The Lasting Damages of Sexual Abuse in the Church
One in every four girls report being sexually abused before the age of eighteen. One in every six women report rape at one point in their life and one in twenty men and women report sexual violence other than rape. Countless others remain silent. This type of abuse occurs around the world and recent years have shown churches are not immune.
The church should always be a safe place, but predators have used the protection of the church to hide and even to facilitate their crimes. To understand why this happens, we have to understand what sexual abuse is and how it takes shape.
As defined by the American Psychological Association and the Encyclopedia of Psychology, sexual abuse is “an unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” This abuse can come in many different forms and encompasses many forms of violence that can be traumatic and have long-term effects on the victims.
Sadly, the majority of sexual abuse victims and perpetrators know each other before the offense. This is key to understanding sexual abuse within the church.
The perpetrators of sex crimes are very frequently people of authority, whether it be a family member or community leader. Repeat offenders built relationships that allow them to enact and hide their crimes simultaneously. The intent is to keep victims silent.
Sexual abuse is notoriously under-reported and much of it is due to shame and fear. Those who commit sexual abuse tend to use intimidation to keep their victims quiet. Overtly, this may be through physical abuse or threats, but just as often this intimidation is done more subtly. Power alone can be enough to coerce victims into maintaining silence or deter them from reporting crimes. There is always the concern that the victim won’t be believed even if they report their abuse. When this power is perceived to come from God, it can be even more persistent.
Even more troubling, the relationship between the powerful and supposedly virtuous perpetrator and the shamed victim can more psychologically toxic. The status of the individual who commits sexual abuse has an effect on their victims that can cause the victim to believe their abuser is in the right or that they somehow “deserve” the abuse.
The terrible after-effects of this type of trauma and psychological manipulation are long-lasting and severe. The self-doubt, shame, and feelings of betrayal can fester without the proper support, compassion, and therapy. Even with trained support, the path back to normality is long and painful.
Research has associated a history of sexual abuse with numerous psychiatric disorders. Abuse at any age is linked to higher risks of suicide attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression, and eating and sleep disorders. Heightened risk of substance abuse has also been linked to sexual abuse.
“Sexual abuse survivors face a challenging spectrum of physical and mental health symptoms, which results in high health care utilization, oftentimes without improvement in quality of life,” said Ali Zirakzadeh, M.D., primary researcher of a 2010 study on the associations between mental disorders and sexual abuse.
Zirakzadeh’s study, published in the July 2010 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found prevalence rates of sexual abuse in some mental health patient populations to be as high as 21 percent in adults and 33 percent in children.
Healing from abuse of this nature requires attention on both the mind and the soul. Work must be done to help cope and work through the trauma while also rehabilitating the victim’s relationship with God.
Salvation and recovery are always possible. But addressing and healing from sexual abuse is a long and difficult journey and many need a helping hand to find long-term recovery and happiness.