How to Prevent or Recognize and Confront Child Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a tragedy so horrific and destructive that it can (and often does) leave lifelong psychological scars on the victims and their families.

By Kathleen Reagan

No More a Taboo Subject

Fear, rage and disgust are the raw emotions that paralyze parents confronted with the issue of child sexual abuse. It is a parent’s worst nightmare, a tragedy so horrific that we can only imagine how destructive it is to the child victim and family.

For years, we have been left to our own devices to try to make sense of the unspeakable – that children could be sexually abused by trusted adults: priests, teachers, childcare providers, family friends or relatives.

Child sexual abuse was once a taboo subject. A generation ago, parents of child victims even denied that such abuse occurred; they were unable to believe that a trusted adult would be capable of hurting their children. Abuse allegations were discussed in hushed voices, with a sense of humiliation.

But today, national headlines about priests abusing children confront us daily and force us to see child sexual abuse in a stark new context. As we continue to hear these sensational reports, we need to put the issue into perspective and understand the nature of the damage caused by this kind of abuse. This will enable us to better educate our kids about safety, to know how to spot dangerous adults and to deal with the unspeakable if it occurs. And, perhaps most important, we need to understand that help is there for those who seek it.

Putting the Headlines in Perspective

As horrible as the stories of priests sexually abusing children are, parents should keep in mind that these incidents are relatively rare. The flurry of reports of abuse now riveting the nation stem, for the most part, from incidents that happened over many years, a long time ago.

Furthermore, the headlines about predator priests (or in other cases, teachers, coaches or childcare workers) must not obscure a central, sobering fact: Child sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by family members or those with access to children in the home.

Federal statistics from 1997, the most recent available, reveal that 54 percent of confirmed cases of child sexual abuse were committed by parents or by “parent substitutes in a caretaker role.” Another 40 percent of the cases were committed by a group that includes other family members.

“Statistically speaking, the percentage of cases that were committed by those not related to the child is a minority of cases,” says Kevin Kirkpatrick, spokesperson for Prevent Child Abuse America, a nonprofit child protection organization. 

In Massachusetts, where many of the latest allegations of predator priests have originated, an estimated 500 or more cases of sexual abuse have been reported as being committed by Catholic clergy since 1980, according to Jetta Bernier, executive director for Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a nonprofit public advocacy group.

During that same time period, however, the state Department of Social Services had more than 25,000 substantiated allegations of intra-familial sexual abuse, Bernier points out. Overall, more than 95 percent of all abuse reported to child protective agencies happens in the home.

“There is no reason to think that these statistics do not represent a general trend nationwide,” Bernier explains.

Kirkpatrick agrees. “Massachusetts compares generally with other states in this regard, and there is no reason to think that those statistics are an aberration.”

In other words – though this is hardly a comfort to parents – children are far more likely to be sexually abused within the protective walls of their own homes, by relatives or family members than by clergy, teachers or coaches. But whether a priest, a family member or a peer is the abuser, children suffer from the same damaging effects. These effects are insidious, powerful and, in many cases, lifelong. Those who wonder why adults are still struggling to deal with the effects of childhood abuse simply do not understand the consequences of abuse.

Trust and Development

The primary – and most devastating – damage caused by child sexual abuse is the destruction of trust. Experts in child development say that trust is a key developmental task for children. They must learn to trust the world, and those in it, to take care of them. It begins at birth, as the baby cries and his or her parents reliably respond. Infants soon learn to trust their caregivers, and as children, the trust and love they develop for a parent or caregiver fosters their sense of comfort and self-esteem.

“The quality of attachment is the most human quality we have, and when we give love and concern to the child, this love is integrated by the child,” says Paula Stahl, a licensed therapist who focuses on dealing with sexual, physical and domestic abuse.

As children grow, they learn to transfer their trust to teachers and other adults. Throughout childhood, children form relationships with peers and begin to value intimacy. In adolescence, they begin to consider the world and their place in it. They learn to relate moral development and religious concepts to themselves, so that these abstract ideas have relevance to their own lives. Yet this can only happen if they can continue to trust the world they live in.

