Up until recently, I have not sought out information on the Penn State scandal. I have picked up more than bits and pieces, though, as I am almost constantly connected to social media, and my husband has followed the story with interest.
Quite honestly, I’m sure that this avoidance has been purposeful, if even on a somewhat sub-conscious level. The nightmare of sexual abuse is one that I know from personal experience and, though I have pursued and obtained much healing, powerful waves of emotion can easily overtake me when things like this come to light. It is a feeling that I deal with as it comes, but not one I often go looking for.
There is so much to be sad, angry and sickened over. Whether it is a coach, family member, clergyman, or a stranger, the effects of sexual abuse are immediate and catastrophic to the victim’s soul. There is no human punishment befitting of the one who commits such an awful crime against the body, soul and spirit of another. I have been in sadness as increasingly horrific details emerge from this specific case, and more than a little angry when I think about the silence of those who witnessed some of the abuses, but said nothing.
Apart from the particulars of this current and well-publicized scandal, I am once again rocked by the pervasiveness of sexual abuse. The statistics are horrifying: 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be abused before the age of 18. Those numbers are nauseating, and probably low. Dan Allender says here, “I know that everyone in America is relating directly and intimately with at least one person who has been sexually abused. And damn it, we don’t talk about it.” Once confronted with the reality of the proportion of the population who has been abused, the silence of our culture is deafening. If you haven’t already clicked through to the Allender post, please read it for his thoughts on this phenomenon.
What has been weighing especially heavily on my heart and what I keep coming back to that usually receives little-to-no airtime, is the home of the abused child. If the numbers above frighten you as much as me, these are equally troubling: the vast majority of survivors are abused by someone they know. (94% in one study.) The implications are enormous.
Certainly, there are many cases of sexual abuse that are “random” acts of evil and not in any way brought on by a caretaker’s negligence. But often, a predator looks for a person whose soul is not nourished at home, leaving them vulnerable and unprotected to the perpetrator, and without a safe place to turn to after the damage has occurred. You can imagine the psyche of a child who undergoes consistent, lasting torment at the hands of another and doesn’t say anything: before the attack occurred, that child’s voice had already been lost.
There is nothing more unsettling for a child than the feeling of powerlessness that comes with the knowledge that those who are put on this Earth to protect them have either contributed to their abuse, turned a blind eye when they saw it, or given them no place to turn when they were violated. Facing the reality that those who are supposed to protect us have abdicated their role and left us to the wolves is profoundly damaging. In fact, it is more than some can bear. I have heard women talk about their families, how wonderful, loving and supportive they are, yet also admit that they have never spoken of their sexual abuse to their parents. There is a major cognitive “miss” here. The betrayal of the family is not acknowledged.
I am not just talking about a parent who sees abuse occurring and refuses to intervene. That indeed happens, but betrayal can come in a number of other ways, many insidious, that render the family incapable of providing the protection that God intended. Picture a child whose father tells him to “quit moping” when his countenance is fallen, because the family system doesn’t allow for pain to be experienced or acknowledged. The father is too uninvolved and selfish to look into the source of his child’s agony. Or a mother who is unstable and needy. Her ability to function depends on the apparent harmony and relative functioning of the family. Obviously, these are not places where a child can legitimately turn for protection, yet “Abuse victims rarely admit the near ‘impossibility’ of securing help from their family of origin; rather they blame themselves for not seeking help.”¹
When I first began to face my abuse and name it, this is where most of my reflection occurred and the source of my most profound pain. It was as if the scales fell off of my eyes, and I began to face for the first time that my family was not a place of safety, that my parents were committed to many things more deeply than my protection, and that the dynamics there had actually “set me up” to be abused. I need to be clear here in that absolutely no fault can be removed from the youth pastor who initiated a physical, sexual relationship with me. The responsibility of his actions belongs to him alone. I am not removing the blame from the abuser-proper. Rather, the unsafe family is a fertile breeding ground where the evil of sexual abuse can grow more easily and often unchecked.
If the numbers of children who have been abused is on the rise, and if the vast majority of those abuses are from a family member, friend or acquaintance (in other words, not a stranger), then it seems we are losing the family as a place of safety. We are losing parents who really parent, and therefore we are losing childhood, and children. I have no solutions, but I do know that fighting this darkness requires that we move toward it, rather than cowering in fear, discouragement or denial.
We must begin to name our abuse and that of our friends, spouses and children. In that naming we will begin to give a voice to those who have been silenced; we will refuse to further victimize ourselves and others through denial; we will enter the story that up to a quarter of Americans are living.
Having the courage to enter the story is where healing begins.
¹Taken from The Wounded Heart, by Dan Allender