You can’t help but like Andrea * when you meet her. She’s warm and friendly and fun, and she knows how to make you feel good about yourself.
But she wasn’t always like that.
For a long time, she carried around a dark and tragic secret that she could confess to no one. She cried a lot. She was usually depressed. She withdrew from people—wasn’t close to anyone, and didn’t have the self-confidence to excel in school or anything else. Andrea had been sexually abused when she was younger.
“I thought I had committed a terrible sin,” she said. “I thought it was too gross to tell anyone. I felt disgusting and totally worthless, until a very understanding bishop explained to me that it wasn’t my fault, that the Lord still loved me, and that I could get help.”
The help Andrea got, which included professional and spiritual counseling, is enabling her to put those traumatic experiences in the past and become emotionally and spiritually healthy again.
Unfortunately, Andrea’s situation is not unique. An alarming number of abuses is reported each day, involving both young women and young men. Abuse is not limited to one type of person or social class. It has been reported in every race, religion, occupation, income level, and educational background.
Does abuse occur in LDS families? The tragic truth is that there are cases within the Church. Leaders at Church headquarters have received a number of letters from members who have been abused.
What exactly is sexual abuse? By definition, it involves “any sexually stimulating activity between a child and an adult or another child who is in a position of power, trust, or control” (Child Abuse: Helps for Ecclesiastical Leaders [Church pamphlet], 1985, page 2).
“Perhaps [child abuse] has always been with us,” says President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, “but has not received the attention it presently receives. 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. Any man who beats or in other ways abuses his children will be held accountable before the great judge of us all” (April 1985 general conference).
Letters from some Church members tell how devastating sexual abuse is. Fifteen-year-old Lindy * writes, “When the parents of the kids I was baby-sitting got home, I was going to ask the wife to take me home, but the husband insisted. I knew right then that I was in trouble. On the way home he tried to molest me. No matter what I did, he kept right on.”
Sixteen-year-old Tiffany * has another story: “I remember one time in particular when I was around five years old,” she writes. “I went to spend the night at my grandpa’s house with my older brothers and sisters. … I told Grandpa that my stomach hurt, and he told me to get a pillow and come sit on his lap. That was when it started.”
Then there’s twenty-five-year-old David, * who feels it’s important to point out that boys are victims too. “I had problems with it,” he said. “My baby-sitter—when I was little. I didn’t know what she was doing. Several years later when I found out, I was sick inside. I just felt awful.”
That “awful” feeling is experienced by most abuse survivors. Dealing with it is one of the most important parts of recovery.
“Not Guilty of Sin”
The First Presidency has approved the following statement of policy on the subject: “Victims of rape or sexual abuse frequently experience serious trauma and unnecessary feelings of guilt. Church officers should handle such cases with sensitivity and concern, reassuring such victims that they, as victims of the evil acts of others, are not guilty of sin, helping them to overcome feelings of guilt and to regain their self-esteem and their confidence in personal relationships.
“Of course, a mature person who willingly consents to sexual relations must share responsibility for the act, even though the other participant was the aggressor. Persons who consciously invite sexual advances also have a share of responsibility for the behavior that follows. But persons who are truly forced into sexual relations are victims and are not guilty of any sexual sin. …
“Young victims of sexual abuse are likewise guilty of no sin where they are too young to be accountable for evaluating the significance of the sexual behavior. Even where acts are committed with the apparent consent of a young person, that consent may be ignored or qualified for purposes of moral responsibility where the aggressor occupied a position of authority or power over the young victim” (letter to General Authorities, Regional Representatives, and other priesthood leaders, 7 February 1985).
Abuse survivors need to know that it is not their fault, and they also need to know that they desperately need to get help. They need to tell someone—a relative, counselor, teacher, bishop—anyone they feel close to and have confidence in, immediately. No one should have to tolerate abuse.