The Damage Done

Sexual abuse attacks that trust and derails children’s mental and physical development. Stahl reports observing adults in their late 20s and early 30s who were sexually abused as children and had never talked about it. These adults, she says, were unable to maintain intimacy, and suffered from a history of abusive relationships and relational difficulties.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) describes similar effects in its discussions of child sexual abuse. 

Most troubling is how abuse affects children’s moral development, Stahl says. As they try to make sense of the world, abused children may think, “If I weren’t bad, this would not have happened.” This can lead to self-fulfilling behavior, such as lying, stealing and more serious crimes.

A horrifying cycle can result from this moral confusion, as some abused children become abusers themselves. In many cases, abusers rationalize their actions as “love” to their victims. As they attempt to preserve sanity and retain some notion of themselves as cherished beings, they grow up confusing abusive behavior with “love.” In the worst scenario, the abused adult perpetrates that “love” against a new wave of young victims.

Sexual abuse also injures children’s sense of their own bodies; they feel damaged in unseen yet physical ways. Long-term sexual abuse can lead to physical changes in brain structure, including the hormonal system, which can affect health over a lifetime.

Still, experts are careful to say that these effects are not inescapable – that some children start out as more resilient, and that for all children, a loving, supportive environment can counteract many consequences of abuse.

Nationally, though, the cost of child sexual abuse is overwhelming – and not just in personal terms – to the victims. One startling statistic released in April 2001 shows that America spends more than $94 billion annually to cover the direct and indirect costs of child abuse and neglect, including child sexual abuse. According to Prevent Child Abuse America, child abuse costs each American family more than $1,400 annually.

The reason is clear, says Kirkpatrick. “For every dollar we spend in treating the effects of child sexual abuse, we spend only a penny in preventing it.”

The group points to Vermont as a state that has achieved some success in the prevention of child sexual abuse through its STOP IT NOW!© program, which treats child sexual abuse as a public health issue and uses public education to emphasize adult responsibility in preventing abuse.

Talking Safety

But how can we prevent sexual abuse? Talking with our kids is still the simplest and most effective method, child advocates say. They urge us not to wait for a crisis, but instead to talk often with our children – in a calm, reassuring way – just as we talk about water safety or fire safety. They suggest talking with children about:

  • Where their private areas are – the parts covered by a bathing suit.
  • The correct names of their private parts. Parental shyness about saying words such as “penis” or “vagina” can lead to children also feeling uncomfortable about raising such topics.
  • “Good touches” and “touches that make children feel uncomfortable.” Explain that no adult should touch children’s private areas, or have the child touch an adult’s private areas. No adult should touch a child in a way that makes that child feel uncomfortable. Teach your children that if such touching occurs, they should tell you immediately.

Talking about all of these matters helps children understand body boundaries, and gives them permission to trust their own feelings. Abuse prevention experts also offer these tips to parents:

  • Tell your children that no adult should ask them to keep secrets, and if one does, a child should tell another grown-up right way.
  • Talk with your kids about personal safety on a regular basis. Children need repetition to learn. Research shows that safety skills need to be taught a minimum of five to 10 times every year. Role-playing specific scenarios (“What if … ?”) can help children learn how to react by practicing their actions beforehand. Lessons at home can be reinforced at school with curricula on child safety.
  • Most of all, stay involved in your children’s lives. Keep the lines of communication open. Observe your kids and be aware that abused children who are not able to talk about it (which is often the case) will probably show their distress in other ways.


Confronting Abuse

Even stringent measures may not prevent sexual abuse from occurring. If parents are confronted with signs that abuse has occurred, the most important thing is to be “emotionally supportive” of their child, says Michele Winterstein, Ph.D., clinical director of For the Child, a not-for-profit mental health clinic in Long Beach, Calif. “This means really listening to your child and not being dismissive; asking open-ended questions in a low-key way (‘Can you tell me what happened?’ for example); and getting the appropriate authorities involved, without jumping to conclusions prematurely.”

