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The Effects of Sexual Abuse Never Go Away

February 3, 1997 - Hartford Courant - by Kathleen Megan

The single most hurtful comment that relatives frequently make to older victims of childhood sexual abuse is: "Gee, it happened such a long time ago, just get over it."

"We all wish it could be that easy, but it's not," said David Clohessy, president of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Like scar tissue, the effects of sexual abuse never go away, experts say, continuing to influence victims in various ways, such as by contributing to drug and alcohol abuse, low self-esteem, divorce and distrust.

And, when a priest sexually abuses a child, the effects can be particularly devastating. "The most trusted person imaginable suddenly does something that feels terribly wrong and creepy," said Clohessy, who as an adolescent was sexually abused by a priest. "It's a shocking kind of shattering experience."

Leslie Lothstein, who is director of psychology at the Institute of Living in Hartford and has treated victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, said that sexual abuse by a Catholic priest has its own "unique dynamic," because Catholics see their priests as having a direct link to God -- as possessing God-like powers.

A devout Catholic who is sexually abused by a priest thus may experience a kind of betrayal that can be especially intense. "Many of the patients I've seen in therapy who became sexually involved [with a priest] talked about 'soul murder,' " said Lothstein. "They felt as if something had been taken deeply inside of them in which the body wasn't hurt as much as the soul.

"You will hear them say, it was like having sex with Jesus." Laurie Pearlman, a psychologist at the Traumatic Stress Institute in South Windsor, said such abuse is not only "a betrayal by a parent figure," but a robbery of "the spiritual security that another child might be able to find in a belief in God."

Lothstein said he considers it a "miracle" that former members of the Legionaries of Christ were willing to go public with allegations of sexual abuse, particularly considering the power and influence of Catholicism in Mexico. "It's not only religious, but political," Lothstein said, comparing it with the power of the Islamic religion in Muslim nations.

"These men have enormous courage. Their names will be known in Mexico. Many won't believe them. They won't accept the idea."

Sexual abuse can forever alter a young child's view of the world. "To be used as an object to satisfy someone else's need is a profound violation of the self," said Pearlman. "It's not an act that is over and done with." It will color all of a child's relationships, Pearlman said. A child is left asking, "Whom can I trust? Can I trust myself? Am I a worthy person or just an object to be used by others? Am I valuable? Can I control what happens to me?"

It's as if, Clohessy said, a force as fundamental as "gravity stopped all of a sudden" and the victim is left worrying forever about when "gravity is going to stop again.". Without any answers or an adult to help, a child may store the experience away as a secret, becoming "withdrawn, depressed or acting out, causing trouble at home or school," said Pearlman.

A child is likely to be left with strong feelings of anger, fear, shame, hurt and disappointment. A boy's experience often involves a man as perpetrator, raising questions about homosexuality. Pearlman said boys are more likely to react with feelings of humiliation that may result in their becoming bullies.

Girls are more likely to act out against themselves, she said, perhaps winding up with mental health problems. As they grow up, such children may abuse alcohol or other drugs as "a way of numbing out their feelings," said Pearlman. Or they may injure themselves. It is also very common for such children to be sexually abused again, perhaps because they have not "really been helped to learn to recognize safe relations," said Pearlman.

In severe cases, victims may sacrifice their cognitive abilities in order to conceal and continue the secret of what happened to them. Such people may have disordered feelings, losing track of time and days. Often children will keep abuse a secret because they don't have the language to describe it, or they don't think anyone will believe them. This was especially true until recent years, when childhood sexual abuse has become more openly discussed.

Childhood victims are also often frightened into keeping the secret by the perpetrator, who may have threatened to harm the child or those dear to him if he tells anyone about what happened.

If the perpetrator is a priest, there are further difficulties in telling anyone. Lothstein said, "Most of the people I know who talk about early parochial education" say that if a nun or priest punished them, their parents believed the child deserved it. Most children realized that if they ever accused a priest of something so heinous as sexual abuse, their parents would not believe them or would blame them.

Many children do believe they are somehow at least partially to blame for the abuse and, because of the shame, will not come forward. A victim may also be less likely to divulge what happened if he or she has had trouble with grades, behavior problems or other difficulties -- some of which are likely attributable to the abuse. They fear they will not be believed because of their checkered pasts.

Survivors of trauma frequently require a lot of time to come to understand what happened to them and to be able to communicate it. Many survivors of the Holocaust, Lothstein said, "spent 10 years without ever saying what happened to them. The information must come out slowly and be paced. Otherwise they can be overwhelmed by it." A decision to tell people about sexual abuse or to confront a perpetrator can be healing, experts say. However, coming to terms with what happened long ago can be threatening, because it may result in the rearranging of one's entire world view.

A reconsideration of one's career, marriage and family are all likely to occur. In some cases, divorce results as a spouse can't live with a partner's pain and becomes frustrated at not being able to do anything about it. "The stakes are so high," said Clohessy. "You are taking on your church, your family, making your family vulnerable, taking the most shameful secret and putting it out there for everyone to see." On the other hand, going public or confronting a perpetrator can for the first time imbue the victim with power.

But in the short term, said Clohessy, who did eventually confront the priest who abused him, such disclosure "brings up all the terrible feelings that we've worked for years and years to suppress. Most survivors will say in their heads, 'Yes, I know I'm doing the right thing,' but inside they are torn apart." Victims of sexual abuse may hope that "wishing or drinking or praying" will make the pain go away, but "none of those things works.

Two things really help," he said. "Going to therapy and telling somebody."

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Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests