“Healing child abuse is a pro-life issue.”
By: Fr. Ron Raab, CSC
For over a decade of my life, I ministered among people who lived outside or in single-room occupancy hotels. I also ministered among our volunteers and parishioners who kept our daily hospitality center in action. In Portland, Oregon, our parish community gathered folks who had fallen through the cracks of guidelines or benefits from helping organizations. Our hospitality center was the last stop to receive some simple food or monthly clothing. People came to us to benefit from a warm room and companionship for a couple of hours.
There were many brutal truths that emerged from creating a hospitality center in our very simple and small parish community. I am not a social worker. I have no formal training in the startling issues in which I ministered. However, the role of the Church in our neighborhood was simply to build relationships, to offer a kind ear and a hopeful presence. Our ministry on a daily basis was far beyond our professional expertise. However, I approached this ministry simply as a priest and person of faith. This ministry stretched me into becoming a more genuine believer in Jesus.
We learned over the course of years, and working with mental health organizations in our neighborhood, some alarming statics of abuse. In our weekday-morning hospitality center we served about 150 people a day. Many more people came to our doors seeking help in the afternoons. We learned that approximately 85% of the men we served had been sexually abused as children. And even more alarming than that, we learned that approximately 100% of the women we served had been sexually abused as children.
These statics of abuse are not scientific, but came to us from several mental healthcare workers whom we turned to for advice and counsel. The pattern for the truly homeless and mentally ill began in childhood. This is what I find most alarming in our society and in the concrete reality of ministry among the marginalized. Most people think that homeless folks just want to take advantage of society by surviving on our handouts. Many people think the poor are just lazy. I learned something far deeper about many folks who are surviving their days with severe mental illness and who are not mentally capable of keeping a job or an apartment.
Many people were abused sexually and emotionally as very young children. By the age of four or five, many of our people had been abused. The severity of abuse scarred them for life. From such horrific moments in their lives at a very early age, many people turned to alcohol by the time they were eight or nine years old and some even earlier.
Some of the children were taken from their homes early on by the state. Many of the children then faced more abuse living in various foster homes. However, most of the children just ran away from home. In fact, we were told by social workers that only 50% of the parents who had a runaway child ever reported that child missing. They did not report it because they did not care that the child was gone.
I was also told in my years in Portland that many teenagers who run away from home do so because they were either sexually abused or the parents found out that the child was a homosexual. Many families literally threw the gay or lesbian child out of the house, especially in rural areas of the state. These children found their way to larger cities and struggled to get education, healthcare and housing. Some of these children actually survived such ordeals.
Once children face such horror at such a young age, combined with street living, the chances for mental health survival are slim. Surviving outside long term and remaining mentally healthy is nearly impossible. And when all of these things come together from childhood, people become incapable of holding down a job or ever getting well.
Abuse is not the fault of the child. This claim is so important for many of us to hold true. So many people in our society blame the adult who had been abused as a child and whose mind could not heal. The ramifications of abuse are long term and overwhelming for people and for our society.
A child does not ask to be abused. A child has no defense over the power of an adult or the authority of a parent or a person who knows the child well. As a society, we need to stop blaming people for being poor, for suffering from various diseases of the mind and for not being able to keep a job. We also need to stop blaming people for having been emotionally or sexually abused. This is so real in our society; abuse has horrific effects beyond childhood.
Early on in my years in Portland, I wanted to offer a retreat for people who suffered depression. I asked two healthcare professionals to help me with the day of reflection. With the three of us as facilitators, we gathered a dozen people around a large table. We began with prayer and introductions. In the introductions, every single person told us that they had been sexually abused as a child. The effects of abuse were overwhelming. Some of the folks gathered were not homeless. As it turned out, the retreat did not end that afternoon. We met every month for the next three years. We have much work to do with people who experience ongoing effects from the hands of people they loved. Becoming an adult from a childhood of abuse is never easy.
I have been deeply influenced by people’s lives of abuse. Again, I am not trained in the deep effects of family abuse dynamics. I do though, have a heart and an ear. I have listened carefully to people who hold such anguish in their hearts and bodies. There is much I need to learn and even more I need to entrust to God. I hold many stories in my heart from sitting with people who reveal to me the torment of abuse. Many of the stories I can not share here. However, I am also offered hope when the truth is shared. Truth is what we have to build the Church upon.
Just before leaving Portland to come to Colorado Springs, a colleague asked me what I had learned in my years working among God’s beloved poor. This is what I told him. “We need to stop abusing our children.” After over a decade, this is still my conclusion about poverty in our country. So much of it stems from our children facing the abuse and uncertainty in childhood. The core of much of our poverty on the streets and beyond is that people are struggling to survive abuse. The effects of abuse arise in our relationships, our ability to hold down a job and much is passed down to our children and loved ones. I pray to break the cycle of abuse that is a true epidemic in our society.
Working to fight against child abuse is a pro-life issue that means a great deal to me. Our Church is not only anti-abortion, but we also face the consequences of how our children live in the world, and the opportunities each child has to thrive. Our human life in God has abundant dignity, and when that dignity is ignored, shredded, and feared, we all must step in to heal our children’s place in the world. When these children become adults, we may all view our common failure when we judge them for not having a job or being contributors to society. We simply must stop abusing our children.
I have spent many years in the depths of people’s despair. However, I am forever grateful to the story tellers and the seekers of hope. Our reliance on God is critical to viewing the dignity of those born in abuse. We all can see with new eyes and act with genuine hope.
Well said, Fr. Ron. As a social worker who worked with children who had suffered various kinds of abuse, I couldn’t agree more about the need for awareness and intervention to stop abuse from being handed down the generations, as well as the need to understand child and adult behavior generated by experiences of abuse. Thank you for this reflection!