Preventing Child Sexual Abuse

The following is an excerpt from For Parents Only
Copyright © 1996 Peggy Vaughan and James Vaughan, Ph.D.

We'd like to think that the sexual abuse of children is rare—but it's not. What is rare is openly dealing with abuse when it happens. We tend to ignore signs of abuse and use rationalization and denial—because it's just too painful to face. But it's far more painful for the children who are caught in this web of silence. They are the voiceless victims.

"The cruelest lies are often told by silence."
—Robert Louis Stevenson

Childhood sexual abuse has become epidemic. According to E. Sue Blume, therapist and author of Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and its Aftereffects in Women, "Current research indicates that 38 percent of all women are sexually abused in childhood, most by someone known and trusted. And the numbers are still coming in on men." Results of a 1992 study by the Justice Department based on 11 states and the District of Columbia show:
51% of the females who reported being raped in 1992 were under 18.
16% of females who reported being raped were under 12.
The actual percentage of underage victims is no doubt higher because the younger the victim, the less likely it is to be reported.


According to the National Center for Redress of Incest & Sexual Abuse, the following experiences and interactions are inappropriate, abusive, or traumatic for children:
Being bathed in a way that feels intrusive.
Being ridiculed or teased about your body.
Being told all you're good for is sex.
Being involved in child prostitution or pornography.
Being shown sexually explicit movies.
Being made to pose for seductive or sexual photographs.
Being subjected to unnecessary intrusive medical treatments.
Being kissed in a lingering or intimate way by an authority figure, adult, older or intimidating youth.
Having your breast, abdomen, genital area, inner thighs, or buttocks fondled, or asked or forced to do this to an authority figure, adult, older or intimidating youth.
Being involved in oral genital contact.
Experiencing finger or object penetration.
Experiencing penetration of the rectum and/or the vaginal area.
Being exposed to adult talk about specific sexual acts.
Being exposed to chronic nudity, or nudity at inappropriate times.
Being forced or exposed to hearing or watching adults or teens having sex.
Being exposed to sexual name calling.
Living in constant fear or sexual abuse occurring in your life.
Lack of privacy in bath or changing rooms, being watched.


As parents, most of us are horrified at the idea that our children might be victims of sexual abuse. But at the same time, the silence that surrounds sex creates a fertile environment for the very threat we fear. No young person is safe as long as we all cooperate in maintaining the silence.

There have been a number of sensational cases involving child care centers where large numbers of children have been molested and where it continued for years before one child finally told his parents. Such situations could not continue for so long with so many children if they felt safe to go to their parents. Children suffer silently and needlessly because of the lack of open communication with their parents about sex. If sex were not a taboo subject in so many households, many of the gross cases of sexual abuse simply couldn't happen.

Much of our focus as parents in keeping our children safe from sexual abuse is aimed at teaching them to avoid strangers: don't talk to them, ride with them, take gifts from them, etc. Horrible cases like the 1994 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, California, focus national attention on the danger from strangers bent on abusing children. There's a growing outcry about releasing repeat sex offenders from jail back into unsuspecting communities. The risks inherent in these circumstances are every parent's nightmare. And the risks are real; criminals who commit sex-related crimes are among the most likely to be repeat offenders.

But protecting children from potential molesters is complicated by the fact that pedophiles often seek out jobs that will put them in contact with young children. For instance, an "ice cream man" (driver of an ice cream truck through a suburban neighborhood) was arrested for the forcible child molestation of several youngsters on his route. He used money to lure them into the back of his truck—as it was parked right in the street in front of the children's homes.

When a child is molested by a stranger, they are more likely to report it than when the perpetrator is someone who is known to them. And, ironically, the adult involved in childhood sexual abuse is NOT likely to be a stranger; they're likely to be a relative or trusted friend of the family.

While it may be impossible for a parent to predict which adults might be capable of this kind of behavior, most parents don't realize how their silence on the general subject of sex causes children to keep quiet about this kind of abuse. A child who has not had an ongoing open discussion of sex with their parents is not likely to tell them if they're molested by someone close to the family or someone they think the family approves of. This dilemma was clearly reflected in the title of a discussion about childhood sexual abuse: "Home is Where the Hurt Is."

