about how it has damaged you.  Don't trust anyone enough to be honest with them about the negative impact it has had on your life.  And don't feel that impact.  Pretend everything is still okay, or risk being labeled mentally ill.

Denial is still rampant - denial of the gravity, the depth, the severity, the permanence, and the complexity of the crime.  Society says, "It's okay.  You're fine.  Brush it off, leave it behind you, and PLEASE, whatever you do, don't TALK about it - or at least don't talk too HONESTLY about it or admit that there was anything destructive about it!  That's your personal, private business."  As if we're the ones who did something unspeakable.  We get lumped in with our perpetrators, all too often.

With help and God's grace, I have learned to say, "It's not my secret to keep.  I did nothing wrong and I have nothing to hide."


WHAT IT IS SPIRITUALLY

After years of listening to countless other people's stories and continuing my own "maintenance" work to stay mentally strong and socially healthy, a deeper picture began to emerge.  I already knew that sexual abuse is not about sex, but about power and control.  Sex is merely the weapon being used to achieve the goal of exerting power and control over another person.

What I began to realize was that there was a spiritual component, to all these stories.  When a perpetrator sexually violates a person, especially a child, the perpetrator is making a spiritual exchange.  He or she is taking all of his or her ugliness, filth, wickedness, darkness, and shame, and injecting it into the victim.  Inversely, the perpetrator is taking all of the victim's beauty, purity, goodness, light, and dignity, and consuming it for himself or herself.  This is one of the biggest reasons victims suffer the shame that they do.  They are walking around with darkness that does not belong to them inside of them.

I also came to realize, after becoming a Christian, that occultism and sexual deviance go hand-in-hand.  Where you find one, you'll find the other following close behind.  Even in cases in which the perpetrators are seemingly Christian, you will find something occultic going on, even if it's only in the person's motives - to use Christianity for spiritual power and to manipulate for personal gain.

I can't help wondering if Jesus had such crimes in mind when He said, "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."  (Matt. 18:6)  Certainly He would have been appalled by it and would have defended the children.


LONG-TERM IMPLICATIONS

The aftermath of child sexual abuse lasts a lifetime.  Just because a person isn't bitter and unforgiving or depressed and suicidal doesn't mean their life is not still being affected.  You don't have to be curled up in a fetal position and suffering flashbacks to be suffering harm from sexual abuse.  There are many ways in which sexual abuse can affect a person's life.

As I used to tell women entering WINGS, when someone steals your innocence, they take a part of you.  What would happen if, for instance, someone took your leg?  If you just forgave the perpetrator, decided you were "over" it, and never did anything to address your missing leg, you just might get up every morning and fall on your face.  Socially, emotionally, even spiritually at times, that's what a lot of sexual abuse survivors do every day.  Because society requires them to be quiet about it, they fail to get the help and support they need to "walk" again.

If you lose your leg, forgiving and getting over the trauma of the loss is not all that needs to be done.  You must also learn to live without your leg, and that doesn't just come naturally just because you forgave and got over the trauma.  Sexual abuse is no different.  If a sexual abuse survivor is to be free from the destruction of the abuse, he or she will need to address the problems that sexual abuse causes.

Sexual abuse affects boundaries.  Boundaries are like fences between people, barriers that say "This is where I end and you begin."  Sexual abuse destroys those boundaries.  How that affects each person varies from one person to the next.  Some will develop overly-rigid boundaries, being unwilling to socialize with others or become emotionally intimate in relationships.  Others (and this seems more common in today's society) will develop weak boundaries and overly-heightened tolerance, allowing people to harm them as well as their loved ones, and accepting abusive behavior without even realizing there is anything wrong with it.

I have seen survivors who have been repeatedly violated throughout their lives, in all sorts of ways, at every turn, by parents, friends, spouses, children, employers, co-workers, counselors, clergy, even strangers.  And these women would be the first to turn a blind eye to it.  That's because that's what they spend their formative years doing.  And that's the most damaging thing about it.  A victim often ends up spending so many years saying to themselves, "This is not happening," or, "That's okay," that they end up saying that about everything bad in their lives and the lives of their loved ones, allowing all kinds of evil to go unchecked.

