Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a report alleging that 300 priests sexually abused over 1,000 children and that the Catholic church actively protected the priests from the investigation of these crimes.
This report is the broadest examination by a U.S. government agency of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. While the report shows the magnitude to which the Catholic church has concealed its sexual abuse epidemic, it doesn’t capture the magnitude of child sexual abuse in the United States.
Here are few things you need to know about child sexual abuse:
▪ According to Darkness to Light, an agency that trains individuals and organizations in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse, 90 percent of child sexual abuse perpetrators are known by the victim. The idea that we need to protect our kids from strangers doesn’t support what research has told us. Sexual abuse is committed by family members, friends, teachers, coaches, pastors, rabbis, imams, atheists, and yes, priests. What we find most disturbing about this statistic is that people we trust, care about and sometimes even love can be the ones abusing our children.
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▪ Child sexual abuse happens way more than we know. One in 10 children will experience child sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. It affects all races, socio-economic statuses, religions, and genders. The Catholic church is not the only institution that faces the sexual abuse epidemic. Sexual abuse happens in schools, colleges, churches, and sports teams. Earlier this year, Larry Nassar was sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of teenage athletes, including Olympians like Aly Raisman.
▪ Only 38 percent of victims of child sexual abuse disclose their abuse and some never disclose at all. It can be hard for a child to disclose their abuse because they are worried about the abuser’s response, if they will be believed, and if the information will disrupt their family, churches and community. Often, perpetrators have groomed children to keep their abuse a secret. Keeping that secret can have traumatic consequences on a child’s development, mental health, and even physical health. According to Darkness to Light, “Children who are sexually abused are at significantly greater risk for later post traumatic stress and other anxiety symptoms, depression, and suicide attempts … Child sexual abuse is also associated with physical health problems in adulthood.”
While these are disheartening facts, there are two pieces of good news.
The first is that healing is possible! Hopeful Horizons is a children’s advocacy, domestic violence and rape crisis center that provides advocacy, support and mental health treatment. Hopeful Horizons partners with law enforcement, child protective services and other organizations to protect victims in a trauma-informed and child-friendly manner. All of these services are free and confidential.
One of the key takeaways from this Pennsylvania report is that powerful institutions, like the Catholic church, have a tendency to lean toward self-preservation to the detriment of victims of abuse.
The second piece of good news is that awareness of the nature of institutions to protect itself can inform leaders to take action that can prevent this from happening.
Hopeful Horizons offers training on recognizing the signs of child sexual abuse and how individuals and organizations can respond in ethical and responsible ways. Additionally, information about how to make schools, churches and other organizations safer, such as having a robust child protection policy, will help us prevent child sexual abuse.
It’s much easier to point fingers at the Catholic church, but much more challenging for each of us to acknowledge that we all have a role to play if we want to end the epidemic of child sexual abuse. The good news is we can because child sexual abuse is 100 percent preventable.
Shauw Chin Capps is CEO of Hopeful Horizons with offices in Beaufort and Bluffton, www.hopefulhorizons.org.