A study based on the records at a sexual abuse clinic at a large regional children's hospital showed that 77 percent of the girls were molested by a man and that those men were almost never strangers. The alleged assailant was the heterosexual partner of a close relative of the child more than 82 percent of the time. According to The Stepfamily Foundation, about 50 million Americans are involved in a stepfamily relationship, and by including instances where a man is not legally married to the mother but is a presence in the child's life, about one out of three children in the U.S. live in some form of stepfamily situation. Statistics from studies of stepfamilies have concluded that living with one genetic parent and one stepparent [usually male] is the single most powerful risk factor for child abuse that has yet been identified.

While most perpetrators in the home are parents or other adult relatives, sometimes the molesters of young children are older siblings. Also, the offenders are sometimes older children from outside the home. According to the National Center for Redress of Incest & Sexual Abuse (NCRISA), about 65% of adult perpetrators and rapists began violating other children during their own childhood. This seems almost incomprehensible until we focus on the fact that most offenders have been abused themselves.

One man who made a significant contribution to our understanding of this phenomenon is Richard Berendzen, who was sexually abused as a child by his mother; then as an adult was caught making bizarre obscene phone calls about sex to children. He wrote his incredible story in a book, Come Here: A Man Overcomes the Tragic Aftermath of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Despite the fact that he was a respected member of society, married with two grown children and President of American University in Washington, D.C., he was still struggling with the lasting effects of years of silence about his abuse as a child.

It's important to remember, however, that despite the alarming number of abusers who were abused themselves, most victims will not go on to abuse others. But those who do are likely to commit multiple offenses. A thoughtful video that deals with child and adolescent abusers who were abused themselves, called "Once Can Hurt a Lifetime," is available from the ONE VOICE educational outreach project of NCRISA, mentioned above. Other videos on other aspects of childhood sexual abuse are also available from NCRISA.


While Richard Berendzen's story involved a mother abusing her son, most incest cases involve a father abusing his daughter. According to the 1992 Justice Department study mentioned earlier, in 1 out of 5 cases of girls under 12 years old who are raped, the rapists are their fathers. One such example is the case of Marilyn Van Derbur Atler (the former Miss America mentioned in the first chapter) who publicly broke her silence about the incest she suffered at the hands of her father throughout her childhood and teenage years. Her story is especially significant because it goes against the stereotype that incest happens only in certain disadvantaged families. She grew up in a family of affluence and influence. Her father was a millionaire philanthropist, illustrating that incest happens to all kinds of people in all walks of life.

Although incest is technically "sexual intercourse," any childhood sexual abuse by a family member is, for all practical purposes, incest. The effects of incest are potentially the most damaging of any form of sex abuse for a child—and also the most likely to be kept secret. It's not hard to understand why a young child would be afraid to tell about sexual abuse by a parent. Here are some of the reasons for their silence:
They're dependent on the parent for love, support—and their very survival.
Their parent is the authority figure; they feel they should do what they're told.
They're afraid or intimidated by the parent's physical power.
They're ashamed because they think they're to blame.
They're afraid they won't be believed.
They don't want to break up the home.
They're trying to protect their siblings, believing that if they "take it," the abuser will leave the other kids alone. (Despite this effort, the abuse is usually perpetrated on more than one child in the family.)


Young children are often trapped—with no way to escape from the sexual abuse. So they resort to "escaping" in other ways: by blocking out the memories, disconnecting from their bodies, or even splitting into several personalities. These are desperate measures—but these are desperate times for children who are trying to find a way to survive!

The recent instances where "recovered memories" were occasionally determined to be part of a "false memory syndrome" (where the abuse never actually happened) should not cause us to reject the fact that such blocking out of memories is a legitimate coping mechanism employed by many children, including Marilyn Van Derbur Atler. Actually she employed a combination of coping skills, since she also "split" herself into a "day child" and a "night child"—so that the "day child" was not conscious of the abuse being suffered by the "night child."

The development of multiple personalities as a way of dealing with childhood sexual abuse is more prevalent than we have imagined. Some experts who deal with this particular syndrome say that for the majority of people suffering from this problem, it developed as a way of coping with sex abuse as children. The confusion and isolation felt by children who are being abused creates a world that is crazy-making and out-of-control. It forces them to try to function in a continual state of panic, taking a terrible toll on their young lives.

