Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse

By Fink, Paul J. | Clinical Psychiatry News, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse


Fink, Paul J., Clinical Psychiatry News


Victims of abuse by Roman Catholic priests are in a position unlike that of other sexual abuse victims. Often, these victims' wounds are reopened every time a new revelation comes out about a particular priest or victim. How can we help these patients heal? Are there some patients for whom--given the context of the abuse--true healing will never take place?

Suffering Recognized

There are no simple generalizations that can be applied to victims of sexual abuse, just as there is no specific clinical profile that can identify potential child abusers. One important aspect of emotional healing, however, is for the victim to feel that the perpetrator no longer denies criminal behaviors and accepts responsibility and accountability and institutes substantial behavioral changes as a heartfelt means of apology and reconciliation.

It has been my experience, in having the privilege of providing psychiatric consultation and advice to Vatican authorities, that the visceral and emotional pain expressed by the large North American community of victims of clergy sexual abuse has been "heard" by the Catholic hierarchy and that major changes in policy have been ordered and instituted. Here in the Boston Archdiocese, a specific Catholic Church-sponsored training program in child abuse prevention and detection has been provided to tens of thousands of adults. Concerned laity are more involved in incorporating and overseeing church policies toward the protection of children and adolescents, and a confidential program to provide comprehensive psychological treatment for victims of sexual abuse has been available.

These impressive acknowledgments of moral responsibility by the Catholic Church hierarchy should help reduce future incidents of sexual abuse and, hopefully, will allow past victims of abuse to find solace in knowing that their emotional suffering has been recognized.

Martin Kafka, M.D.

Belmont, Mass.

Don't Blame the Victim

Sexual abuse of anyone--infant, child, adolescent, or adult, male or female--inflicts lifelong damage. Wounds may heal, but they are easily reopened. It is like a combat soldier with a metal fragment in some part of the body that causes no significant problems for many years but then suddenly flares up and begins to provoke painful symptoms. I have treated individuals of all ages who have experienced sexual and / or physical abuse. Some of have undergone many years of intensive psychotherapy, including medications for significant symptoms that have not responded to psychotherapy. From this, I have learned how deep and severe the wounds are inflicted. When the abuser is a representative of God, there is, in addition to other psychological wounds, the very deep wound to the spiritual life. Patients are forced to deal with the loss of a core aspect of their meaningful existence. Consciously and unconsciously, they frequently become involved in self-destructive life patterns, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and other manifestations of an inability to maintain significant emotional nurturing with healthy, intimate relationships. It is worse for the child who wants love, but is not able to find it and begins to seek intimate relationships with individuals through sexual activities. These children frequently develop a syndrome called pseudo-mature sexuality.

How can these victims be helped? First and foremost, by not being blamed for what happened. This can be done in overt or subtle ways, such as when victims are asked why they didn't just say no or why didn't they tell someone. If the victim is an adult, it may be noted that they "are responsible adults." To that comment it may be added that "they are responsible for damaging the priest." If you are the parent of a child or spouse of an adult, don't blame them for what happened or for not previously talking to you about the incident.

Clyde H. Flanagan Jr., M.D.

Columbia, S. …

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