Is There Forgiveness for the Perpetrator of Sexual Abuse?
Consider this sister’s story. “I was abused as were my siblings when we were younger by a stepfather from hell. We never told anyone because we thought there was something wrong with us. I pushed everything to a distant place where I did not deal with it well. I was thirteen. I am now sixty two. After this last conference the door that had been locked tight was opened and the pain I felt was immense, the hate I had for him beyond words. I felt like I needed to throw up, my stomach hurt so bad.
“I cried for hours with the loss of something so precious in my childhood, and the feelings of being betrayed. I felt all the hate I could and shared it with one of my sisters. I read about forgiveness and then prayed to be able to forgive and felt the love of the Savior…and the release of all that hate and sadness…My mother never knew until I was 18 and getting married, but the important thing is that we can heal and through the love of our Savior Jesus Christ we can be healed and feel loved.”
Addressing the topic of forgiveness for the perpetrator of sexual abuse, Gordon B. Hinckley said, “Now, the work of the Church is a work of salvation. I want to emphasize that. It is a work of saving souls. We desire to help both the victim and the offender. Our hearts reach out to the victim, and we must act to assist him or her. Our hearts reach out to the offender, but we cannot tolerate the sin of which he may be guilty. Where there has been offense, there is a penalty. The process of the civil law will work its way. And the ecclesiastical process will work its way, often resulting in excommunication. This is both a delicate and a serious matter.
“Nevertheless, we recognize, and must always recognize, that when the penalty has been paid and the demands of justice have been met, there will be a helpful and kindly hand reaching out to assist. There may be continuing restrictions, but there will also be kindness.”[i]
The Church offers help to the perpetrator of sexual abuse in the form of counseling, support groups, and addiction recovery programs. The Church’s Addiction Recovery Manual is a wonderful resource for those recovering from addictions of any kind including pornography addictions and sexual addictions. It is available for a nominal fee at Church Distribution Centers. It is also available for free download from the Provident Living section of the Church’s website. See link here.
The Addiction Recover Manual is a powerful help to those seeking change and repentance, but it doesn’t stop there. It is powerful medicine for anyone trying to get closer to Christ and for anyone trying to access the healing power of the atonement. This may include perpetrators, victims, and the families of both.
One member shared these feelings about the Addiction Recover Program. “One of the best kept secrets in the Church is the ARP! Every single member (addict or not) who desires to apply the atonement in their life may attend these meetings and use the guide. I have grown so much as I have participated. My testimony has grown and I no longer harbor resentments, anger and fear. ARP is a safe place where we get to share our healing and hope and receive the grace to continue to come unto Christ no matter what has happened to us or what we have done.”
For those seeking to forgive those who have abused them, the Addiction Recovery Program may open doors that seem locked. Forgiveness of such heinous behavior may seem impossible to some, yet complete healing lies beyond the doors of forgiveness.
Complete healing is only possible through the grace of Jesus Christ. His atonement is the miracle that opens those doors. His grace is sufficient.[ii]
My heart is full of love for Thee
Because I know Thou first loved me.
Now by that love I’ll seek to live
And freely, like Thyself, forgive.[iii]
Forgiveness changes us from the inside out and helps us heal, but forgiveness does not mean that we accept or tolerate evil. The abuse must not be swept under the carpet. Forgiveness does not take away the consequences for the perpetrator of evil acts. The perpetrator must be made accountable. As we forgive, we must do what is necessary to stop the abusive acts of others. They must not be allowed to repeat their evil deeds, against us, or against others.
Forgiveness is not easy. It is essential for complete healing. Christ offers us complete healing. Learning to forgive is sometimes like putting a puzzle together, one piece at a time, much as President Uchtdorf described learning to know Christ. Perhaps learning to know Christ and learning to forgive can happen simultaneously.
“Those who diligently seek to learn of Christ eventually will come to know Him. They will personally receive a divine portrait of the Master, although it most often comes in the form of a puzzle—one piece at a time. Each individual piece may not be easily recognizable by itself; it may not be clear how it relates to the whole. Each piece helps us to see the big picture a little more clearly. Eventually, after enough pieces have been put together, we recognize the grand beauty of it all. Then, looking back on our experience, we see that the Savior had indeed come to be with us—not all at once but quietly, gently, almost unnoticed.”[iv]
“Forgiveness,” said Russell Osguthorpe “is a choice. It’s a choice that leads to a personal characteristic—a way of being. It’s really a choice to follow the Savior. It’s a choice to do his will and not ours. It’s a self-forgetful choice. It’s a way of getting outside ourselves, going beyond our own weaknesses and doing what God wants us to do.”[v]
When your heart was filled with anger,
Did you think to pray?
Did you plead for grace, my brother,
That you might forgive another,
Who had crossed your way?[vi]
What Can We Do to Prevent Sexual Abuse?
President Gordon B. Hinckley said “The Church is doing everything it can to strengthen families. Every person and institution must do their part but, in the end, strong, loving and watchful families are the best defense against child abuse.”[vii]
Repairing the damage caused by sexual abuse is possible but difficult. Prevention is preferable. Education is the key. Education can empower children and teenagers to take control of their own bodies. It is essential that children be taught about the sacredness of their bodies and how to respond to those who would misuse their trust.
