A sacred trust: Protecting children from sex abuse

By: Judy Shepps Battle
   Few things are more sacred than the trust of a child. When an adult shatters that trust through sexual abuse the resulting trauma creates permanent psychological damage. The law sees such actions as criminal and demands severe punishment.
   Social service agencies are quick to act on reported abuse cases, but unfortunately, a great number of incidents are never reported. Sometimes this is due to fear of reprisal, or because a child’s allegations are not believed by adults.
   But mainly it is because most childhood sexual abuse involves someone with whom a child has an established and trusting relationship. Rather than blame the adult for inflicting pain, the child often believes he or she was the responsible party.
   The recent incidents regarding child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church are all the more alarming because children did have the courage to report abuse but the Church chose to act as its own court system.
   Offending priests were not automatically reported to the legal system. Rather, they were often chastised, counseled and sent to other parishes, where they were free to continue their compulsion. Even today, only 19 states require clergy to report suspicions or allegations of sexual abuse against minors to civil authorities.
   But the situation in the Roman Catholic Church is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the existence of child sexual abuse in this country. It should give us pause to look at the paucity of information we have on those who sexually abuse children.

Lack of Exact Information

   A recent U.S. Justice Department report projects that one in three children in the United States will experience some form of "abuse" in his or her lifetime. There are more than 3 million children reported as abused or neglected in the United States every year. An estimated 8,775 new reports are made daily.
   Unfortunately, the "abuse" category includes neglect as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. We do not have exact figures on reported child sex abuse.
   We have even less exact information on child abusers and how to cure their compulsion. The little we know is about how some predators view their actions and the process of seduction they use with a vulnerable child.
The Psyche of the Pedophile

   Technically, a "pedophile" is an adult who is sexually drawn to prepubescent children while a "hebophile" is one who has sex with a teen. In this column I will simply use "pedophile" to refer to an adult who prefers to have sexual relations with a minor.
   Very little is known about the psychodynamics’ of pedophiles. There are no genetic tests, psychological screenings or overt warning signs. While some pedophiles were sexually abused as children, not all had this experience.
   Some research findings suggest that the disorder could be a result of hormonal imbalance or chromosomal defect. Thus far, the brain chemistry of the pedophile has not been adequately researched. Perhaps the current situation will change this.
   Treatment of pedophiles has not been very successful. The recidivism rate of convicted pedophiles is between 15 percent and 35 percent. That means that one of every 3 to 7 convicted pedophiles is likely to repeat the crime, despite being incarcerated and given institutional treatment.
   Why is this relapse rate so high?
Love, Not Crime

   According to the literature of organizations that advocate man-boy love relationships, such relationships are "consensual," not criminal. These organizations point to societies such as ancient Greece, where man-boy relationships were common. And they resent being labeled as homosexual and feel misunderstood.
   This suggests that such men use children to fill a "love gap" in their lives, one that normally would be filled by another adult. Perhaps it is a lack of self-esteem or maybe it is the ease in which a vulnerable child can be swayed by a persistent adult suitor.
   Both male and female predators use similar means for insinuating themselves into a child’s life.
Crime, Not Love

   Step 1 for pedophiles is to establish a trusting relationship with their victims. They go through a stage of "courting" the child by making him feel special or cared about. For a child with family stressors such as divorce or dysfunction, this "specialness" may be very welcome. For an adolescent at war with his or her parents, it can easily become safe harbor.
   Next, pedophiles go through a "grooming" stage in which they progressively get the child to abandon learned rules and values with regard to being intimately touched by strangers. As each rule and value is broken, it becomes easier to become sexually intimate with the child.
   The bottom line — the one that the pedophile fails to understand — is that nothing erases the differential between an adult and a minor. Nothing makes the child an adult equal, or gives the child the mental maturity to become a consenting sexual partner.
Preventing Child Abuse

   Not only must we learn more about the biological, psychological and social etiology of the pedophile, we must increase our knowledge of how to keep lines of communication open between kids and adults.
   I was surprised to learn of a recent national survey that revealed that nearly one of very five youths who use the Internet is a victim of online sexual solicitation by an adult. Two-thirds of these enticements take place in chat rooms, and nearly half of the youths who were enticed did not initially tell anyone.
   Although it is often embarrassing for parent and child to talk about sexual issues, it is critical that these conversations take place on a regular basis, not just when the child is on the Internet, but during normal family interactions.
   It is OK for mom and dad to initiate this conversation, or to ask questions about relationships with adults that may seem "too chummy." It is part of being a parent to be a resource for children when they get into situations that might be over their heads, whether the situation is sexual or financial or school-related or alcohol/drug-related.
   There are few things more sacred than the trust of a child. Let us do all we can to ensure that trust is never broken.
Judy Shepps Battle is a South Brunswick resident, addictions specialist, consultant and freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at