Most children don't resort to any of these more desperate coping mechanisms, but are fully conscious of what has happened (or is happening) to them. In these cases, they're likely to turn their feelings inward. It's too scary to hate the people they depend on, so they hate themselves instead. And all too often they blame themselves, and their guilt feelings contribute to their silence about the abuse.

As devastating as the actual experience of sexual abuse is for a child, "keeping the secret" does even more damage. According to Harriet Webster in her book, Family Secrets:

" is not the initial molestation in itself that appears to cause the overwhelming distress and desperation. It is the process of pretending it didn't happen, of allowing it to continue, of denying its import and enormity, that is largely responsible for the damage that ensues."


The child is not the only one in the family who is confused and engaging in desperate ways to cope with the incest. Perpetrators often engage in some heavy rationalization and avoidance of facing the reality of the situation—especially those who were abused themselves as children and don't understand or condone their behavior. They simply can't reconcile their desire to be a good parent with the terrible harm they're doing to their child, so they resort to denial.

But everyone in the family plays a role in keeping the abuse hidden. All too often, if a child does get up the nerve to confide in an adult, they are not believed. Even if they tell of the abuse later when they become an adult, other family members are likely to deny that the abuse could have happened. And if family members do acknowledge the truth of the abuse, they still put enormous pressure on the person who was abused to "keep the secret" and not embarrass the perpetrator or the family as a whole by letting others know. Perhaps this is the harshest blow of all—when the whole family colludes to either deny what's happening or to deny its impact. Families need to see that the essence of a family is rooted not in what problems they face—but in how they deal with them. Too often they have been more concerned about protecting the family "image" than in supporting the recovery of the abused child.

Fortunately, there's a growing recognition of the need for the kind of honesty that releases children from their private prison of silence and honors their experience—which begins with a willingness to end the pattern of "protecting" the perpetrator. We're seeing discussions of this issue in magazines and newspapers, including advice columns like Dear Abby and Ann Landers, in a way that is different from the past. For instance, one woman wrote asking for advice about a situation in her family where Grandpa had fondled and molested every female in the family regardless of age—and everyone kept quiet "so Grandma wouldn't find out." People are finally questioning the idea of protecting Grandma's feelings at the expense of the damage being done to the children. And they're also questioning whether or not Grandma really doesn't already know.

Most experts believe that while it's unusual for a non-offending partner to be fully conscious of the abuse and not do anything about it, it's unusual for non-offending partners to have absolutely no awareness of the abuse. When there's no direct knowledge, they tend to deny their suspicions—because then they'd have to do something about it, and they don't feel capable of doing anything. So they try to ignore it, hope they're wrong, or just block it out—anything but confront it. This immobilization is not totally due to psychological factors, however; there's the practical issue of some women's economic or other dependence on the man. While this is no excuse, it's a factor in their reluctance to confront the situation.

Research shows that 85 percent of non-offending partners were molested themselves as children. In most cases, this is women, now wives and mothers, who have tried to bury their own experience. When it happens to their daughter, they avoid dealing with it because it brings up their own unresolved fears and feelings. This is an important reason for breaking the silence early on; otherwise there's a repeat of the same situation generation after generation.


While we tend to think of incest as only applying to blood relatives, any perpetrator who is in a position of influence or authority over a child creates an incestuous relationship in the sense of violating the child's trust. This includes baby-sitters, teachers, scout leaders, counselors, or members of the clergy. While most childhood sexual abuse by a family member or a stranger involves a man abusing a girl; in instances where the abuser is neither family nor stranger, it is usually a case of a man abusing a boy.

The situation that has gotten the most attention in recent years is the sexual abuse of young boys by members of the clergy, especially by Catholic priests. The most visible case was that of former Catholic priest James Porter. After 30 years of silence 50 of the boys (now grown) retained a lawyer and brought suit. Prosecutors said Porter abused up to 125 men (and some women) when they were children. He pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children and was sentenced to 18-20 years in prison. As with many instances of massive child abuse, one person can make a difference in the lives of many people by having the courage to speak out about their experience.

