A discussion of the tragedy of abuse.

Susan * held her little daughter Amy in her lap as they rocked together, as much for Susan’s comfort as for Amy’s. It had been several days since Susan had first suspected that a trusted relative had been molesting Amy.

When Susan had first approached Amy to ask her if she and the other person had any secrets or if she felt uncomfortable about anything he did, Amy had replied with an emphatic no. But she had been nervous and fidgety.

Now Susan wrapped her precious daughter in her arms, reassuring her that the other person had been wrong and that Amy would not get in trouble for divulging her “secret.” She told Amy that she wanted to help her and reminded her of the many people who truly loved her. Reluctantly, Amy began to talk. Unfortunately, experiences like Amy’s are not unusual. Church leaders have deplored abuse to children in all its forms.

Abuse is not always easy to define because the offenses are of such divergent types and degrees. There are three major categories of child abuse—physical, emotional, and sexual. All are devastating to a child’s psychological and emotional well-being. Furthermore, they are not mutually exclusive. One child may be subject to two or even all three forms, and various children in an abusive family may each receive different kinds of abuse.

Physical abuse may occur when parents are frustrated by a child’s normal behavior. A small child’s crying, eating, toilet, and sleep patterns, or an older child’s rebellion against parental values and edicts, are difficult for some parents to handle. Some may resort to inappropriate physical punishments.

One problem with using physical punishment is that children may learn to hate those who hurt them rather than learning correct principles with which to govern their lives. Often, young men and women of college age I have counseled do not remember the reasons for which they were physically abused, but their memories of the pain they suffered from a father or mother who hurt them are deeply etched in their minds.

Emotional abuse is more difficult to define, and children who have so suffered come from all types of homes. They report being humiliated and made to feel worthless, or being treated with sarcasm and degradation. They may have been compared to other siblings or told how bad, worthless, or unwanted they are. One young woman was repeatedly told how much her parents had wanted a boy when she was born.

Sometimes parents with unrealistic expectations of perfection say such things as “Don’t you realize you are disgracing the family name? Remember, you are a Jones.” Comments like these have nothing to do with the child’s worth as a child of God.

Other comments may be more subtle, but can still cause deep emotional pain. “How could you hurt your mother like this?” “How do you ever expect to get married if you don’t lose a little weight?” Even when the individuals making such comments have the best intentions, they give children feelings of inferiority that may last for years. When we keep expectations realistic and are more concerned about the child than about how others may perceive us as parents, we can give loving counsel to our children without hurting them emotionally.

Probably the most shocking form of child abuse is sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse is any sexual activity imposed upon a child. Most shocking of all is when such abuse is perpetrated by a family member, such as a parent, a grandparent, an uncle, a cousin, or a stepparent or another adoptive family member. The magnitude of these crimes is matched only by the secrecy that surrounds them.

When child abuse involves sexual intimacy between the child and his natural, adoptive, or foster parent, stepparent, sibling, or grandparent, the crime is labeled incest. This crime is so serious that a Church disciplinary council must be held for any Church member who is guilty of it.

Whether incest is involved or not, sexual abuse is a terrifying nightmare for the children involved. Current U.S. national studies estimate that from 10 to 30 percent of young girls are subjected to some form of sexual abuse. (This article focuses on young girls because the percentages of abuse for them are higher than for young boys. But boys are not immune from the problem.)

For many years, people have thought of abusers as mentally ill, highly aggressive men who have poor relationships with their wives. This isn’t necessarily so. Those who commit child sexual abuse are of many different personality types, and they come from all social classes, geographic areas, and racial and religious backgrounds.

Although such abuse of children occurs in all types of families, some seem more vulnerable to abuse than others. These families are often psychologically isolated and have passive mothers, authoritarian fathers who exercise “unrighteous dominion,” or a daughter or son who is always expected to be obedient and is given no control in the family setting.

Unfortunately, not even Latter-day Saint homes are free of this stain. President Gordon B. Hinckley has expressed his indignation:

“There appears to be a plague of child abuse spreading across the world. … I am glad there is a hue and cry going up against this terrible evil, too much of which is found among our own. Fathers, you cannot abuse your little ones without offending God. Any man involved in an incestuous relationship is unworthy to hold the priesthood. He is unworthy to hold membership in the Church and should be dealt with accordingly.” (Ensign, May 1985, p. 50.)

