Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse want a World Day

And they want global faith communities to show up to make it happen.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It is not hard to find evidence of our failure to protect children.

Last month another lawsuit was filed against Kanakuk Kamps former directer, Pete Newman, currently serving two life sentences with an additional thirty years in a Missouri state prison after pleading guilty to child sexual abuse. His his victims are estimated to be in the hundreds.

That such horrors could occur for years at a Christian youth camp no longer appear shocking. Accounts of abuse continue to rise to the light across both religious and secular settings — at a youth detention center, within the Boy Scouts of America, the Anglican Church and USA Gymnastics. The Catholic Church which has struggled for decades with clergy abuse, and worked to implement reforms toward progress, was again forced to grappled with past abuse with the recent release of the Cologne Report.

The reality stands that child sexual abuse is a global, public health problem and the time for world recognition is long past due.

Child sexual abuse is a world problem

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1 in 5 women and 1 in 13 men report experiencing sexual abuse as a child. The fear of being shamed and stigmatized keeps many victims from reporting their abuse.

These statistics are merely the metaphorical iceberg’s tip, the impact goes much deeper and is often largely unseen. Nearly half of adolescent girls who experience sexual abuse never tell anyone, and 7 out of 10 victims never seek help. The trauma experienced by child survivors of sexual abuse has lasting negative effects on the victims socially, psychologically, sexually, behaviorally and spiritually.

Maryam Abdikadir of Kenya is a survivor of female of genital mutilation (FGM). She was cut at only six years old because she was taught ‘every Muslim girl is supposed to be cut’. When she learned and studied the religion of Islam, she found no place in it for FGM. This revitalized her faith and strengthened her belief that religious leaders need to be aware and informed to advocate for the protection of children.

Survivor-led initiative for April 8th World Day

There is currently an initiative, led by a global collaborative of survivors, to make April 8th a ‘World Day for Child Sexual Abuse Prevention, Healing, and Justice’.

This movement is deeply personal for those involved. Dr. Jennifer Wortham, the founder of the global collaborative, has watched the lives of her two younger brothers be dramatically impacted by the trauma of sexual abuse in their childhood.

The month of April has been designated Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States since 1983 and this month also serves as Sexual Assualt Awareness Month (SAAM), which former President Barack Obama officially proclaimed in 2009.

Wortham chose April 8th because of these shared emphases but also because April 8th is her brother’s birthday. “Survivors everywhere, just like my brother, deserve to know that their lives matter,” she says, “that what they experienced was unjust and that healing is possible.”

The movement to make April 8th a World Day is survivor-led and for survivor Mike Hoffman, this is essential, “No one knows more about what a survivor needs than survivors themselves”.

Clergy abuse survivor Ashley Cook uses the metaphor of a house fire. Your neighbor might see your house on fire, but it was your house that burnt down, she explains, you are the one that lost all of your belongings. It may have been the same event for both of you — but your experiences were completely different.

Why we need a World Day

One of the main purposes of a World Day outlined by Wortham is to provide institutional recognition for victims and their families. Because so many people suffer in silence “we really want to have a day when we can dedicate time and energy to helping people identify what has happened to them. To eliminate the shame and stigma so they can get help in their community”.

The designation of a World Day is important in providing increased recognition of a global problem. For the survivor-led global collaborative, it is also essential that this day is used as a platform to promote opportunities for help, healing and conversation.

Normalizing conversations and education around these difficult topics are an essential reason for establishing a World Day. To survivor, Tabitha Mpamira, “Language is so important, especially for children. How can they express what has happened to them if they don’t have the language?”

A World Day gives space for victims who too often feel left out. “It is a day to have your thoughts, ideas and minds on this particular issue and movement” says Cook. “We need space to find solutions, to find those who need help and to find ways to prevent it from happening.”

An important theme among the global collaborative is the desire to bring religious leaders to the table. For Abdikador, it is essential for a World Day to encompass faith leaders and faith teachings because she knows personally the important role faith plays for many. Cook celebrates that we are now in a time “when faith leaders and communities are finally willing to have these important conversations”.

Religious communities need to be involved

With over 80% of the world’s population identifying with some kind of religion, the hope is by engaging faith leaders in prevention and healing campaigns, the social capital of religion will influence dramatic change.

