Child Abuse

For at least a quarter century, the Catholic Church in the United States has been confronting the problem of child sexual abuse. In the process, victims and their families, as well as the wider Catholic community, have expressed outrage at past policies that put concern for the institution’s reputation before the protection of young people.

The problems of sexual abuse and the lack of an adequate response to it are hardly restricted to the Catholic Church. Other religious denominations, public and private school systems, the Boy Scouts and countless other service organizations have had to admit in recent years that many past reports of abuse were ignored, mishandled or dealt with in ways that were less than satisfying.

As late as 1971, when the first rape center was established in New York City, issues of domestic violence and child abuse were, more often than not, considered private matters best dealt with within the home; law enforcement rarely, if ever, got involved. Despite the progress made over the last few decades, we have to acknowledge also that, even today within the wider society, most child abuse goes unreported.

This last situation is due, in part, to a general lack of understanding about the topic. We forget, for example, that sexual abuse represents less than 10 percent of the abuse experienced by children in the United States Neglect, as well as physical and emotional cruelty, make up the difference.

Children and young people are best protected by programs built upon an awareness of what constitutes abuse and neglect and a willingness on the part of everyone to act when it is seen or suspected. With its vast network of educational and health care institutions, programs of child and family services, and parishes, the Catholic Church is in a key position today to right the wrongs of years past and ensure a safer future not only for the children entrusted to its care but for young people everywhere.

This outcome can come about only if the Church moves beyond its present, almost singular, focus on sexual abuse and assumes its proper leadership role. Working together, parents, teachers, child care and hospital workers and others in Church institutions can ensure that programs of education and intervention are in place aimed at addressing all forms of abuse and neglect in the lives of young people.

The Mistreatment of Children

The mistreatment of children is nothing new. In first-century Greece, weak and infirm children were left to die and for years afterward midwives were instructed to dispose of “unfit” children.

As late as the mid-1800s, children were thought to have less value than animals, with laws existing to protect the latter prior to any being written in the defense of children. During the early 1870s, lawyers for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals took up the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a child found starved and beaten and otherwise grossly maltreated in her foster home. Their argument: laws protecting animals should not be stronger than those for children.

In 1875, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established, and it quickly set up standards for the treatment of minors. But progress was slow initially and remained so until the birth of the women’s movement. Consequently, by the time the 19th century came to a close, little had changed. Minors were considered to be the property of their fathers who could do with them pretty much as they pleased.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 marked a turning point, bolstering as it did efforts to eliminate abuse and neglect. Shelters were set up and programs funded to protect victims. By 1976, all U.S. states had child abuse reporting laws.

And, yet, the abuse and neglect of young people continues. The New York Times reported recently that children as young as 13 continue to work 12 hour shifts in the tobacco fields of North Carolina often suffering nicotine poisoning due to the lack of protective clothing.

UNICEF also reports that the abuse and neglect of young people occurs every day throughout our world in the form of boy soldiers, child brides, child labor and the sex trafficking of minors.

The Victims of Abuse and Neglect

Approximately five children die each day in the U.S. as a result of child abuse and neglect. More than 80 percent of them are below the age of three. While girls are more frequently the targets of sexual abuse, statistics are about equal for boys and girls when it comes to all other types of exploitation. Physical abuse appears to increases during two particular periods of childhood: the infant and toddler years and later during early adolescence.

In their attempt to deal with the violence that they have suffered, many children act out aggressively or become withdrawn. Self-destructive behavior such as cutting, self-inflicted burns, alcohol and drug abuse and suicidal talk and actions are not uncommon. Some children arrive at school early and are reluctant to leave at day’s end as if afraid to go home.

Types and Prevalence of Abuse

Abuse comes in many forms. Some is intentional, the result of a choice made by an abuser to consistently harm a child physically, emotionally, sexually or through neglect. Other types of abuse are reactive: the parent or caretaker does not intend to abuse the child but does so in reaction to stress, or due to anger, intoxication, a hangover, or because the child is agitated. A final type of abuse, neglect or omission — which can be intentional or unintentional — is the result of not doing something.

