Do No Harm

by | Dec 12, 2021 | Formation, Reflections

Convergence and commitment on child sexual exploitation and abuse

By Nuala Kenny OC, MD | Canada

Catholic dioceses around the world next Sunday will be hosting local celebrations of World Youth Day (WYD).

And in his message for this year’s WYD, Pope Francis reflects a bit on the difficulties, challenges and dangers that the lockdown due to the coronavirus caused for many children and young people.

“You found yourselves in difficult situations that you were not used to facing. Those who found it harder, or lacked support, felt disoriented,” the pope says. “We saw a rise in family problems, unemployment, depression, loneliness and addictive behavior, to say nothing of growing stress, tensions, outbursts of anger and increased violence,” he continues.

There is one particular type of violence that is especially harmful. It’s child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA). Fortunately, the is a new and potentially powerful global recognition that CSEA is grave violation of human rights and a major public health issue. These longstanding and worldwide violations of the innocent were worsened by the quarantine and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. The advice to “shelter at home” for protection from the virus assumed a home and one that was safe.

The loss of routine and rituals of identity and security, parental stress from employment and food insecurity and a changing epidemiology of risk for children and youth were serious. In reality, it resulted in more violence for many because victims were confined with stressed parents.

Global initiatives

The incidence of CSEA is staggering.

The World Health Organization reports that 120 million girls and young women under the age of 20 suffer some form of forced physical contact. One in five women and one in 13 men report that they were sexually abused before were 18 years of age. Most never report the abuse because of shame and victim guilt.

Now, just preceding the pope’s WYD message to young people affected by the multiple traumas of pandemic, there is a global convergence of commitment from the United Nations-supported Global Collaborative and the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children. The aim is to provide care and healing to victims, restorative justice policies and practices, and to ensure long-term protection and prevention. They use the power of social media and celebrity victims to bring attention to the right of every child to grow up free from all forms of abuse, neglect and exploitation.

This convergence arises from an understanding of the magnitude and duration of the harms of CSEA. The sexual abuse of minors in homes and safe places by trusted adults is a major social problem. The deeply damaging consequences from sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence by a trusted person include physical, emotional and spiritual harm. Sexual abuse in this crucial time in human development causes difficulties with the sense of self, trust and expectations of others, and cognitive functioning, which can lead to dramatic changes in school performance.

International Day for CSEA Prevention

Healing and Justice Victims’ sense of self-violation can be so great that they disassociate. They can be erratic, from dependent to raging and angry, and can engage in self-destructive behavior, including suicide. If children and youth can speak of their abuse, counselling near the time of the abuse can help significantly. For most victims, there is a long-time lapse from the experience of the abuse in childhood to its revelation. These broken victims have feelings of guilt and shame and negative self-image; confusion about sexual norms, standards and identity; profound difficulties with trust and relationships; a sense of helplessness that interferes with education and employment; depression, anxiety and anger; suicidal tendencies; and a small risk of becoming abusers themselves.

Psychological counselling is an essential component of treatment. November 18, 2021 has been declared the International Day for Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Prevention, Healing and Justice. It is being sponsored by the Global Collaborative, a survivor-led network of NGOs, faith-based institutions, survivors networks and governments for abuse prevention, healing and justice. The international day aims to promote public awareness and the need for action. Its goals include reducing the stigma associated with child sexual abuse and victim blaming; promoting evidence based social services and prevention; providing survivors with services and support; ensuring access to fair restorative justice; and promoting resilience to CSEA.

World Day of Prayer and Action for Children

In concert with the Global Initiative, November 19has been declared the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children.

This project — sponsored by Arigatou International and a consortium of religious groups — focuses on praying for children’s mental health, and emotional and spiritual well-being. Whether intentional or not, this prayer project emphasizes that formal initiatives to eliminate CSEA are important but need conversion of mind and heart to be effective.

In his World Youth Day message, the pope acknowledges the particular impact of pandemic on the young. He recognizes their losses of school, sports, religious and cultural celebrations, the ordinary rituals of identity and security. He sees some youth doing brave and generous things, and he notes especially that a growing number of them are making a commitment to addressing the environmental crisis.

The pope honestly confronts the anger and violence demonstrated by other young persons in parties and sporting events with no masks or social distancing, reckless behavior for themselves and others. He challenges them. “Arise!” says Francis. “Do not dissipate the strength and passion of youth.” He then uses the story of Saint Paul’s conversion to show how his certitude in “being right” and persecuting Christians filled him with anger. In his conversion, Paul is blinded and his certainties are shaken. Only in humility does he encounter Christ.

The pandemic has shaken many of our certainties; can we now see anew? If the old proverb is true and “it takes a village to raise a child”, we have learned that it takes the global village to protect all children and promote resilience in the inevitability of adversity. Epigenetics teaches us that trauma enters our biologic and psychic DNA. We could not return to the way things were, even if we desired to. Is this conversion of commitment the work of the Holy Spirit? Could the multiple traumas of pandemic actually empower us to eradicate the abuse, neglect and exploitation of children and youth?

Nuala Kenny is a Sister of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia and a pediatrician. An officer of the Order of Canada since 1999, she has published several books, including Healing the Church (Novalis, 2012) and Rediscovering the Art of Dying (2017). She is co-author of Still Unhealed: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis (Novalis and Twenty-Third Publications, 2019).She has just published, A Post-Pandemic Church: Prophetic Possibilities (Novalis and Twenty-Third Publications, 2021).