At the time of this writing there were two major abuse cases on trial in Pennsylvania: Msgr. William Lynn, alleged to have facilitated the systematic cover up by Catholic Church officials of pedophile priests; and former Penn State University coach Jerry Sandusky, alleged to have molested ten boys.
Each year, some six million children in the United States are sexually or physically abused. Since abuse is so common and the scars of abuse can last a lifetime, there is every possibility an attorney will at some point in his or her career encounter an abuse survivor, whether as a client or otherwise.
This article is an attempt to explore the emotional and spiritual ramifications of abuse, and provide Christian attorneys some guidance in dealing sensitively (and biblically) with abuse victims. Not all abuse victims, are, of course, Christian. However, the principles outlined here are intended to be universal.
Predators – Responsible Adults
It must be said at the outset that children are NEVER responsible for the abuse inflicted upon them. The idea of a “bad or “seductive” child is a lie perpetrated by child molesters, a rationale to excuse their heinous actions.
Predators are often manipulative, convincing child victims that they brought on the violation; consented to the violation; will not be believed, if the violation is reported; will be sent away from home, if the violation is reported; will place their parents (or pets) in danger, if the violation is reported, etc.
As a consequence, victims will often experience a misplaced sense of guilt and shame.
Victims – Misplaced Shame
Children can more readily than adults believe the falsehood that they “deserved” the evil done to them, than they can come to terms with the fact that the adults who should have cared for them actually had little or no regard for their well being.
The Statute of Limitations and other obstacles can make it difficult to hold child molesters accountable. With or without a conviction, the feeling of sinfulness may rebound from the abuser to his victims. Victims relive the trauma of having been treated as worthless. They are often left with a vague sense of unworthiness that can permeate their lives, and undermine subsequent relationships.
Though this feeling of their own “sinfulness” can be overwhelming to abuse victims, the conclusions they draw from the abuse may not be accurate. They did not warrant or invite the abuse. They remain deserving of love.
Not all families will be supportive of the abused child. Some will actually blame him/her for the abuse. Victims may be accused of lying or labeled as delusional for making such accusations. This is experienced by victims as another betrayal. Victims may, also, be told that they are “dirty” (or be treated by their families as if that were the case).
None of this behavior is biblical.
“But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’ ” (Matt. 19: 14).
While abuse victims have not sinned, it can be helpful to remind them that God encourages even sinners. He sent His Son to save, not condemn us.
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned…” (John 3: 17-18).
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8: 1).
It is the adversary who condemns the saints, his goal being to paralyze them. It is his voice that victims hear when the darkness presses in on them, not God’s. But the adversary is a liar. Lies are his stock in trade. Abuse victims are the more vulnerable, since early in life they did not receive the nurturing that God intended.
“And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, ‘Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony…’ ” (Revelation 12: 10-11).
The feeling of “sinfulness” is just one of the scars left in the wake of abuse. Other symptoms can include anxiety, depression, alcohol or drug addiction, and sexual promiscuity. The symptoms of abuse may, themselves, become a cause of shame to victims.
Restoring a Victim’s Relationship with God
The abuse experience can warp the lens through which victims see themselves and the world. It skews even their view of God, since He – perhaps more so than the predator – is blamed for the abuse. Abuse victims must be permitted to vent the full range of emotions elicited by the violation, if their faith in God and relationship with Him are to be restored.
God’s continuing love for abuse victims is more powerful than any symptoms or shame. This does not necessarily mean that the scars of abuse will be erased. Victims are likely to need frequent reminders, both of God’s love and His mercy.
“He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103: 10-12).
” ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ “ (Isaiah 1: 18).
” ‘I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more’ ” (Isaiah 43: 25).
Victims might ask themselves whether they would judge another exploited child by the same harsh standards they have applied to themselves; whether the thoughts and behaviors they now characterize as “sinful” would have occurred at all if they had not been abused.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5: 17).
In human terms, it is inconceivable that victims would consider forgiving so grievous a violation. Only with God’s intervention can abuse victims hope to forgive the perpetrator, and successfully move on with their lives.
Forgiveness begins with a decision to put the violation in the past. It may be necessary to re-address forgiveness as life events bring other areas of unforgiveness to the survivor’s awareness.
Forgiveness cannot be forced (and does not preclude prosecution). But without it, victims run the risk of being consumed by bitterness. God wants more for them than that.
As attorneys, we may protect children from abuse, seek justice for the violation inflicted upon them, and assist both child and adult survivors of abuse in obtaining needed psychiatric or psychological counseling.
By treating these clients sensitively, with respect, and in accord with Scripture, we can help them on their long road toward fuller lives.
Any views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pro Deo or its other contributors.