What is the Damage? 

By Richard Adams

Just as some are in denial about climate change, so some folk find themselves closing their ears when there's talk of sexual abuse of children. It's too horrible to think about. It happens, nonetheless, and we need to have some idea of the damage victims have to live with. In this sensitively-written article, Richard Adams explains some of the devastating effects of abuse.

 A cause of suffering for many victims of child abuse is the lack of compassion shown them by those who might have been expected to know better. To address that, let’s start with a gentle explanation for those people who see no real problems for victims. Blindness is not necessarily wilful so it is important for all of us to understand what lies behind it. To do that, we have to proceed with charity and understanding, counterintuitive though that might be. Responses of condemnation and judgement come so easily to most of us but something different is required here.

Aristotle famously thought that man (humanity) was distinguished from the animals by the capability of rational thought. At least some of us realise that our behaviour is often not nearly as logical as we might wish. For our own protection our minds block automatically some thoughts with a cautionary “do not go there” flag. To pass beyond the barriers our minds erect we need to understand that what is being concealed does not threaten our being as much as we fear. That is impossible to accomplish rationally because we are unconscious of what is being concealed. Fear of something prejudicial to our being is what then keeps the barriers in place. This impasse is difficult to overcome by ourselves but kindness and gentleness from others can be surprisingly effective in assuaging the threat. That is why we must start with a kinder message for those able to see only the indiscretions of the perpetrators and the institutional damage but not the sufferings of the victims. The tragedy of the latter is what really matters and where we are going now.

Physical Damage

I believe that the most serious damage to victims is psychological, that classified by psychologists as trauma. We should never discount trauma when the physical damage appears to be relatively minor. That said there can also be significant physical damage. A child of eleven may well not know the implications of that damage and consequently also experience terrible fears which he or she is powerless to resolve through the more obvious adult routes of seeking medical advice or questioning others.

Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea is a psychologist who has spent some thirty years treating victims of child abuse within the American Catholic Church. Many times she must have heard horrible events described ad nauseum by traumatized victims. In an article published on 16 March, 2011 in the National Catholic Reporter in evident exasperation she wrote:

At this point, "sexual abuse" has been so overused that the words are stripped of their emotional clout. What we are talking about here, however, is not "just" a priest flashing an altar boy after Mass. As the John Jay report made clear, about a third of abusing priests penetrated their victims or engaged them in oral sex and only 16 percent stopped at touching under the clothes.  

READ MORE [Warning: some explicit material.]

Those who think the physical damage is exaggerated really should read all of Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea’s paper. I have been given advice that the horribly graphic descriptions in the paper might prove too traumatic for concerned adults such as parents, grandparents and close relatives, thus I will not quote any more here. Inevitably that limits the discussion that we can have on physical damage. Without detailing further the medical aspects, the most that we can do now is to observe that any kind of penetrative sexual abuse of a child by an adult male is unlikely to end well for the child. When hearing terms like boundary violations we need to remember that the reality behind the euphemism is something both cruel and horrible. How are children to put such experiences behind them, as some seem to expect that they should?


The young child is being asked to cope with severe trauma. We need to understand how our minds react to trauma and the damage it does to us. Trauma has been much studied by psychologists in connection with subjects as diverse as battleground fatigue, family breakdown, motor accidents and rape. See for instance, Trauma Theory Abbreviated by Sandra Bloom MD. Here is a brief extract from Sandra Bloom’s paper:

Psychological Trauma defined

To understand what trauma does we have to understand what it is. Lenore Terr, a child psychiatrist who did the first longitudinal study of traumatized children writes, "psychic trauma occurs when a sudden, unexpected, overwhelming intense emotional blow or a series of blows assaults the person from outside. Traumatic events are external, but they quickly become incorporated into the mind" (Terr, 1990, p.8). Van der Kolk makes a similar point about the complicated nature of trauma when he says, "Traumatization occurs when both internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with external threat" (Van der Kolk, 1989, p.393). Both clinicians make the point that it is not the trauma itself that does the damage. It is how the individual's mind and body reacts in its own unique way to the traumatic experience in combination with the unique response of the individual's social group.

Children are traumatized whenever they fear for their lives or for the lives of someone they love. A traumatic experience impacts the entire person - the way we think, the way we learn, the way we remember things, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about other people, and the way we make sense of the world are all profoundly altered by traumatic experience.  READ MORE

Psychologists know much about trauma and clearly victims of sexual assault will need psychological counselling. Such help is available, and we have a role to tell people how to go about finding it and what they can expect. None of us are trained psychologists and we want to avoid any risk of hurting people further. However, there are things we can still do usefully. Simple compassion and the friendship of people who have been through similar experiences can be healing. Each of us has his or her own experience of trauma and has had cause to reflect on that. What follows is just mine.

Thoughts resulting from my own experience of trauma

I have never been sexually abused by anyone but aged eleven I was subjected to a bastardization, which I now realise blighted my life for some fifty years and had a bad impact on my ability to pursue a career—tough luck for me but, though painful, certainly it provided a useful gift of insight. The perpetrators were older boys at my new school. What they did was humiliating, sadistic and sexual but absolutely insignificant when compared to the sexual assaults that so many victims of child sexual abuse have had to endure. All I have to offer are the insights gained from this experience and the things I have had to learn in order to cope with it. So here are some thoughts which I hope will help you. As an aside, if my story is at all useful I am sure that your own experience would also be valuable comfort for someone else too.

Firstly, in my case, what happened was serious bullying. Child sexual abuse is not only sexual; it is always someone inflicting their will on an unwilling victim. The participants are unequal. Bullies are very good at putting the blame on their victims. I was bullied because, just as the bullies said, I was gullible, a mother’s boy, a wimp unable to defend myself. Of course it also happened because to get even with the world they needed to find someone to bully. Victory for the abusers was assured and easy but I did not see it like that. I had failed to be Winston Churchill (a timely comparison as only ten years earlier he had stood alone against Hitler). He would clearly have triumphed over such attackers. I deserved punishment. It had to be my fault. It never occurred to me that the odds were hardly fair – how could an eleven year-old protect himself from four fourteen year-olds. I took the blame for what happened and that is usual in such situations. It is the way it always happens, even for adults and it is what continues to happen to victims thereafter unless their eyes can be opened to look again at what really happened.

Understand that transferring the blame is important for the perpetrators because it means victims seldom disclose what was done to them. It is actually difficult for the victims to think about what occurred. This is how that happens. The situation is such that actions have to take priority over contemplation of what has just happened. Our memories do not come with an erase button but we have to think about other things such as putting our trousers back on and cleaning ourselves up. Psychologists have long supposed that we dump unpleasant memories into what they call our unconscious. May be humanity acquired this capability in earlier times because when, for instance, being chased by a large hairy mammoth it was better to concentrate on running rather than contemplating our cowardice in the face of his ugly tusks. I do not know whether psychologists have postulated a mechanism driving the unconscious. My perception is that guilt serves to divert our thoughts. We feel guilty for what we were unable to prevent. We bury this guilt lest it condemn us so we do not go there. It matters not that the guilt is spurious, as it certainly is for a child victim. Guilt does its job quite effectively even when it is only imagined guilt. The bullies said the victim was guilty and too easily the victim believes them. What the victim needs to do is to revisit the memory of the traumatic event to make a fairer and less prejudicial judgment of what occurred but that is no longer possible because all trace of it is now hidden in the unconscious.

If the horrible thought is buried in the unconscious does it matter? It does, because the mechanism of concealment is not perfect. Freud thought that the contents of the unconscious leaked out in dreams. He saw that such dreams were often distorted but left his patients feeling guilty. Perhaps the contents leak out under other circumstances, for instance stress or repeat of the circumstances that caused the problem in the first place. May be it takes mental effort to keep the memory suppressed in the unconscious and that takes from such intelligence as is available for dealing with life. When it does reappear there is a conscious feeling of guilt, inadequacy and failure but we are unable to see what lies behind it or to dispute its truth.

