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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 26 No 3 (April 2013), p. 12

There is a sense of shame which hovers over the Catholic Church at this moment. It’s a church limping towards Calvary, being spat upon, being vilified, despised. It’s the one church which is the focal point of child sexual abuse allegations by its ministers and others within its ranks. And yet I would suggest that there is more to what we are seeing. We are seeing the crucifixion of the Bride of Christ just like the crucifixion of her Groom. There is much pain, shame, guilt in this time, and enduring this can unhinge. Loss of faith is possible.

Defined, sexual abuse is the forceful intrusion or violation into the sacred space of sexuality in the life of a person, but in this instance, a child, in the context of one in whose trusting care the child or children were situated.

This is a very clinical explanation for sexual abuse, but behind these words there is an immensity of pain and distortion. However, there is still much more to the experience and more and more the voices of those who have lived with the experience report dimensions which had hitherto been unacknowledged.


For these voices, sexual abuse has meant the brutalising indignity and dishonour of innocence. There is a suffering within these voices which has a dimension which is indescribable. Indeed, it almost appears chameleon like because as soon as someone nears what appears to be a description, a new dimension of this suffering is discovered and the essence of this suffering becomes again elusive.

By its very nature sexual abuse is a violent and soul-destroying act whose evil can only be equated with past crimes of human sacrifice and genocide. The violence inherent in the act of this type abuse is also manifested in the physical, living realm of society, because the victim carries into life, family and then society, the reactions to this abuse.

During the act of sexual abuse, the child’s innocence dies and in its stead is imprinted a dread of God, authority, parents, siblings, family, loss of trust, loss of normal developmental mandate and a distortion of what should have been sequential growth, and in its stead a skewed view of what life means.

Sexual abuse is not something which happens while the child is unconscious and unaware but the abuse is carried out while the child is consciously present and has to bear the whole psychological, emotional and spiritual violence while fully conscious. This makes the abuse horrendous because it leads to the setting up of psychological strategies for survival which then distort true development for happiness and life-fulfilling and life-managing capabilities.

That there is now to be a Royal Commission into this type of abuse is a good thing but already the powers that be have established what it is that they wish to investigate, namely a situational aspect only, i.e., “institutions”. Why institutions? Is this what causes sexual abuse? Institutions? But who makes up institutions?

When discussing institutions we can discuss the organisations, buildings, the managements, the staff, the furniture even, the sporting equipment, the scouting rules and equipment, the camping ideals. But who is it that makes these up if not other human persons? The church? Who makes up the church if not human beings? Buildings, pews, lecterns, missals, tabernacles, candles, incense, flowers, these do not offend. Who is it that offends except another human being within this institution or other named organisations. And having rationalised that buildings, sports fields, pews, sports equipment, even tabernacles, do not commit abuse, then why is this commission prepared to look only into “institutions”?

After the commission’s inquiry into the institutional abuse, what then? Will that mean there will no longer be any abuse of children? Once all the perpetrators of allinstitutions, which of course must include government agencies, schools and kindergartens, scouting bodies, sports bodies, legal bodies, medical bodies, hospitals, even child minding centres (indeed anywhere that children are to be found) and churches of all denominations, synagogues, temples, mosques. What then?

What happened?

From where did the perpetrators making up the populations of these above-mentioned “institutions” emerge? How did the baby who was born innocent of any crime grow up to become a perpetrator? And where did he/she grow up? What happened between innocence and molester? We need an answer to this question, “What happened?” It is only with the possibility of being able to determine the “why” and the “when” that an answer can be found.

Sexual abuse of children, especially of the incest variety, has been a universal taboo. Claude-Levi Strauss stated that “the prohibition of incest stands at the dawn of culture” ( The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969) and if this is true then it means that all cultures declared taboo the interference of children by near kinsmen. The sexual violation by a parent of the child or extended member of the family is incest and has been prohibited because it has written within it something morally, genetically, psychologically, indeed intrinsically wrong.

However, more than the taboo itself there is and has been an inherent strong repulsion against incest which has served to protect children from harm by those who should protect them. Research has shown that a perpetrator and victim are often immersed within their social sphere, functioning in what appears normality and without any signs of disturbance to the societal norm.

Clinical studies have shown that a perpetrator is often a man or woman who functions, lives, and moves within their sphere of society and passes unnoticed and is even somewhat unremarkable (Cavallin, “Incestuous Fathers: A Clinical Report”, American Journal of Psychiatry, 1966).

So the question is again, from where did the perpetrator emerge except a family where all was not as it should have been or as it appeared to be. Again research gives one answer that perpetrators come from a psychology where they were themselves abused and whose own nearest kinsmen (most especially fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers and occasionally females) sexually abused them. And the abusers before that were themselves also abused. Transgenerational trauma continues until there is a resolution (Schützenberger, The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and the Hidden Links in the Family Tree, 1998).


