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'Forgive and forget' doesn't work
Sexual abusers find ways to justify their actions

By Jacqui Theobald
For the Dayton Daily News
February 25, 2005

As a professional counselor and art therapist, I have treated and worked with both sexual abusers and the victims/survivors of sexual abuse for 20 years. The recent media attention to abusive priests and other child molesters — and subsequent pro and con comments — have the sound, to me, of a very old scenario. Even though open discussion has become more common through the years, there are still myths and mindsets that seem never to progress.

"Forgive and forget," they say.

Offenders are champions. They are champions of denial and rationalization and minimization and intellectualization, all used to make themselves feel better. First and most used is denial. They simply convince themselves that whatever they did wasn't abusive.

It was loving or kind (in their own minds). They were paying attention to someone who had been ignored or mistreated by others. Soon, they are able to feel quite noble about the progressive intrusion into someone else's life and space.

Over time they edge right in, getting closer, being a good listener, being a resource or a refuge. There's a name for that. It's called grooming, and it happens in various ways, but it always happens.

They want to remove any sense of danger the target person may feel. After all, they aren't "abusive," certainly not violent; they're just a "good guy."

Offenders, when confronted by a name for their own activities, usually respond with wounded innocent denial. They like to proclaim they're being misunderstood or misinterpreted. "That's not what I was doing."

It can be ice cream or trips to the store, or rides home or free beer or "innocent" games or a "just-us" friendship. Those "friendships" are never equal relationships.

How can they be when one "friend" is an adult and the other isn't? How can they be when one "friend" has a self-serving purpose in mind?

Offenders are very good at blaming. They blame drinking. "I'm an alcoholic," as if that makes it all right. That's an excuse that seems rational, to someone who doesn't want to know himself.

It could be drugs. It could be "my wife doesn't understand me," "love me," "sleep with me." Fill in the blank.

They blame circumstances or people, needing to be believed — by others and mostly by themselves. The saddest part of their rationalizing is that innocents take on the blame the offender isn't brave enough to own.

How many survivors think, "It was really my fault. If only I had ..."

The emotional burden the offender imposes on the survivor is just one of the long-lasting effects, the pain, of the abuse. The responsibility lies with the offender, alone.

I've been involved in the treatment of several hundred convicted child molesters. Many of them voice similar justification. "She or he (the object of his attentions) wanted it," they tell themselves. That story can be applied to a 4-year-old or a 14-year-old. The age doesn't seem to matter. It is what the offender needs to tell himself.

And then comes the champion's trump card of intellectual accomplishment. "I was educating her or him. I was just trying to help." This is garnished with, "The good I've done far, far outweighs anything else."

It doesn't seem to matter if the offender is well educated or barely schooled. It doesn't seem to matter if the offender has a great job or no job at all. It doesn't seem to matter if the offender lives in a fine house, is virtually homeless, or lives in a rectory.

The methods and the thinking they use to tell themselves it is all right to cross the boundaries, to disrespect those who trusted them to be a safe person, are quite universal. Offenders of all walks of life say the same thing. And they say these things because they cannot allow themselves to believe they have caused pain to others.

When the public and letters to newspaper editors and other institutions mouth those very same platitudes, they do the ultimate abusive disservice to those survivors who can only ask, "Why me?"

There is no answer to that question, but it takes years of work in treatment to puzzle through all the wounds.

It is only through honest acceptance of responsibility, honest acknowledgement of the vast emotional harm done to the survivors, and an honest effort to learn how to manage the urges, which may never go away, that offenders can become safe in society. That means years of specialized professional treatment and a lot of hard work. The offender has to want to change. Some do. They work hard to break the cycles of abuse.

What will it take for protectorate institutions and those who believe the offender has done no damage, to understand these very complex actions? Where is their honest effort not to minimize, but to see the need for change?

Until offenders are held accountable — until cliché apologies are not good enough, abuse will continue to be tolerated.

It is always easier to advocate "forgive and forget." Except for the survivors.

Jacqui Theobald, formerly of Oakwood, now lives in a loft in downtown Dayton. She's an art therapist and part-time Sinclair instructor.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests