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Many parents and families are ill-equipped to respond when faced with such circumstances, leaving them frightened and uncertain how to act.
Lianne Laurence Lianne Laurence Follow Lianne

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What to do when your own child is a sex abuser

Lianne Laurence Lianne Laurence Follow Lianne

May 29, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) - In the wake of revelations that Josh Duggar allegedly sexually molested five minor girls – four of them his younger sisters – when in his early teens, many familiar with the evangelical Christian Duggar family and their ten-season-long TLC hit reality show “19 Kids and Counting” are inevitably putting themselves in Jim Bob and Michelle’s shoes and asking: What would I do if faced with a similar situation? What should I do?

Many parents and families are ill-equipped to respond when faced with such circumstances, leaving them frightened and uncertain about their responsibilities both to the victims, as well as as to the perpetrator of the abuse. 

What, then, are parents’ moral and legal obligations, and how can they most compassionately and effectively respond to both offender and victims? These are the essential questions.

Moral obligations

“Clearly, this is the last thing that a parent wants to hear,” says Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the program in medical ethics at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, speaking of parents who discover that their child has been involved in abusive behavior. But “we should take anything like this very seriously.”

In a telephone interview with LifeSiteNews, Kheriaty said parents have two moral obligations that might seem contradictory.

The first is to protect their and other people’s children from “any form of sexual abuse.” “All of us in society have a responsibility for protecting all children from any form of abuse, including of course, sexual abuse.”

The second and equally important “is to help one’s own child who may have been the perpetrator of the abuse. And the way to help them is not to try to manage the situation on one’s own.”

Parents must “bring their child to a licensed mental health practitioner” such as a child psychologist or child psychiatrist “for an evaluation to look at what’s going on with the child’s sexual development.” There is a possibility the perpetrator has himself suffered from abuse, or is “entangled in the use of pornography.”

While parents may shrink from “the hard realities of what this is going to entail,” they lack the necessary professional knowledge to deal with the situation, or if they do have such knowledge, their “emotional attachment to their own child would cloud their judgment,” noted Kheriaty, a father of five sons and author of The Catholic Guide to Depression.

And while certainly not necessarily the case in every instance, “there’s going to be a much higher probability that there’s serious family dysfunction” if such incidents are occurring in the home.

Legal obligations

Parents also meet their legal obligations when they take their child to a licensed mental health practitioner, Kheriaty explained. All states have mandatory reporting laws, which require the mental health practitioner inform parents that he or she must report the incidents to Child Protective Services (CPS), which will then investigate.

“What would happen legally really depends on the nature of the case and the age of the child as well,” he said. A 13-year-old may be considered too young to be legally or morally culpable. But the CPS would monitor the situation and take steps to ensure the abuser can’t “continue this abusive behavior” and “to reduce his access to younger children.” This might mean removing him from the home for a period of time.

“Obviously that whole process is going to be extremely trying and painful for any parents, but not only is it the best thing for potential victims, to protect them, it would also be the best thing for the perpetrator,” Kheriaty told LifeSiteNews. “In general, the earlier you catch this behavior, probably the more amenable it is to treatment.”

The inclination to sexually use a minor “tends to be difficult, if not impossible, to change or to eradicate” in an adult. But “in a younger child, where they’re still going through a process of ongoing sexual development, there may be things that can be done to put them on a better track and diminish, if not completely eradicate, those tendencies.”

If a youthful offender doesn’t get the help he needs, he could be “doomed to a life in prison or a situation where he’s done tremendous damage or harm to others,” Kheriaty observed. “It’s a situation in which the most loving thing may be very, very difficult and very, very tough, and yet still the best thing for the child who is perpetrating this behavior.”

While Christian parents might worry about what influences their child will encounter in a secular treatment center, Kheriaty countered that “no behavior could be more contrary to living a Christian life” than sexual abuse. He contended that the benefits of a treatment center far outweigh any perceived dangers, and the danger of not getting treatment.

“Any decent program is going to have the same aims that the parents have,” Kheriaty said, and its goals therefore will be “consistent with the goals of living a Christian life.”

Strong families, open communication about sex/porn

Kheriaty and fellow Christian psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons emphasized that parents need to educate their children on sexuality and to be particularly vigilant about the pervasiveness of pornography.

“How to raise psychologically and morally healthy children: that is the million dollar question for all of us as Christians,” Kheriaty noted.

“Parents need to wake up and dial in and be clued in to what’s happening with their children and technology, and whom their children are communicating with on the Internet.” They also need to teach their kids about sexuality in an “age appropriate way” but in this culture, “that will probably happen earlier than parents are comfortable with.”

In terms of protecting one’s child against being a victim of sexual abuse, “the best thing is to maintain strong, healthy, intact families,” he told LifeSiteNews.

