The Least of These: The Reality of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Introduction: The Need to Address this Issue
Sexual abuse is not a very pleasant topic to discuss. In fact, it is one of the saddest things that we have to deal with in this broken world of sin. It can be very tough to talk about openly and honestly. Most of us cringe and maybe even cry when we hear about instances of abuse of any kind. Sadly, very few go untouched by the consequences of sexual abuse and we must realize that it goes on in our churches as much as anywhere else.
In the past this was usually simply ignored and covered up; people did not want to talk about such a horrible subject, let alone admit that it happens. This attitude, however, was not exclusive to our churches as it was also the predominant societal view of the matter. But over the last ten or twenty years attitudes have dramatically changed and people in North American society are finally willing to talk and do something about the complex problem of childhood sexual abuse.
Where does that leave us as churches? Do we follow the lead of society and try to deal with this problem or do we bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away? The answer is hopefully obvious, for if we love Christ and His church we will try and put an end to any abuse which might be going on in our midst. We will also try and help those who have survived the soul-deadening trauma of sexual abuse.
Sexual Abuse: A Definition
But what exactly does this term "sexual abuse" really mean? Some have incorrectly restricted it to mean only intercourse, thinking that anything else is not really that sexual and will not have a very great effect on the victim. Over the past few years the various books written on the subject have sought to provide a complete definition. Essentially what all these books say is that sexual abuse occurs when someone abuses his/her authority or power to gain sexual gratification at a weaker person's expense. This will necessarily extend beyond intercourse and include all inappropriate touching as well as exposure.
Sexual abuse involves someone being forced into an unwanted sexual experience with their feelings and emotions being completely ignored by the offender. The definition of sexual abuse is very broad and necessarily so because while touching, fondling or exposure may seem harmless to some, in fact such acts can and do have tremendous impacts on the lives of whomever the victims may be.
What the Bible Says
It may seem somewhat silly at this point to ask why sexual abuse is wrong. The Bible does deal with this horrible sin. Think only of the abuse of Tamar by Amnon her brother in 2 Samuel 13. We could also mention the various laws in the Old and New Testament which clearly show that any kind of sexual activity must only take place between a man and his legitimate wife. Anything else, including sexual abuse, is thereby condemned as sin in the eyes of the LORD. Think also of the laws regarding incest in Leviticus 17. It is clear in God's Word that sexual contact other than that which takes place between a husband and his own wife is a violation of the seventh commandment. Sexual sins, including that of abuse, are rebellion against God and attempts to make a god out of oneself and one's desires. Incest and indeed, all sexual abuse, are totally and absolutely selfish acts, a seeking to fulfill one's own perverted desires. These are not the only reasons that sexual abuse is an abominable sin in the eyes of the LORD. Abuse also hurts and may even kill (if the victim is led to suicide). There is also the fact that it destroys the innocence of the children who are so precious in the eyes of the Lord.
Sexual Abuse: An Abuse of Power
How does this destruction of innocence take place, even among those who profess themselves to be Christians? It usually involves an abuse of power; someone who is older or bigger taking advantage of someone who is young. Most sexual abuse happens without the use of violence or physical force. Victims are simply coerced into the act with threats or a lie about what is really going on. Offenders will often slowly lead their prey into the abuse so that it seems quite innocent and harmless at first. Some offenders will also make the abuse into a kind of game which makes it seem not quite as bad to the young child. He might then tell the child that it is their secret game that no one else is allowed to know about or they won't be able to play together any more.
Sometimes sexual abuse also takes place between adolescents and young children; this usually involves teenage boys and young pre-teen girls. This is not a simple case of sexual curiosity, as most boys get over that stage by the time they hit puberty. This is a clear instance of peer pressure whereby the younger children are seeking acceptance into an older group, the older group recognizes that fact and they take advantage of it to sexually abuse the younger ones. This kind of abuse may continue over several years or it may just happen once.
In most cases the perpetrator is known to the victim and is quite often a family member and a male. Females do abuse as well, though not in the same number as males. If it is not a family member then it is usually someone else well-known by the family and this could include doctors, teachers and even office bearers (including ministers).
Any one of these people is in a potential capacity to sexually abuse someone. They are all in positions of authority and trust, not to mention prestige and honour. An allegation of abuse against a teacher or a minister is not likely to be taken too seriously (usually it will be doubted) and therefore there is a greater chance that it will remain covered up. Victims of abuse by such people usually feel that there is no point in making a fuss seeing how they won't be believed anyway. This gives an offender in such a group somewhat of a protective barrier against any such claims which might destroy his reputation.