President Thomas S. Monson has said: “The Church does not condone such heinous and vile conduct. Rather, we condemn in the harshest of terms such treatment of God’s precious children. Let the child be rescued, nurtured, loved, and healed. Let the offender be brought to justice, to accountability, for his actions and receive professional treatment to curtail such wicked and devilish conduct. When you and I know of such conduct and fail to take action to eradicate it, we become part of the problem. We share part of the guilt. We experience part of the punishment.” (Ensign, Nov. 1991, p. 69.)

Of all crimes, sexual abuse of children is one of the most devastating to the victim—whether or not there were multiple occurrences, and regardless of the extent of the abuse. When the abuse is incestuous, betrayal of the trust that should exist among family members increases the devastation. Those who are victims of such abuse often grow up with deep, unresolved feelings of guilt, unworthiness, anger, and betrayal.

Victims of such abuse in LDS homes feel especially trapped if the offender is a parent. Young children, feeling that they should obey and honor their parents, may be confused and filled with guilt when they question a parent’s actions. Desperately afraid and unhappy, they may fear that by reporting the abuse they will be tearing the family apart and destroying a parent’s good name. “All I could do,” says one victim, “was hope something would happen to make everything ‘all better.’”

In some of the most extreme cases, the sexually abusive behavior may become a way of life spanning a childhood. In fact, there have been cases in which children, abused from the time they were very young, wondered whether this kind of activity was a normal part of life. As these children learn about chastity from teachers and parents, they are deeply confused and may become promiscuous, run away from home, or use drugs. In later life, some who were abused as children have great difficulties in forming healthy, trusting, loving relationships.

Prevention

How can we spare children this terrible ordeal? Parents, friends, Church leaders—all of us—share a sacred responsibility to protect our children. It is not enough to warn them not to take candy from strangers or not to walk alone in dark places. They need to learn other lessons to protect themselves.

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    Cultivate open communication from the time children are very young. Both you and they should feel comfortable talking about their bodies. Children need to learn not only about anatomy, but also about the feelings associated with various parts of the body. When teaching children about their bodies, make sure they do not feel that their bodies are shameful or that bathing and appropriate physical examinations by a doctor are wrong. Teach that there are special parts of the body to be protected in special ways, just as we protect our eyes and ears in special ways.

  2. 2.

    Teach children that no one—not even Daddy or Mother or brothers or sisters or other relatives—should touch us in certain ways on certain parts of the body. When the child goes to a doctor, tell the child in advance what will take place, and always go with the child.

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    Teach children that it is all right to say no—even to an adult. When we teach our children to obey without question, we may be teaching them to become victims. Abusers can be policemen, physicians, baby-sitters, teachers, or any other person in authority. Children need to learn that they can firmly say no to inappropriate touching. Teach them to say, “Don’t touch me,” or “I’ll scream if you don’t leave me alone.” Then have them report any such incident to a trusted adult.

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    Trust your feelings as a parent, and encourage your children to trust their feelings. Any time you feel uneasy about the activity between a child and another person, intervene. (“It’s time to go home,” or “Let’s eat now.”) You need not explain when you feel a situation is questionable. If a child is uncomfortable with hugs or kisses from an adult, do not encourage her to put up with them for the sake of avoiding a fuss. You might say, “If you don’t feel like hugging Uncle John, you don’t need to. A friendly hand-shake will be just fine.” Then observe the situation carefully in the future. If a child is uneasy about staying with a certain baby-sitter or relative, find an alternative and explore with the child the reasons for her reluctance.

  5. 5.

    Use the word secret carefully. Secrecy is one of the abuser’s most effective tools. You might want to use the word surprise when you speak of happy secrets. (“Don’t tell Mother. It’s a birthday surprise.”)

Helping the Victim

If abuse has occurred, parents and other concerned adults can take steps to help the child deal with the trauma.

  1. 1.

