Home Wellness Mental Health Shattered Innocence: Childhood Sexual Abuse and How the Church Can Help

Shattered Innocence: Childhood Sexual Abuse and How the Church Can Help

childhood sexual abuse
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Childhood sexual abuse—what a tangle of words! A child: little one; not mature; malleable; one in need of protection, nurture, and training. Now think of that child misused; treated with cruelty or violence; purposely injured by sexual means. Research done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)1 indicates that one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused by the age of 18. In a 2012 maltreatment report, of the victims who were sexually abused, 26% were between 12 and 14, and 34% were younger than nine. Nearly 70% of all reports of sexual assault (including adults) occur to children ages 17 and under.

Child sexual abuse is a criminal offense and punishable by law. It includes any sexual act perpetrated by an adult on a minor or between two minors when one exerts some kind of power (e.g., size, position, age, etc. over another or any forcing or coercing a child to participate in a sexual act). Sexual abuse can also occur without physical contact, such as in voyeurism, exhibitionism, exposure to pornography or communicating via Internet or phone in a sexual manner. Most child sexual abuse occurs in the context of a relationship with an adult from whom the child had every reason to expect protection, warmth, and care. It is usually perpetrated by a family member or someone known to the child. Sexual abuse can be a one-time occurrence or span many years. A child is considered unable to consent due to developmental immaturity and an inability to understand sexual behavior.

The average age for abuse to begin is six for girls and 10 for boys. For a smaller sample, it begins before age six. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)2 says that 14% are abused prior to age six. The majority of abusers are male (3-7% female). Please note that means there are female abusers. Most perpetrators are considerably older (though there is an increase in younger perpetrators). Law enforcement officials said that in 1995, 33% of all those arrested for sex crimes nationwide were younger than 18 (Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/98).  

Years ago, child sexual abuse was believed to impact mostly female victims. More recently, we are learning new details about male victims as they are speaking out at higher rates. An article in the AMA Journal3 says boys born in poverty and raised in homes without a father are at greater risk for rape. By age 12, the rate of using alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and IV drugs was 25-50 times higher for boys who have sexually abused. Abused boys have 12 times the normal suicide rate and go on to have higher rates of mental illness. Recent research regarding men who are in and out of homeless shelters suggests a 40% rate of child abuse of some kind. Research shows that male prisoners have been assaulted prior to prison, usually during childhood, at staggering rates. Prisons, homeless shelters, and rehab centers show elevated numbers of a history of child abuse. When I have spoken in homeless shelters or residential rehab centers, I have been told that 50% or more of the males there have a history of sexual violation. The reality surrounding abuse of males has left an untold number to suffer in silence. 

What Do We Know About Sex Offenders?

Although not without some controversy, research done by Dr. Gene Abel in the 1980s asked voluntary sex offender clients how many total offenses they had committed.4 Confidentiality was guaranteed. The results stunned the professional community. Two hundred thirty-two child molesters reported 55,000 attempted incidents, claiming success in 38,000 cases with 17,000 total victims. Those male offenders who molested out-of-home female victims averaged 20 victims each, and those male offenders who molested out-of-home males averaged 15 each. In his research, Dr. Abel computed the chances of being caught. It was three percent. 

Dr. Anna Salter, author of Predators, says such things exist because of the problem of deception.5 Decades of research shows that people cannot reliably tell who is lying and who is not, yet most people believe they can. It is a very threatening idea to think we cannot really know whether or not someone is trustworthy.

Living a double life is a powerful strategy. Socially responsible behavior in public causes people to drop their guards and allow access to children. The ability to charm, be nice, and be likeable is critical to gaining access. Author of The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker, said the following: “Niceness is a decision… a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.”6 It is a misconception to think child molesters are somehow different from the rest of us. They can be good friends, loyal employees, and responsible citizens. The difference between a child molester and other people is this—they have sex with children. There are often no telltale signs in their public behavior. This is a critical truth for churches to grasp. We think we can tell good people from bad. Yet, God tells us we are such deceived creatures we cannot know our own hearts. We say, “I know him; I trust him.” Jesus said, “I know him; I don’t trust him” (John 2:24).