A father of three daughters, Fitzgibbons, the director of the Institute of Marital Healing outside Philadelphia and an expert on sexual issues, said that “parents should closely monitor any youngster who has few friends and who isolates himself” and “try to support and encourage close friendships in their children, particularly with those of the same sex. They should inquire as to how friendships are going and support having friends over and going to friends’ homes.”

He too urged parents to instruct their children about “what God’s plan is for human sexuality.” He advised this take place “certainly by 6th grade given the pornography epidemic. Youth need to be taught that pornography is the use of another person as a sexual object.”

“Fathers should ask their sons about how they are dealing with sexual temptations.  Mothers should have similar discussions with their daughters,” he suggested. “Psychologically, it is important to encourage male friendships in their sons, build their confidence in their God-given gifts and provide comforting love and praise by each parent.”

For Catholic parents, he recommended the teachings of St. John Paul II, which “can also be valuable in helping to prevent such tragedies in families and in healing the wounds inflicted by sibling betrayals.” He recommends summaries of “Love and Responsibility,” “The Theology of the Body,” “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” and the “outstanding” 1996 document by the Pontifical Council for the Family, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.”

Obligations to the victims

Fitzgibbons echoed Kheriaty in pointing out that the parents of the offender have a moral obligation to the victims. No type of sexual abuse can ever be termed minor, he noted. “Our experience is that if parents become aware of such behaviors that they act promptly.”

But he noted that “many older female patients” have stated that their parents denied their “reports of sexual molestation by an older male family member, such as a cousin, uncle or grandparent,” which “further weakened the trust of the victim.”

Forgiveness is essential in healing the effects of abuse, Fitzgibbons said, but forgiveness does not necessarily mean trust.

“Parents need to pursue in their own lives the hard work of forgiving one child who may have sexually abused another child. They also need to insist that the abuser ask for forgiveness and in that process identify the emotional or spiritual conflicts that made them vulnerable.”

“Parents need to also encourage a victim child to work on the process of forgiveness so that he/she does not become, in the words of St. John Paul II, ‘a prisoner of one’s past’ because of the failure to forgive.”

It’s also essential that victims be protected from further abuse. “Hopefully, if the offender worked for a long time on his/her weakness, in some cases it might be possible to build a degree of trust, but in other cases this is not possible.”

If the trauma suffered is severe, the victims must be protected “from people, places and things that remind one of the trauma” in order to recover. And if abuse occurred within the extended family, “the usual response is to end the relationship with the abuser indefinitely and with his/her parents… The nature of the abuse often indicates the time necessary.”

Lasting damage to the victim will “depend upon the nature of the abuse, its frequency, length and the abuser,” Fitzgibbons pointed out. “If the abuser is a very angry person, it will instill more fear and mistrust that could seriously damage a person’s ability to trust and to give oneself fully later in life.”

Spiritual response

Fitzgibbons adds that in addition to counseling, the response of a Christian family to adolescent abuse should also include “a discussion of the youngster’s spiritual life.”

“When someone uses others in one’s family, he/she has serious psychological and, often, spiritual conflicts,” pointed out Fitzgibbons. In the case of repeat offenders, “the child really needs some moral help.”

For Catholic children, this means “particularly the use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This Sacrament can help in mastery over strong sexual temptations.”

Fitzgibbons, who has extensive experience treating Catholic priests for homosexual attraction and ephebophilia says it’s also absolutely crucial to get to the root of the behavior through therapy.

“You can repent and say God has forgiven me, and I believe the Lord does forgive us, but you want to know specifically what caused it. … The burning question we always have is, what is the cause?”

In his clinical experience, men with youthful offenses involving some form of sexual abuse had “serious weakness in confidence and social anxiety” on a psychological level. “Often, they did not have close male friends and were highly anxious with adolescent females.”

“If I had a 13-year-old son who did that, I would want to look very carefully: Is there some weakness he has that would predispose him to do that? Is he overly selfish? Is he very insecure in his masculinity, doesn’t have enough friends? Is he a very lonely person? Does he need more comforting female love than he’s getting?”

“These are hard questions but they have to be looked at.”

While Fitzgibbons emphasized that “this type of behavior in youth is not an indication that there are serious problems in the family,” he also observed “I’d want family therapy” in order to ascertain if there is “there some conflict the child has that he would seek comfort like that. … One would have to look with complete honesty at everyone.”

It is possible that “the cause may not be anything psychological. It could be the allurement of sin,” Fitzgibbons noted. “But the devil often works through a weakness we have within us.”

Fitzgibbons added it is critical that those who have been involved in such behavior understand and resolve the reasons for their adolescent actions. “There are numerous studies that demonstrate that 70 to 80 percent of people’s adult psychological problems are the result of unresolved child or adolescent traumas,” he said. “It’s a huge problem, for example, in married life.”

In the case of Josh Duggar, he pointed out that Josh had voluntarily confessed his adolescent crimes to his wife and her family two years before they were engaged, something he said was "very important."

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