The typical abuser can therefore show somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde personality. He will look like a good Christian to the outsider, but to the victim he could very well be Satan personified. He will have a face, an odour, and a peculiar voice, which will never be forgotten by the survivor. Oftentimes survivors face terrifying flashbacks when faced with people who are similar or when they are in situations which remind them of the abuse. Some survivors find it very difficult to return to places where the abuse happened. Very often this may include the surroundings of the family home.
Usually families which are sexually abusive are excessively legalistic when it comes to certain things. This is one way in which abuse is maintained in some situations. One survivor told how "… in my family it was not acceptable to sew on Sundays but it was acceptable to abuse children." Deep, dark secrets are kept within the family and fear of scandal keeps victims from talking making abusive homes and families very difficult for an outsider to detect. The family may look so happy sitting together in church, but no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.
The rank hypocrisy of such a family can have devastating effects on a survivor of sexual abuse. She will often have bitter feelings towards the church and may even end up leaving. She may feel that a church which puts up with hypocrisy is a church in which there is no real Christian love. This, however, is only one of the consequences which many sexual abuse survivors deal with.
Wrongful Feelings of Guilt and Impact on Faith
A victim of incest or any other form of childhood sexual abuse will often be scarred with deep wounds of guilt and betrayal. She will feel guilty simply because she "allowed" the abuse to happen and continue. But very often the victim could never have stopped it from happening. Still, the survivor seeks to find an explanation for what happened to her.
In the process, she will often question why God would let this happen. This is part of the betrayal. The survivor feels betrayed, not only by the offender (especially if it is a family member), but also by her God and Creator. Why God allows abuse to go on is indeed a mystery and there is no simple answer. A survivor may find it very difficult to trust in God after He has seemingly let her down in such a cruel and ruthless fashion. She needs to be comforted with God's Word which makes clear that God works all things for our good, even if this may be so incredibly difficult for her to understand in her particular situation.
Some incest survivors also have a very hard time relating to God as a Father. If your earthly father had been slipping into bed with you and abusing you for ten years, chances are you wouldn't feel very comfortable with that relationship. In the same way, incest survivors must learn to come to terms with a normal Father-daughter, God-child, relationship. Such an understanding can be very difficult and also partially explains why the sin of sexual abuse may drive some victims of incest away from Christianity. This is a sad reality, and it is even sadder still when we consider that Christianity possesses the only hope for mending the terrible destruction and wounds caused by this heinous sin.
Other Consequences: PTSD, Eating Disorders, etc.
Most victims of sexual abuse also suffer from what is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is similar to what soldiers experience after a particularly terrifying experience in battle, sometimes termed "shell-shock." The comparison to war is useful and can help others understand what a survivor of sexual abuse must deal with.
Just as a soldier goes into battle and often watches his best friends killed in brutal ways, so the sexual abuse victim is traumatized and has her childhood murdered. She must watch her soul being ripped out of her for the sole gratification of the enemy. The trauma of the battle will stay with the survivor and haunt her (often in memory flashbacks, but also in other ways) unless it is dealt with in a constructive fashion. All other consequences of childhood sexual abuse are direct results or symptoms of PTSD.
One of the other important consequences is denial, (also resulting from PTSD) victims will often deny what happened or minimize the abuse. Many victims will often suffer from extreme depression, split personalities, or other illnesses. Some survivors have memory blocks; some cannot remember their childhood, or having a happy childhood.
Another important factor to consider is the ability of the survivor to trust once more. Many victims feel that they can no longer trust anyone ever again. Wouldn't you feel that way if a relative told you he was going to show you how to drive, but part of his definition of driving included some kind of unwanted sexual activity? Victims are often abused by people they thought they could trust and when this trust is betrayed it can take a lot to make a survivor ever trust again.
This also has important implications for the reporting of sexual abuse, for often the reactions of those being told can complicate the feelings of betrayal and mistrust. If a little girl tells her mother that she's being sexually abused and her mother doesn't believe her or do anything about it, that little girl is likely going to feel that her mom doesn't really care about what's happening to her. This will, of course, scar the relationship between mother and daughter and increase the feelings of betrayal in the heart of the survivor.
These feelings of betrayal can also lead to a self-image problem. The survivor feels no one wants her and she is really worth nothing. She will feel as if the whole world is against her and is plotting against her to bring her downfall and destruction. This brings on problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, workaholism, perfectionism, sexual promiscuity, and eating disorders.
Eating disorders tend to be especially prominent among survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Eating disorders include bulimia, anorexia nervosa, bulimarexia, and compulsive overeating. Bulimia (bingeing and purging) and anorexia (self-starvation) are the most common and the most significant and can be suicidal. When many psychologists (also Christian counselors) are faced with cases of bulimia or anorexia, they often suspect a background of childhood sexual abuse. And usually they are not off the mark.