For UNICEF, partnering with local faith leaders and faith-based organization for the protection of children has repeatedly demonstrated significant impact because of the ability of religious leaders to promote education and lend moral influence to campaigns.

The networks of communication and moral authority created by organized religion, allow for religious leaders to be powerful agents for change. In regards to victims of abuse, educated and informed religious and community leaders can enhance healing through increasing community support and decreasing stigma.

Within faith communities, a religious leader is often the first person to receive a report of child sexual abuse. “While the role is rarely comfortable, pastors are positioned to help guide parishioners to pathways that will lead to the best possible outcomes.

While many faith leaders will encounter victims of abuse in their ministry, clergy surveys detailing the ability of faith leaders to navigate the path of assisting in healing and reporting to public authorities, have demonstrated a need for increased education on childhood sexual abuse in order to better engage with victims and their families and assist in healing.

A positive experience with spiritually based coping and receiving religious support from faith leaders and their faith community has demonstrated positive outcomes for healing from trauma and preserving the victims’ own personal faith.

Everyone at the table

The survivor-led collaborative is keenly aware of the blind spots and missing toolkit within many religious communities when dealing with child sexual abuse — prevention reporting and healing. But they are optimistic faith leaders are ready to come to the table and learn.

To Hoffman, “The reality of survivors working together with mental health practitioners, public health officials and faith leaders, all around the table is a wonderful thing.”

In order to encourage these partnerships and engage multiple sectors of society towards the protection of children, they are leading the Faith and Flourishing Symposium hosted by Harvard University’s Faith and Flourishing Program, Catholic University, New York Board of Rabbis and Prevent Child Abuse America and others. This will be a virtual, free symposium that is open to the public and held from April 8–10th.

What can you do?

Global problems, especially those relating to the protection of children, can too often seem overwhelming and far outside the realm of our influence. Yet there are things we can each do individually.

Take action by signing your name to the petition to make April 8th a ‘World Day for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse’. Sign up for the symposium and encourage your faith leaders to sign up and attend.

Then take what you have learned and talk about it.

Talk about the protection of children — talk about prevention of abuse and the need for healing and support within your communities. These conversations need to be happening more frequently and in all spaces.

Because “when we talk about safety at home, in faith communities, when we speak up and speak out, we are working to stop abuse.” Hoffman says, “This is what we need to do to change locally, nationally and globally.”

References:

Anderson, J. F. (2016). Mothers’ Experiences with Pastoral Care in Cases of Child Sexual Abuse . Journal of Religion and Health. 55 (2), 680–694. , 3.

Christensen, K. (2020, November 16). Boy Scouts deluged with 92,700 sexual abuse claims, dwarfing U.S. Catholic Church’s numbers. Los Angeles Times.

Courtney E. Ahrens, S. A. (2009). Spirituality and Well-Being: The Relationship Between Religous Coping Recovery from Sexual Assault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1245.

Eddy, M. (2021, March 18). Cologne Catholic Church Failed in Handling Sex Abuse Claims, Report Finds. The New York Times.

French, D. F. (2021, March 28). They Aren’t Who You Think They Are. The Dispatch.

Inquiry report finds Anglican Church failed to protect children from sexual abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved from Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse: https://www.iicsa.org.uk/news/inquiry-report-finds-anglican-church-failed-protect-children-sexual-abuse

PEW. (2012, December 18). The Gloabl Religious Landscape. Retrieved from https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pewforum.org%2F2012%2F12%2F18%2Fglobal-religious-landscape-exec%2F

Press, A. (2021, April 2). Ex-Youth Center Intern Says She Was Told to Destroy Notes. U.S. News.

Redmond, L. W. (2014). Spiritual Coping Tools of Religious Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling .

Service, C. N. (2021, March 18). Abuse report exonerates Cologne cardinal, incriminates Hamburg arshbishop. Cahtolic Review.

Sommarin, S. H. (2011). UNICEF partners with religious communities to end violence against children.Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/index_60764.html.

Tidefors, L. R. (2009). “Shepherd My Sheep”: Clerical Readiness to Meet Psychological and Exisential Needs from Victims of Sexual Abuse. Pastoral Pyschology, 79–92.

UNICEF. (n.d.). Child protection: Why partner with religious communities for child protection? Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/about/partnerships/60212.html

Sarah is a Swiss-based American interested in women’s history, global development and expat parenting.

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