I write, teach, and provide professional care about matters pertaining to child sexual abuse. I sit on a board of a fantastic organization designed to help christian organizations prevent child abuse and respond well when allegations arise. From these experiences I can tell you that victims of abuse struggle the most when they finally get the courage to speak up but then aren’t believed–whether by other family members or those within their community. Since most abuse happens in secret places and since most of us live with happy public facades, it is easy to disbelieve the victim. In fact, the temptation is great since believing the victim means we must alter our perceptions of the perpetrator and the system that supports them. And that alteration disrupts our own lives, threatens our own comfort zone. Since some reports could be, have been false, maybe this one is too…
The first problem in stopping child abuse is the failure to believe victim stories of abuse. Victims know their information will destroy life as it was before the revelation. Believing that they will be singly responsible for damage done by revealing their abuse, they keep silent. Silence always enables further abuse.
But there is another problem, a second problem faced in stopping child abuse: treating abusers as “other,” some sort of monster that is so unlike the rest of us, we can’t imagine being in their presence. Think about these words. Perpetrator. Pedophile. What garish images come to your mind? Or, do you imagine someone with virtue along with their obvious and destructive vices? Do you imagine the image of a victim in that same person?
“Does it make sense to discard an entire oeuvre of work? Or does it simply reflect an inability to live with messiness and ambiguity? To chalk it up as nothing more than the work of a monster, to cast it out of the village, is to senselessly re-affirm the same basic strategy of denial and dehumanization that, ultimately, allows abuse to continue.”
If you are interested in considering the complexities of the person of the perpetrator, I highly recommend this essay where I found the previous quote. It is written by a victim of abuse perpetrated by his father. How do we account for the virtues, the generosities, the humanness, the victim experiences found in individuals who choose to perpetrate against others? Like the author of this essay, I suggest that doing so is absolutely necessary if we are going to make any dent in the incidence of child abuse.
“Most of us would sooner discard all parties who have been tainted by this event than we would look at how tenuous the sanctity of children really is, how commonplace abuse is, or see the capacity for the mostly good to do periodic evil. We live in the same universe as those who abuse kids. We walk among them. If we want to end the sexual abuse of children, it will begin with the recognition that we are simply not that different from them.” (emphasis mine)
Won’t humanizing perpetrators harm victims?
Humanizing perpetrators of abuse does not minimize the need for justice for victims. It does not decrease the place for restitution or incarceration. Naming humanity in perpetrators does not lead to excuse-making (we do that for other reasons!) nor demand explanations for abusive behavior (though sometimes this can be helpful, most would rather have acknowledgement of abuse done). It need not change our triage policy to prioritize victim recovery over all else.
But when we recognize that perpetrators of abuse suffer from the human condition plaguing us all (self-deception, self as the center of the universe, seeing others as objects for self-comfort, choosing fig-leaves rather than truth in response to shame), we have the opportunity to name these conditions wherever they show up in our lives. Naming them early and often hinders the development of the “split-self” where we live publicly one way but privately nurse other shame-inducing habits. And when we are more able to identify these features in ourselves, we may also find that we can identify them in others as well. While we are not responsible for the abuse perpetrated by others, complicity with abusive behavior (failing to respond to evidence of abusive behavior, allowing cover-ups, etc.) does stand as judgment on us.
Let us acknowledge that we are not so different, that “treatment” must start first in our own hearts so that we can help others before abuse takes place.