Children are abused or neglected in many ways. A child may be beaten. A child may be touched sexually or forced to touch sexually another person. A parent or other caretaker may emotionally abuse a child by telling them they are of no value or should have never been born. A child is also maltreated when a parent fails to feed or clothe a child or denies essential medical care. Children are also maltreated when they witness violence between their parents. Although child abuse laws differ from state to state, our website includes a summary of standard definitions developed by the World Health Organization and International Society on Child Abuse and Neglect.
The Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente queried 17,000 men and women to determine how many endured abuse as children. The population studied was representative of the United States population as a whole. More than one out of four women (28%) and approximately one of six men (16%) said they were sexually abused during childhood. More than one out of four (28%) said they were physically abused as children which the researchers defined as being hit hard enough to receive injuries. More than one out of ten adults said they were emotionally abused (11%) as children. Thirteen percent grew up in homes where their mothers were treated violently. With respect to neglect, 10% were denied the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) and 15% were emotionally neglected in that they grew up in homes where their parents or other caretakers never expressed affection to them.
Every ten years, the United States Department of Health conducts a massive study to determine as much information as possible about child abuse in the United States. This research has consistently found that most children are abused or neglected by their biological parents or their non-biological parent or partner. Specifically, the researchers found that 100% of neglected children, 93% of emotionally abused children, 91% of physically abused children, and 60% of sexually abused children have been victimized by their biological or non-biological parents or partners. Others who may abuse children include those who have access to children through day cares, schools, churches and other youth serving organizations.
Most abused or neglected children are violated in multiple ways. Specifically, 66% of children abused in one way are abused in at least two ways and approximately 30% of abused children are maltreated in five or more categories (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, etc.). This is why it is important to pay attention to all possible forms of abuse and, when working with a survivor, to keep in mind the likelihood he or she has been abused in many ways. If you would like to read more about this research, we recommend the following articles: Heather A. Turner, David Finkelhor, and Richard Omrod, Poly-Victimization in a National Sample of Children and Youth, 38(3) American Journal of Preventive Medicine 323 (2010); David Finkelhor, Richard K. Omrod, Heather A. Turner, Poly-victimization: A Neglected Component in Child Victimization,31 Journal of Child Abuse & Neglect 7 (2007).
Approximately one-third of sexually abused children are abused by other children, including siblings. The brain of children is very different than that of adults and the motivation for sexual misconduct is often different. Our website includes links to professional articles and resources that can help you understand the research about juveniles who commit sexual offenses. If you know a child who has sexually abused another child, it is critical to report the conduct to the authorities and to make sure the child receives appropriate treatment. Again, our website has links to organizations and publications that can assist you.
In a series of studies of more than 450,000 patients, the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente found that physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and other forms of maltreatment are associated with higher risks of numerous medical and mental health conditions including cancer, heart disease, liver disease, depression, anxiety disorders, and sleep disorders. The researchers found that the greater number of categories of abuse a patient endured, the greater the potential impact on their health.
If you or someone you know has experienced child abuse, you may want to acquaint yourself with Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research and to discuss this with your doctor, counselor or other professionals.
According to 34 major studies involving more than 19,000 abused children, a significant number of children suffer “spiritual injuries.” This can happen when the abuser uses religion in the abuse of a child. For example, a parent may beat a child while telling his son or daughter that the beating was ordained by God. Spiritual injuries can also result because a child is confused by God’s response to the abuse. For example, a child may have asked God to stop the abuse and is saddened or angry that God did not answer the prayer in the way the victim desired. Research has found that left unaddressed, spiritual injuries can also impair our physical and mental health.
There is research suggesting boys may delay disclosing sexual abuse longer than girls—perhaps as long as 20 years. Studies indicate boys have myriad fears that keep them quiet including fears of being labeled weak or gay as a result of sexual abuse. In our society, we often make jokes about boys who are sexually abused by older girls or women. As a result, a boy sexually abused by a woman feels guilty for not “enjoying” the victimization. In designing church policies and in implementing personal safety programming, it is critical to keep in mind these differences and to specifically address fears that may be unique to boys.
Many survivors of abuse and neglect lead productive lives free of many of the adverse medical and mental health conditions previously discussed. How quickly, and to what extent a victim of abuse heals is dependent on a number of factors. How quickly was there an intervention? Did the doctors, counselors and clergy who intervened respond competently? Does the survivor have a network of friends and family members who are supportive? There is a body of research on resilience which finds that simple things such as keeping a child in school, getting them involved in sports, music and other activities that build self-esteem and model non-abusive responses to conflict can be very important. There is also a substantial body of research that maintaining a connection to faith, including a healthy sense of spirituality, can reduce the potential short and long term impact of abuse.
Our website includes a number of resources for parents and churches to use in teaching personal safety to their children and in developing church policies that limit the possibility a child may be abused inside the faith community. We’ve also included an article published by the National Child Protection Training Center that answers many common questions parents have.
If your neighbor stole your car, you would report him to the police. Your abuser stole something from you much more valuable than a car. He stole a part of your very life and self from you. In doing so that person committed a crime and needs to suffer the consequences of his or her actions. It is not unforgiving or unchristian to report such a person. In fact, it is wise to do so. It forces the person to deal with the reality of what he or she did. It also reduces the likelihood that the person will abuse others in the future.