One would expect that what happens to the victim also happens to the perpetrator who also has to put his moral failure out of his mind in order to continue with his life. That is probably why victim and perpetrator both have difficulty recalling what happened.

A third observation is that the victim is powerless to stop it happening repeatedly. Those school bullies journeyed home on the same non-corridor train as I did every day and there was nothing I could do if they decided to travel in the same compartment as me. Similarly, put in the charge of a paedophile priest, altar boys risk repeated abuse whenever they serve. Boarders in institutions can be in constant peril of assault during the night. Everyone knows it happens but there is no one to believe the unfortunate victim. Again guilt drives that blindness.

How is a victim to respond in such situations? Anger at the unfairness of it all is an understandable but not always constructive response. So is panic since the world has become a hostile unpredictable place in which hurtful things happen for no obvious reason. That the cause is for no fault of ours remains hidden in the unconscious, a place where we cannot see it or analyse it calmly.

Spiritual Problems for Catholics

Physically sexual abuse is much the same whether the perpetrator is a priest, a father, an uncle, a teacher, a scoutmaster, a group of boys or anyone else with power over the child. That does not mean the psychological damage is the same. As Tom Doyle has observed there really are special spiritual problems for Catholics. Some have called clerical child abuse soul murder. (The fullest and best explanation I have read is this one from Tom Doyle: 


Priests are traditionally held in especially high esteem by Catholics. Catholic theology has supposed that ordination confers ontological change on the priests. Such beliefs can be absolutely toxic for a victim of clerical child abuse. Catholic teaching about sex leaves the child in no doubt that something wicked has occurred. It has to be somebody’s sin. As the priest is presumed holy the blame must rest with the victim but that is only part of the problem. The holy priest is an essential part of the Catholic vision of salvation. He is the one who has the power to administer the sacraments. He is the one to whom the laity must go to receive forgiveness of their sins. That is not quite the right theology but from a child’s viewpoint it is close enough to the truth. The priest acts in the persona of Christ. Thus loyalty to the faith places parents and parishioners in a position where their salvation depends on supporting the priest. Many are unable to face the truth of the priest’s guilt and the child’s innocence since to accept it would put their own salvation at risk. Such risky thoughts have to be blocked lest they imperil salvation.

Many Catholics will feel a strong sense of compassion for those in the Jewish community who have not only suffered sexual abuse but also the disdain of their religious community for speaking out about it. We Catholics have often experienced being a minority and some of those defensive attitudes and fears occur in our parishes too. So shalom (שָׁלוֹם)! Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad. [Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one]

Damage caused by the institutional response

Problems for Catholic children do not end with rejection by their communities either. Faced with irrefutable evidence, the parent’s next point of call is usually the local bishop. There it might be supposed they would receive a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately that is often not the case. Too often bishops see the potential damage to the institution and believe that it is their responsibility to act for the “good of the Church”—so much for leaving the ninety and nine sheep in the wilderness and going after the one that is lost. The rewrite appears to be it is better that one child should be lost for the salvation of the many. A relevant comparison might be the advice given by Caiphas when the Jewish religious authorities were deciding what to do about Jesus (John 18 : 13-14):

They led him off, in the first instance, to Annas, father-in-law of Caiphas, who held the high priesthood in that year. (It was this Caiphas who had given it as his advice to the Jews, that it was best to put one man to death for the sake of the people.)

What then happens is that the child is subjected to an inquisition. In front of the bishop, the Church’s lawyers and canonists accuse the child of lying in order to hurt the Church and damage the reputation of the holy priest. Neither the child nor the parents are thinking about money but the bishop and lawyers certainly are. The hostile accusations massively compound the trauma for the child who still feels guilty for what occurred. A legal cross-examination is exactly the wrong thing to do to a damaged victim.