As a result of the incredible damage done to the self-image of the survivor, eating disorders are often seen as a way out. They are either a method of control, the victim feeling that she finally has power over something in her life, or they are a means to make one self look unattractive and thereby hopefully avoid any future sexual abuse. Sometimes it is a combination of those two motivators which may lead to an eating problem. The consequences of eating disorders are tragic and devastating and are truly representative of how sexual abuse can lead someone to self-destruction.
Sexual abuse also has the potential to destroy marriages. Not only in abusive families, but also in situations where a survivor marries someone who is completely ignorant of her past. This may cause deep rifts in communication which slowly destroy the essence of the marriage from the inside out. For example, one partner may have a normal view of sex and love, but the other will feel that it is a dirty, disgusting thing which brings back sordid memories from a ruined childhood. Many marriages have been ruined by past histories of sexual abuse and it is very sad because often a situation develops where husband and wife are not living to the full praise and glory of their God.
This can also take place when the cycle of abuse continues. If abuse is not dealt with in a survivor's life has shown that this is particularly true for males), often times the victim will abuse as well. This starts an endless cycle where many people are needlessly scarred for life. The victim of abuse starts to believe that what happened to him was normal, and therefore as he grows older, he starts to sexually abuse others himself.
Taking Action against Sexual Abuse
So what can be done to stop and heal the effects of the horrifying sin of childhood sexual abuse? Several things can be done within our churches which will greatly restrain this attack of the evil one. The first one is something that is not mentioned too often in regards to this issue but it must not be overlooked: We must pray! Pray for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse and those who are still being sexually abused. Pray for the men and women who have undergone this terrible trauma and for the little children who are being abused in the most horrific ways. Ask the LORD to grant them the strength and the courage that they so desperately need to face what happened to them.
We also have to pray for the offenders. They may seem to be the most vile sinful creatures on earth but yet we must try to love them and hope for their repentance. Pray that they will confess their sins and make amends to those whom they have wounded. Pray that they may be properly restored that they too may live their lives to God's honour and glory.
But we also have to remember that action goes hand in hand with prayer. We all know the saying: Pray and work. And working includes being active and doing something. The first thing that we should do is believe that children have been abused and are being abused, even in our churches. When a child reports sexual abuse we must not write him/her off as an imaginative little pervert; we must believe. Research has shown that children very rarely lie about something as serious as sexual abuse.
Children also have to be taught about boundaries. They have to be taught that their bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit and not even Mom or Dad is allowed to touch them in a way which makes them feel uncomfortable sexually. They have to teach that a man's authority does not include a female's submission to every sexual whim. We must show proper Biblical examples of headship. We are also responsible under law to report cases of current and ongoing abuse to the proper authorities (Child Protection Agencies or local police). We must also report instances where we suspect abuse is taking place. It is a criminal offence not to do so. It also furthers the pain of the child who may be suffering sexual abuse. He or she will continue to suffer until you fulfill your Scriptural duty to report the crime.
But someone will ask, "What if the perpetrator is a member of my church?" That is a common question and many people have struggled with the implications of reporting a church member. The facts are however, that sexual abuse is a criminal offence, no different than armed robbery or murder, and it must be reported first to the civil authorities. They will deal with the charges or allegations in a completely confidential manner, making every effort to protect the reputations of those who are involved.
Church members must not receive immunity when it comes to the execution of justice by God's appointed ministers. That is not to say that it will not be dealt with as a church matter; sexual abuse is after all a transgression of the seventh commandment. Church discipline also has its place in dealing with sexual abuse. The church must take this sin very seriously and deal with it in a decisive way.
Part of dealing with the reality of childhood sexual abuse is talking about it and being open about it. We must not deny that it exists, but we must also take care not to overreact. We have to remember though that a warning against overreaction can also be misused and misapplied to justify or explain away a legitimate case of abuse. That is part of the reason why we are required by law to report even suspicions of childhood sexual abuse. It must be stressed that those reports are looked into confidentially and reputations are preserved if the suspicions prove to be wrong.
Childhood sexual abuse ruins so many lives that it is vitally necessary for us to take it seriously and try to do something about it. Sin is a dreadful reality and it affects us all, but the sin of sexual abuse is especially destructive, especially for one's relationship with God. This should give us reason to have a great deal of respect and admiration for survivors of sexual abuse. For they are truly "survivors;" they, have endured some of the worst torture that one human can inflict on another.
Much more can and must be said about this important topic. This article has not addressed every aspect of childhood sexual abuse. It is a complex problem which needs to be discussed, researched, and written about. Let us hope and pray that we in the Canadian Reformed Churches will rise to the task of dealing with it in a manner which becomes those who are children of God adopted by grace alone.