Many reasons are posited for why parents sexually abuse their own children and again research seems to point to an attempt by abusers to repeat their own story in order to gain mastery or make meaning of it. However, because of the nature of the “drug” (sex) it becomes addictive leading to further intergenerational and transgenerational transfer of this psychological aberration.

Other reasons proffered are that perpetrators are looking for an absent closeness and love from their own parents whose emotional abandonment and neglect left an imprint of incomplete development. Completing this task (which in due course becomes sexualised) is their idea of closure or repair of their psychosexual dysfunction. Sexualisation of this task further adds to the confusion.

There is copious literature on the sexual abuse of children and research into this has been in existence for at least fifty years. This abuse research was not about “institutions” but the initial source of all abuse. Yes, institutions do unintentionally employ perpetrators, but the perpetrators did not become perpetrators because they worked in a particular institution for they already come from situations where the taboo has been broken.

What becomes possible for society to do today is to be more aware of children showing signs of crisis and to protect them from the immorality which surrounds them, removing from their vision images which should not be found in a child’s mind. The voyeurism of our day begins with children not being protected against images brought to them in their own homes, in shopping centres, in movies, in games, in open pornographic images in newsagencies. In short, when a disturbance is found in the child we should intervene.

Children need to be taught, age appropriately, the beauty of their own bodies and that no violence may be done to that body. Sexual abuse occurs because abusers have lost their sense of the beauty and holiness of their own bodies. This has been lost and now they can only act according to their own internal scripts.

A child cannot live with the “secret”of abuse and so will act out the pain, fear and dissonance. A child will give clues that all is not right in his or her life and it is important when these clues are seen that appropriate measures be taken. Gently, by the right people, and so discreetly that no further harm will be felt by the victims who won’t want to feel they have betrayed or hurt their family, for this is one of the biggest fears preventing children from speaking out.

Victims may also need to “let go” of attachment to the perpetrator, although when doing this it is important to remember that children have a need to remember some positives from childhood and parents in order that they can master the awfulness of their situation.

All children need to believe that their parents are good so that they can see goodness in themselves also; otherwise it is frightening for them to believe that they might become “bad” too. The threat of loss of family and the fear of not being believed are also reasons to proceed slowly so that children’s confidence is not thwarted.

This last fear is implanted by the perpetrator during conditioning phase of the abuse.

I began with mentioning that the Church is walking the road to Calvary and indeed it is; but this is the Church’s enemy’s ploy to divide and conquer and sadly the media plays right into their hands because it has the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and its priesthood in its sights.

For a priest to have abused a child, it is my opinion that his own psychosexual development was disturbed or interrupted. He did not become an abuser since becoming a priest but this anomaly was found in him from his own history. Had it been a celibacy issue the priest would become attracted to a woman (in the normal sense) and not a child. Being attracted to a child speaks of his own trauma in this area as a child.

Celibacy is not the reason for clerical abuse, for other Christian denominations with married clergy also have paedophiles within their ranks. The Jewish faith, indeed all religions and organisations, are afflicted with this grievous wound. The family where a husband and wife have intimacy between them has the largest amount of sexual abuse of children so it is not celibacy or the “institution” called the Catholic Church which perpetuates the abuse. In my opinion, and through much study and analysis of literature over the past many years, I have concluded that sexual abuse is the result of an abuser’s own traumatic stored imprint of memories of abuse which can be activated or triggered at any time.

Traumatic memories

Traumatic memories are stored differently from normal day to day uneventful events. These are stored as imprints, rather than narratives, because to store memories as narratives there has to be a mastery of language and usually when childhood sexual abuse begins mastery of language is still incomplete.

Traumatic memories are stored both in mind or in the body (somatic) with all its sensate forms and when a new traumatic experience occurs (a trigger or situation similar to the abuse) these activate the original wound and bring to mind a stored pain not as an adult, but the stored pain of the child at the time of abuse.

This is why I believe there is a “seizing” of sequential emotional development at the time of abuse. And perhaps this is why it is possible to see a previously non-abusing individual suddenly become an abuser. There is a trigger of some kind, whether age, smell, touch, vision, image, or a fleeting memory, which immediately leads to past trauma that now requires attention.

Anne Lastman, BA (Psy/Rel Stds), Dip Ed, M Rel Ed, MA (Theol Stds) is a Member of the Australian Counsellors’ Association (Level 3), of the Federation of Victoria Counsellors and of the ACA College of Loss & Grief (Level 3). She is the founder of Victims of Abortion Trauma Counselling and Info Services (PO Box 6094, Vermont South, 3133).

A revised second edition of her book Redeeming Grief has just been published (see page 16).

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