It is important to understand the scope of child maltreatment in the United States. Toward this end, the United States Department of Health and Human Services-Administration for Children and Families releases a yearly summary and report of child maltreatment statistics obtained from child abuse registries of 50 states. The most current version is Child Maltreatment 2008.
Across the nation, there were 60,749 sexual abuse perpetrators. Among these, 41,621 perpetrators were family members, neighbors and friends, relatives, or boyfriends/girlfriends. The government report does not break down the instance of sexual abuse perpetrators into male/female categories.
Overall “child maltreatment” is considered to include medical neglect, multiple maltreatment, neglect, other, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological maltreatment. Although I have worked in this field, I was surprised to see such a massive number of perpetrators overall for just one calendar year. There were 891,801 documented child maltreatment perpetrators in 2008.
Another statistic brings great surprise: in all of the 891,801 documented cases above, there were more women maltreatment perpetrators (501,621) than male perpetrators (380,243). Again, to avoid this figure being quoted out of context, the number of male versus female sexual abuse perpetrators is not provided. In this journal and others, the number of clergy cases of sexual abuse has been used as evidence to promote greater leadership of women in the church. While I am a strong advocate of this, especially noting last week’s posting, I do not know what to make of these figures. I hope readers will enter their comments, insights, and speculations.
To rephrase that great Russian writer, “every happy child is the same but every maltreated child is different.” We have seen in these past years a needed look at one particularly vile and disgusting aspect of child maltreatment--the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Yet every year there are at least 891,809 stories to tell--listening to these stories might help us better understand the hows and whys of child maltreatment--so that as individual Christians, parishes, non-profit and government programs, and society at large we can create a safer environment. These children deserve our attention, too, and I suspect if each were to receive financial remuneration the entire economy of this country would be affected. This fiscal bankruptcy would be preferable to that moral bankruptcy that looks the other way. I can’t help but think that thousands and thousands of these children are standing on the sidelines watching the endless iterations of reports of clergy abuse, and at the same time wondering “Why isn’t anybody paying attention to me.”
However compelling the above statistics may be, theological reflection upon child maltreatment demands evan a greater response. In every Catholic Church there are vivid reminders of physical abuse, whipping, taunting, neglect, and extreme despair multiplied by broken trust and betrayal. I am referring to the Stations of the Cross. Using the Ignatian approach, it doesn’t take too great a leap of the imagination to see the faces and broken bodies of children superimposed over the Lord’s. But what of sexual abuse? Surely those awful and terrifying words, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”, speak to and show understanding of the numbing experience of betrayal and abandonment that can be the core of living with having been sexually abused.
Like bookends, at each end of salvation history we are reminded that we must care for maltreated and forgotten children and reminded of their special place on Earth. “You will be good to orphans, for you were orphans in the Land of Egypt,” we are commanded early on. Last week on Ascension Thursday we are promised “I will not leave your orphaned.” Perhaps each of us is called to our own ministry of helping forgotten children, and like the Sisters of St. Joseph, who saved on particular little boy from abandonment, we may similarly cooperate with the Lord’s will.
I am particularly interested in your comments this week. amdg
William Van Ornum