COMMUNITY REPORTER, OCTOBER, 2018
IF EVER YOU SHOULD ASK
I would tell you this. Children are abused by priests, teachers, parents and grandparents. Trusted others abuse and traumatize children. It is the victims that need our attention. I have spoken of this before. It is difficult to be heard above the roar of outrage and the vilification of the accused. If you will sit with me for a minute, perhaps extend a hand across the table or an arm around my shoulder, I will tell you something you may not know. The parish, the family, is thrust into a fearful and threatening situation when a child is hurt and a trusted priest or parent accused. Denial and minimizing safeguard the status quo. “What will we do and how we will go on if our priest, our father, our grandparent is capable of such harm?”
In many cases where abuse is perpetrated by a trusted other, the disbelief is overwhelming. It is nearly impossible to fathom that this trusted one who showed humor, kindness, wisdom to so many, could have the ability to groom, seduce, isolate, beat, and humiliate a child. Family members or congregants rush to the side of the perpetrator. They decry the careless words and whimpers of the confused child who hardly knows what to think of his own suffering. He does not know why he feels so alone, abandoned and afraid. The child is blamed for bringing harm, loss of reputation, suspicion, loss of employment, income or standing in society, upon the accused. Perhaps the accusation is a product of a disturbed and childish mind. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding.
The singled out child becomes a threat to his family’s stability and will quickly learn to carry the weight of his sadness, loneliness and fear on his own shoulders, feeling to blame for existing and putting loved ones in danger. The family members circle the wagons, label the victim a “problem” child. They ostracize and isolate him without understanding the damage they do to the child burdened by a truth that might destroy.
Those who were not singled-out and hurt will struggle to come to terms with all they are likely to lose should they condemn the abuser and take up with the child. The family will stand together in pity and dismay that a child, still in one piece and to all appearances, perfectly fine, persists in their accusations. Those who witnessed or were otherwise aware of the abuse may fear for their own safety or security since the abuser is often the sole provider for a family or the priest relied on by so many in need. The victim, appearing no worse for wear, will be asked to keep the accusations to herself, to forgive and move on, to recognize how much the abuser helps, rather than hurts others the family or community. The child and her story, her voicing of true experience, will forever represent a threat to the story others have created to protect the abuser. This is the harm done. This is the harm unrecognized. This is the lonely and painful role into which the hurt child is cast. To all the world, the family or church, appear a safe, normal and, yes, even happy place. The hurt child makes a choice to ally herself with those who will embrace her if she is silent or speak up and walk alone, ostracized, ridiculed, pitied, explained away for the life-long pathology that she simply could not overcome. Once a system is established to make light of the abuse, the victim denies his own pain. The victim is a threat to the security of that family system. Those in the family who escaped abuse support and hold strong to one another. The hurt child is an outsider. He can either go along to get along or leave the family system and seek a sense of family elsewhere. What is so poorly understood in these situations is that bringing an end to abuse and bringing about healing requires acknowledgement. The entire family needs sustained counsel and support to understand the harm done and to heal. This cannot happen when the family denies the severity of the damage. It happens when the entire family acknowledges the need for healing and walks together toward a relationship of mutual understanding, respect and reciprocity. If the survivor is left to carry the damage alone it is likely they will never feel welcome or safe in the home or church that sacrificed them to protect the abuser.
While it is important to hold perpetrators of violence and abuse accountable and create a system that protects children, it is even more important to remove the burden of having been abused and said so from the shoulders of victims. Over time the survivor comes to be seen as the victimizer of the family in denial. The rates of mental illness, addiction, self-harm and suicide among survivors of abuse are high. Please try to understand. Understand too that it is not a failure of love to find it hard to understand but it is a failure of love to turn a blind eye and not even seek a path to understanding. Ask a survivor what it is they want you to understand about the life they live as an accuser.
“I write for the still fragmented parts in me, trying to bring them together. Whoever can read and use any of this, I write for them as well.” Adrienne Rich, BLOOD, BREAD & POETRY
For more on Deborah Padgett’s writing and visual art please see www.padgettstudios.com