For many abused children it takes many years before they are able to face the truth of the abuse they suffered. From the little that happened to me I understand how that is possible. It is all driven by unresolved but spurious guilt which leads to depression and in some cases suicide.

Other problems

There is another largely unspoken problem which seems at this stage of knowledge to be largely anecdotal. However, it would indeed be surprising if prior sexual abuse were to have no effect on a child’s subsequent adolescence and sexual development. Sexual orientation could well be imperiled for either sex. It would be dangerous and probably wrong to suggest that sexual disorientation is inevitable but only that it could happen and maybe sometimes does. Do I have direct experience of such happening? No, but I have known people for whom such a theory could be a credible explanation of their subsequent life story.

Secondary and tertiary victims

For every child victim there are many secondary victims: parents, teachers, grandparents, siblings and later spouses and perhaps their children too. There are also tertiary victims. The credibility of the Church has been damaged. Many reject the faith altogether because of the hypocrisy they perceive and they do not want their own children to suffer from the misdeeds of the institutional church. For most of us, the relationship with God is the most important in our lives. Losing that is the worst tragedy and not one that can be ignored.

Richard Adams has a Degree in Engineering and a Ph D from Cambridge, England. His professional life was spent working in and looking after computer support in a research laboratory in Australia. The present article arises out of his concern for the welfare of children and the well-being of the church.
Richard has requested that the article be kept open to editing for any corrections or improvements which may come from the comments of readers. Your responses are welcome - by email to LOOKOUT.

'Where is Catholicism's  Trahir Square?' Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea 

Warning: Part of this article is graphic in its description of abuse. If you feel you may not cope well with that, perhaps leave it for another time.

 Trauma Theory Abbreviated  Sandra Bloom MD

A general survey of trauma, how it occurs and its effects. from the Victorian Government website

 The Survival of the Spirit

Fr Thomas Doyle

Fr Tom Doyle is among the most authoritative writers on CSA. He has been leading the movement to challenge official denial since the mid-80s. 
"The official voice of the Catholic Church has consistently framed clergy sexual abuse as a moral / volitional issue in keeping with its fundamental teaching on human sexuality.  Recent popes have referred to abusive clerics as sinners and abuse as sin.  This approach has had a profound influence on the response to the offending clerics and to their victims as well. 
"In keeping with the Catholic theology of penance and forgiveness, the clergy abuser is encouraged to acknowledge his sinful actions, seek God’s forgiveness and sin no more. Victims are encouraged to forgive those who have abused them. 
"This unrealistic emphasis is not on the abuse and its powerfully destructive effects on the victim, but on a future wherein the sexual abuse is not a cause for embarrassment for the institutional Church. 
"The fallacy of considering clergy abuse only in terms of sin is that it serves as an excuse to overlook the criminality of the act.  It also serves as a distraction from the need for accountability on the part of the abuser as well as of the ecclesiastical system that formed, enabled and in the end, covered for the abusive cleric.
"By failing to look beyond the moral/volitional dimensions of sexual abuse, Church leadership has failed to comprehend the complex and often subtle effects of sexual abuse on the victims. 
"In the recent past it has not been uncommon for Churchmen to urge victims to 'put it behind you and move on with your life.'  This attitude is as unrealistic and naive as expecting a compulsive pedophile or ephebophile to 'repent and sin no more.'  
"Catholic bishops in general have scant awareness of the nature of sexual dysfunction and even less awareness of the damaging effects of abuse on victims.  Prior to 1984 there is no evidence that bishops’ groups ever sponsored any training or education in the effects of abuse.  Between 1985 and 2002 there were several workshops and seminars given around the U.S. on clergy sex abuse.  In most of these a psychologist or psychiatrist was a featured speaker; however they limited their presentations to the pathology of the abusers. 
"Presentations sponsored by official Church sources on the welfare of the victims have been extremely rare."