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Experts: There's hope for victims recovering from sexual abuse

by Stephanie Schorow- The Boston Herald
Sunday, April 14, 2002

Even if legal justice finally catches up with priests who have molested children, the damage they have wrought will not be easily remedied - but there is hope, experts and sex-abuse victims say.

Victims may spend years learning to trust other people, trying to regain a sense of control over their lives and dispelling feelings of shame and guilt, the experts say. Some will sink into permanent depression or turn to drinking or drug addiction.

Yet, say both therapists and survivors, many will not only survive but thrive, going on to live full lives and help other abuse sufferers along the way.

``It will always be part of the fabric of your life, but I tell people `You're a survivor versus a victim,' '' said Ann Hagen Webb, a psychologist who has worked with abuse patients in Hingham and Wellesley, and herself a survivor of priest abuse. Recovery from childhood sexual abuse can be a long, complicated and often troubling process, affected by factors ranging from physical the degree of physical harm, the duration of the abuse and reaction by family or authorities, the experts say.

``The worst thing is not being believed. The next is being blamed. And the next is being believed and being told, `Get over it,' '' said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorder Clinic, said therapy must avoid reinforcing survivors' feelings they are ``damaged goods.'' He recalls wincing when a prosecutor, doing his best trying a molestation case, declared that the child sitting nearby, ``had been given a life sentence.''

``We should not treat every child that has been wronged as if They were permanently damaged,'' said Berlin, who has been appointed to a panel advising the Boston aArchdiocese on clergy misconduct.

While every act of molestation is wrong, some acts can be more harmful than others, Berlin said. Molestation by an authority figure, which occurs over an extended period or involves threats, may have more dire effects than abuse by a stranger or a one-time act of inappropriate touching. But, experts emphasize, each child reacts differently.

The single most influential factor in the recovery process may be whether a child's story report of abuse is believed. Children must be told that what was done to them was wrong, that it was not their fault and that the person who did it will be held accountable, therapists say.

A significant benefit of recent publicity is children who report abuse are more likely to be believed, said Phil Saviano, New England SNAP director. ``I often hear from many victims that parents didn't believe them or parents punished them,'' he said. ``I don't think anything like that is going to happen today.''

Early intervention and thoughtful attention can mitigate long-term effects, therapists say. ``I think the earlier a person is able to deal with sexual abuse, the better,'' Webb said.

To help their children, parents sometimes must sometimes hide their own rage. Children may retain tender feelings for abusers, who often target children hungering for attention, therapists say. Although parents may long to tell their children, ``He was only giving you candy to trick you!,'' they would do better to deal with the child's sadness instead, experts say.

Abused boys are particularly affected by the sense of a loss of control, said Dr. Eli Newberger, a pediatrician and author of ``The Men They Will Become.''

``Abuse is not about sex, it's about control and power, and one of the lasting harms of abuse is the sense of powerlessness it creates,'' Newberger said. ``For boys this is overwhelming.''

Acknowledging abuse can be a traumatic leap of faith for many adult men. To admit to being molested is to admit you were weak, that you didn't have strength to run away or stop it, he said.

``Look at those men in their 30s and 40s weeping as they tell their story,'' Newberger said, referring to press conferences in which victims come forward. ``See the rage and the relief in finally being able to tell their story.''

Female victims often suffer from a sense of powerlessness, too, but they often turn their anger against themselves, while boys often act out. Cyndi Desrosiers, 37, an Augusta, Maine, resident, said she was abused at age 4 by a priest who told her she was bad and deserved this treatment. She believed him.

``He took me to a open grave and threatened to bury me alive if I told anyone,'' she said. So she grew up to be a perfectionist: ``Unless I was perfect, I was proving him right.''

Some survivors regain a sense of control by confronting perpetrators through legal action. Desrosiers, for example, believes she regained control when she faced her tormentor in a courtroom: ``I could see I wasn't 4 or 5 any anymore and he had no power over me,'' she said.

Webb, however, warns that legal action is healing ``only if the person is ready to tolerate all outcomes.'' In other word, they must be prepared to deal with the possibility of losing their case. Confrontation ``isn't for everyone,'' she said. ``I worry about the people who are confronting too soon'' before being emotionally prepared, she said.

Therapists often encourage victims to write letters to their abusers. Even if the letters are never sent, the act of chronicling abuse can be healing - ``it makes it more real,'' Webb said. If letters are mailed, victims must be prepared to ``not get a response.''

Along the many roads to recovery they may take, most survivors prosper with individual and-or group therapy, the experts say. Many will endure great pain: ``There are no shortcuts,'' Webb said. Some will suffer deeper and longer than others, puzzling those who may hint to them that it's time to stop feeling like a victim.

``I feel that it's important not to confuse each individual's own path toward finding peace with remaining a victim,'' said Carol Newberger, Eli's wife, a Harvard Medical School assistant psychology professor and senior psychologist for the Judge Baker Children's Center.

``Different people will have different timetables and different ways of moving forward in their lives. Just as grief can take many years for recovery, so can recovery from abuse.''

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