This last weekend I attended a training session put on by SCARS (Saving Children and Revealing Secrets). SCARS is a Bermudian organisation created to address the situation as it presents itself in Bermuda. They presented a curriculum developed by Stewards of Children, which is a programme of Darkness to Light. Darkness to Light is a larger organisation dedicated to making known the crime of child sexual abuse, obviously with a view to eliminating it. You can find out more about SCARS by consulting their web site (www.scarsbermuda.com), and you can find them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/SCARSBDA).
During this training workshop there ensued a lively discussion, and I sensed the passion of the people involved. I have seen this before. There is something about the crime of child sex abuse that angers people. This crime steals innocence, inflicts pain, ignites shame, and lingers in the form of physical, psychological, and relational scars that complicate a child’s later ability to enjoy intimate relationships as an adult. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s an extreme form of callous self-gratification. This is what makes people so angry. Child sex abuse is unjust.
To me, though, child sex abuse is one form of a larger relational dysfunction, and it can make me just as angry when I see it in its various forms.
Some people act just like a child abuser when a child abuser rationalises, minimises, deflects, and discounts his or her abusive behaviour. This, in itself, is not to minimise the problem of sexual molestation; rather, it’s to realise that child sexual abuse often takes place in a person whose “hunger” and perceived self-needs permit him or her to objectify other people and make use of them to get what they want. Another way of saying this is to call it what it is sociopathy. The person with an anti-social personality smudges the line, ignores the socially accepted boundaries, and considers such things only applicable to “suckers” who are too stupid to get away with ignoring them or otherwise too weak to risk flaunting them. When sociopathic criminals are asked why they killed someone, they often say something like, “Because I could. He deserved it for being so stupid and not watching out for himself.”
Anti-social people (and there are varieties of these folks living and working among us all who are not child abusers or murderers) externalise. They blame others, take no fault, turn the arguments and complaints around so as to avoid scrutiny, and they don’t care; they lack what we call a “conscience”. They cannot take the perspective of others so as to imagine how actions affect others. When these offenders get into treatment, one of the necessary skills in therapy is to help such people begin to take emotional, cognitive, and volitional perspective with reference to the other people in their lives.
Anti-social behaviour can be seen in everyone at some time or another. This is a matter of degrees and somewhat relative. It gets to be dangerous and a relational impediment when it takes on the pattern of a fixed style of thinking and relating to other people in the world.
Riding the third lane and overtaking vehicles on turns, up hills, and in the face of oncoming traffic on these narrow roads is a form of anti-social behaviour, because riders believe they can get away with it, and they have no regard to what their behaviour is doing to other people on the road.
Likewise, stealing from others is anti-social behaviour. So, if you are a businessman and you are taking money out of your employees’ cheques for their pensions, but you’re not matching it and depositing it into their actual pension funds (this issue has been in the news lately), then you are stealing. If, when you get caught stealing, you attempt to turn it around, confuse the issue, deflect the conversation and otherwise manipulate the employees and others to avoid the consequences of your behaviour, then you are a criminal, but you are also in the company of child sex abusers who lack the capacity to comprehend how their behaviour affects other people.
Child sex abuse is not a simple problem. It is complex. To make a difference in Bermuda so as to actually protect children and treat offenders, it will take a multi-systemic approach in which representatives from education, court services, corrections, psychological services, and others get involved and work together to create a coordinated approach to prevention, identification, assessment, correction, and treatment.
And that leads me back around to complexity. There is no 1-2-3-step approach to child sex abuse that will accomplish the kinds of goals that SCARS has set for itself. The analogy can be made to Christianity. There is no 1-2-3-step approach to living the Christian life that will complete all the diverse and manifold processes going on in the lives of Christians. Formulas always disappoint. God is too big; God is inscrutable. God is infinite and we are not. Attempting to fathom the rich textures in what God is doing at any one time is like trying to figure out the universe; when you think you’ve found the answer to something, it just lifts the lid on a whole other set of questions. Rather, one lives a discovering kind of life in which one has to hold the “answers” loosely and keep observing what is going on. What, for instance, is going on when gay people, who are supposedly living self-destructively sinful lives are found to actually be capable of living in committed intimate relationships for decades, just like married heterosexuals? How do we make sense of that? How do we resolve the tension in our theologies that describe people who do not believe in God as blind and deaf to God and yet capable of responding to a gospel message? Formulas and systematic theologies all ultimately break down, but that doesn’t mean we should not make an effort to live in relationship with God.
Just so, child sex abuse is a complex problem that does not yield to simple and reactive solutions such as arbitrary sex offender registration. It is possible to make a difference, and SCARS is in the process of walking in the forest of complexity so as to accomplish its mission and make that difference. Perhaps all the agencies and institutions of this Island ought to join them.
By Philip Brownell The Royal Gazette