Programs for addicts, prayer group for cancer patients, outreach for the homeless, mission trips to poor countries, and many church ministry groups, but when it comes to child sexual abuse (CSA), most churches are silent. Why? Speak Your Silence Organization and 1in6 organization disclose that researchers have found that 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys, are sexually abused before the age of 18. Deborah Gerrity and Laura Matthews of American Psychology Research emphasize that child sexual abuse frequency and incidence are difficult to approximate because child sexual abuse is considered a family matter (100). Given that factor, the number can be significantly higher. If a church has 100 members, there can be, on average, twenty child abuse victims in the congregation that are quietly masking their pain. One of the most destructive effects of child abuse is spiritual pain. Research demonstrates that the church is unprepared and not intentional enough to handle victims of child sexual abuse. The church should be better prepared to be the best community for survivors to cope, rebuild spirituality, and heal victim’s damaged soul.
What is child sexual abuse? In order to tackle the spiritual effects of abuse, one must know the physical and psychological effects as well.There are several effects of child sexual abuse such as physical and psychological pain. There are also varieties of different cases where the abuse occurred. For example, impact on clergy abuse, incest, outside the family, non-physical involvement, abuse within the church grounds, and mishandling the issue when it was reported. Nonetheless, the impacts are still damaging no matter what the case is, and it devastatingly produces pain. Dr. Thaeda Franz, a director of Family Services from Liberty University, offers this definition: “Sexual abuse can include genital contact or can occur without physical touch. Physical and emotional space can be violated with words, sounds or sights that are sexual in nature” (5). Gunner Karakurt and Kristin E. Silver, from the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in Cleveland, Ohio, describe the physical and psychological effects:
There is undeniable evidence that CSA is associated with a substantial increased risk of psychopathology, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse. The extent of damage to well-being and functioning differs substantially among CSA survivors. Consequences range from mild emotional or behavioral problems, such as low self-esteem and poor school performance, to severe mental illness. Interpersonal problems are some of the most common issues among people who were sexually abused as children. Particularly when the parent perpetrates the sexual abuse, it harms a child’s lifelong ability to establish trusting, intimate relationships. Sexually abused children also have more sexual and marital difficulties as adults.(80)
There is plenty of research and study on the physical and psychological effects of abuse. However, there is limited research about the church’s engagement on providing help regarding for victims.
The spiritual impact of abuse is one of the most devastating effects for it involves varieties of fatal irregularities. Michael Galea, a clinical psychologist stresses in the article, “Pastoral Psychology,” that there are spiritual effects of child sexual abuse such as anger at God and low religiosity. He also pointed out four dynamic impacts of child abuse: traumatic sexuality, betrayal and violation of trust, powerlessness, and stigmatization (148). Traumatic sexuality is the confusion of a person’s sexual identity such as homosexuality when a child molested by an adult of the same sex. Religious victims will overthink that they are damned sinners for homosexuality is portrayed a very serious sin among most churches. Betrayal and violation of trust creates paranoia from a victim’s mind. Most victims will assume that people cannot be trusted. It is even more devastating when a child or an adult discloses the abuse but is rejected by a trusted person. According to Gerrity and Matthews, “The more extreme the betrayal of trust, the greater psychological damage to the child, and the more severe the sequalae for the adult survivor” (100). Most victims who disclose their pain to trusted church leaders, and yet are dismissed or mishandled, produce even more spiritual damage to a victim’s life. Powerlessness promotes the idea to victims that they cannot do anything about the abuse. “It happened,” so victims just move on without realizing the long term effects of the abuse. Unfortunately, with this state of mind, it harvests negative ideas that most victims try to find ways to cope the pain that was never expressed. Powerlessness turns to hopelessness. Lastly, one of the damaging spiritual effects is stigmatization; which pollutes the victim’s personal identity. Most victims view themselves as monsters, sinners, filthy, and unpardonable. If most churches are silent and not talking about it, then child abuse must be insignificant, then their pain must be unimportant? This obscures the victim’s spiritual life. Franz also highlights that, “There can be a profound spiritual damage in the instances of sexual abuse where the abuser and the victim are both religious”. She also emphasizes that spiritual damage is even greater if the abuser is a spiritual leader (5). It results in lack of trust towards leadership, and by association towards God. The common question that most victims ask is “Where is God?” This question alludes to the idea of an uncaring God, which leads some victims to avoid seeking spiritual help. It obstructs a real relationship towards God that can often leads victims to hopelessness, a key factor in suicidal thoughts. And if God is non-existent in a victim’s life, then the purpose of living is deeply blurred. Then, what is the purpose of the church? What is the role of the church to help victims of abuse?
