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Child abuse is more prevalent than most understand

The last couple of months have provided frightening evidence that too many children and adolescents live in dangerous situations. 

In Washington, D.C., and New York, Pope Benedict XVI did the right thing by speaking out and apologizing for years of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the United States. It is estimated that at the height of the problem Catholic priests accounted for 4 percent to 5 percent of all childhood sexual abuse in the United States. But while clergy abuse is a significant problem – and made even more serious by the church hierarchy’s handling of the cases – it pales in comparison to the larger societal problem of childhood sexual abuse.

Based on academic research, surveys, and studies such as a 2002 World Health Organization Report on Violence and Health, the Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that there are more than 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America. Another study, based on a 1995 Gallop poll, put the figure at 60 million.

Law enforcement and social scientists believe that family members are responsible for more than 40 percent of the abuse suffered by the millions of survivors of childhood sexual abuse estimated to be living in the United States today.

Hundreds removed from Texas sect
This leads us to the report out of Texas where last month over 400 children and adolescents were removed from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Initial findings suggest that boys and girls were sexually abused, with a large number of adolescent females having been impregnated by adult members of the FLDS community.

Now removed from their parents, these young people and their own children face complicated legal and psychological journeys, the loss of family and friends, and possible long-term detrimental effects of the abuse.

In yet another horrifying case, it was alleged recently in Austria that a 73-year-old man had imprisoned his daughter for 24 years in a basement space where she bore him seven children, three of whom lived with her in the cellar, never seeing the light of day. These individuals are confronted with enormous challenges in adjusting to life outside the cellar and may well be plagued with serious psychological problems for a very long time.

And finally, 15-year-old Disney star Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana was photographed in sexually suggestive poses, including one with her father, for Vanity Fair Magazine. While some may argue that this is not child abuse, the 2007 report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls advises that the sexualization of girls is associated with eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem.

Much abuse stays secret for years
With the exception of the Miley Cyrus photos, which were immediately placed in plain view for all of society to “enjoy,” the other examples we cite were all hidden from society for many years before they were exposed. This is a pattern that is all too common and a reason why we need to have a national discussion about a problem that has been hidden too long.

For those of us who work with survivors of child abuse, these events point to an urgent need to educate children, teachers, lawyers, judges and the psychotherapeutic community about the incidence and potentially damaging effects of abuse, neglect and sexualization of young people.

Without a doubt, this is a societal tragedy, more prevalent and more damaging to children than most people understand.

Ted Thompson is president of the St. Paul-based National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children (NAPSAC). Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst based in Charlotte, N.C., is the author of several books on the trauma of child abuse and serves on the Practice Committee, Division of Trauma Psychology, of the American Psychological Association. She also serves on the NAPSAC board of directors.


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