God established the church to help us forgive. He established the government to provide temporal justice and curb lawlessness in society. As Christians we enjoy the benefit of both realms.
Although it is appropriate to report your abuser to the authorities and otherwise take actions to prevent him or her from abusing other children, God’s Word does not require you to confront the abuser. Indeed, it may be physically or emotionally harmful to speak directly with the person who violated you. Even if an offender admits the abuse, he or she may continue to blame you for the abuse or otherwise make you feel responsible. The confrontation may also cause the offender to destroy evidence. Sometimes, pastors and other Christians have told survivors to confront their abuser by citing the words of Jesus to go and show a fellow believer his or her faults (Matthew 18:15). However, this verse must be read in the context of all of the scriptures. When Jesus was in danger of being killed by King Herod, God did not tell Joseph to confront the would-be killer of his son. Through an Angel, God told Joseph to flee and not return until it was safe to do so (Matthew 2:13). Although it is important for civil, criminal and church authorities to confront a child abuser, God does not require victims to place themselves in physical or emotional danger.
As noted in Do I need to confront the person who abused me, God’s Word does not require you to confront your abuser and doing so may place you in danger of physical or emotional harm. If you are contemplating confronting your abuser, it is wise to discuss this thoroughly with a competent counselor who is trained in working with survivors of child abuse and who is current with the literature. A counselor can help you sort out the feelings you have about confronting the abuser and to assess the possible advantages and disadvantages of such a confrontation. If you choose to go forward, it is wise to have one or more professional support persons with you that can stop the meeting if it is harming you and can help you process your emotions after the confrontation.
There is a lot of confusion about forgiveness, especially when it comes to child abuse. Sometimes a well-intended friend will tell us, “You just need to forgive and move on.” Or a relative may encourage us to “forgive and forget.” Both of these statements confuse rather than clarify the matter of forgiveness.
First let us consider what forgiveness is not. It is not saying what the person did was okay. It was not. It was wrong and it hurt us deeply. Nor does forgiveness mean we have to forget and act as though it never happened. That is not helpful either. If we know someone is an abuser, we need to remember that and do what we can to prevent that person from abusing us or others in the future. That was difficult to do as a child because of our vulnerable situation.
A simple definition of forgiveness is “giving up my self-perceived right to get even.” Romans 12 tells us, “’It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Giving up the desire to get even does not usually happen quickly. The person hurt us deeply, to our very heart and soul. Some days we may be ready to leave it in God’s hands. Other days we are filled with anger and hurt.
The more we let go of this perceived right, the more we free ourselves from the captivity of the abuse. So we see that giving up the right is not something that benefits the abuser, but something that helps us in our journey of healing.
Because forgiveness can be difficult and complex, it is helpful to seek out a pastor or Christian counselor to help us with this process.
There are two kinds of forgiveness. Vertical forgiveness is God forgiving us. It is a proclamation. It is a done deal. On the cross Jesus announced, “It is finished.” Because Jesus lived and died in our place, we have forgiveness and life. It is always perfect and complete in this life because it comes from God. When we approach God with humble and penitent hearts, he assures us, “Your sins are forgiven.” He can say that because Christ paid the price of our sins.
Horizontal forgiveness is different. It goes from person to person. It flows out of our love for Christ and our appreciation for what he has done for us. Unlike God forgiving us which is instantaneous and complete, our forgiveness of others is a process that is never perfect in this life.
When we offer someone horizontal forgiveness, we are not saying that what the person did to us was okay. It was not. Nor does it mean that we will forget that it ever happened. We can’t. Horizontal forgiveness means that we give up our self-perceived right to get even. We leave justice in God’s hands and utilize the resources God has given us to respond to abuse—including using civil and criminal authorities.
Remember that this type of forgiveness is a process. It takes time.
Those who are abused as children often have a difficult time with forgiving the person or persons who hurt them. In many cases this was a parent, grandparent, sibling, relative, or some other person that was close to you. This was someone you trusted, someone who was to care for you, but instead this person hurt you and took advantage of you.
Another thing that can make forgiving your abuser difficult is that it may have happened many times over many years and in many different ways. Usually abuse does not come in a single form. Those who are abused sexually are often abused emotionally and spiritually. Likewise whose who suffer physical abuse often suffer verbal abuse as well.
Finally the person who abused you may not be sorry for what he or she did. Perhaps the person even denies that it ever happened. How can you forgive if the person isn’t even sorry for what he or she did, you may wonder?
These are only a few of the factors that make forgiveness a challenging task for those who have been abused. However, many survivors are able to work through this forgiveness process and heal from the abuse.
Many survivors worry that God will condemn them if they cannot forgive the person that abused them. For example, one man said that he couldn’t forgive his father for torturing him repeatedly and was worried his soul was in jeopardy. If you are a Christian struggling with forgiveness, it is important to remember that you are not God. Accordingly, you will never be able to forgive or perform other works in the way God can. The scriptures make clear that only unbelief sets us apart from God (John 3:16).
In commenting on the obligation in the Lord’s Prayer to forgive others, Martin Luther said the devil lies to us when he says “You must forgive or you will not be forgiven; you have not forgiven; therefore despair.” Luther simply retorted that through faith we will want to forgive but may not forgive fully this side of heaven.