Sadly, the church is failing when it comes to reaching out to child sexual abuse victims. The lack of awareness and education silences victims from disclosing this traumatic and destructive event. It is a complicated and sensitive issue that most churches are afraid to tackle. Franz uses Heggen’s book, “Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches,” to strongly accentuate that the church has ignored the problem of sexual abuse and ignored victims of sexual abuse. He also points out a fact that the churches are at worst unwilling, and at best unable to discuss sexual abuse has not made it any easier for victims to have their questions answered regarding God and His seeming unwillingness to have protected them (5). Galea mentions that American sociologist David Finkelhor noticed a tendency through many studies among males to underreport sexual trauma (148). Why? Stigmatization. Karakurt and Silver research provides statistics of sexual abuse, “A retrospective cohort study by Dube, et al. (2005) of 17,337 adults found that 16% males and 25% females experienced child sexual abuse” (79). That is 2,773 boys and 4,334 girls with a total of 7,107 sexual abuse victims. And, that was ten years ago. In the research made by Gerrity and Matthews, it points out several places where leaders work with child sexual abuse victims. Places such as children’s advocacy center, child protective services, residential treatment programs, and parenting programs (108). Disappointingly, the study never mentioned any church programs available for victims. Why? Are children not reporting? The effect of powerlessness comes into play that most victims feels they do not have a voice. Victims remain silent. The church remain silent. But, the abuse and the pain continues.
Social worker Erin Olson O’Neill of Lifelink International states in an article regarding child abuse neglect that, “treatment of child abuse is outside of the scope of practice of church leaders who, according to this findings, have little training on child abuse or child abuse intervention” (401).The church has become part of the problem rather than the solution.Dr. Donald F. Walker, a professor and director of Child Trauma in Regent University shares a remarkable introduction:
A year ago at the international meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, I (Walker) stood in a symposium being chaired by Aten and asked if the church was really ready to respond to issues of child abuse, domestic violence, and in supporting survivors of wars or disasters. A year later, not much has changed with respect to the current state of research, training, and practice in religion, spirituality, and trauma among Christian practitioners.(349)
If the church is not responsive with the broader aspect of child abuse, then how much left is there for the more sensitive and complex issue of child sexual abuse? Something needs to be done now. How? The church.
In the midst of chaos and confusion of a victim’s life, the church should provide hope and healing to survivors. It does not matter if the trauma occurred within or outside of church, victims still lingers the question, “where was God?” A spiritual question inside victim’s mind and where is the perfect place to seek answer for this heartbreaking query? The church. Jan Frank, a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor, who trains leaders how to minister effectively to victims of child abuse, gives out three helpful strategies in her book, Door of Hope, “First, we should raise the wounded up. Second, we need to help them repair their broken and shattered lives. Third, we need to restore them to a healthy path” (5). Pastors and church leaders should also know someone outside the church walls for psychological needs. If there are no programs within the church, the church should know a place for victims to unleash their pain. A pastor in a local church in San Diego, honestly discloses that there are no programs in his church to help victims but he knows therapists and psychologists that can help victims if they come up to him. Nonetheless, the church cannot continue to pass this opportunity to reach out for these dying souls ravaged by their traumatic past. A church should provide education on the effects of child abuse to leaders, awareness to congregation to break the stigma against child abuse, and fill the gaps for spiritual healing. Walker suggested to explore Christian trauma interventions, including: lay counseling, peer support, prevention, and church-based intervention (352). The training needs to start from the top. Pastors and leaders should embrace and get out of their comfort zone when talking about child sexual abuse. If Jesus was willing to talk to that adulterous Samaritan woman at the well, then why are the church leaders complacent when it comes to sexual issues? Leaders, and pastors need to educate themselves so that they can educate others. There are organizations that are promoting