Msgr Stephen J. Rossetti, PhD, DMin
A New Phenomenon?
It seems to many that the issue of child sexual abuse is a new one. Decades ago it was rarely in the public eye. There were no mandatory reporting laws and little public awareness of this terrible tragedy. Those who were abused felt alone and did not dare to speak up. Perpetrators were very, very rarely punished.
With the current public spotlight on the tragedy of abuse, some may think that it is a new phenomenon. They wonder what is wrong with our current world to foster such widespread abuse. Research has surfaced astounding statistics suggesting that one out of every three or four women in the United States are sexually abused by the age of 18 and about half as many men. This is a veritable epidemic. Why now?
If one looks closely, there are signs that this is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to the United States. Around 306 AD in Elvira, Spain the Catholic bishops of that area met and passed a number of church laws or canons. Canon 71 states: “Those who sexually abuse boys may not receive communion even when death approaches.”[i] This tells us that there was enough sexual abuse of boys over 1,700 years ago in Spain that the council fathers felt compelled to write a law against it.
The sexual abuse of minors is by no means a new topic. So, if it is not new, then what did the Church and society do to protect children from sexual abuse for the next 1,650 years? If they knew about it, what did they do to protect children? The answer: essentially nothing. It was only beginning in the late 20th century did society and the Church start publicly acknowledging the reality of child sexual abuse and began implementing steps to prevent it. For example, it was only between 1963 and 1967 that mandatory child abuse reporting laws were passed in all 50 of the United States.
Century of the Child
So, if child sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon, why are we only beginning to address it now? What happened in recent decades that allowed the reality of the hidden tragedy of child sexual abuse to become public? After more than 1,600 years, why now?
Some have dubbed the 20th Century as the “Century of the Child.” Before this century, children were routinely exploited on many different levels and few noticed. For example, very young children were sometimes subject to dangerous and cruel child labor practices. Children worked long hours in mines, factories, and even in prostitution. For example, “Chinese slave girl prostitutes [were] bought and sold in San Francisco in the early 20th Century”. People began to realize that normal child development can easily be derailed through the brutal physical exploitation of child labor, not to mention being exploited in prostitution.
At the very beginning of the 20th century, a movement to ban exploitive child labor began to gain widespread support in the United States, including from the White House. These first efforts of recognizing and protecting the rights of child focused on the exploitation of children in labor. For example, on January 25, 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the first White House Conference on Children … The conferences were held every decade through the 1970s.”
In 1938, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which includes limits on many forms of child labor.” Similarly, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 which was subsequently affirmed by the United States in 1960. The rights of children were thus thrust onto the international stage.
This movement toward recognizing that children have God-given rights is fundamental in facing and addressing child sexual abuse. For example, the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is charged with addressing the issue of child abuse worldwide. Several of its members actively go around the world promoting the welfare of children and raising consciousness about the evil of the child sexual abuse.
However, in some countries, there is a lack of interest in the subject for many reasons. One important reason is that some cultures do not vigorously recognize and promote the rights of children. So, the work of the Commission in those areas is more basic— to raise consciousness about the fundamental human rights of children, including the obligation of a society to protect children from exploitation and sexual abuse.
The Sexual Revolution
At the beginning of the 20th century, American society did not speak about sexuality in general and certainly not sexual relationships with minors. Anything other than adult heterosexuality was not openly acknowledged.
For example, in the small town where I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, sexuality was rarely if ever publicly discussed. There was little public sexual education and no child sexual abuse education awareness training. The word homosexuality was never mentioned. No one ever heard of pedophilia or imagined such things. Sexuality in general remained a hush-hush topic.
That changed beginning with the 1960’s and the “sexual revolution” or “sexual liberation.” Playboy magazine, whom some suggest had a role in fostering this movement, was founded in 1953. Sex was no longer a taboo subject. Such movements which openly advocated and discussed sexuality now were placed before the eyes of the American people on their magazine stands and eventually on television screens. While one should rightly criticize many aspects of the “sexual revolution,” the movement did allow people to address human sexuality more openly.
With society recognizing the rights of children and also now willing to speak openly about sexuality, the reality of the sexual abuse of minors surfaced. When faced with the reality of abuse, many people’s first response was disbelief, surprise, and lack of understanding: “Why would an adult do such a thing?” Certainly such actions seemed disgusting to people and perverted. But the first revelations were relegated in society’s mind to “a few sick people” and thus such abusive acts must be isolated events. It did not become a critical public issue until two more developments occurred.
Widespread and Devastating
First, modern psychological and sociological research began to document how traumatic such abuse can be. Many people were, and still are, genuinely surprised. They think, “The children will forget. They will get over it.” In reality, many abused children carry the trauma and its scars throughout their lives. Increased rates of depression, alcohol and substance abuse, PTSD, anxiety, and suicidality are among the documented effects of child sexual abuse.
But the path to recognizing the reality of this trauma, even in professional psychological circles, was not a smooth one. Well known is Sigmund Freud’s own shifting on this issue. Originally, Freud’s 1896 seduction theory posited that the widespread neurosis of women, including hysteria and other pathological symptoms, was due to their sexual abuse as minors by men. He originally thought that sexual abuse by girls in their families was “more common than suspected.” Later he recanted and ascribed many of these memories of abuse as childhood erotic fantasies and not real cases of abuse.