One of the great values of speaking out about abuse as soon as possible is that it may prevent others from suffering abuse at the hands of the same perpetrator. In this case, for instance, even though Porter left the priesthood in 1974, the abuse did not stop. In 1992, a year before the lawsuit described above, he was convicted of molesting a baby-sitter.

It's not just those who are abused who need to break the silence, however. In far too many instances, the church has ignored or denied knowledge of abuse, or has covered up abuse with silence, transfers, and payoffs. As pointed out in "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," a thoughtful book about this issue written by Jason Berry, himself a Catholic, the church has an increasing population of homosexual priests and pedophiles who, when discovered, are not defrocked but recycled to unsuspecting parishes. Berry describes one such case in detail, describing the damage done to children in multiple communities due to the church's effort to maintain secrecy.

With more attention being focused on this situation, the Catholic Church has finally begun taking steps to address this problem. For instance, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago organized a special commission to re-examine decades of accusations against priests. And a panel organized by the Franciscan order investigated and pursued remedies regarding a situation that involved a seminary where 12 priests had sexually abused 34 boys during several decades. According to some experts, the sexual abuse of minors by priests has cost the church credibility, trust, and perhaps $500 million since the mid-1980s.

While focusing on the abuse of young boys by priests, it's important to keep some perspective on the fact that even though these are homosexual acts, homosexuality is not a dominant factor in child sex abuse. A study at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center found that a child is 100 times more likely to be molested by a relative's heterosexual partner than to be attacked by someone identified as being a homosexual.

Regardless of the particular sexual orientation, the overall dynamic involves a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power by those in authority. And since priests and others with religious authority hold a special power over the lives of young people, their abuse represents an extreme betrayal of a child's trust.

Priests are only one of the groups of adults in positions of authority and responsibility for children who are abusing their position. According to a Scout document, the Boy Scouts of America dismissed 1,800 scoutmasters suspected of molesting boys between 1971 and 1991—an average of 90 a year. In 1994, a piano teacher in Texas who had fondled two of his students was ordered to hang a sign on his door warning children to stay away. He was also ordered to give away his piano to a local children's home and not play any piano for 20 years. (The Judge decided that since he stole these children's desire to play the piano, he shouldn't be able to play the piano either.)

Teachers and coaches are also included among those who sometimes abuse their positions of control over children. One of the most widespread cases of childhood sexual abuse involved a teacher/coach who molested two generations of boys in his small community. This only came to light when a father who had been molested as a boy discovered that his own sons had been molested by the same man. Finally, the many men who had been abused as children began to break their silence and expose the long-standing abuse of a whole community of boys by this one man. While the fathers had been unable to speak out for themselves, they were able to do it for the sake of their sons.


Often, it's not until children become adults that they can begin to allow the reality of their experience to register—and consider doing something about it. One of the most dramatic instance of adults confronting their abuse as children was when five members of one family stepped forward to tell the story of how both their parents had abused all the children for years. While they were children undergoing the abuse, they did not discuss it with each other. But as adults, led by the oldest daughter, they began contacting each other and asking, "you, too?" When they finally broke the silence and talked together about what had happened growing up, they brought their parents to trial. It took the jury only five minutes to determine that the parents were guilty. They were finally exposed for sexually abusing their children after many years of pretending to be the perfect all-American, churchgoing couple—and they were sentenced to 15 years each in jail.

While both boys and girls can be sexually abused by either parent, the overwhelming majority of cases involve a father sexually abusing his daughters. This was the story in another dramatic case involving a father who sexually abused his five daughters and two granddaughters over a 40-year period before the silence was finally broken and they all came together to confront the situation. They, too, brought suit against the father, and he is serving 12 years in prison.

Although laws and a willingness to go to court are slowly changing, these two cases are highly unusual in that the perpetrator was put in jail. Most perpetrators "get away with it" in terms of personal consequences—largely because of the secrecy that protects them. But these cases are quite typical in terms of the general silence about sexual abuse. They are also typical in terms of multiple abuse. Abusers seldom abuse only one person or do it only one time. And it's also not unusual to see the legacy of abuse continue into another generation.

