Effects of Child Sex Abuse

We hear a lot these days about the sexual harassment of adults and its effects. But during the many scandals about sexually abused children, the media said surprisingly little about the effects of such abuse. The Royal Commission of Australia released a 17-volume report on the problem of child abuse last December. Volume 3 covers the effects of such abuse (here). As you might expect, trauma during the formative stages of development has a major impact: “Traumatic events, such as child sexual abuse, are understood as ‘extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations of life’” (p. 77). Its effects are long-lasting, and often extend to the family and close associates of the victims.

The report makes little attempt to quantify any of the results. One of the few such findings is that 95% of victims had mental health issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and these tended to be of long-duration. In other words, almost all victims show signs of trauma. While a few are highly resilient, the outcome for most depends on treatment, social context, and other factors. But even successful outcomes are generally not “normal.” Rather, victims learn to deal with their problem in different circumstances. It’s more like learning to live with an amputated limb.

The trauma of child abuse is so great it has measurable physiological effects:

Child maltreatment can produce lasting alterations in the endocrine, autonomic and central nervous systems. Neuroimaging studies have mapped visual evidence of disturbances to the ‘emotional brain’, particularly the hippocampus and amygdala, areas of the brain involved in processing memory and emotion, such as fear.

Child sexual abuse impairs concentration, learning ability, self-esteem and educational performance : “Research suggests that children who have experienced sexual abuse generally show reduced academic achievement, reduced cognitive function and reduced IQ scores compared with physically abused and non-abused children” (p. 147).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that victims are prone to alcohol and drug abuse, and much more likely to face economic hardship and homelessness: “A recent Australian longitudinal study suggests a relationship between childhood trauma – such as sexual abuse – and homelessness, with nearly one-third (31.5 per cent) of those who had been homeless for four years saying that they had been sexually assaulted during childhood.”

Child sexual abuse “has ripple effects that reverberate to a wider network of people. These ripple effects can continue over time, affecting subsequent generations. Those affected can include the victim’s family, carers and friends, as well as other children and staff in the institution, the community and wider society” (p. 202). Furthermore, victims are more likely to victimize others later in life.

Anecdotal Evidence

The report has two strengths. One is its extensive citations. But its main strength is its testimony, especially from victims.

While the investigation covered all sources of child abuse, the Catholic Church is especially prominent. Researchers talk about the “unique impacts of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.” The Commission cites Joseph Guido, a psychologist and former priest, who says that since Catholics regard priests as “another Christ (‘alter Christus’),” being raped by a priest “can leave a victim not only betrayed, but also spiritually alone and bereft of the ability to believe in God…. [It is] soul destroying” (p. 135). One victim said, "I had God raping me – in my mind, that’s what I’m thinking."

Another victim, ‘Laurel,’ went to confession to find help: “Instead, she said, the priest told her to give him 10 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers, and told her she was a disgusting girl who must not allow the perpetrator, another priest, to touch her any more. ‘That’s something I will never get out of my mind – him turning his back on me and not helping me. From that day onwards, I never told anyone, till I told ‘Liana’ [her twin sister] on our 52nd birthdays.’” There were many such stories. Victims sought help from other priests, and were further victimized.

In a Catholic orphanage, “AYB gave evidence that after each occasion of sexual abuse by a priest she had to go to confession with him and confess [her] sin of impurity. She told us that when she went to confessions she would tell the priest that she had committed a sin” (p. 136). This pattern was common: “Survivors spoke about how some Catholic priests’ reactions to their disclosure of sexual abuse, made within the confessional, made them feel as though the abuse was their fault. They were told to do their penance and not to do ‘it’ again, which they took to mean that they were at fault in some way.”

Further evidence of institutional corruption. A former teacher at a Catholic school, said “she was threatened with dismissal because she tried to uncover the sexual abuse perpetrated by the priest, Gerald Ridsdale, in the early 1980s. As a result of the poor response to the abuse, she lost her trust in the Catholic Church and in general: “Finding out about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and the response of the Church, has affected my ability to trust in general, and especially trust authority and authority figures. I am much more cynical than I used to be and I am regularly concerned when I see adult men with younger children” (p. 223). There is shockingly little evidence that colleagues of pederast priests tried to prevent or expose their crimes. Some combination of institutional threats and institutional loyalty appears to have suppressed the natural, moral reactions to these crimes. The Catholic school teacher was sufficiently sheltered and indoctrinated to believe that this sort of depravity was relatively common in general.

The Royal Commission was careful to point out that Catholics don’t have a monopoly on such atrocities. One victim described how an Anglican priest used the confessional: “Daniels said he would hear my ‘confession’ and then I would be forgiven. He said to me, ‘We can fix the problem; God will absolve you. I am a priest and I can act for God in this way’. Daniels explained to me the theology of confession and that he was bound as a priest to keep it in confidence between me, him and God. Daniels then heard my ‘confession’ in his backyard. Daniels’ tactic to silence me profoundly affected me. It put the moral responsibility on me. It meant the secret would stay with him and also guaranteed my silence as I felt bound to keep the contents of my confession confidential, just as he did. For many years, I shouldered the entire blame for the abuse. I felt intense resentment for this abuse of his authority as a priest. This, to me, is more significant than any physical abuse I suffered.”

Lasting Fear of Institutions

Some older survivors said “they were distrustful and fearful of aged care institutions, because aged care facilities either reminded them of the abuse or of the institution where the abuse occurred. ‘Glenys Maree’ told us that the thought of residential aged care alarmed her, along with many other survivors who had been in homes and orphanages as children. ‘That’s the greatest fear for us homies, that we’ll be re-abused in a nursing home.’”. Another survivor said, “I do not want to be put back into an old person’s home. To me that would be just like the start of my life and the finish of my life. It would be very traumatic” (p. 139).

Company Towns

The report contains a notable example of abuse of power:

“Ballarat is a very Catholic town and the Catholic community is very closed…. Coming forward and talking publicly about child sex abuse in Catholic institutions not only has repercussions at the family level, but also at the business and social level in Ballarat. It is these impacts that stop other victims from coming forward. Some of the little towns outside Ballarat are also extremely Catholic. Sometimes the only institutions in these towns are a Catholic Church and a Catholic school. I know of survivors in these towns that have spoken out about child sexual abuse. They have told me that after speaking out they were stood down from clubs where they were lifelong members. It is like they have literally been wiped out of these communities” (p. 227).

There was no mention of economic boycotts, firings, etc., but I am sure that persecution went beyond social clubs. Keep in mind that until recently, this type of situation must have been common in Ireland and other strongly Catholic countries. Prior to the Protestant Revolution, it was probably the rule rather than the exception in most of the Western World. People are extremely reluctant to discuss the many ways in which the Church abused its powers during its halcyon days.


“Child sexual abuse in institutions is likely to have affected at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of children over the past decades. The number is even greater for those who were sexually abused as children outside of institutional contexts.” They are only speaking of Australia. Worldwide, millions were abused.

“As these victims develop into adults who experience, in many cases, debilitating symptoms of trauma, the effects multiply and reach outwards to families, friends, institutions and communities. For many people, mental health impacts can be severe, and include PTSD, suicidal behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse. These needs are likely to require significant intervention in order to be addressed.”

Far too little attention is given to this problem, and to preventive measures. Unlike sexual harassment, there are no celebrities involved. But in virtually every way, the outrage is far more severe, as are the consequences.


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