Tag Archives: child abuse

Repost at AACC: Seven Questions About Your Church Abuse Prevention Policy


The AACC has reposted my blog designed to help church leaders and counselors review current child abuse prevention policies. You can see the post at their site by clicking here.

As I say in the post, every church with any insurance policy likely has some measure of policy. However, why settle for something designed only to limit liability? Such an approach does not seek first the protection of the vulnerable. Rather, limiting liability places the protection of the organization ahead of the protection of children. In fact, policies that are tools of protection of children will also limit liability. We just need to get the order straight.

For further information and help with child protection, don’t forget to check out G.R.A.C.E.

 

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The problem of abuse and avoidance of grief


Last Monday night we had the privilege of having Dr. Diane Langberg on campus to speak to our counseling students. One of the 4 talks she did was entitled, “The Spiritual Impact of Child Sexual Abuse.” She stated that it was material that she developed after publishing her book, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse. As you can imagine, she gave us a very powerful talk. But of all the things she said, one idea seemed to hit students and faculty alike. I do not have her quoted here but rather the essence,

  • Grief may be the most powerful emotion in sexual abuse survivors, more powerful than the pain of the abuse
  • Most clients work really hard to avoid grief; encouraging good grief is difficult work

I’m not doing justice to her thoughts here. But, I think she nails it. Sexual abuse destroys relationships, faith, trust, identity, and physical bodies. To grieve is to name and acknowledge what was lost, broken, stolen, etc. and to admit that many of the broken things cannot be restored in this life–at least to the levels that we desire. The work of counseling surely includes coming to a correct understanding about guilt, shame, love, boundaries. The work of counseling is about reconnecting with God and others. The work of counseling is about rebuilding identity. But, all of these activities require grieving what did take place, grieving what was lost (real or symbolic).

Most of us, whether we have suffered abuse or not, would rather not sit with grief. And so, we run. However, if the heart of God is shown in lament for the world that is not as it should be, then we ought not to run from grief.

May God show us how to lament and live in peace at the same time.

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Forgetting Abuse? Some thoughts on motivated forgetting


Could someone really forget something as horrifying as a rape or sexual abuse? How come some people say they never stop reliving a bad experience while others say they have forgotten and cannot remember what happened? How do we best understand these two, seemingly, opposing reactions?

In a previous post I began a short series on the controversies of repressed and recovered memories. In that post I made a few general comments about the nature of memory. It isn’t a particular structure or substance or even stored as one discrete movie but rather is a whole brain process connected to context, mood, and self/other-perception. Memories do not exist outside of narrative or story (unfortunately for those with traumatic histories, these narratives are usually quite jumbled up making it difficult to tell the story well). In general, stories help us remember and remembering tells a story.

In this post I want to address the matter of forgetting abuse. Is it possible? The short answer is yes. Common to forget all of it? No. Common to forget portions? Yes. And even more common to have the experience of a new memory even without ever having forgotten the abuse (this I will address in the next post). It is possible to forget, to no longer have access to one’s own history. But, the bigger question is “how” and “why” rather than “if”.

Complicating factors

Laboratory studies re: memory cannot replicate the experience of sexual abuse or trauma. Thus, we have some rather weak experiments or post hoc, retrospective studies. What these studies point to is that (a) most people don’t forget entire episodes, (b) some forgetting does happen, and (c) some confabulation or memory error also happens (e.g., eye-witness accounts are more frail than we imagine them to be). But even when we get a good study, we find it hard to apply the information to real life. For example, one retrospective study located a number of child abuse victims decades after their ER visit to a hospital. A goodly number denied ever having been abused. While the study could reveal some form of forgetting, we might also be witnessing lying and/or alternative interpretations.

So, we have to admit at the outset we have a large supply of anecdotes of full forgetting, partial forgetting, and no forgetting, and an equally large supply theories and explanations based in part on experience and low power correlational studies. Now, anecdotes and poorly supported theories aren’t reasons to doubt the reality of forgetting trauma (or the reality of false recovered memories). They are, however, good reminders to be wary of applying some general knowledge as complete answer to any specific case. Each case of forgetting trauma needs to be evaluated on its own merits (more on this when I get to a post on clinical/practical interventions).

One more complication. Adults who reveal child sexual abuse experiences rarely have any corroborating witnesses or forensic evidence. They have their memories and that is about it. Families, offenders, and communities have much to lose to admit such abuse could have happened. Thus, outside therapeutic environments, adults have few opportunities to be heard or believed.