Unfortunately, once the specter of abuse is raised, the harm is not confined to the victim. Abuse causes trauma to parents, as well. That often needs to be addressed therapeutically, Winterstein says. But there are things parents can do if they suspect abuse to help their children and themselves in the long run.

If you suspect that your child has been abused, Stahl adds, “your job at that point is to be a parent, not the investigator and not the therapist.”

  • Do not try to investigate the suspected abuse yourself. Children are very suggestible, and could agree with statements in an effort to please. Parents cannot be sure that their questions are producing accurate answers. Furthermore, parents aren’t equipped to behave as therapists, especially when they themselves are feeling intense emotions. Instead, parents are advised to reach out to trained professionals, such as police and therapists, who are qualified to deal with these issues.

If a child has not made accusations, but instead displays worrisome behavioral signs, you can discuss those signs with the child, saying, for example, “You haven’t been sleeping well lately, and we are concerned for you. We want to take you to talk to someone who may be able to help all of us.”

  • Once abuse has been alleged, make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician. Many children will feel that the abuse has injured them physically, and pediatricians can address this issue in a reassuring, definitive way. The AACAP notes that there are often no obvious physical signs of sexual abuse, and some signs can only be detected by an examining physician.
  • Separate your own feelings from the situation when talking to a child who may have been sexually abused. Present a calm, reassuring demeanor, Stahl advises. “Children look to adults to reassure them that someone is going to stop the abuser. Parents can tell children that sometimes a team of adults may be needed to stop them, such as police or doctors. But in any case, parents need to let children know that it is the adults’ job to stop the perpetrator, and it is the child’s job to tell.”

Winterstein cites another reason why it’s important for parents to control their feelings in front of their child: Children are very aware of their parents’ feelings. And they may ration their disclosures according to how upset their parents seem to be.

In many suspected cases of abuse, a definitive conclusion may not be available. But when a perpetrator has been identified, parents will face the issue of whether to pursue criminal prosecution or not.

Martha Coakley is a district attorney in Massachusetts, where criminal charges were recently filed against accused pedophile Father Paul Shanley. In May, Shanley was arrested in San Diego, where he had moved before numerous accusations against him were made public.

Coakley points out that investigations and prosecutions of sexual offenses have changed to accommodate the needs of child witnesses. The interviewing process has been streamlined, special victim-witness advocates help children and their parents, and the trial process has been modified. As a prosecutor, though, Coakley also notes that child testimony is essential in these cases.

“The whole point of this process is to keep the child safe, so parents have a say if prosecution is not therapeutically recommended,” she says. “In my experience though, children are not as afraid of testifying as their parents fear. For them, the important thing is that they told the truth, and that they were believed.” 

When Adults Do Bad Things

Helping children understand sexual abuse, whether they’ve been victims or not, seems like an impossible task, particularly when we don’t really understand this abuse ourselves. Children naturally turn to their parents to ask the big questions in life. Among the hardest questions to answer are those that come when children are confronted with the presence of evil in their world – when adults do bad things.

Today’s headlines offer no respite from this question, as children struggle to make sense of the Sept. 11 tragedy, the continuing “hunt” for terrorists, and, yes, the stories of predator priests. How do we help our children understand and cope with the reality of evil?

Stahl advises parents to separate the deed from the person, and the person from the class to which he or she belongs. In other words, explain to children that priests as a group do not commit bad actions against children: “This man, who happens to be a priest, did a bad thing.”

And remember, Stahl urges, children who ask questions about the evil that happens in the world are looking for reassurance that they themselves are safe. This, fortunately, is a question that parents can answer.

Kathleen Reagan is a freelance writer and law professor who has written extensively on the issue of priests and child sexual abuse.

See also:

Warning Signs

What’s Play, What’s Not?