Child abuse and neglect cannot be equated necessarily with poverty; however, children in families with limited economic and social resources are reported to have more than three times the rate of abuse and seven times the rate of neglect as other children. Often enough, the inadequate care given to a child in these circumstances is due to the lack of a support system and the necessities of life, as well as limited education or a serious medical or psychological problem of the caregiver.

Unemployment appears to increase the risk of abuse; parents without work have twice the rate of reported child abuse and two to three times the rate of neglect when compared to employed parents.

Better than four-fifths of child abuse injuries are caused by parents, whereas only three percent are at the hands of strangers. Women are the perpetrators in 54 percent of the cases, men in 45. Eighty-five percent of abusers are between the ages of 20 and 49. Nearly half are Caucasian, with 20 percent being African-American, and 19 percent Hispanic.

Three points to remember: one, while neglect and physical abuse are reported to be the most common forms of exploitation, neglect is far more deadly. Two, contrary to published statistics, emotional abuse is the most widespread form of cruelty; it is a central component in all other types of abuse and lingers long after evidence of physical abuse has disappeared. Three, dealing effectively with emotional abuse is the most challenging aspect of recovery.

Next Steps

We must admit that the Catholic Church through its many existing institutions and those working in them is already doing a great deal to protect children and young people. As an organization, it also needs to continue to speak out publically whenever evidence of abuse is uncovered.

The Church is in a key position to take a wider leadership role. Using its network of institutions, it can work to identify populations at risk for abuse and take preventative action. This is a necessary part of any comprehensive program aimed at reducing the frequency with which children are exploited.

Obviously, some single parents with few supports, as well as limited education, income, child-rearing skills and help at their disposal are a potentially high-risk group. So, too, are some first-time parents living away from family and familiar surroundings. They often feel isolated and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of rearing a child.

Education is an important component in addressing the abuse of children. Parents, as well as teachers, parish workers, medical personnel and others working directly with young people, can benefit from well-designed in-service programs about child rearing. Included in these sessions should be information about child abuse including its causes, the forms that it takes, those who appear to be most at risk, possible symptoms of abuse and ways to intervene proactively.

Many people assume incorrectly that parenting skills appear magically with the birth of a child. Adult education programs that address the practical, as well as the emotional, challenges that are part of rearing children provide participants with the skills they need to feel more “at home” with being a parent. At the same time, these courses bring young parents together with others who are facing the same responsibilities, thus providing a support group for all involved.

Parishes and diocesan adult-education programs are an ideal venue for the type of education program just described. So also are courses offered by Catholic hospitals and social service agencies. The parish center often enough is conveniently located in the neighborhood of those participating, thus increasing the possibility of greater interaction for all involved. Diocesan centers are often able to draw on a wider pool of resources, thus increasing the number of possible offerings.

Intervention is a second important tool in efforts to eliminate child abuse. Obviously, it is best to step in prior to any abuse taking place. Once again, parish and diocesan structures already in place provide a framework for volunteer programs that aim at providing some support to those rearing children on their own. Retired parishioners, especially those who have reared their own families or worked in childcare, can be an exceptional resource to those just beginning that task.

More and more today, grandparents find themselves located at a distance from their own grandchildren. Many are more than willing to be “grandparents” to those in their local region. As a young parent, knowing that you can call upon an experienced person like a fellow parishioner whose advice and practical assistance you value reduces your anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. So also, that same person’s emotional support and companionship limits the sense of isolation that parents without many resources often feel.

The problem of child abuse has been with us for centuries. In the past, ignorance, denial, social convention and the practice of protecting institutions rather than the children they were meant to serve have resulted in decisions that left victims scarred for a lifetime.

In keeping with its mission and using its substantial infrastructure, the Catholic Church today can take on a wider leadership role by putting the sexual exploitation of children into its proper context and working to address all those ways in which minors are abused and neglected. Children and young people surely will benefit; so will everyone else.

BROTHER SAMMON, F.M.S., is a Marist Brother who is currently Scholar in Residence at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Prior to this position he was for 16 years the superior general and vicar general of his religious congregation. A former president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, he is the author of several books and numerous articles examining faith and social science.