Day of Healing Colloquium, St. Mary’s Church, December 16, 2018 by Jennifer Meyers, MD
Jen Meyers is a pediatrician at Community Memorial Hospital, caring for children from birth to college. She trained in New York City and Ann Arbor Michigan (Go Blue). She started her career caring for hospitalized children, as well as working on the Palliative Care team with seriously ill children. For the last decade she has been in primary care, providing mostly outpatient care to healthy and ill children. She is an adult convert to Catholicism, having grown up in the Congregational tradition. She will be speaking about what steps we can take to support children who have been abused, as well as how we can teach children appropriate boundaries.
I am speaking today in three capacities: I was asked to share my perspectives as a pediatrician who cares for children. However, I also speak as a member of St Mary’s and St Joan’sparishes, and as a mother to three children. I have four main points that I would like to share today:
1) Sexual abuse is more prevalent than you might think, both inside and outside of the church.
It is very difficult to get accurate data on how many children and adults have been victimized. The ways the questions are asked and how the samples are selected affects the quality of the data. When we look at children who have brought forward accusations that have led to investigations and convictions, the number is less than 1%. However, when adults are asked on anonymous surveys about sexual victimization when they were children, reports can be as high as 27%. Regardless of the actual number, I can assure you that each and every one of you knows someone who has been subjected to sexual abuse. You may have no idea of the hurt that your friend or acquaintance is bearing. In my practice I have had the experience numerous times of a child I have known for years eventually bringing forward a revelation of abuse from years earlier. Often the child has been suffering in silence before eventually finding a safe ear to share their pain. With children, a revelation of abuse occurs on average 3-5 years after the abuse took place. Often the child will only feel comfortable revealing the abuse after the abuser is no longer in their life. Even with substantiated abuse, a child will on average deny the abuse 6 times before being willing to share it. Typically a child will offer a small amount of information to a trusted adult, then wait to see their reaction prior to telling all of the details. If the reaction is seen as threatening or unhelpful, it is not unusual for a child to recant the accusation. This does not mean that the abuse did not occur.
This brings us to a second point:
2) Rape and sexual abuse are an issue of power more than sex
In its response to revelations of clergy sexual abuse, the church hierarchy has often focused on the sexuality or repression of sexuality in the perpetrator. Much less attention has been paid to the power differential between the perpetrator and the victim. Most crimes of sexual exploitation involve an older, stronger, or more powerful perpetrator. As a hierarchical church, there are inherent power differentials between clergy and laity, and between church leadership and individual clergy. Children are inherently less powerful than adults. A heavy-handed, top-down reaction to allegations of abuse can exacerbate the power differential that made the abuse possible in the first place. For every person willing to take on this enormously powerful institution by revealing abuses of power, there are many suffering silently, unable or unwilling to subject themselves to public scrutiny of their most intimate selves. This leads me to my third point:
3) Our reaction to clergy sexual abuse needs to start with care for the victims as a top priority.
Calling abusers to justice is important. However, since most victims wait years, if not decades, to reveal the abuse, the approach of naming abusers and removing them from positions of power is too little too late. Changing how we approach sex education, both for children and for seminarians is important. As part of my work as a pediatrician, I have the opportunity to talk about sex with children and their parents during well child visits. I am frequently alarmed when parents say they have not talked to their kids at all about sex and that they expect the schools to do it. The Catholic church has often gotten a bad rap as seeing sex as evil or dirty. This could not be further from the truth. In Catholic theology, the body is the physical representation of the soul, and the appropriate use of our sexual expression is a spiritual act. This is precisely what makes sexual abuse so damaging----it takes what should be a beautiful act and turns it into an aggressive and violent act. When the perpetrator is supposed to be a representative of Christ, the damage to healthy sexuality is so much more acute. A true sexual education does not occurin one uncomfortable discussion in school or even at the table with one’s parents. It starts with a healthy understanding of one’s body, what it is for, and what healthy relationships look like.This can start with very young children, adding more information gradually as it is needed. This promotes an environment where children understand what is right and healthy. In this environment, children may be more likely to recognize when something is awry, and will have the language to reveal to their parents or a trusted adult when something has not gone well. But even addressing our education of our children is not the most important first step in addressing this scandal. Which leads to my last point:
4) There is a long history in the church of leaders erring, and lay leaders bringing us back.
Many who spoke out against the church establishment were subsequently declared saints. We need the outcry and leadership of the laity to take this crisis and bring the church to ahealthy place. Rape and abuse interferes with the victim’s sense of integrity of body and soul--- we as a church can help put that back together. Some of that will come in the form of concrete programs. The laity needs to stand up and offer our love, our compassion, and our funding for healing victims of clergy sex abuse. In particular, those programs should be designed not by the church leadership who is concerned with the public image of the church, but by lay experts with experience in victim support. But some of the help we can provide is more subtle and does not need to be left to experts. We live in a distracted world. We all multi-task in everything we
do. That has begun to interfere with our ability to listen without interruption. I ask that you all take time to truly listen to your loved ones. If someone in your life was trying to test the waters and determine whether it was safe to reveal a history of abuse, would you truly hear them? Or would you be so distracted by your phone or the tasks on your to-do list that you would half- listen, causing that victim to clam up and hold onto their pain. Over the past few decades there has been significant research into how Adverse Childhood Experiences affect adult health. These experiences affect not only mental health, but also physical health, with increased rates of cancer and heart disease in adults with a history of childhood maltreatment. One of the few factors known to improve outcomes is the presence of a consistent, supportive adult figure in achild’s life. Are you willing to be that person?
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Meyers. All rights reserved. Posted to https://stmarysandstjoans.orgwith permission.