Multiple allegations of sexual abuse against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky should bring national attention to the subject. While an entire University has been thrown into unimaginable controversy, reaching a new level with the firing of their beloved and legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, let us not forget the victims of sexual assault.
I admit that sexual abuse is an issue I didn’t think I would encounter very often in pastoral counseling. During a graduate course in pastoral psychology that devoted significant attention to counseling those who have been sexually abused, I doubted that we needed to give so much time to the subject. I was wrong – very wrong. I never realized how much I would be involved helping others deal with this life-altering trauma.
Over the past couple of decades, I have been called to help more people work through the effects of sexual abuse than I could have ever imagined. And sexual abuse is more common than most of us realize. This morning, in our local newspaper, another sad story about sexual abuse was printed beside the Penn State headline. The title read: “Principle accused of sexual abuse: Assistant Principle of Lancaster Mennonite High School put on leave.” One can only hope that these publicized stories will help other victims to have the courage to come forward and get the help they need.
While the media is largely focused on the removal of Coach Paterno, let us not forget the victims. Former coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulting many boys over a 15-year period. Their ages at the time of abuse ranged from seven to fourteen years old. If these allegations prove true, Penn State empowered a monstrous sexual predator with an authority and influence that he leveraged to prey on vulnerable children. It’s unimaginable that they only used verbal reprimands against such evil.
These victims, like most sexual abuse victims, suffered in silence and shame for years. The depth of betrayal involved in sexual abuse generates conflicted emotions that profoundly alter the lives of the abused. Imagine how enamored these young boys were with a chance to be near college football only to be trapped by a trusted public figure who lured them into his demented manipulation and abuse. Think about the fear and confusion they experienced. It was probably their first experience with sexuality. The physical, emotional and psychological trauma are unthinkable.
Although victims respond differently, none of them walk away without significant and often lifelong damage. During my graduate class, my eyes were opened to a world of darkness that holds victims in silent pain. The more I learned about the issue, the more my heart grew heavy for the victims of this evil.
Most of my counseling of sexual abuse has focused on adults who had been assaulted as children. They come for help because they are struggling to live normal lives. They battle degrees of confusion (particularly about sexuality) and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Many seek help because of marital problems that are directly related to their history of abuse.
Since abuse usually involves manipulation and force, victims battle feelings of fear and anxiety. They long to gain full control of their lives and sometimes pursue security through excessive and controllable behaviors like exercise and dieting. They often work hard to conceal their pain because of embarrassment, shame or fear of their perpetrator. Yet they easily spiral into debilitating emotions. It’s not uncommon for them to feel an inability to function in normal life and an overall lack of motivation. Crippling emotions inexplicably grip their lives.
It’s also not unusual for survivors to experience significant loneliness, loss of appetite and inordinate desires to sleep their lives away. Mood swings plague those battling the grip of sexual abuse. Unusual gregariousness can give way to unexplainable periods of depression and crying. Other waves of emotion include self-hatred, panic attacks, irrational phobias and unexplainable anger and rage. They go through life feeling a lack of normality and a sense of being trapped.
Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes turn to other forms of abuse to escape their pain. Obsessive behaviors ranging from alcohol and drug abuse to sexual addiction and promiscuity become ways of “escape.” Sometimes victims even engage in self-mutilation and entertain suicidal thoughts.
Without help from caring friends, most victims don’t recognize how badly they’ve been affected. They tend to suppress the past to survive the present. It’s not unusual for sexual abuse victims to conceal their pain and keep others at a distance. The ability to be in trusting and transparent relationships feels risky to them. Yet they long for close relationships as much as they fear them.
As much as vulnerability feels risky to victims of abuse, it’s a necessary part of gaining freedom. They especially need to confront their abuser. Some form of confrontation is essential to healing. It helps facilitate a clear transfer of responsibility and blame to the perpetrator. This could be done through a written letter or a mediated personal confrontation. Safety is a primary consideration when facilitating confrontation.
The most formidable obstacle to this essential step is fear. Those who have been abused must confront their fears and surrender substituted forms of control that hold them hostage. This often means they must go back and work through the pain of the abuse. As they do this, they must reject all forms of self-blame and any blame that others try to project on them. They also must reject the powerful emotions of shame, guilt and fear that hold them in bondage.
A more subtle challenge for victims is their need to be honest about ways they’ve allowed resentment; anger and bitterness to become emotional means of retaliation. These emotions offer a deceptive sense of control and a feeling of getting revenge but, in the end, they only ruin those who cherish them. In an exceptionally sad way, they also extend the control and abuse of the injury inflicted by the abuser.
One victim of abuse expressed her pursuit of freedom as a refusal to tie her soul any longer to her abuser. As hard as it is, victims must courageously acknowledge and confront their pain. While it is true that the only thing we can change about our past is how we allow it to effect us in the future, we can find healing and freedom.
Yet rarely do victims of sexual abuse reach healing and freedom without the aid of wise counselors. Not every counselor understands the dynamics of abuse and how to help those who face it. If you have been abused only see a counselor who understands sexual abuse and has experience helping victims of it.
A hopeful part of recovery for the victims of Sandusky is the encouragement they can find in each other. They are not alone. I would recommend that they form a group under the guidance of a wise counselor as part of their path to healing.
Relating to God is another difficultly for victims of sexual abuse. “How can I trust God if He didn’t protect me when I was vulnerable?” they ask. It’s hard to fully understand how God’s control relates to the evil actions of people. And these kinds of questions mixed with feelings of worthlessness and anger combine to obstruct faith in God. Such hesitations and struggles must not be treated lightly. Scripture reminds us to “be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 22). Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse need merciful and wise help in their struggle to trust in God and to rebuild their lives.