How to Recognize Child Sexual Abuse (June 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

Paul L. Cates
June, 1992

In 1986, J.M.K. Bussert wrote about the Lutheran Church’s response to the sensitive issue of battering: “Many people respond to the issue of battering with disbelief or denial in order to protect a certain stubborn pride in their church or community. Many clergy, for example, refuse to believe that abuse exists within their congregations.”

Recently some Christian psychotherapists have expressed strong concerns about the problem of sxual abuse and incest, along with other sexual sins, in the church. Based on their personal experience in counseling, they are gravely concerned. The number of people they see who have experienced abuse is alarming, and the percentage of those wo are from families of ministers and other church leaders is equally startling. The nature of their roles as counselors to those makes it difficult for them to give corroborating evidence, name names, give examples and statistics.

As a marriage and family therapist and college student development counseor working with Christian young people, I must agree with the concern these people have expressed. We know we see only the tip of the iceberg of abuse, and what we see should give church leaders concern.

Unfortunately, newspapers have picked up some of these expressions of concern which were intended to be addressed to the church, and sensationalized them and turned them against the church. Also, unfortunately, some within the church have reacted in strongly defensive ways to some of the opinions which have been expressed as to causal factors which my underlie the problem.

It would be tragic if we lost sight of the real problem of abuse in families within the church in a debate over wether one theory or another accurately explains its cause. We must not stand around and debate why the victim got run over while he lies in the street dying.

The problem of sexual abuse is real in our society and in the church. A recent study indicated that 38% of the women interviewed had been sexually abused by an adult or family member by the age of 18 (cited in Allender, 1990). Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz’s research indicated that women from all socioeconomic levels and religions are abused at similar rates. Russell (1986), in one of the best statistical studies done thus far, found no statistically significant differences in incest rates across religions (none 14%, Catholic 17%, Protestant 18%, Jewish 10%, and other 13%).

While not statistically significant, a range from 10% to 18% is noteworthy, with “Protestants” having the highest rate of incest. Huskey (Frame, 1985) surveyed all 247 female students at a Christian liberal arts college and, of the 96 who responded, more than half said they had been abused as children (Frame, 1985).

Ann Hayman, for five years the director of a rehabilitation program for adult female prostitutes, gave the following observations regarding religious backgrounds. One hundred percent of them were victims of child abuse and/or neglect. All but one were raised in a church family. Several were ministers’ daughters. Seventy-five percent to 80% were victims of incest. Hayman asserts that incest and spouse abuse are both greater in church-related families than in non-church families (Hayman, 1986, cf. Rush).

Russell observes that some clinical accounts have suggested that men who are highly religious, with rigid or conservative views about sex and the family, are among those most prone to sexually abuse children (1986, p. 112). Her data, reported above, were not detailed enough to speak to this question.

In 1983, Bergin reviewed research on religious commitment and mental health and found that 23% of the studies reported a negative relationship, 47% reported a positive relationship and 30% reported no relationship between religion and mental health. Gartner, Larson and Allen (1991), reviewing more than 200 studies of religious commitment and mental health, have identified some significant contributing factors to those results: (a) Most studies showing a negative relationship between religion and mental health employed paper and pencil personality tests which attempt to measure theoretical constructs, whereas most of the research linking religion to positive mental health is on “hard” variables, real-life, behavioral events which can be reliably observed and measured and (b) Distinctions such as that between styles of religiosity (Intrinsic and Extrinsic) explain some inconsistent findings.

We get into trouble if we start trying to lump all religious people, or all “fundamentalists,” or all “conservatives,” or all “liberals” and begin generalizing about them. A variation on the old saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure” might be appropriate here. Conservative and/or fundamentalist Christianity may not produce sexual abusers, but it might very well attract individuals who are prone toward abuse. People can be dogmatic, closed-minded, rigid, controlling, abusive at any point on the continuum of belief from atheist to fundamentalist or cultic or super-legalistic. The key is not the beliefs held as much as how the beliefs are held.

The few studies which look at styles of religiosity and other more specific characteristics of perpetrators of abuse present some important findings. Seymour’s (1987) dissertation research found that subjects sexually victimizd by father, stepfather, or other adult relative rated their fathers as significantly more authoritarian than non-victimized subjects rated theirs. Incestuous fathers were rated lower in intrinsic religiousness and lower on Love/Integrity. They were as religious as other fathers on extrinsic religiousness and on Punishment/Conformity.

Intrinsic religiosity is relgion as a meaning-endowing framework in terms of which all life is understood. Extrinsic religiosity is a religion of comfort and social convention, a self-serving, instrumental approach shaped to suit oneself. The intrinsically motivated person lives his religion, the extrinsically motivated person uses his religion (cf. Donahue, 1985). In other words, the abusers were superficially religious, dogmatically so, but it had not been internalized to a degree that it produced internal and behavioral consistency. Jesus spoke of Pharisees who bound heavy burdens of religious tradition on others but did not life a finger to take up the same burdens (Matthew 23:4).