1. Teach with clarity.
One woman said, “I grew up in a home where sexuality was not discussed. When I was molested by a family member, I had nothing to go on. It was confusing. Someone I loved and trusted was touching me in ways I had never imagined. He told me that it was our secret and I must never tell anyone. ‘No one else will understand,’ he said. ‘If you tell you will get in trouble.’
“The situation might have been different, if I had been taught the truth about sexuality and the sacredness of my body.”
Who would you choose to be your child’s first teacher about intimacy? Who is the most qualified to teach with tenderness and clarity? Who can teach the facts with a gospel perspective? You can be that person.
Teaching about sexuality is sometimes awkward, but with prayerful preparation you can do the job. Have age appropriate conversations and teach with sensitivity and clarity. Such conversations can be formal or casual, planned or spur of the moment.
One mother told me she enjoys talking with her daughters about intimacy one on one during backyard campouts under the stars. The peaceful curtain of night with a backdrop of stars, for her, is the perfect place for a heart to heart talk about sensitive and beautiful matters.
What should we teach about intimacy? You can start by reflecting on this thought from For the Strength of Youth. “Physical Intimacy between husband and wife is beautiful and sacred. It is ordained of God for the creation of children and for the expression of love between husband and wife. God has commanded that sexual intimacy be reserved for marriage.”[viii]
When we teach about intimacy, chastity, or sexual abuse, let us not give the impression that sex is dirty. In reality, sex in the right time and place is a beautiful and natural thing, ordained of God.
I remember a particular Young Women’s lesson on chastity. A beautiful flower was compared to one which had been crushed and left to wither. We were taught that if we kept ourselves pure and saved our bodies for marriage we would be like the fresh flower, but if we gave into sexual temptations we would be like the crushed flower. Used. Who wants a marriage partner that has been used?
One family uses peaches with a similar analogy. Ripe juicy peaches are compared with bruised or stale fruit. When leaving on a date their teenagers hear the words “Remember the peaches.”
Such analogies are painful and misleading to those who have experienced sexual abuse. Through no fault of their own they already feel used and unworthy. Bruised. Imagine how they feel when they hear this type of object lesson.
If you carefully consider analogies of this type you will see other flaws. Is sex dirty or undesireable? Does intimacy in marriage also make you used? Are those who marry a second time, due to death or divorce, less desireable because they are used?
There must be better ways to teach chastity.
Children should be taught that their bodies are sacred and private. They should know which parts are private. A simple definition is the body parts that are usually covered by swimsuits. Teach and model modesty. Close the door when using the bathroom. Wear a robe when walking around the house unclothed. Modesty is a lot of little things that help children understand the sacredness of their bodies.
In the True to the Faith gospel reference manual we read “…the human body is God’s sacred creation. Respect your body as a gift from God. Through your dress and appearance you can show the Lord that you know how precious your body is.” [ix]
2. Be a Safe Person for your Child to Talk To
Build a trusting relationship with your child. Help your child feel comfortable about talking to you. A parent who is quick to judge or overreact may not feel like a safe person to talk to. Does your child know that you are on his/her side? Are you quick to criticize or to advise? Do you have an open mind? Do you respect your child’s ideas?
No one goes out of their way to talk to someone who makes them feel bad. Be sensitive about your child’s feelings so that he/she enjoys talking to you. Use uplifting language. Be respectful.
Let your child know that he/she can talk to you about anything. Be interested. Be available.
Teach children to tell if anyone tries to touch them inappropriately. Teach children that anyone who asks them to keep secrets from their parents is not a good friend.
3. Build Confidence in your Child
Children with low self-confidence may have a harder time resisting abuse. Confident kids are more resilient and resistant. Abusers sometimes look for kids who lack confidence. Look for ways to build your child’s confidence.
Notice what your child does well and compliment him/her on achievements and successes. Notice good decisions, helpfulness, thoughtfulness. Foster and appreciate success and leadership qualities. Look for opportunities to sincerely praise. Praise from Dad can be especially meaningful.
Success builds confidence. Participation in sports, dance, music lessons, or other such activities can help create confidence. Not all children enjoy the same activities. Find out what your child loves and nurture it. Every child can benefit from learning a skill.
Performing can also be a boost for some children, but not all. Be sensitive to your child’s wishes. Most children enjoy being the star from time to time. If your child resists being in the limelight, help him find other ways to shine. Help your child succeed in school.
Life skills are confidence builders. Give your child opportunity to make decisions, to help make the rules, to help with dinner and other household chores. Children who contribute to family work have higher self-esteem than those who are waited on.
Be a good listener. Let your child know that you value his/her opinion. Children have good ideas. Try them out. Talk things over. Work things out. If your word is law, how will your child learn about compromise and negotiation? How will your child learn about problem solving? Children who have a voice in family decisions can use that voice when confronted with problems in real life. Children who have a voice can use that voice when confronted with abuse.
