By Diane Langberg, Ph.D. September 6, 2022
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).
Childhood Sexual Abuse
All mental health professionals are mandated to report knowledge of child sexual abuse to their states’ Child Protective Services or the police…or both. Clergy are also increasingly mandated in many states, though in some there is an exception for knowledge gained in the confessional (something that rarely exists in Protestant circles). Regardless of potential legal mandates, church leaders must also consider the moral and spiritual factors that exist. It is critical that churches know when and whom to report to and have the humility to know that they are not trained in forensics or criminal investigation. No church would presume to investigate a murder. Yet, many do presume they are qualified to investigate the life-altering crime of child sexual abuse. That is a failure to obey the law of the land (Romans 1:1-2) and, frankly, arrogant. The Church is desperately needed by the abused, faithful truth tellers, as well as the ones who weep with those who weep… but not as an investigator.
Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
Though not all sexual abuse is irreparably traumatic—it is always damaging and causes suffering. Abuse that begins at a young age and is chronic causes life-shaping damage to malleable children, for they have been marinated in the acid of premature sexual exposure. The assault is happening to a child who is, by definition, limited, dependent, vulnerable, and malleable. Sexual abuse of a child is, of course, often physical in excruciating ways. It also carries emotional, relational, mental, and spiritual baggage, impacting development again and again.
As a child, your options are very limited. You have few resources, little knowledge, no support, and no physical strength. And in many cases, you are dependent on your abusers for food and housing. Those who should, in fact, rescue, protect, and comfort are the very ones delivering the blows to your personhood. The betrayal is enormous. You are left with whatever you can find internally. You desperately need an oasis. How will you get that when repeatedly being abused? You must find a “narcotic”… a way to numb the pain. You find a way to self-protect. You find a way to leave. Whatever it takes, that is what you do. The only other option is insanity. Hence, we find drug and alcohol addictions, self-injury, risk-taking behaviors, repeated abusive relationships, and overwhelming anxiety, dysregulated emotions and dissociation. Sexual abuse also has a profound spiritual impact. God is viewed through the lens of abuse. Who He is and what He thinks about the survivor is understood based on who daddy is, or grandfather, or youth pastor, or whomever. Victims have learned about love, trust, hope, and faith through the experience of sexual abuse. They have also learned about the unseen through the visible. They have been taught lies.
God’s call to the Christian world—mental health professionals and the Church—is to label this ungodly, life and soul-damaging evil by its right name. It is not a mistake. It is not poor judgment. It is evil done to a child and God’s response is that death would be an appropriate option for the perpetrator (see Matthew 18:6). To minimize that is to step out of God’s truth. Truth is to be spoken to both victim and perpetrator. To fail to do so is a failure of love. Our task is to live out before them the character of God Himself in the flesh. It is to follow in the footsteps of our Savior who boldly spoke the truth, who welcomed the children and extended Himself as a refuge to the wounded and afraid. It has long been my prayer that instead of protecting our institutions, reputations and wealth, that we, in the body of Christ, would follow our heads faithfully in caring for His little ones. Failing to do so is failing perpetrators, victims, and God.
This article originally appeared in Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 23 No. 1. Christian Counseling Today is the flagship publication of the American Association of Christian Counselors. To learn more about the AACC, click here.