By what mechanism do we forget traumatic experiences

“Normal” forgetting happens in a variety of ways. Each of these may be a partial answer as to why someone might forget something very powerful.

  1. Distraction leading to failure to encode. If you are introduced to someone and immediately forget their name (happens to me ALL the time), it is because the information never got encoded (too distracted by preparing to say my own name??). Distractions may come in the form of attending to something very specific or not attending to anything at all. Some victims of abuse report that their memories are fuzzy because they could only focus on the flower pattern on the wall during the actual abuse.
  2. Other memory intrusion. A previous memory may interfere with the clear encoding of a new memory or a new memory may interfere with the recall of an old memory. Victims of extended abuse often report difficulty in remembering when it started and stopped, who was present, etc., especially when  the perpetrator also provided more normal love and attention. The memories (and their competing narratives) make it hard to remember.
  3. Motivated Forgetting. I like but hesitate to use this term. “Motivated” could sound like “willful” or “intentional.” And while some motivated forgetting is intentional, most just happens outside the conscious experience of the one doing the forgetting. If I have a conflict with my wife and I spend the next 5 hours rehearsing her supposed sins against me, I may have difficulty recalling my own misuse of words. I may not consciously say to myself, “I am going to do this so I won’t be able to remember my angry words to her,” but I am engaging in what I call “motivated forgetting.” Obviously, abuse victims would rather NOT remember what happened to them and would rather maintain a positive view of a loved one who did the abuse. Victims may encourage motivated forgetting through several means (again, without conscious decision): repeating a false narrative (“He didn’t mean to do that and I am at fault.”) created by themselves or others, using conscious decision not to think about an event, dissociating during abuse and then dissociating when not being abused, focusing on another possible threat.

Now, these forms of forgetting may not sound like they would lead to the complete forgetting of an event. And that would be true for the vast majority of abuse victims. But, I think we need to remember that it is possible given enough anecdotes of some who recover memories (apart from suggestion by therapist or others) on their own and that do get corroborated by others. Is it common? No. Can mental health professionals cause false memories? Yes (but that is for another post in this series!).

So, why do some remember minute details of trauma? They rehearse them (whether they want to or not). Why do some forget them? Their memories degrade due to forms of memory loss discussed above. Other factors are also likely: natural capacity to dissociate, age/development of victim, culture where abuse took place (e.g., a one-time event in a rather safe environment will have a different impact than repeated experiences where safety has never been present).

In my next post I want to take a few minutes to discuss dissociation, repression, and the experience of re-remembering child abuse later in life.

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Of Babies and Bath Water: Navigating the Controversies of Repressed and Recovered Memory


Recently I ran a conference about abuse within the church. In these kinds of venues (this blog and conferences) I am asked about a couple of related problems—the problem of false memories of abuse and the reliability of recovered memories of abuse.

While I intend to address these matters here (and in future blogs), I want to reiterate something that I think gets lost in most conversations about recovered and/or false memories.

Sexual abuse is real. The vast majority of adult reporters of abuse during childhood never forgot the details.

Why say this first? Discussions of rare and extreme cases (i.e., repressed memories, recovered memories, and false memories) tends to create undue suspicion for all adults who choose to reveal their child abuse later in life. It is my experiences that conversations about false memories or recovered memories lead many to assume that a report of extensive or horrific abuse is probably false. So, let us remember that as we take up the matter of fully repressed memories of abuse, we are talking about a very small percentage of people.

But, the issue of repressed and/or recovered memories and the construction of false memories is indeed worthy of a careful review given the strong feelings on both sides of the recovered memory debate. In order to be as careful as possible, I want to consider a few topics that may help us understand the issue. First, I will explore foundational topics (memory, forgetting, repression, and dissociation). Then,  I’ll explore the how trauma is known to create confusion, self-doubt, and “motivated” forgetting. Finally, we’ll take up the practice of counseling victims of sexual abuse and the particular matter of dealing with memory retrieval in counseling. Strap in!

