Thursday, November 10, 2011

When childhood sexual abuse victims become footballs

For adult victims of childhood sexual abuse, news items like the ones currently flooding the media on the Penn State scandal can have unintended consequences.

On the one hand, such stories, if done well, can perform an important public service of raising consciousness about the grave harm that has been committed against an estimated one in four women and one in six men. Today's excellent story by ESPN columnist Rick Reilly, "Remember the Children," is a case in point.

On the other hand, any media coverage that gives details of childhood sexual abuse can cause victims stress, triggering painful memories and, for some, flashbacks.

The current stories are heavy on outrage, which is good—the public should be outraged. But talking about abuse without giving guidance for those who have suffered it can ultimately re-victimize people who have already been hurt so much—turning them into political footballs, if you will. Those living with the wounds of abuse need to learn that there is hope for healing.

Christians know that healing is to be found in and through Christ. As a Catholic, I have found the source of healing to be in and through Christ and His Church—in prayer, in the sacraments, and in communion with one another and all the Communion of Saints.

Priests and pastoral caregivers should be aware that those who have endured childhood sexual abuse are likely to have highly painful memories stirred up by the Penn State scandal, and they should be prepared to help them.

A good clue to what such victims go through is expressed by ESPN's Riley. Writing of those abused at Penn State, he highlights their vulnerability to anger, misplaced guilt, and broken relationships with loved ones: "The road these boys are on now is endless and buckled and uphill. Some will hate their parents for not protecting them and hate themselves for hating them. They will hate the pervert for tricking them and hate themselves for being tricked."

About two-thirds of cases of child sexual abuse are committed by a member of the child's family, and most of the remaining cases are committed by someone known to the family. What that means is that nearly every such case has an impact on the child's relationship with his or her parents. Even if the parents did not commit the abuse or do anything to enable it, they may respond to it in such a way as to aggravate the pain of the already wounded child. For example, they may imply to the child that he is in some way responsible for the abuse he received, or they may—perhaps seeking to protect the family member or friend who is responsible—chide him for making a big deal out of it.

One way that priests and pastoral caregivers can work to alleviate such suffering is to help victims understand the nature of forgiveness—particularly the difference between forgiveness, which we are commanded to practice always and everywhere, and reconciliation, which is not subject to the same command. I discuss this distinction in chapter 5 of my upcoming book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.

It is an important distinction to make, because very often people who were abused by their parents, or whose abuse led to a strain in their relationship with their parents, fear that their failure to fully reconcile keeps them from being right with God. They know the Lord's Prayer—"forgive us our trespasses as we forgive ..."—and they know the commandment to honor thy father and mother, and they worry that, when they avoid closeness with the parent who hurt them, they are remaining in sin.

They may seek help through the Sacrament of Penance, confessing resentment towards a family member, only to be told by their confessor—who does not know the larger context—to simply "forgive." For the penitent who thinks forgiveness requires reconciliation, such an instruction may only aggravate his sense of hopelessness—as though God were ordering him to put himself at risk of further emotional or physical harm.

What needs to be said is that the forgiveness mandated by the Lord's Prayer is, first and foremost, an interior forgiveness. Although forgiveness is by its nature directed towards reconciliation, it is fulfilled even if it never reaches that ultimate object. That is because forgiveness works in one direction, while reconciliation is a two-way street.

So, forgiveness is open to reconciliation, but the one who forgives takes into account the necessity of not putting oneself or one's offender in a near occasion of sin. If the offender is abusive, reconciliation is neither commanded nor even recommended. Beyond making an interior act of forgiveness, the most loving thing a victim can do for an abuser is to avoid giving him or her an opportunity to continue in abuse.

There remains the problem of finding the strength to forgive. The good news is that forgiveness, being an act of grace, does not depend on our own efforts. It is a work accomplished not by us, but in us, through the Holy Spirit that we received in our baptism. Our job is to ask the Spirit to forgive through us, turning our will to make us want God's best for the offender.

As can happen when grace acts upon human nature, such forgiveness is not necessarily an overnight affair; more likely, it will take time. But once the work begins, it bears fruit by enabling the victim to see her suffering within the context of Christ's abiding love for both the abuser and the abused. The Catechism expresses this comforting truth beautifully: "It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession" (CCC 2843).

RELATED: Deacon Greg Kendra profiles Deacon Scott Hurd and his new book Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach.