TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with an discusses sexual abuse and suicide, and may be triggering to some people.
The first perpetrator of child sexual abuse I ever reported committed suicide.
I’m aware that there are those who, on hearing that, will say, “Well, good! One less pervert in the world.” Unfortunately, the world is not so simple as that.
This was back in the mid-eighties, and I was still an intern in psychotherapy. My client was a single parent, the mother of two young boys, barely scraping by, in part with the help of a boarder… who, it turned out, had sexually abused both the boys.
“But it was only once!” the mother said. “And I watch them all the time now. It has never happened again!” But, of course, it had happened again, and more than once. We found that out after I did what the law required and made the phone call to child protective services. Later that day, CPS called at the family’s home to interview the room-mate. And later that night, he went into the garage and hung himself.
It was one of the boys who found his body.
To him, this man was not “a perpetrator.” To him, this was the man who had taken him fishing and helped him with his homework. Because while the abuse had been awful, it had not been all there was to this man’s presence in the boy’s life. His feelings, like life itself, were complicated.
So the mandated counseling to help the boys recover from sexual abuse became counseling to help them cope with sexual abuse and the suicide of a member of their household. And for a time, everyone in that small family had to struggle with the added burdens of guilt and financial hardship caused by this death.
I do not in any way regret making that report. I do not believe that taking a young boy fishing wipes out the harm of abusing him, nor that paying part of a family’s living expenses erases the guilt of sexually abusing a child.
But the story points out the trouble with making sweeping generalizations about perpetrators. Those who prey on children are also friends, family members, wage-earners… And sometimes they are artists, musicians, teachers, or members of a spiritual community whose work is missed when they are removed from those communities.
It is dangerous to caricature offenders as all alike, easily spotted, or wholly monstrous.
The trouble is, if we begin to believe that all perpetrators of child sexual abuse are like comic-book villains, we risk becoming blind to the cases that don’t fit that simple picture. Our communities may begin to make excuses, to minimize, rationalize, and deny the abuse. We say to ourselves, “But she was a teenager—she could have stopped it,” or “He’s not like those other perpetrators—it was only because he was drunk (had just lost his job/ had been divorced/ was depressed.)”
And then we may not pick up the phone and make the report—or we may not enforce a community statement that says we have a “zero tolerance policy” around sexual abuse. Or we may try to “fix” an abuser through compassion and good intentions, without understanding that those are not the tools needed for this particular job. To prevent that, we need to go beyond rhetoric and slogans, and understand the real world of perpetrators and their victims.
So what we do know about perpetrators?
They are, overwhelmingly, male. Women can and do sexually abuse children, but it is far less common.
They are no more likely to be gay than straight, despite years of right wing propaganda to the contrary. However, being gay does not mean that someone is not a perpetrator; there is no relationship between those two things.
They may well be minors themselves; the problem of sexual abuse of children by older children and teens is probably under-reported, and can be difficult to tell from “sexually reactive behavior” in which children act out abuse they may themselves have experienced. (Effects on the victim may be very similar, though the prognosis for the perpetrator may be very different. This is one case where seeking help, and not turning away from a perpetrator because he is not what we have been led to expect, can make an enormous difference for everyone.)
Some perpetrators will largely confine their abuse to members of their own family; others will offend primarily against unrelated children. Some will have only a handful of victims, but many will abuse hundreds of children over the course of their lives.
Perpetrators are almost always survivors of childhood sexual abuse themselves. Often, they are sexual offenders in multiple ways. They may well have ongoing sexual relationships with adult women (or men) at the same time that they are abusing children. They often (though not always) abuse drugs or alcohol, sometimes as a way of lowering their own inhibitions against committing a crime.
Often they will have a habit of objectifying the targets of their sexual interest; this is associated with an increased likelihood of reoffending. Generally, they lack empathy for others, and particularly for children, but this is not always obvious.
It can be hard to get good information on recidivism among perpetrators of sexual abuse, because most studies rely on criminal convictions, which self-reports of convicted perpetrators reveal to be far fewer than the number of victims offended against. What is clear is that sexual abusers of children have a high rate of repeating their crimes.
Treatment does lower that risk… but only if it is specialized offender treatment. Counseling from sources other than specialists in this field seems to have no effect in lowering the risk of reoffending, and this is one area where no ethical pastoral counselor should even think of offering their “help” as a substitute for reporting abuse officially and having an offender complete a specialized offender treatment program. Unless you have been trained in this specific area of practice, this one really is over your pay grade.
So who are the victims of child sexual abuse, and what are some of the effects of that abuse?
They’re a lot of different people, it turns out.
About 20% of adult women and 5—10% of adult men recall having been sexually abused as children. Boys are more at risk of abuse by non-family members, possibly because boy children tend to be more mobile and independent of their parents’ supervision in our society.
Some research shows risk is evenly distributed across age groups, but other studies find that teenagers are especially at risk—an important thing to keep in mind, as there can be a tendency to blame the victim where teens are concerned; it’s important to remember that, though teenagers can engage in consensual sex with other teens, they still lack the knowledge and resources of adults, and there is always a power imbalance between an adult and a child. Perpetrators take advantage of that power imbalance to manipulate victims of any age. And there are other vulnerabilities perpetrators look for, to exploit among their victims. We know that children who have been victimized in other ways, or whose families are affected by poverty, substance abuse, or violence are at higher risk for sexual abuse.
Whatever makes a child more vulnerable, in other words, makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
The lingering effects of having been abused as children can include depression, PTSD, and a higher risk of substance abuse, suicide or self-injuring behaviors into adulthood. Children who have been sexually abused may show prematurely sexualized behavior, and there is an elevated risk of being re-abused or sexually assaulted among children who have experienced sexual abuse.
It is worth mentioning that even when there is clear evidence that penetration has been part of sexual abuse, in only a small fraction of cases will there be genital injuries of that penetration. This is important to understand, so that we do not refuse to accept the testimony of victims that is not corroborated by physical injury.
Sexual abuse is definitely harmful—but it may not be harmful in the ways we’ve been taught to expect. And while children are in no way responsible for their own abuse, some responses to having been sexually exploited, such as early sexualization, may be misunderstood by adults in a way that allows us to dismiss their testimony. We need to be careful to remember that victims of sexual abuse are complicated human beings, and no more likely to fit one mold than any of us.
What do we know about helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse to heal?
There are a number of things we as a community can do to support survivors in their recovery after sexual abuse.
Research shows that some very simple things can make an enormous difference to how well survivors heal from the most horrific abuse: things like, when a victim reports their abuse to an adult in authority, that adult takes them seriously and acts on the report.
Counseling can be important, of course, but there is definitely a place for just standing by survivors and showing empathy. Research suggests that other important factors in healing include having at least one non-abusive adult a child can confide in, and having a community that responds with what might be called moral clarity, making it clear immediately that, no matter what, children and teens are not to blame for their own abuse, and that sexual abuse is always the responsibility of the adult. It turns out that simply being clear that the sexual abuse of children is wrong is of enormous benefit to survivors. We do not need to burn perpetrators in effigy to support survivors.
That’s a good thing for a lot of reasons: threats of violence against perpetrators, for example, may not be reassuring to a victim, but instead, can stir up feelings of guilt or fear—fear for themselves, as survivors of another form of violence, or for other adults in the child’s life, who may have been threatened by the abuser as a way to secure the victim’s silence.
Instead, reporting suspected abuse to the authorities, if that is still possible, and firm, consistent limit setting with those we reasonably believe to have sexually exploited children—regardless of the age of the victim, regardless of whether force was used, or whether the victim confided the abuse in an adult at the time or much later—is likely to be more helpful then vengeful rhetoric or acts of violence.
What else can we, the Pagan community, do to make our gatherings and groups safer for the children and teens who attend them?
In this area, there is a lot that we can do.