Here are just a few of the lesser-known after-effects of child sexual abuse:

*promiscuity and/or hyper-sensuality
*perfectionism
*failure to care for one's body properly or obsession with one's appearance
*compulsive busyness
*exaggerated sense of entitlement
*indiscriminate trust
*inappropriate self-blame for other people's actions
*cognitive problems
*compulsive honesty or compulsive dishonesty
*difficulty tolerating happiness
*insomnia or over-sleeping
*desensitization and inability to detect abusive behavior

And there are many more.  Sexual abuse is also linked to numerous physical illnesses, including gastrointestinal problems, gynecological disorders, headaches, cardiopulmonary symptoms, obesity, arthritis/joint pain, and fibromyalgia.


WHAT THE CHURCH CAN DO

Child sexual abuse is a crime against humanity and a community problem.  Because of its destructiveness, because the implications for the survivor are lifelong, we all deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse every day, whether we think about it or not.  It is everyone's problem and the solution lies in nearly everyone changing the way they deal with it, and the church should be at the forefront of those changes.

Here are some things you can do:

*Educate yourself.  Learn the truth.  There are too many myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes being perpetuated out there.  And with the free access to information at libraries and on the Internet, there is no excuse for lack of knowledge.

*Don't minimize the impact on the victims.  Do not think that molestation is less severe than rape.  Yes, it is less physically violent, less physically invasive, but innocence gone is innocence gone.  There's no such thing as it being a little bit gone.  That's like being a little bit pregnant.  In all forms of sexual abuse, there is one line that is crossed, and it doesn't matter how far you go, once you've crossed that line.  Once you've crossed it, you've crossed it, and there is no turning back, no "un-knowing" what has become known.

*Don't protect the perpetrators from the consequences of their actions.  Yes, perpetrators need compassion and help, but when our compassion for the perpetrators of such crimes outweighs our compassion for the victims, something is dreadfully wrong.  When this happens, the victims are victimized all over again.  Our hearts need to break for victims of sexual abuse everywhere.  And our hearts are not breaking for them while focusing on their perpetrators.

*Encourage open discussion and accept that the victim/survivor isn't always going to have flowery, inspiring things to say as a result of their experience.  They need to know it's just as acceptable to be angry as it is to be forgiving.  Jesus was forgiving, but His anger at cruelty, injustice, and evil was always a good thing.

*Give children what they need.  They need proper supervision, even when they are with other children.  Up to half of molestation cases each year involve juvenile offenders.  Children also need an environment that fosters open, honest communication and an understanding of the differences between good touch and bad touch.  Make your little corner of the world a "talk-friendly" one.

*Don't engage in victim blaming or victim shaming.  Since sexual abuse is not about sex but rather about power and control, it is never the fault of the victim, no matter how overt the victim has been about his or her sexuality.  Even elderly patients in nursing homes have been sexually abused.  And don't assume that sexually abused people are emotionally unstable or overly-sensitive.  Sometimes their stability, after surviving such unstable experiences, will surprise you.  And desensitization is a much more common problem than over-sensitivity.

*Don't press the survivor to "leave what happened in the past."  When we emphasize that the perpetrator's actions were in the past, we minimize what the victim is still dealing with today.  Whether it was in the past or the present is inconsequential to those whose innocence will never return. Certain things will not remain in the past.  Certain things are permanent.  When a child has had his or her sexual innocence stolen, that is not something that is in the past.  That child still is without that innocence today.  If a person has lost a leg, that is not in the past.  That is permanent.  Even after receiving a prosthetic leg, it will never be a real one and that is reality.  It might become better than a real one, but the need for it will always remain.

*Don't pressure the survivor to forgive, especially if the violation is fresh and the survivor is still coming to terms with it.  A person must come to terms with the reality of a violation before earnestly forgiving.  When denial is as deep as it usually is with sexual abuse, that must be overcome before forgiveness can be genuine.

I pray that this article has helped you.  I pray even more that it will help you help someone else and that we as God's children will make the world a safer, healthier place.  And I pray that the church will become a true sanctuary where innocence is preserved and survivors of sexual abuse can find healing renewal in Jesus.