“I guess it was the beatings made me wise…”Eddie Vedder, ‘Rearviewmirror’

In my my first post for Catholic-Link, I challenged those in the Church to start seeing those who have been molested not so much as a problem as a unique resource. That, far from being too damaged to speak, we the abused often possess a certain lived wisdom, unattainable except through experience. To neglect tapping that wisdom would be a tremendous mistake, however unsavory or unsettling our stories might be. This present post is an attempt to share a few things I’ve learned through suffering that I wouldn’t necessarily have known otherwise.

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Some abusers appear ultra-pious, morally unimpeachable, as a cover for their actions. Others advocate revolutionary and ‘progressive’ views on sexuality. Some have different opinions according to the room they’re playing. In my experience at least, there is no stereotypical child molester. The men who abused me didn’t appear as anything but fine and upstanding in their communities.

So how are we to protect our children in a society where both the “fine upstanding” types and the wild advocates of decadence—and everyone in between–might or might not be child molesters? Can we come up with a profile as to whom to trust?

I don’t think so. Real life isn’t that clean. There is a wheat/tares situation that is maddeningly real if one insists on fighting it. But from what I’ve learned as a parent, by far the best way to protect our children is to simply follow a few principles of our faith, that might not be so obvious at first. The greatest shield, in other words, is our own lived faith.

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1. Never scapegoat one of your children

This is tough for many parents. As with all people in our lives, each of our children is different and either please or annoy us in different, highly specific ways. Oftentimes a great parent, who truly loves all their children equally, won’t even want to acknowledge that their kids annoy them in different ways. But this would be a mistake, in my opinion. As parents, it’s essential for us to know why we react the way we do.  To give one bizarre yet common example: a parent who is annoyed by something in their spouse will often unreflectively unload on the child who inherited the same trait more than dealing with their spouse. The reason is pretty simple, if cowardly: It’s just easier to take something out on your kid, who is so much farther subordinate to you, than breach a difficult topic with your spouse. Likewise, certain things will just bother us about the people we live with—maybe one of our kids reminds us of something we don’t like about ourselves, or something of that nature. This is where we must see our family as a very challenging school of love—one where we, as parents, are not only the teachers, but the first students—and the ones needing discipline the most. We must keep a very close eye on our own failures, constantly, in family life, and if we find ourselves blaming anyone else in the household first for attitude problems, without digging deeply into ourselves, we need to do some serious soul searching.

Why is scapegoating so important to avoid? Child molesters thrive on scapegoating and prey on scapegoats. If the abuser is in a parental role, for instance, it becomes easy to use the scapegoat: create the story of a ‘problem’ child, and even instigate bad behavior. Then, when the ‘problem child’ needs to be disciplined, the abuse can almost be done in the open. Behind a closed door, the abuse can sound just like corporal punishment to anyone outside. Likewise, an obvious family ‘black sheep’ becomes a target for those outside the family: they are often less cared for and considered unreliable.

One of the first things my wife and I had to deal with as parents were friends and relatives wanting to know “who the trouble making child” was. It seemed everyone wanted to know the funny little stories about who was tough to handle, etc. Sometimes other parents wanted to commiserate, or wanted to complain about one of their own kids. Maybe they also really had certain problems and wanted to trade notes on how to strengthen their families—it can be tough to tell sometimes. It’s important to remember, though, to steer clear of gossip. Even if you’re gossiping about your toddler, it’s still gossip, and it’s still wrong. You are hurting that child every bit as much as if you were talking about someone else in your parish in a negative way—perhaps even more so, because they are your child, who depends on you for love and protection from such things. If you’ve done this, you really need to go to confession and be a better parent.

None of this is to suggest that you can’t go to friends with real problems: we need to discuss real issues with friends who can be supportive, who have wisdom to share with us. But people with a well formed conscience know the difference between asking for help with a burden on a serious topic and being snarky and ‘unloading’ about a child.

My wife and I have had a saying that we’ve used as a rallying cry against this type of thing—that we say to each other whenever this comes up. “There are no black sheep—only scapegoats. And we don’t have scapegoats in this family.”

