Child abuse of any kind – physical, sexual, emotional – is unmitigated evil, criminal and mortally sinful. Anyone who knows about it and does nothing is as responsible as the perpetrators. Until we understand the horrendous nature of child abuse and respond in a morally responsible way, we, as a society, are shirking our duty to protect our children.
Most abuse of children happens in private. The perpetrator usually threatens to harm the child or his family if he or she tells anyone about it. Perpetrators also insidiously convince the children it is their own fault that they are being abused, telling them that they like it or deserve it.
We need training, we need guidelines. We need principles of behavior. However, until we allow the extent of the damage done to children through abuse permeate our very souls, we will fail to act appropriately. The reputation of an individual, an organization, or a church is meaningless when compared to the harm done to a child.
I spent ten years teaching and administering a residential treatment center for abused children. I saw the effect of abuse on the bodies, minds and souls of my children. Many had digestive problems, ulcers, headaches, or nervous disorders. Sleeping was usually difficult for an abused child. Those who were physically abused have improperly healed bone fractures, scars and hearing or eye ailments. Many have learning disorders. Just as returning veterans experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), so do these little children. They have flashbacks to their time of abuse. Anything can trigger one.
I had a small nine year old boy have a flashback in my classroom. He cowered in a corner, put his hands over his head and started screaming, “Not my head, not my head.” He had an uncle who was over three hundred pounds who beat him regularly on the head. The boy weighed about sixty pounds. All I could do was wait until the flashback passed and then reassure him that he was safe and his uncle would never get near him again.
Another child, this time an eleven year old girl, began hitting her head against a slate blackboard. As I buffered her head to prevent injury, she threw herself on the floor and began crying out, “Get off me, get off me.” Her flashback was of a sexual assault. Helplessly I waited until she came out of it.
When I was present to both of these and to others also, I was internally screaming to God for help for these children. I was filled with their terror and their rage. I knew God was present to these children in their suffering and angry at those who were hurting his children. We know what Jesus said about those who hurt his children, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
In the light of even one child’s agony, discussions about who knew what when are infuriatingly pathetic for a response. Anyone — brother, sister, family, friend, neighbor, mother, father, priest, pastor, bishop, scout leader, teacher, rabbi, imam –—who suspects something is wrong or knows something is wrong, has to act immediately in reporting it to the police. Then let them do the investigations and try to judge the accuracy or inaccuracy of the accusations. Internal investigations only, within any societal group, cannot be trusted. There always need to be outside verification.
The burning of a place of religious worship is now considered a hate crime. A building is only a building. The searing of a child’s body and soul is a hate crime far more extensive than a burning building. May God have mercy on us.
Sister Patricia McCarthy currently teaches Math at a Catholic School. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.