There are all sorts of reasons why reporting abuse can be very difficult. Many times abusers threaten to harm their victim or their victim’s family if they ever tell. Such threats are a clear signal that something is wrong, and someone must be told—quickly. Abusers know they are doing something wrong and don’t want anyone else to find out. But victims can get support and protection from the threats if they report them.
There are other reasons many victims hesitate to mention the abuse to anyone. Often they are afraid that reporting the crime would split or destroy the family. This is not always true. If the problem is extreme, government agencies may remove the abuser rather than the victim from the home. Otherwise, there are counselors available who can help family members work out their individual and family problems. Their object is to build a strong family, rather than to destroy one. A victim can go to a bishop, a school counselor, some other trusted adult, or a community help program to find someone who specializes in this type of counseling. And expense shouldn’t be a deterrent. Assistance programs may be available for providing the needed help, and specialists can make the victim aware of these.
Victims are also often afraid that reporting the crime would be fatal to the family’s standing and reputation in the Church. But action must be taken against perpetrators, both to help them repent and to prevent further abuse. “The purposes of Church discipline are to (1) save the souls of transgressors; (2) protect the innocent; and (3) safeguard the … integrity … of the Church” (General Handbook of Instructions, March 1989, page 10–11).
It can be especially difficult for males to report abuse. Society often tells men that they should be in control and able to protect themselves in any situation. If they admit that they were victimized, they fear it would be a negative reflection on their masculinity.
Other reasons also hinder victims from reporting abuse. It is difficult to admit that someone close is committing a hideous crime. Instead, many victims blame themselves, saying they got what they deserved, rather than reporting the abuse. They may also feel that once abuse is reported, others will think of them as unclean and unworthy of love. Some victims don’t even realize that a crime is being committed, because the abuser has led them to believe that these kinds of relationships are normal and natural.
In spite of all these difficulties in reporting abuse, it is essential that it be reported. It is essential that everyone involved get help. Results of the abuse can show up in all sorts of ugly ways if those involved do not have assistance in coping with the problem. Abuse is not always, but can be, a cause in delinquency, depression, sexual promiscuity, withdrawal, poor relations with peers, lack of trust, or difficulty in a future marriage relationship; and it can even contribute to the abuse of the victim’s own children if the problems are not dealt with.
“For nine months of my life I was involved in a community group with a leader who sexually molested teenage girls,” says Sharon. * “I was one of the victims. The details of what he did are contained in a police report. Through counseling, I have learned that I do not have to keep them in my mind.”
Once victims acknowledge the fact that they have been abused, they will need to go through the process of adjusting to a crisis. Many people get stuck in one of these stages, and that can be reflected in their interpersonal relationships. Victims often need help to move on.
Shock is first. It’s a feeling of numbness because the traumatic situation that has taken place is too horrendous to understand or accept.
Denial comes next. The victim thinks, “I don’t believe this. This couldn’t have happened to me. Not me. Not my family.”
Anger, rage, and resentment follow. “What did I do?” the victim thinks. “Why did this terrible thing happen to me? How could anyone be so cruel?”
Pledging and bargaining come next. “If this never, ever comes up again, we can all just forget it ever happened,” or, “If I’m especially good, I will be blessed that this will never happen again, and I’ll forget all about it.”
Depression takes over when denial is no longer effective. “I will never be pure and chaste again,” the victim mistakenly thinks. “I am worthless and helpless.”
Acceptance can follow, if the victim gets some kind of help. “This hurts terribly,” the victim thinks, “but life can go on, and I don’t have to be permanently ruined because of it.”
Assimilation is the final step. The abuse is put into perspective, and a sense of self-confidence and self-worth is restored. The abuse becomes part of the past and is no longer the central focus of the victim’s life.
Going through these stages has helped Andrea begin to lead a happier, more fulfilling life. Others like her who have experienced sexual abuse can also begin to recover. It is important for them to realize that they have a right not to be abused, and that they need to get help if it happens. They need to know that they are not at fault, that they are not impure, nor are they any less chaste. And most of all, they need to know that Heavenly Father still loves them, has great hope for them, and has provided ways for them to recover.