Gil (1988) studied sexually abused daughters from conservative Christian homes. Sexually abusive fathers in this group were viewed as legalistic, beset by problems from outside the family, poorly bonded with family members and poor communicators. In contrast to nearly all other studies of the broader population, there were significantly more fathers than stepfathers in this group of abusers. Another interesting finding was that the most conservative (fundamentalist) natural fathers were less likely than others to have had actual genital contact or penetration. Gil suggests that the incest taboo may be strongest among these most conservative men. It may be that they represent an adult version of Lewis, Dodd and Tippen’s (1989) findings that teens in churches of Christ tend to legalistic righteousness when it comes to sexuality – anything is okay if it stops short of actual intercourse. The father who fondles his daughter’s breasts, kisses her on the lips, hugs her forcibly, and justifies it because “he is her father so there is nothing wrong with it because it is not intercourse,” is using the same kind of legalistic reasoning to rationalize his actions.

Gil also suggests that conservative Christian fathers who hold strongly to ideals of patriarchy and are detached from involvement in the home may be at greater risk of being sexually abusive because they have not bonded with their daughters through being directly involved in their nurturance. Parker and Parker (1985) found significant differences in incestuous and non-incestuous fathers in their early relationships with their daughters. Inadequate bonding with one’s own parents and lack of early physical contact with one’s child were the two best predictors of sexual abuse.

Incestuous fathers were more often neglected or mistreated in their own childhood and they spend minimal time in the home during their abused child’s first three years and had little invovlement in nurturing and caring for their daughters. Fathers and stepfathers deeply involved with their daughters are unlikely to abuse them. The church should encourage more involvement by fathers – in their children’s birth, in holding, feeding, diapering, and nurturing them in all kinds of ways.

Studies of alcohol abuse and religiosity have found that Protestants raised in conservative denominations or homes, which typically discourage alcohol use, tend to have rates of alcoholism higher than less conservative denominations. I would hypothesize that those individuals who drink are expressing rebellion against their family and church, creating more separation and more guilt, thus creating a greater likelihood for abuse and eventual addiction. There may be a similar pattern for sexual addiction, resulting in numerous cases of sexual abuse within the family (cf. Carnes, 1989).

The above studies illustrate that there are some reasons and some hard evidence to suggest that conservative religious groups may foster a higher rate of sexual abuse than the average of the general population.

We can’t afford to engage in denial that we have a problem of sexual abuse. And we should not waste our energies throwing accusations back and forth and in the process lose sight of the suffering and destruction of abuse.

If we have alcoholism in our churches, if we have divorce, if we have broken homes and blended families, if we have church members who are members in name only, if we have rigid authoritarian fathers, if we have members who have themselves been sexually or physically abused, we have the conditions for sexual abuse.

Has the divorce rate increased in your congregation in recent years? Has the rate of alcoholism increased along with other addictions? Has homosexuality increased? Has the number of affairs increased? Can you continue to tell yourself that sexual abuse is only a problem outside the church when you can see other problems increasing so obviously? Incest has been called “the last taboo,” and in the church we should not expect that families where there is incess, or the children who are the victims of abuse, are going to acknowledge such a family event.

In recent years studies into sexually exploitative relationships between therapists, doctors, teachers, and other men in positions of pawer have revealed startling statistics: six to ten percent or more of psychiatrists have had sexual contact with their patients, as have similar or higher percentages of psychologists and professors. And a higher percentage of these have had multiple sexual contacts. Fortunately these professions are beginning to police their ranks much more vigorously. Rutter (1989) concluded from colleagues knowledgeable in this area that sexual misconduct among ministers probably exceeds the 10% estimate for male psychotherapists. I mention this for several reasons: (1) This kind of abuse is very similar to incest in its nature and consequences. (2) The fact that stistics are more scarce regarding clery may reveal a greater need to deny to ourselves that such problems exist among Christian people. (3) if we acknowledge the existence of even a fraction of the incidences that are suspected by those who have studied the problem, we have a serious problem indeed.

If we do not act in our congregations in preventive and healing ways to deal with these kinds of soul-destroying sins, we will find ourselves perpetuatin them and/or passing them on to otther congregations where the sins will be repeated, probably over and over.

The following letter, written by a real person whose identity is concealed, eloquently describes the depth of this problem.

“A recent article in a respected brotherhood journal ripped through my heart. The essence of the article vilified two men who are Christian psychologists. It also debunked any psychological treatment sought by members of churches of Christ as being totally without merit and basically contrary to the Bible. This letter is not to defend either man as God will judge and prove their works. It is to warn of the continued pain many will suffer as the result of that article.