Just in case you NEED to know my opinion at the outset…

I find Partlett and Nurcombe’s 1998 summary of an APA report on the topic to be fairly comprehensive,

The plain point here is the consensus set forth by the Working Group:
1. Controversies regarding adult recollections should not be allowed to obscure the fact that child sexual abuse is a complex and pervasive problem in America that has historically gone unacknowledged.
2. Most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them.
3. It is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered.
4. It is also possible to construct convincing pseudomemories for events that never occurred.
5. There are gaps in our knowledge about the processes that lead to accurate and inaccurate recollections of childhood abuse.[1]

I would add one more point: most people (myself included) in this debate are motivated by strong feelings as well as “facts.” These feelings may be the result of experiences with those who appear to be abused or appear to be falsely accused.

Issue one: Memory and Memory Retrieval

Let me start by stating the obvious: this isn’t a neuropsychology primer on memory and I am not an expert in memory. However, there are a few things on which I think we can agree:

  1. memory is a whole brain biochemical process. While structures like the hippocampus are clearly involved in memory storage, no one structure handles all aspects of memory storage or recall.
  2. memory is multi-faceted. Researchers differentiate between recognition and recall memory, explicit and implicit memory, short-term, long-term, and working memories…and much more.
  3. memory-making is a process.  The formation of memory requires attention, perception, encoding, storage, and retrieval. Thomas Insel calls it a 5 act play. A person moves from perception to long-term encoding to retrieval and finally, expression of memory.
  4. relational and affective context influences memory formation and memory retrieval
  5. the act of recall may change memory,

The concept is simple: memories are not fixed; they are periodically retrieved, and modified each time they are retrieved. This process of strengthening a memory by retrieval is called reconsolidation. One profound implication of this concept is that what you recall is not only a reflection of what you first learned, but also a product of each time you have recalled the original information.

How does this relate to our issue of recall of abuse?

  • memories are both fragile and yet not so. You recall what the house you grew up in looks like, even if you haven’t seen it in 30 years. And yet, your recall may or may not be particularly accurate. You may remember a large house even when it is much smaller to your adult eyes.
  • repetitive recall along with high levels of emotion may solidify memory. Most of us know exactly where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001.  You remember this because you talked about it, played it over in your mind, and because of the powerful biochemical process kicked off when you heard of the first plane crashing into the twin towers.
  • Most child sexual abuse has little corroborating evidence, especially when revealed decades later. This leaves victims by themselves to sort through the narratives they and others tell about their history.  The result? Ample opportunities for both denials of actual abuse as well as false memory.

Return with me to my first point. Most child sexual abuse is never fully forgotten. Some memories may be lost, others distorted, still others intentionally forgotten. Memory, as we have seen here is not a structure but a narrative.[2] In most cases, the story being told has much merit, even if some important details are perceived rightly. Thus memory retrieval during therapy (something that WILL happen whether therapist or client wants it) plays a powerful role in the re-storying work of therapy.

In my next post on this topic, I will make some comments about forgetting, motivated forgetting, dissociation, and repression.


[1] Partlett, DF & Nurcombe, B (1998). Recovered memories of child sexual abuse and liability: Society, science, and the law in comparative study. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 4, p. 1273

[2] “Rememberings—whether valid or invalid—are communicated by means of narratives.” Sarbin, TR (1998). The social construction of truth. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 18, p. 145.

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Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology, ptsd

5 Top Abuse Prevention Actions for Churches


Over at Biblical’s faculty blog I have a new post discussing top abuse prevention and response strategies. These are the most common strategies found in my students’ papers. There are certainly many more strategies and more detail to be had for each item, but for any church looking to review its preparation for an allegation, these five make a great place to start.

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Reflections of the Conference at biblical.edu


I’ve posted over at www.biblical.edu some reflections and encouraging thoughts (at least to me) from our recent conference/course on the issue of abuse in the church. Direct link is here: http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/faculty-blog/96-regular-content/561-stopping-abuse-is-like-encouraging-reflections-from-the-weekend-conference.

Let me take my supposition in that post just a bit further. If our conference protected 500 children from being sexually victimized (just 10 (or 10% of the churches represented) were able to have robust child abuse prevention programs and thus could deny a predator access to their 50 plus victims) then such a conference might in fact save millions of dollars in therapy (assuming 20k in therapy over a lifetime).

Okay, I know, my numbers assume a predator in every one of these churches, that all victims were in the church and that every victim would get therapy. Not likely. But just sayin’…that just one safe church can have an outrageously positive impact on an individual and community in regards to unity, flourishing, and finances!