The famous Kinsey studies in human sexuality in the early 1950s were likewise resistant to the reality and devastation of child sexual abuse. In 1953, Kinsey wrote, “It is difficult to understand why a child, except for its cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched, or disturbed at seeing the genitalia of other persons, or disturbed at even more specific sexual contacts.” Their 1953 study went on to suggest that the overreaction of parents and the police to the news of their sexual abuse perhaps was the real cause of their traumatization.
In their detailed and important 1993 article, Erna Olafson et al. document the lengthy process of society coming to grips with the prevalence and damage of child sexual abuse. “Social workers and rape trauma specialists were foremost among pioneers of sexual abuse studies in the 1970s and early 1980s.” It is only in the second half of the 20th century that psychological professionals as a group were firmly convinced of the real trauma of child sexual abuse.
An important moment in the raising of the consciousness of Catholic bishops in the United States to the sometimes life-long damage of child sexual abuse occurred in Dallas in 2002. As the Bishops met to discuss the extensive child protection proposals in the “Dallas Charter,” the agenda included four survivors of abuse standing up and speaking directly to the over-300 bishops. They each spoke of the devastation and harm of their abuse in heart-rending detail. A few moments later, the Dallas Charter was resoundingly passed.
Similarly, before the episcopal conferences from around the world attended the February 2019 summit at the Vatican, the Pope asked each of them to listen personally to victims and to hear their stories. He wanted each of the bishops attending the conference to recognize the devastation of child sexual abuse and to hear it with their own ears. The Pope wanted their hearts to be touched and converted by victims’ stories. He knew that without such awareness, the work of the 2019 Vatican summit would likely be ineffective.
Second, research study after study uncovered the reality that the rates of abuse of minors in the United States, for example, are incredibly high. As noted previously, 1 out of every 3-4 girls and half as many boys are abused by the age of 18. Child sexual abuse was a hidden crime that rarely surfaced. Perpetrators worked hard to keep their abusive behaviors hidden and victims were shamed and sometimes threatened into keeping silent. Now, research studies and the mandatory reporting civil laws made it very clear: a lot of our children are being abused. It is a widespread and devastating tragedy. The numbers justify calling it an epidemic.
Putting together each of these developments: (1) public recognition of the rights of children, (2) willingness to speak about sexuality, (3) recognition of the trauma of child sexual abuse, plus (4) its epidemic levels, the lid blew off and the issue of the sexual abuse of minors thrust itself into the American consciousness.
Toward the Future
All these point the way for promoting the protection of children in general, and in preventing child sexual abuse in particular. Without these basic societal developments, the tragedy of the sexual abuse of minors would never have burst into public consciousness as it has. Sadly, there was enough child sexual abuse in Spain 1650 years ago to warrant a church law being written to condemn it. But it took another sixteen centuries before society would become aware of this formerly hidden international crisis.
As members of the Pontifical Commission and its consultants travel around the world promoting the protection of minors, they sometimes meet with varying degrees of resistance. Some people still say: “This is an American problem” or “This is a Western problem.” Still others suggest that it is not something that should be discussed publicly, or even privately. In many places of the world, it remains a taboo subject. Still others do not demonstrate a great concern about preventing the abuse of children or a recognition of the rights of children in general.
Four basic pillars must be in place before a society becomes ready and mobilized to protect its minors from sexual abuse:
- Child have human rights which society needs to protect.
- Society must be able to speak about and address issues of sexuality, especially harmful acts that must be rejected.
- The often life-long devastation caused by child sexual abuse must be recognized.
- Child sexual abuse is not an isolated problem or one that occurs everywhere else. It is here among us.
We, in the Church, have a special charge. We are charged to go forth and preach the Gospel. This Gospel necessarily includes protecting those who are voiceless and particularly vulnerable. It must include protecting the very ones whom Jesus said the Kingdom of God belongs. Now, we have become aware of the trauma caused by abuse and its global scale. Now, we have to spread this awareness to the “ends of the earth.”
Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, PhD, DMin, is a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse and a licensed psychologist. He holds a PhD in counseling psychology from Boston College and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Catholic University of America. He is a research associate professor at CUA and has been a Visiting Professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. He is a former consultant to the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Child and Young People and assisted in developing the “Dallas Charter.” Currently he teaches at CUA, serves as a consultant for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and is the author of many books and articles on wellness, formation, and child protection—in particular the bestselling The Joy of the Priesthood. He serves on the Survivor Advisory Panel to the Pontifical Commission.
 Oalfson, Erna, Corwin, David L. and Summit, Roland C. “Modern History of Child Sexual Abuse Awareness: Cycles of Discovery and Suppression,” Child Abuse & Neglect, 17(1993), p. 16.
 Ibid., p. 8.
Oalfson, Erna, Corwin, David L. and Summit, Roland C. “Modern History of Child Sexual Abuse Awareness: Cycles of Discovery and Suppression,” Child Abuse & Neglect, 17(1993), pp. 10-11.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 17.
[i] http://legalhistorysources.com/Canon%20Law/ElviraCanons.htm, (accessed 2/9/19).