- 1. We should structure programs for children and teens to minimize the risk of abuse at gatherings.
This one is pretty straightforward. Many gatherings are now large enough to have children’s programming, and that’s great. However, we need to think about these programs as potential risks. Perpetrators are often drawn to positions where they can interact with kids, because access allows opportunities to abuse.
To limit that, we need to do what other religious organizations and reputable child care programs do: make sure that children are never left in the company of just one adult. All children’s programs need to have more than one adult staff member with kids at all times. In addition, we need to make sure that kids’ programs happen in locations with lots of visibility and easy access for the parents. For instance, one of my favorite gatherings features a large rec hall just off the main dining hall. Both rooms are a hub of constant activity during the event, and the children’s programming happens mainly in that rec room, with parents and other community members constantly passing through. It adds a note of cheerfulness to everyone’s experience… and it means that the whole community is aware of what is happening with the kids all the time. Not conducive to abuse!
- 2. We should institute mandated reporter training for all gathering staff, along with education on perpetrator behavior and warning signs.
Many Pagan religions feature initiatory oaths of secrecy, and Pagan leaders often need to observe confidentiality around the identities of participants in community events in light of the religious discrimination which many of us still face.
However, there is a difference between protecting initiatory secrets and maintaining the confidence of Pagans in sensitive positions and preserving secrecy around suspected child abuse. Mandated reporter laws in every state require clergy, counselors, and child care workers to report all suspected incidents of child abuse—physical or sexual—and neglect. Notice, the standard here is suspected abuse—not proven, not confirmed, but suspected abuse.
Staff at a Pagan gathering, Pagan clergy in the performance of their duties, and staff who provide programming for children and teens at community events are required as a matter of law to report when they suspect abuse has occurred to any underaged person. Everyone whose work will put them in contact with the community’s children needs to be aware of their duty to report suspected abuse and neglect to that state’s child protective services… and the organization’s procedure for doing so.
Not only is this the law, but I believe there’s a moral case for following this law without exception. I can’t tell you how painful it has been for me, as a counselor, to hear over and over again from adult survivors of child abuse that they had told a trusted adult what was happening to them… only to have that adult ignore their confidence. The sense of betrayal caused by abuse is only deepened when an entire community seems willing to look the other way.
I understand that we may be tempted to short-circuit the legal channels for abuse. We may not want to trust them. However, we are not trained investigators in this field; we are not in a position to truly protect kids from abuse without help. We are in no position to evaluate even the most sincere-sounding promises by an abuser that they will seek help. No matter how counter-cultural our values may be, in this one area, I firmly believe we need to follow the legal process for signaling the state that a child may be in danger.
- 3. We should create trained community ombudsmen, to reach out to children and families affected by sexual abuse or sexual violence.
It’s great to have mandated reporter training for staff at events, but Pagan events are large, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes bewildering things. There can be hundreds of strangers all around, and very few of us, surrounded by strangers, feel comfortable asking for help in a time of crisis. Newcomers to a community may not even know where to turn for help.
The time has come for all large Pagan events to have clearly identified contact people who make it their job to be welcoming and accessible, and to serve as the first contacts for incidents or individuals that cause concern, whether or not they rise to the level of sexual assault or sexual abuse.
Needless to say, these people should have additional training, probably including in some form of counseling. They will need to be calm, grounded, and very familiar with the resources of the area where any events are being held, and they will need to have the ear of the gathering’s coordinators and the community’s leaders. Finally, and most importantly, their job will not be to act as finders of fact—no individual is in any position to do that. Instead, their job is to make sure that problems get noticed, victims get supported, reports get made, and records are kept—confidentially between the gathering’s leaders and any official investigators.
- 4. We should not attempt to create a secondary court system to determine the ultimate guilt or innocence of accused perpetrators.