Large numbers of people have been exposed to the two stories described above, helping to raise the public's awareness of this issue in a significant way. In the first case, the adult children and their attorney appeared on Donahue in 1992 and discussed their experience in a most touching, courageous way. In the second case, family members told their story on Oprah in 1991.

Oprah Winfrey has personally inspired many people to speak out by her own willingness to share her story. Her first public acknowledgement that she had been sexually abused as a child came in 1985 while she was interviewing a guest on her show who was describing her own sexual abuse. Oprah hadn't planned to say anything about her personal experience at that time, but as she consoled the guest, she decided to break her own silence. Since then, she has deliberately worked to change minds—and laws—related to child abuse.

In September of 1992 Oprah hosted a special TV documentary called "Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse." On that show she said, "I'm Oprah Winfrey, and like millions of other Americans, I'm a survivor of child abuse. I was only 9 years old when I was raped by my 19-year-old cousin. He was the first of three family members to sexually molest me."

Oprah has also made it clear that the consequences of keeping the secret are not limited to the time of the events, but continue to have an impact throughout life. She said, "If you have been sexually abused and kept silent, you keep putting yourself in situations later in life where you can be abused again: by your boss, or by friends who take advantage of you, or by men who say they're going to call, then lie to you, cheat on you. You set yourself up for that."

Marilyn Van Derbur Atler indicated that the incest she suffered at the hands of her father throughout her childhood and teenage years affected virtually everything about her life—her health, her relationships, even her sleep (or lack of it). Throughout her entire life, she has never fallen asleep naturally. Due to the legacy of her fear of not being able to protect herself while asleep, she either requires a sleeping pill or simply stays awake. Even though as an adult she had finally confronted her father (without publicly exposing him) and had confirmed that her sister had also been molested, it wasn't until after her father died that she publicly shared the secret she had carried for 48 years. Despite having been a Miss America and successful in many endeavors throughout her life, she says, "the greatest accomplishment of my life was surviving incest."

Now that some "public" figures like Oprah and Marilyn have shared their stories, this issue is getting more of the attention it deserves. Other celebrities who have spoken out publicly include: Shirley Temple Black, Delta Burke, Sandra Dee, and Patty Duke. As more and more people have broken their silence, we've seen growing interest and concern about incest and more willingness to address it.

One of the first women to bring public attention to this issue was Katherine Brady, who wrote about the incest she suffered as a child in her book entitled Father's Days: A True Story of Incest. Her story was published in 1979, and she made some public appearances, discussing her experience. But since she was not a celebrity, her story did not have a lasting impact on the public's attention to this issue. And the public also failed to see the significance of what she had to say in terms of its prevalence. At the time, her story was seen as an unusual one; now we know her experience was all too common.

The problem of incest first got the attention of large numbers of people with the showing of a TV movie called "Something About Amelia" in 1984. It was extremely well-done and has been repeated many times since then; so it not only reached people with the general message about incest, but also with the message that this can happen where least expected. With Ted Danson as the star, it showed a "likable" person in the role of the molester and did much to counter the stereotype of the kind of man capable of this behavior. Another story of incest that was told in detail was the 1993 TV airing of "Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story."

The most courageous (and effective) public spokespersons for more honesty are the abused children who come forward on national TV to encourage other children to "tell someone." Within the past few years a number of youngsters, boys and girls ages 7 to 12, have told of their own experience with sexual abuse. For instance, several young girls appeared on a Maury Povich Show and faced the camera to tell their stories of abuse and to offer support to other children. And in 1994, two young boys appeared on the same show (with their backs to the camera) to tell of their experience and warn other children of the importance of telling their parents if something like this happens. They were only 7 and 9 years old when they were molested by a 15-year-old.

These two young boys had waited six months after the abuse before telling their parents—because the molester had threatened to beat them up if they told. But they had dropped hints to their parents, saying the other boy had pulled down his pants and "mooned" them. Also during this six-month period, one of the young boys had shown a remarkable drop in grades, began sleeping with his fists clenched, and even tried to kill himself by wrapping a belt around his throat. But it was not until he finally told his parents about the abuse that they were able to understand what was happening. (This is an illustration of the need for parents to be alert to the various ways children try to communicate that something like this is happening when they're afraid to say it directly.)