Yes, the sins of “fathers” travel down generations. So too, the righteous acts of fathers and mothers will bless future generations in some very tangible ways.

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Abuse in the Church Conference Slides and a Quote


A great start to our conference last night. Boz Tchividjian gave us some good things to think about in how predators in the church operate. He named 5 particular exploitations that are common

Exploitations of “religious cover” (aka religious activity); of faith issues (using distorted faith matters to abuse); of power (using authority, “God told me that…”); of trust (christian communities tend to be trusting); of need (churches work only through volunteers, thus the need).

Here’s the quote:

Everyone believes in child protection. But when the status of the alleged offender is high and the status of the victim is low, that is when people start looking for exceptions to their protection policies.

I have placed the slides of my 4 talks (last night’s and 3 from today) in my articles and slides page (scroll to the bottom, in right column). Boz Tchividjian will make his available here as well after the conference.

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Abuse in the Church Course/Conference Begins Tonight!


At 6 pm, our class/conference kicks off at BranchCreek church (Harleysville, PA) and runs through tomorrow afternoon. Boz Tchividjian of GRACE and myself will be providing plenary and breakouts on a variety of topics designed to help church leaders and counselors prevent and respond well to abuse within the church family. We are expecting a good crowd of pastors, church leaders, mental health workers, and of course, grad students!

Still want to come?

It is not too late. Information here. Bring payment (CC or cash/check) to the door. We’ll fit you in!

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Abuse Reporting: What you DON’T do can get you into trouble


As I write this Monsignor William Lynn has just been convicted of child endangerment for not adequately protecting children by removing priests he had evidence had abused children. No one accused Lynn of perpetrating abuse by his own actions. But now he stands convicted for what he failed to do and is looking at some years behind bars.

Bottom line: if church leaders knowingly cover up sexual abuse allegations or allow other leaders to remain in ministry when they have abused children, there is now a track record of prosecuting those who didn’t take action to protect children–either those who have been abused or those who could be abused.

Frankly, it shouldn’t take the threat of prosecution to get us to do the right thing. For the sake of the purity of the Church and the care for the least of these, we should always protect children over the organizational reputation. If you or someone you know wants to know more about how to deal with abuse allegations in the church, join us on July 20-21 for our seminar on the topic. For only $50 dollars for 9 hours of training, you can walk away with some great ways to protect your church and care for victims and offenders. (FYI, the $50 rate is for anyone not wanting graduate credit…you don’t need to be a church official to get that rate!)

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Refusing to report abuse and its consequences


As many Americans know, The Jerry Sandusky trial is well underway. Mr. Sandusky is charged with 52 counts of child sex abuse during his era (and following) as assistant football coach at Penn State University. But equally on trial–at least in the media, the court of public opinion, and most likely civil and criminal courts in the near future–are Penn State officials. Chief among those under scrutiny is former PSU president, Graham Spanier. It appears that Mr. Spanier, along with other important University employees knew of accusations and eyewitness accounts of abuse and failed to report the matter.

I have written here about the reasons why we fail to report. We fail to report because we are protecting our own. We fail to report because we worry about backlash, bad press, and we don’t want to get involved in messy situations. But consider now the consequences of not reporting.

1. Protecting the wrong person or entity. allegedly, one email from Spanier states that he wouldn’t report Sandusky for “humane” reasons. Spanier appears to have made the calculation of negative consequences for reporting Sandusky to law enforcement but failed to do the same calculation for probable victims.

2. Destroying trust for future leaders. Ask the general public how they feel about the trustworthiness of leaders within the Catholic church? Ask if they feel that the church’s response (verbal and in legal settings) has helped improve or continue to erode trust? Sadly, future leaders of organizations (those that failed to report child abuse) likely face unmerited suspicion on the basis of the predecessor’s behaviors. Further, such failure to instill trust does not just impact general trust within a community. Victims who were not protected and helped are much less likely to be willing to report abuse that happens in the future.

3. Increasing PTSD symptoms. Many abuse and interpersonal trauma victims report that something traumatized them even more than the original abuse–the failure of those who knew about the events to do something about it. When those you think should protect you do not, you are more likely to experience PTSD.

4. Having no answer for Matthew 25:31-46. You may remember that this passage tells what will happen on the day of judgment. For those who did not do for the “least of these” (care for, protect, serve), tremendous judgment awaits. Strong words.

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. ”

Strong words indeed.

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