Media stories of childhood sex abuse have filled the airwaves of late; from the Penn State trial of Jerry Sandusky to the ongoing Catholic Church scandals to the first conviction of a high ranking church official. While these stories stir our outrage, their telling and re-telling truly only reflect the tip of the iceberg when it comes to both the enormity and secrecy surrounding childhood sexual abuse. In fact, childhood sexual abuse makes up more than 10 percent of the millions of reported childhood abuse cases in the US.
Worldwide, research shows that up to 36 percent of girls and 29 percent of boys have suffered child sexual abuse and coercion. According to the World Health Organization, these statistics represent 150 million girls and 73 million boys under the age of 18 who experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence. That number increases substantially when you include the vast sexual slave trade market that holds millions more children in its grasp. Most shocking of all is that even these numbers are considered to be only fractional because sexual abuse carries such profound taboos that the vast majority goes unreported by the victims themselves.
Recent revelations of the years of child sexual abuse that occurred in the Penn State locker room generated a national swell of outrage in response to the institutional efforts to cover for the perpetrator which enabled the sex abuse to continue. Just days before, Monsignor James Lynn was the first high ranking church official ever to be convicted for the same crime of protecting and enabling other priests that were abusing altar boys. Unlike the Sandusky case where the perpetrator was also sentenced, the priests were not tried. However, what both these cases share in common is the silence, denial and shame that the victims faced when they came forward.
Sadly, our national conversation about this rampant form of child abuse too often ends with the dispensing of punishment. We refuse to delve deeper into the frequency and prevalence of inappropriate sexual behavior that impact millions of children. Like Sandusky, it is not surprising that many, if not most, perpetrators were once childhood victims themselves. Our collective discomfort with the reality of this situation creates a weighty silence that suppresses and distorts normal human sexual impulses and turns them into a distorted cycle of repeated pain. Jerry Sandusky wasn’t an outright liar in his trial. In order for him to live with his overwhelming shame he had to reinvent what happened with all the boys he abused, just as he had to reinvent the story of his abuse as a child.
He needed help that he couldn’t ask for or even recognize. Many other highly educated people witnessed his need for help but could not overcome the shame and silence surrounding sexual deviance. The abuse occurred in a world in which many shut down the efforts to educate oneself and others about the complexity and mystery of being an erotic human being. When we refuse to host a sexual conversation that is focused on healing, it leads to misinterpretation of the lasting emotional damage for both the perpetrator and the victim. Denial and distortion are as common to the adult perpetrators as to the children being coerced into sexual acts that they do not understand. They create ramifications in all of the other aspects of their emotional and social relationships. Those who have looked the other way in the hierarchy of the institutions are silent not only out of covering up bad press issues, but like many of us, also are clearly unable to language and determine consequences of inappropriate sexuality.