When children do tell their parents and even go on to speak out publicly, it forces both adults and other children to take notice. It takes enormous strength to openly confront this situation and publicly expose such personal stories, but the bravery of all those children who take this kind of action can provide strength for others to finally break their own silence and overcome the fear and pain of carrying this secret. Of course, breaking the silence does not need to include going "public" in such a dramatic way. Breaking the silence simply means telling SOMEONE!

Children who are sexually abused in childhood are faced with enormous struggles that not only devastate their childhood but can wreak havoc on their lives for years to come. While we're gradually learning the long-term psychological consequences of this kind of abuse, it's now been established that there are long-term physical consequences as well. A seven-year study by the National Institute of Mental Health, reported in 1994, says that abuse seems to be a biology-altering experience that changes the brain's stress response system.

Despite the fact that sexual abuse in childhood can impair the brain's physical development and leave victims with permanently weakened immune function, there's still hope for those children who have already suffered abuse. The above study says such children are not doomed, but can compensate by learning new ways of positive behavior and gaining comfort.

One of the most comforting things we can do is to take away the cloak of secrecy that keeps these children from being able to recover from their experience. Children need to hear someone say, "I believe you, I'll take care of you, it's not your fault." But even more critical is the need to break the silence that creates a fertile environment for sexual abuse to take place.


You are the first line of defense for the protection of your children. This involves both preventing abuse and facing it when it happens.

Here are some things to do in advance of any specific indication of abuse:
Acknowledge the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse.
Establish a habit of ongoing good communication about sex in your home.
Teach children that their bodies are private; that they have control over them.
Teach children about their "private parts" (those parts covered by a swim suit).
Teach them the difference between "good touch" and "bad touch." (Children need the former as much as they need to avoid the latter.)
Teach them to run and/or scream if approached in an inappropriate way.
Do not focus on "strangers" or scaring children; just give them facts.
Make clear the difference between "good secrets" (like a birthday party) and "bad secrets." Make sure they know they can trust telling you any "bad secrets."
Realize it can happen in your own home to your own child—either at the hands of an adult or an older child.

Beyond focusing on the general understandings listed above, it's important to be prepared to deal with any potential indications of abuse:
Don't ignore or deny any twinges of concern about possible abuse.
Be alert to indications of abuse:
Some symptoms include nightmares, bed-wetting, and preoccupation with genitals.
Some behaviors include aggressiveness, silence, clinging, and being withdrawn.
Some "problem children" are really "children with a problem"—the problem of being sexually abused.
Make it easy for a child to tell—by having made it easy for them to talk about sex in general.
Be sure your child sees you as a source of safety, not as a threat to their well-being. (Don't threaten or hit your child.)
If your child makes vague comments like, "my bottom hurts," ask questions.
If your child tells you he or she has been abused, believe it.
Don't take anything your child says lightly; it could be very serious.
Don't overreact, no matter what your child says; getting hysterical will only frighten them more.
Don't keep this to yourself; get help in dealing with the situation.
Get professional help for your child, making sure that it is gentle and compassionate.


Despite changes in laws and an increased willingness for people to confront (and perhaps even prosecute) abusers, the more critical goal is to prevent it from happening in the first place! This is why it's so important that we focus on breaking the silence about childhood sexual abuse. It not only validates the integrity of the person who has been abused, but it also exposes the abuser in a way that helps to prevent the abuse of others by the same person. As more survivors speak out about their experience, abusers will no longer be able to depend on the silence to protect them from exposure, which may discourage some potential abusers from ever starting down that path.

Countless children can be saved from this experience if we all join together in a commitment to breaking the silence—every single time it happens. But even more critically, we need to join together in a commitment to breaking the general silence about sexual issues. Not until we have the kind of straightforward family discussions about sex prior to any abuse will we be able to be effective in preventing the sexual abuse of our children.

—    —    —    —    —    —    —    —    —    —    —    —    —
For more about your responsibility to be part of the solution, see Do Something!
Also see: The Pain from Secrecy about Sexual Issues: A Call to Action.

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