This is a difficult thing. We need at one and the same time to take seriously allegations by children and teens who report their abuse, and we need not to attempt to act as finders of fact. While false reports of abuse are exceedingly rare—at least as rare as false reports of other serious crimes, according to the FBI—they do occur. Moreover, it is one thing to believe the testimony of victims themselves, and another to allow rumors and friend-of-a-friend accounts to rush us to judgement.
This is not only for the sake of the accused. Not only are we, as a community, unable to provide the system of checks and balances that allow defendants their rights to fair trial, we are also unable to provide the level of expertise that properly trained investigators bring to their work with abused children. Ironically, if we rush to create a parallel system to mete out justice, we may endanger the rights of both victims and the accused at the same time: we can both deprive the accused of a fair process within our communities, and also contaminate the evidence so that even solid grounds for a conviction will be inadmissible in a court of law.
Fact finding just isn’t our role. When there is reason to suspect child sexual abuse, we need to hand the ultimate finding of fact over to those who have the resources to do the job properly.
- 5. We should empower local organizations to respond to suspicion and to concerns, through mandated reporting, banning, and/or watchful waiting for persons of concern.
While it’s not the role of our communities to be substitutes for the legal system in determining guilt or innocence, neither do we have no role to play in judging what actions we need to make on a local level to protect our kids, and also to be sure that our leaders and teachers are held to a high standard of ethical conduct. We need to establish clear guidelines in our local communities for removing persons of concern from positions of trust within the community, with or without a criminal conviction, when there have been credible, specific allegations of misconduct made.
I’m not talking about banning individuals based on vague rumors or the notion of guilt by association. But I am talking about times when there have been repeated reports of troubling behavior made against a person, as reported by the people who were directly involved.
This may seem like a contradiction to my recommendation not to attempt to adjudicate questions of guilt or innocence on our own, but in fact, it is not. Because, while we really need the standard of innocent until proven guilty where someone has been accused of a crime, whether we grant or refuse the privileges within our own communities is a different matter.
There, our standards will be different from those of a criminal court. Not only will a different level of proof apply to our own hearings, but a different standard of behavior may be needed, too. I would suggest that the higher the position of trust granted someone, the higher the standard of behavior we will hold them to.
Among our leaders and teachers, despite the fact that we have no means of our own of establishing guilt or innocence, credible reports of child sexual abuse at a minimum create an appearance that is at odds with our community’s ethics. And in the case of a leader or a teacher, allowing them the privilege of holding themselves out as representatives of our religious traditions while they are under investigation for sexual abuse is simply inappropriate.
Likewise, given the high rates of recidivism among perpetrators, we may want to think twice about allowing anyone access to gatherings where children will be present, who has either a past conviction of any form of sexual exploitation of children, or who has been the subject of repeated, specific allegations from within the community, with or without any criminal convictions.
- 6. On an national and international level, we should encourage full, open disclosure of objective indicators of risk, like arrests for charges related to pedophilia.
We should report allegations as allegations where legal processes have been initiated, but not in the absence of legal action. On some levels, this is very unsatisfying: how can past victims hope to warn future victims when a perpetrator who has never been arrested or convicted moves from one place to another?
On another, it is a way of recognizing the reality that we will never know every potential source of harm within our communities… while allowing our budding news services to function as they function best—as news services, reporting only what is subject to confirmation, only what is objective. Trading in rumor may serve justice one day, but it will thwart it the next. Without the greater knowledge of one another we can only have within local communities, we will have no way to prevent the kinds of abuses that many of the critics of the current wave of coverage fear: vague accusations that make polarize us, without actually making our communities any safer.
We live in a world of complexity, and as much as we might like to think otherwise, we are not separate from even the most dysfunctional aspects of our society as a whole. Child sexual abuse is a part of our modern world, and sadly, it will remain part of the Pagan community as long as that continues to be true.
The good news is that we are not helpless. We can do more to protect victims, and to keep perpetrators from using our communities to find and access victims. It’s not enough; surely, we all wish we could do more. But it is a good deal more than nothing.
As we work together to heal the world as a whole, may our efforts within our own communities take root and flourish.