“You see, I am a vicitm of sexual abuse by an uncle. He is seen as a model citizen, and has reared his family in strict accordance with the Bible. He is a preacher who has followed a very fundamental course. My father was also a minister and I have been in the ministry myself for many years. No one – my parents, my grandparents, my brothers or sisters, a fellow preacher, not even my wife – knew about the hurt and pain I carried for more than 30 years. Only my uncle and I shared the secret of his abuse. I was afraid to tell and he certainly had never admitted it or spoken to me about it. I was not really aware of how this abuse had figured into my life. I know that it is not the only factor affecting me and my struggles with sin but it has had a major impact. It has contributed to my distorted views of sexuality. These views have in turn affected my spiritual life, my treatment of my wife, my actions as a father, my work as a minister, my place in the community, and certainly my health both physically and emotionally. Because a counsellor using biblical principles had begun working with me, many areas of my life had become healthier. His treatment covered several months but he still knew nothing of the sexual abuse.

“In the midst of this progress, a younger brother and sister of this uncle asked me a question that I had dreaded to hear. The only honest answer was, ‘Yes, he did sexually abuse me.’ Filled with questions as to why they wanted to know, I soon learned that they were both victims of his abuse.

“The uncle was then confronted in an attitude of love and encouraged to seek help. Some of his victims poured out their hurt, their pain, their anger, their feelings of betrayal with emotions that surpassed the tears at any funeral I have attended. One young woman, a victim of sexual abuse at age five, had been placed in foster care with my uncle and his family. He began abusing her further at the age of nine and continued to age 15 shen she left their home. The pain she felt and continues to feel is more excruciating than any physical pain because it is in her very being. This letter cannot begin to express the depth of the pain each of us felt and continues to feel. I wish that no one would ever hurt that much again.

“The terror in my heart is knowing that the attitude expressed in that article will enable another child to become a victim of incest, sodomy, rape or sexual abuse, that even one more person will suffer as I have. It is knowing that it will not be just one but many innocent victims whose cries for help will fall on deaf ears and closed hearts. It is knowing that most will never experience the abundant life Christ promised. It is knowing that many of these victims will lose their faith and their souls.

“No, I have not lost my faith though it has been duly tested and tried. Satan is still trying to claim me as his own. God’s salvation through the redemptive act of Jesus has cleansed my soul and continues to do that. His grace heals my soul just as doctors help heal my body. Christians trained in psychology help soothe my pain and allow me to move beyond its grip. Those who suffered as prisoners of war now enjoy freedom but the painful memories of their experiences remain. The blood of Jesus frees me from Satan’s prison but it does not remove the intensely painful memory of sin committed against me by this relative.

“You and your readers can now see why this letter had to be written. It is not the time to be silent and let a multitude of sins remain hidden. It is not the time for victims to be told to hurt alone and in silence. It is not the time to stand idly by and watch as others fall under the cruelty of sinners who do not care about the pain they inflict on trusting children. With this letter is my prayer that at least one person will be helped. Maybe it will open the door to articles, sermons, prayers, and studies that are needed to help many of our brothers and sisters who have also been hurt. God will be honored by this.”


Bibliography
Allender, Dr. Dan B. The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1990.
Bussert, J.M.K Battered Women: From a Thology of Suffering to an Ethic of Empowerment. New York: Division for Mission in North America, Lutheran Church in America, 1986.
Carnes, Patrick, M.D. Contrary to Love: Helping the Sexual Addict. Minneapolis, MN: CompCare Publishers, 1989.
Donahue, M.J. “Intrinsic & Extrinsic Religiousness: Review & Meta-analysis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 48, No. 2 (1985): 400-419.
Frame, Randy. “Child Abuse: The Church’s Best Kept Secret?” Christianity Today. February 5, 1985: 32-34.
Gartner, John; Dave B. Larson; George D. Allen. “Religious Commitment and Mental Health: A Review of the Empirical Literature.” Journal of Psychology and Theology. Vol. 19, No. 1 (1992): 6-25.
Gil, Vincent E. “In Thy Father’s House: Self- Report Finding of Sexually Abused Daughters from Conservative Christian Homes.” Journal of Psychology and Thology. Vol. 16, No. 2 (1988): 144-152.
Hayman, Ann. “Prostitution in the Pulpit.” The Journal for Preachers. Vol. 9, No. 2 (1986): 27-29.
Lewis, David, Carly Dodd and Darryl Tippens. Shattering the Silence: Telling the Church the Truth About Kids and Sexuality. Nashville: Christian Communications, 1989.
Parker, S. and H. Parker. “Fathers and Daughters: The Broken Bond.” Psychology Today. March (1985): 10.
Peterson, K.W. “Wife Abuse: The Silent Crime, The Silent Church.” Christianity Today. Vol. 27, No. 18. (1983): 22-26.
Russell, Diana E.H. The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1986.
Rutter, Peter, M.D. Sex in the Forbidden Zone. Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, Inc. 1986.
Seymour, Janet Martha. “Child Sexual Vicitimization and Father’s Religious Orientation.” Diss. Rosemead School of Psychology. 1987.
Straus, Murray A., Richard J. Geiles, Suzanne K. Steinmetz. Behind Closed Doors. New York. Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1980.
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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