To friends or relatives who try to find out who might be the ‘most annoying’ or ‘problematic’ of our children, I respond “I’m pretty sure I annoy all of them as much as any of them annoys me. We’re nine people living in a house together. But love is stronger than annoyances, and we have plenty of that.” Ultimately, annoyances don’t matter. My motto: never allow anyone to weaken our love. I don’t care who you are, even if you’re the oldest friend I’ve got on Earth, if you try to isolate one of my kids, or single them out as a problem, you will get stonewalled.

2. Never participate in scapegoating another family’s child

This is an extension of the first rule. I hate to say this, but you don’t know what happens behind closed doors of other families: even if they are your close friends. I can’t tell you the number of people who have said to me “I had no idea that was happening to you as a kid, Eric—your family seemed so great.” Abusers look just like everyone else. This doesn’t mean you should be suspicious of everyone—especially not your friends. To live this way is to be paranoid and lack faith that God’s love is triumphant. But the devil really doesn’t care whether it’s full blown child molestation or just hurtful gossip—he’s behind all of it, and any stick will do. So treat it all as important. Even if the kid you see in another family is acting out in the worst ways, look at that child and family with compassion. Be there for them.  If your friend is truly going through difficulties with that child, they won’t be gossiping or merely unloading, and your compassionate ear might be exactly what they need.

Caveat: don’t assume that your most gossipy and scapegoating friends are child abusers. They might just be blessed to have no experience in these matters. My advice: keep being their friend as well as you can, and keep refusing to participate in gossiping about their kids. Remember: it’s a matter of your soul, not theirs at that point.

3. Be an open advocate against child abuse and against perversion

Talk about the evils of pornography—not just to your kids, but your friends and peers. Object when people suggest talking in risqué ways to young people. Complain about the decadent books in your kids’ school libraries. Let it be known to teachers, priests, other parents, that you loathe the way this society is right now, with us having to curtail the tsunami of filth that attempts to drown each of our kids. If your kid is shown porn on a friends’ phone (sadly common even in elementary schools these days) contact the parents of the kids, even if you don’t know them. Lose friends, make people mad, don’t get along: Protect your kids. If you’re doing things right, some people won’t want to be around you when you walk into a room. Believe it or not, that’s good news. Many times, those will be the folks you don’t want anywhere near your kids.

We live this life for a very brief time. Stop being worried about fitting in. We’re all gonna die before this century is over.

4. If you were molested yourself, consider going public

The CDC estimates that one in four girls and one in six boys is molested before age 18 in our society. That means a lot of you out there reading this are among those in that number. However, nowhere near that number is public about their abuse. There are many reasons for this, and many of them are legitimate. For a long time, I was afraid to go public: afraid it would hurt my employment opportunities (maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t), afraid I’d be rejected by extended family (some have, some haven’t), afraid people would look at me differently (yeah, they do). One thing that absolutely has happened: people around my kids who know what I’ve been through are sometimes more nervous around me. They’re nervous that I’m watching, or that I’m suspicious, or that I know what to look for…or all of those things. I can live with their nervousness. Maybe they should be. Because, yes, I am watching. And that’s the best way to deter a child molester: believe me, they’ll generally go after the one that’s unguarded.

Each person must decide this very delicate issue for themselves, and I respect everyone’s right to ultimate privacy on this matter. But if it helps anyone to hear my experience: going public was freeing to me in ways I never expected. One of them was the freedom to unnerve certain people with a hard look or a frown. I don’t care if they like me: I only care that I do what I can for my children in this society.

5. Remember that our wounds can be healed and made glorious

That you were victimized, that you were abused in disgusting ways that no human being should have to endure doesn’t end your story. The One we worship was abused and victimized too. He even chose it. There are many glorious reasons why, even surpassing human understanding, but among them, I’m convinced, was for unity and solidarity with those of us who have been so brutalized. God does not let his children suffer this way without giving great strength and gifts in return, far outweighing the initial suffering. Be bold in embracing that love. Call out to God, asking Him to make real what is foreshadowed in Psalm 90:

We have rejoiced for the days in which thou hast humbled us: for the years in which we have seen evils.     

He will not disappoint.