Sexual abuse is a horrible thing.
It is horrible especially for a child or teen. It creates immediate wounds that become scars that don’t go away.
Our recognition of sexual abuse as a horrible thing is reflected in everything that we do in our diocesan Safe Environment Program to prevent it from happening to children and teens when they are at our parishes and schools and when they are with those who minister at our parishes and schools.
We know that we cannot prevent all harm. We recognize the reality that so much of the sexual abuse that children and teens experience today occurs away from their churches and schools, even in their own homes, among their own families.
Wherever it occurs, whoever does it, the horrible effects of sexual abuse are well documented.
There are generally three types of symptoms, symptoms that we educate our parish and school staff and volunteers to be sensitive to.
Children who have been abused usually show indications of post-traumatic stress disorder. This syndrome can involve involuntarily reliving the trauma in various ways, or sometimes fighting against that recall by distraction or avoidance of people or situations that remind them of the abuse.
This struggle with vivid memories of the abuse is much more common than the inability to remember some aspects of the abuse, much less inability to recall the abuse at all.
Along with or even as a result of this struggle with recurring reminders of the abuse, there are often other symptoms of distress.
Sometimes they are externalized reactions like inappropriate sexual activity, aggressive outbursts or being very much on guard, as if danger is around every corner.
Very commonly there are internalized feelings of distress. These might include a sense of being all alone, depression or anxiety, problems sleeping or concentrating, or generally blunted emotions.
These symptoms often do not occur one at a time and they are not only evident in childhood, but sometimes last well into adult life.
This sad understanding of the results of sexual abuse of children and teens is heavy indeed, but that is not the end of the story. Here, there is some good news: psychological treatment can be very effective in reducing those symptoms.
I had the opportunity to read a recently published report of treatment outcomes. The authors reviewed 35 studies of the effects of treatment for youth under the age of 18 who had been abused.
They found that there was a reasonably good effect of psychological treatment on all three types of symptoms. Not every child benefited, of course, but on average, there was improvement, and that improvement seemed to have staying power.
There were also some indications as to the kinds of treatments that are most effective, which encourages clinicians to continue to develop treatments specifically designed to counter the various adverse effects of sexual abuse.
As with any research study, the results only point the way forward. As the saying goes, “more research is needed.” Yet, the findings are hopeful.
Should you find out that a child you know is the victim of abuse, make the report to law enforcement, and don’t lose hope. Reach out for help for the child and all those affected secondarily.
For the common good of all children in the communities of our Diocese and especially for abused children, be an advocate for the agencies that provide or arrange support for victims of abuse.
Speak up and write out your advocacy so that these agencies are not forgotten in the battles over budget shortfalls.
As a Church and as a civic community, where there is suffering, let us work toward healing.
If you or anyone you know has experienced abuse by a priest, deacon, sister, brother, employee or volunteer for the Roman Catholic Church or for the Diocese of Tucson – no matter when or where the abuse happened – we urge you to report the abuse immediately to law enforcement. Also, we encourage you to call the Victim Assistance Program of the Diocese of Tucson at 1-800-234-0344 in Arizona and the Office of Child, Adolescent and Adult Protection of the Diocese of Tucson at 520-792-3410. More information is available at www.diocesetucson.org/ocaap.html.