Spend time together. President Uchtdorf recently reminded us that “In family relationships love is really spelled t-i-m-e.” When you choose time with your child over other activities, you send a strong message about how much you value that child. That’s a big confidence booster.[x]
4. Try Not to Be Paranoid
For most of us the possibility of our children being sexually abused is overwhelming and frightening. We long for a Rapunzel-like tower to lock them in. We could raise them safely by strictly controlling their environment, locking kids in and locking evil out. Tempting, but it’s not the gospel plan. Not only that, it never works.
It is impossible to completely isolate your children from possible sex offenders. Since perpetrators look perfectly normal and don’t wear any badges to identify them, we can’t tell the good guys from the bad. What we can do is teach our children how to deal with the approach.
We have spent decades teaching children to avoid strangers, but in reality a child is nine times more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know and trust. One child began to cry when she was greeted by a substitute primary teacher. “I’m not allowed to be with strangers,” she said with tears in her eyes.
Stranger is a pretty vague word, and in fact most strangers are good kind people. We don’t want our children to be afraid, we want them to be aware. It is better to teach children about the situations or actions they should avoid rather than the type of individual they should avoid.
One family has a rule that no child is allowed to be alone in a room with any man, whether he is a brother, an uncle, a neighbor, or a grandpa.
This may sound like a good idea, but remember abusers can be male or female. An abuser can be another child. An abuser can be a parent. This kind of rule may create a false feeling of security. It can also foster a fear of adult men. How will a young girl learn to trust the man she will someday marry if she has been taught to be afraid of men? Most adult men are not abusers and will likely resent be treated like one.
One woman found that her own father was the abuser of her daughters. Each of the cousins had been abused by a man no one suspected, their grandfather. The woman was devastated. The damage was extensive and healing is still taking place. However, most grandfathers are not abusers. Shall we isolate our children from grandfathers, or shall we learn to be smart and aware.
5. Be Smart
Know where your children are and who they are with. Be familiar with your children’s friends and daily activities. Children should not be left unsupervised for long periods of time. Teenagers and children should not be out alone after dark.
Be sensitive to changes in your child’s behavior. If anything feels different or uncomfortable, check it out.
Know the warning signs of sexual abuse. Notice things like bedwetting, change in eating habits, nightmares, unexplained sadness or fear, anxiety or depression, withdrawal from friends or family.
In teenagers also notice signs of self-loathing, such as negative self-talk, self-destructive behavior, unhealthy attitudes toward the opposite sex. In some cases, drug abuse, drinking, and suicidal thoughts can be an outgrowth of sexual abuse.
Beware of anyone who pays unusual attention to your child, or gives inappropriate or expensive gifts to your child.
Choose babysitters with care.
Trust your feelings. If something doesn’t feel right, pay attention. The Holy Ghost may be trying to get your attention. Follow promptings. Teach your children to recognize promptings from the Holy Ghost. Make the Holy Ghost your best friend.
If you discover abuse, reassure your child or teenager. Abuse is never the child’s fault. Remind your child that he/she is not to blame. Thank your child for trusting you with important information. Talk to your bishop, consult your family physician, and notify the local authorities. Protect your child from further abuse and support your child’s healing in every way.
When a family member is the abuser, some parents are tempted to look the other way. This is devastating to the victim who is already confused about the abusive relationship. Remember that your child’s safety and healing are the first priority. Consider also the danger to other children if the perpetrator is not stopped. Reporting the abuse gives the perpetrator an opportunity to repent and an opportunity for treatment.
Disovering abuse is painful and frightening. Would we rather not know? Of course not. We want to be there for our children. We want to lead them to higher ground. We want to comfort them and teach them about their Savior. We can only do that when we know. The only thing worse than finding out that your child has been sexually abused, is not finding out.
As a young mother, I often wished that I could lock my children away from temptation, adversity, and evil. Wouldn’t we all like to shield our children from harm? We do what we can. We teach, we protect we watch, and in the end we trust.
We trust our children’s judgment because we can’t always be there, and because they need to grow. We trust life to be a thorough teacher. We hope she will be kind. We trust family and friends for strength and support, and we give back. We trust the Holy Ghost to be our compass. The Plan of Salvation will be our map. We trust the atonement to make up for our lack.
We do our best and then we ask our Redeemer to make up the difference. His Grace is Sufficient.
[i] Gordon B. Hinckley, Personal Worthiness to Exercise the Priesthood, Ensign, May 2002.
[ii] Moroni 10:32, Ether 12:26-27; D&C 18:31; D&C 17:8; 2 Corinthians 12:9
[iii]Alice W. Johnson, O Lord, Who Gave Thy Life For Me (words and music), Ensign, Oct 2002
[iv] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Waiting on the Road to Damascus, Ensign, May 2012
[v] Russell and Lolly Osguthorpe, A Forgiving Heart, BYU Women’s Conference, April 29, 2011
[vi]Bernard of Clairvaux, Did You Think to Pray, Hymns: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 140
[viii] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, For the Strength of Youth, 2001, p. 26
[ix] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference Manual, 2004, p. 107
[x] Dieter Uchtdorf, Of the Things that Matter Most, Ensign, November 2010