It Happens Here: Child Sexual Abuse

This is the first article of our new semi-regular column, “It Happens Here,” challenging humanists to reflect on adversity and trauma in our own community, and advocate for positive change.

[Content warning: contains discussions of abuse, trauma, sexual assault]

Rampant child abuse in the Catholic Church is an institutional and systemic failure. Without question, the reports that have come out of Pennsylvania and elsewhere are damning. However, the “tsk, tsking” by nonbelievers talking about how only the church could get away with such abuses for so long gives me pause.

Child abuse happens everywhere. Though the information presented in these reports has yet to be synthesized, the percentage of Catholic priests abusing children is historically no higher than the percentage of perpetrators in the general population, roughly 4 percent. What makes the Catholic Church so explosively despicable is the number of people involved in both covering up the abuses and allowing perpetrators to repeatedly victimize children.

But this, too, happens everywhere. We’ve seen universities and public schools protect perpetrators with no regard for how they are irrevocably damaging child victims—and it’s a lot of children. According to a 2009 study published in Clinical Psychology Review, one out of five girls and one out of twelve boys will be sexually abused before they turn eighteen. The numbers are much higher for Black girls, children with disabilities, immigrant girls, and LGBTQ youth. Most of these children don’t hang around Catholic priests. Perpetrators are everywhere and, statistically speaking, they certainly exist within the nontheistic community.

According to US Department of Justice statistics, only 5 percent of child sex abuse is perpetrated by a stranger. Anyone in a guardianship position (teachers, coaches, babysitters, family members) can easily take advantage of any vulnerable child. There are countless factors that make a child a target, and the consequences are dire. Children who are sexually abused are more likely to be victimized again later in life, have higher levels of anxiety and PTSD, are more likely to have problems with alcohol use/dependence, and have higher rates of teen pregnancy.

In a 2007 survey published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 73 percent of children don’t tell anyone about the abuse for at least a year. Therefore, to protect children in our communities, we have to be able to recognize when a child is being abused. Although physical symptoms are uncommon, the following emotional and behavioral warning signs outlined by the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research and by the American Academy of Pediatrics can be indicative:

  • A shift in disposition or mood, such as depression, anger, rebellion, withdrawal, or clinginess
  • Running away from home
  • Too “perfect” behavior
  • Disturbances in sleep, such as nightmares or night terrors
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in attitude towards school or academics
  • Sudden refusal to change for gym or participate in physical activities
  • Unusual fear of certain people or places
  • Reluctance to be left alone with a certain person
  • Changes in body perception, such as thinking of themselves or their bodies as being dirty or bad
  • Regression to outgrown behaviors, such as bedwetting or thumb sucking
  • Bizarre, sophisticated, unusual or age-inappropriate sexual behavior or language
  • Abuse of other children sexually, or attempts to undress other people

The rarer physical symptoms include sexually transmitted infections; vaginal or rectal cuts or tears, pain, itching, swelling, bleeding, or discharge; trauma to breasts, buttocks, or lower abdomen; blood in underwear; unexplained or frequent health problems such as headaches or stomachaches; difficulty with bowel movements, urinating, or swallowing; difficulty walking or sitting, and self-mutilation, including biting, pulling out hair, or cutting.

If a child comes to you and says they’ve been assaulted, it’s imperative to believe them and tell them it’s not their fault. Children recognize facial cues and may shut down or change their story if they feel they aren’t believed. Many children are “groomed” by perpetrators, whether through gifts, threats, or guilt, to feel like they must keep the abuse secret. In these instances, children start to see themselves as co-conspirators in the abuse and think that they’re to blame.

If you suspect child sexual abuse or if a child discloses abusive behavior to you, report it. Too often children remain in dangerous situations because people assume that (a) the abuse isn’t occurring, (b) someone else will report, or (c) law enforcement’s response would be too drastic. None of these factors mitigate our responsibility to report when the well-being of a child is at stake. Each state has different reporting procedures, but Darkness to Light (1-866-FOR-LIGHT) and Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) are two national helplines that offer crisis intervention, information, and referrals.

Alongside supporting children, we must also take action to ensure the world is inhospitable to the sexual abuse of children. In the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, the jurors outlined their recommendations for much needed change in their state:

  • Strike the statute of limitations.
  • Enact a “civil window” law that would allow older victims to sue perpetrators and the organizations that protect them. People in their thirties and older only had a two year window to sue, which expired long before the church was held accountable. Pennsylvania ought to offer a new limited “window” to get those two years back.
  • Pass tighter mandated reporting laws.
  • Change the law concerning confidentiality agreements: no non-disclosure agreement should apply to criminal investigations.

Take a few minutes to educate yourself on the rights of victims of child abuse in your state and lobby your state representatives for stronger protections.

Lastly, we should all teach and respect child consent and bodily autonomy. No child should be forced to kiss grandma or hug their babysitter. By teaching children that they get to decide how and when they’re touched, we’re teaching them that they are in control of their bodies.

None of this is infallible. As long as there are perpetrators who want to victimize vulnerable children, we must remain vigilant not only in religious spaces, but in our own communities as well. It certainly happens here. But it doesn’t have to.