the impacts of child sexual abuse to bring awareness. Organizations such as: Committed To Freedom, Rape, Abuse, and International Network (RAINN), 1in6.org, Speak Your Silence, Metropolitan Organization To Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA), MaleSurvivor.org, and Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ACSA). These organizations provides helpful resources, outreach programs, and personal stories about child sexual abuse. Peer support is also an essential strategy on assisting victims to cope well. Depression is one of the most destructive effects of abuse, and suicide always correlates with depression. Peer support offers victims a place to be okay or not be okay; it can break the chains of depression. Family, friends, church members, and other peers provide additional healing to victims. Most victims do not have the immediate opportunity to express their trauma to a supportive, nonjudgmental person. Instead, they hold the intense emotions surrounding the event inside and develop harmful defenses that allow them to cope with their internal pain (Frank 33). Peers listening and understanding the victim’s stories offer enormous help. Prayer also provides essential benefits to victims. O’neill exemplifies:
Prayer has been linked to improved quality of life among cancer patients and post-operative cardiac patients. Additionally, family therapists have confirmed that prayer serves as an effective conflict resolution tool and improves clients’ level of change responsibility. Church leaders in this study emphasized prayer’s connection to healing and personal change.(400)
Prayer is an important asset that the church can offer to victims. The church is the perfect place when it comes to spiritual healing.
Hopefully, a change can happen. Church is a place for sinners, lost, and brokenhearted. It is a place where most unbelievers think God resides. It is a place for spiritual healing. It is a place for the depressed, alone, and hopeless. It is a place for child sexual abuse victims to confide. The importance of the church affects victims on how they approach survivors. The church either leads victims to hate God, or it can produces new life. Therapist, psychologist, social workers, and mental institutions provide physical, and mental help to victims, but the most important aspect of life, spirituality, and the church should be one that provides that help. Where else can survivors seek help for spiritual support? If the church is unavailable, unprepared, and unaware, then how can survivors thrive? Sally Culbrethwrote an article, “Where was God?” encourages victims:
As you navigate through your own abuse, through the betrayal, the torment, and the exploitation, I hope you consider – or reconsider – how your spiritual connection with God might be reconfigured. Jesus – called the Lamb of God in Scripture – is a fellow abuse survivor. Our Creator, embedded in Creation, has experiential knowledge of the human condition – including the darkest parts of what people are capable of doing to each other.
There is hope. The deafening stillness needs to conclude. It is time to celebrate. It is time to make a difference. It is time to make a change. It is time to break the silence.
1in6.org. “About 1in6.” Web. 4 March 2005.
Culbreth, Sally. “Where Was God?” Committed To Freedom: Abuse Recovery Solutions. 2011. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Frank, Jan. “Door of Hope: Recognizing and Resolving The Pains of Your Past.” Thomas Nelson: Nashville TN. 1995. Print.
Franz, Thaeda. “Power, Patriarchy And Sexual Abuse In Churches Of Christian Denomination.” Traumatology 8.1 (2002): 4-17. PsycARTICLES. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
Galea, Michael. “The Impact of Child Abuse on the Psycho-Spiritual and Religious Status of Maltese College Students.” Pastoral Psychology 57.3-4 (2008): 147-59. ProQuest. 5 Mar. 2015
Gerrity, Deborah A., and Laura Mathews. “Leader Training And Practices In Groups For Survivors Of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, And Practice 10.2 (2006): 100-115. PsycARTICLES. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
Karakurt, Gunnur, and Kristin E. Silver. “Therapy For Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors Using Attachment And Family Systems Theory Orientations.” American Journal Of Family Therapy 42.1 (2014): 79-91. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
O’neill, Erin Olson., et al. “Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect through Church and Social Service Collaboration.” Social Work and Christianity 37.4 (2010): 381-406. ProQuest. 5 Mar. 2015
Speak Your Silence. “The Stitch.” Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Walker, Donald F.Aten, Jamie D. “Future Directions For The Study And Application Of Religion, Spirituality, And Trauma Research.” Journal Of Psychology & Theology 40.4 (2012): 349-353. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 2 Mar. 2015