    Face the problem when you first suspect it. In an attempt to keep the family together or to avoid embarrassment, a nonabusive parent may deny or minimize the seriousness of the abuse. Facing the problem can be especially difficult when a spouse has been the abuser. But without intervention by someone, an abuser will likely continue, even intensify the abuse. He may even abuse other children not already involved. Requiring the abuser to face the problem is the first step toward offering help and hope.

  2. 2.

    Report abuse immediately. Look in your telephone directory under Child Protection Services, Department of Social Services, Department of Children and Family Services, or Rape Crisis Center. Or you may call the local police or hospital. The situation will be investigated. Church members who suspect a spouse of abuse should discuss it immediately with the victim and, if suspicions are confirmed, immediately seek counsel from the bishop and a trusted professional.

  3. 3.

    Keep the child’s best interest uppermost in mind. This may be particularly difficult because perpetrators tend to be highly manipulative and deny the abuse or blame the victim for having caused it. Unfortunately, victims usually lack the power, understanding, or skills to stand up for themselves. They often readily accept blame, even though it is totally unjustified. The bishop, police authorities, and professional therapists who become involved are necessary to represent and protect the child adequately and to place blame on the perpetrator, where it rightfully belongs. Keeping the interests of the child foremost in mind and seeking the guidance of the Spirit, Church leaders, and professional counselors can help parents make wise decisions.

  4. 4.

    Stay calm. Discovering sexual abuse may be a shock, or it may be simply a confirmation of nagging suspicions. The parent may also feel guilt for not having prevented the problem. In any case, the child has already been traumatized and will likely misinterpret an adult’s outrage and revulsion as being directed against her. Seeking the Lord’s help and talking the problem through with the bishop, a professional counselor, or another supportive person can help bring the needed calm in this time of great stress.

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    Offer emotional support to the child. Often the child will fear punishment for divulging the “secret” of sexual abuse. In the case of incest, she may also fear damage to the family or hurting the abuser even more than she fears the actual abuse.

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    Help the victim understand her feelings. Although a very young victim may not understand what has happened, an older child may feel great fear and shame. Let the child know that the problem was not her fault and that she is not unclean. Stress that she is innocent of any wrongdoing. The anxiety she is feeling and any regressive behaviors she is exhibiting are normal and can be helped.

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    Don’t blame the child because she did not resist. Child sexual abuse almost always involves some sort of coercion—either emotional or physical. Often the victim has been threatened, bribed, or intimidated. (“You don’t want me to go to jail, do you?” or “Your mother won’t love you and everyone will think you are bad if you tell.”) Trust and dependence on adults makes children vulnerable to abuse. For a child to cooperate with an adult does not imply consent. The responsibility clearly lies with the abusing adult. “One of my biggest fears about reporting the incest,” says one victim, “was that whoever I confided in would think I had asked for the abuse.”

    We may be tempted to advise victims who still suffer years later to simply get on with their lives. But most of us do not realize how long-lasting the effects of abuse may be, particularly when the child did not receive professional counseling at the time of the abuse. Certainly, victims can learn to place the trauma in perspective and refuse to let it dominate their lives. They can feel free from guilt and can also learn to forgive. But this may take years of patient work.

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    Seek counseling. Both victim and offender need individual help. In fact, in aberrant behavior of the magnitude of incest, it is extremely critical that professional counseling occur, that neither time nor resources be spared to help resolve the matter. Treatment for the victim will vary with the child’s age, the length of time and severity of the abuse, and the extent to which the child was traumatized. Therapy can help resolve feelings of guilt, stigmatization, and low self-esteem. The resolution will be much easier if the victim feels love and support from family and friends as well as from Church members and leaders.

    Family therapy may also be helpful later on, but only after individual therapy has successfully helped the family uncover and resolve the manipulative and exploitive behavior of the abuser. If family therapy is attempted prematurely, the perpetrator may use the opportunity to manipulate other family members into maintaining the victim’s role. Family therapy is always the last stage—never the first—in the treatment process.

