Child sexual abuse is almost always done in secret, and the victim is usually manipulated into keeping quiet. Pedophilia is shameful. And because it so often remains private, the victim can carry the shame for a lifetime while the perpetrator stays in denial.
The psychological impact depends on the victim’s relationship with the perpetrator. If the pedophile is a family member or someone who was trusted, the child not only suffers the abuse and betrayal but becomes confused about who and what is trustworthy. Often these children no longer trust their own judgment in people.
A man I treated said that after his father abused him, he had two choices: to hate his family or to hate himself. He said it felt safer to hate himself.
The most scarring kind of abuse is when it gets repeated or ritualized. Sometimes other family members know about the behavior but cannot acknowledge it even to themselves. So they pretend it isn’t happening. And we now know that institutions can do the same thing. Like families, institutions often attack the accusers when confronted with the truth. I have treated many people who were rejected when they summoned the courage to tell the truth to their families.
Despite the shame and secrecy, healing remains possible. In her book, The Violence of Men: New Techniques for Working With Abusive Families, psychologist Cloe Madanes says that, ideally, the perpetrator seeks treatment, consisting primarily of developing empathy for the abused child. The perpetrator would come to understand not only his own illness, but the terrible pain his behavior causes a child. Ideally, he would feel great regret and remorse.
Madanes even has the perpetrator make a public apology to the child. In that way, the perpetrator takes back the shame he deserves. The child, while far from healed, feels a semblance of understanding from the larger world.
This process is based on the philosophy behind the successful truth and reconciliation hearings, which began in South Africa after the end of apartheid. In these hearings, what was private became public and those who were injured were able to say publicly who injured them and how. And those who wanted amnesty could say publicly what they had done and express remorse.
In the real world, of course, most perpetrators do not seek treatment. And if they do, their heart is not in it. And if it is, the risk of repeating remains for as long as they live.
So what happens to all these aging victims whose suffering was never acknowledged?
I treated a 35-year-old man who was repeatedly molested by his baby-sitting uncle when he was 7 years old. He couldn’t tell his mother because he feared he had done something terribly wrong. But he begged her to find another baby-sitter. His mother responded that her brother was wonderful and caring so the abuse continued for several years.
The boy grew up and tried all sorts of drugs to numb the shame. And when he eventually told his parents, they sided with his uncle and said he must be making up these stories. Despite the pain of that confrontation, he no longer felt ashamed of what had happened. He realized that the illness he carried his whole life didn’t belong to him. It belonged to his uncle and his family.
To all the men and women abused by people you trusted in the church, you may never find the justice that so many of us desire. And you may never hear your perpetrator say: “I understand that my behavior caused you terrible suffering. I understand that I’ve violated your body and your spirit.”
But thanks to a devoted grand jury and a tenacious media, your story is being told. And now the larger community knows what happened to you.
I am sure thousands out there will agree with me when I say I understand the suffering you have endured. I understand the rage you must have carried. And I am deeply sorry for what happened to you. And despite the injustice, I wish you peace.