Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Do We Do About Abuse Now?

Society has progressed and regressed on the issues of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, emotional abuse and clergy abuse.  For millennia, the acts of beating a disobedient child or wife or to have free sexual access to certain women were viewed as legal rights of husbands and fathers and other adults of a certain status in society.  Slowly society began to realize that these acts were wrong.  Ironically, however, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals predates the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children or the right of women to vote.  When medical doctor Siegmund Freud wrote in a book, The Aetiology of Hysteria, that women with symptoms of hysteria were actually victims of incest and child sex abuse, it rocked the medical establishment and society of his time -- the late 19th century.  The implications that the frequent cases of hysteria experienced by so many of the upper middle class women were caused by endemic child sex abuse were deeply troubling. Freud was so profoundly criticized that he retreated from this accurate analysis and went off on a much less useful tangent for the rest of his career (Herman, 1997).
In the meantime World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War happened, and society discovered that men could be severely psychologically damaged by the violence of war.  They called it “shell shocked” after World War I, “battle fatigue” during World War II, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the Vietnam War.  However, the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s brought attention to the fact many women who had never served in combat suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Herman, 1997).  The causes included child sex abuse, rape and domestic violence.  Women and sympathetic men marched to “Take Back the Night.”  Shelters for battered women opened, and domestic violence services sprang up.  Child sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, and domestic violence were criminalized and reporting of child abuse became mandatory for professionals who encountered victims.  In the 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), providing regular funding for domestic violence and sexual assault.  Reports of domestic violence increased; casualties decreased. (  But politics has now killed this successful law, and what politics is not responsible for destroying, the economy had badly damaged.  I have Walked Across Oregon every summer since 2008 to raise awareness about abuse.  In the process, I discovered that many rural domestic violence agencies have a 50% decline in grants and donations  experienced donations and grants between 2009 and 2012.  I also discovered that many rural domestic violence agencies not only have unmarked shelters, they also have unmarked offices.
When I asked about this, I was jokingly told by domestic violence service staff, “That is because we don’t want to get bombed.”
In John Day Oregon, the Executive Director of Heart of Grant County, Mary Ann, lamented how much easier it was to rally people to march in opposition to white racists who wanted to build a compound in Grant County, than it was to rally people against child abuse or domestic violence.
Why?  because the implications remain, as in the time of Siegmund Freud, too disturbing.  The adults who abuse are our neighbors, friends, fathers, brothers, grandfathers, mothers, sisters and daughters.  In some cases, laws against offenders have become so harsh that friends, neighbors and family don’t want to see the accused punished.  A recent case such as this was when two Middle School boys in Yamhill, Oregon, were charged with felonies for sexually harassing their female classmates.  The community rallied around the boys and attacked the accusers, who were not as passionate about standing up for their own rights as was the local District Attorney.
So we have reached a place where most of the needed laws have already been passed and new laws are more ambiguous in their value.  Dramatic improvements have been made in consciousness about the issue and support for survivors.  But abuse has not been eradicated nor is support for survivors universal.  Some people remain confused about domestic violence, sexual assault and domestic violence and unsupportive or even hostile towards survivors.  Worst of all, we have lost the commitment of society to provide funding to support less fortunate survivors, particularly adult victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.  Significant outreach and education to society as a whole remains a critical need.
In the meantime, many survivors still fall through cracks in existing laws.  For example, during my work with clergy abuse survivors, I encountered three women who were victims of varying degrees of sexual exploitation by Catholic priests.  Because they were adults, these relationships the Church viewed these relationships as consensual.  These women were not able to sue the Catholic Church for civil damages and didn’t qualify for the limited counseling services offered by the Church.  However, all of these women were victims of child sex abuse and therefor vulnerable to the kind attentions of the priests they approached in need of a safe and supportive relationship with a caring professional.  Two of these women suffered significant emotional damage caused by the responses of Church hostile to their stories.
The laws have no answers as lines have to be drawn somewhere or else even mildly bad behaviors are criminalized, and we are all vulnerable to going to jail for something.  But these sensible lines leave many deserving people without justice.
Moreover, survivors are often too fragile to advocate for themselves.  For example, one of the ways that the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests advocates for survivors is by standing outside churches after Mass and handing out leaflets on abusive priests.  This puts information out in public, but few SNAP members participate because many Catholics are hostile to these small intrusions on their church services.  Catholics who care about the clergy abuse issue more readily leave the Church because it is flawed than stay and fight for justice within the Church.  This lack of support from other Catholics is very wounding to clergy abuse survivors.  Most simply can’t take the emotional risk to stand outside a church even in a silent and respectful protest.  Moreover, the remaining Catholics are not persuaded even by such gentle protests.  Church and survivors remain in stalemate and the hard won progress accomplished in the last decade of work on this issue is regressing.
What is happening in the Church models society.  During the last election, some politicians expressed extreme insensitivity towards rape and domestic violence victims,
So how do we reach out to people not supportive of abuse survivors and convert them into caring about the issue?
How do we reach out in ways that are not wounding to more fragile survivors?
How do we empower fragile survivors to advocate for themselves?
How do we bring people together to raise awareness both about the issue and the need for healing?
Moreover, how do we do this without as much money to spend as in the past?
A last and very practical issue is, how do we make it possible for families with young children and the fragile elders to participate?
I look forward to hearing your answers.
Copyright 2013 by Virginia Jones.
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