Treatment for the Abuser

Is there likewise hope for the abuser? Of course. A few abusers are mentally ill, and some may be older persons who have poor judgment because of deteriorating brain functions. These offenders must never be left alone with children. For a few others, the humiliation of being discovered may be sufficient to deter them from future crimes. These people should seek forgiveness from the family, the Lord, and the Church. They should also seek professional counseling. To aid the victim, the abuser, and society, even repentant abusers and the one-time abuser must receive treatment.

More often, abusers are habitual offenders who seem to be in control of their faculties. The offender may be intelligent and successful, a person seen by the community as responsible and respectable. When this kind of person is unable to control his feelings and behavior, he may blame Satan, the victim, or someone else, rather than taking responsibility for his own actions.

For habitual offenders, long-term therapy is essential. Often, it is legally required, since such abusers tend to minimize the harm they have done and to project blame on their wives and victims. Frequently they simply refuse to think about the devastation the child suffers, often for many years afterward.

In any such aberrant behavior, there is a severe psychological problem that needs to be dealt with by a professional. The abuser may not even understand how serious his problem is or why he continues the abuse. Although he may feel true sorrow for his actions and may even confess to Church authorities, the cause of the problem remains to be dealt with. Therapy may help him understand his behavior, turn him from seeking additional victims, and lead him to repentance.

Because change is difficult for the chronic offender, most therapists feel that the long-term offender and his victim cannot have a normal relationship until after the offender has truly overcome his problem. When incest is involved, the abuser and the victim cannot even live in the same home. One victim said, “I just want my father to love me like a normal father.” After such abuse has occurred for years, creating a normal parent-child relationship is usually very difficult.

The specific course of action best for the offender and the child will vary in each instance. Cooperation between priesthood leaders and professional counselors will help a family determine the best action for all concerned.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

President Hinckley has spoken of the possibility of repentance from this great sin:

“If there be any … who are guilty of such practices, let them repent forthwith, make amends where possible, develop within themselves that discipline which can curb such evil practices, plead with the Lord for forgiveness, and resolve within their hearts henceforth to walk with clean hands.” (Ensign, May 1985, p. 50.)

The course of repentance must include fully confessing to the bishop and completely forsaking the sin. The Atonement extends even to this great sin. Thus, change and forgiveness are possible.

Forgiveness is the key to peace and a normal life for the victim as well. Years after she was victimized by her father and subsequently rejected by her mother, a young woman described her unresolved feelings:

“Years later, I wasn’t consciously aware of the incest. I had thoughts and feelings that made no sense, and I couldn’t locate their source. My feelings arose from misinterpreting incidents I could hardly recall. I felt worthless, reasoning that if anyone knew my true worth, my parents did.

“I felt unclean and thought it didn’t really matter what I did now. I felt bitter toward all males and became extremely manipulative. I overextended myself in school and community activities. Still, I felt a gnawing emptiness, a pain that would not heal.”

When this young woman was in college, she found a source of healing in the form of her patriarchal blessing: “Suddenly I knew God loved me, despite my past, and that there was a purpose for me. I began to feel a confidence in myself and in the future.”

As time passed, she began to see her parents with forgiving eyes. Even though her anger still flares occasionally, she increasingly finds peace with herself and with her past: “Taking responsibility for my own life is a way of forgiving my parents. I have learned not to condemn, but to understand weakness and still see the potential for strength. I am just realizing the power within me. I no longer feel that my future is totally determined by my past. I will be what I will be.”

The damage caused by abuse is extensive and is not easily cured. Many victims continue to struggle with unresolved feelings even after receiving many hours of spiritual direction and professional counseling. But learning to resolve deep-seated anger and forgiving the perpetrator can, with the Lord’s help, release victims from their past.

For those who bear the deep scars of sexual abuse, the gospel of Jesus Christ offers sure hope and healing. A deepening understanding of the atonement and power of the Lord brings a willingness to rely on his power, and on his wisdom, justice, and mercy. Many testimonies witness of the Lord’s power to help victims relinquish feelings of bitterness and revenge and help them forgive. When these blessings come, an individual’s love for God and ability to live each day joyfully are once again very real opportunities.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Keith Larson

Maxine Murdock, a retired member of the BYU psychology faculty, is a member of the Pleasant View Sixth Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

Show References

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    Names have been changed.