Everybody knows that sexual abuse of any kind can be traumatic, but when it happens to children, how does it affect their physical and mental health?
What are the immediate and long-term effects, and why do so many children carry their traumatic experiences of institutional abuse into adulthood? What is the true emotional and psychological cost of abuse?
The more victims who come forward and speak about their experiences in institutions in Pennsylvania and around the U.S., the more we are learning about the long-term effects of child sexual abuse—and the more we can assist in the recovery process.
Following is an overview of what we know and what the authorities here are trying to do to address the acknowledged problem of child sex abuse in our country.
Long-term effects of sexual abuse
While child sexual abuse certainly has many immediate effects on a child, we, unfortunately, do not discover the abuse until later in life in many cases.
Because of the recent high-profile nature of cases involving institutions like the Catholic Church around the U.S., and the sheer number of victims coming forward with their stories, considerable attention has been placed on the longer-term effects of institutional abuse.
Initially, we can address the impact with a breakdown into the physical effects and psychological effects of sexual abuse, as follows:
Potential physical effects of sexual abuse
Some of the potential long-term physical effects of sexual abuse include:
- Physical injuries to the sexual organs or other bodily injuries
- Unwanted/unplanned pregnancy
- Chronic health conditions (e.g., obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes)
Potential psychological effects of sexual abuse
Studies on the longer-term physical effects of child sexual abuse suggest that victims may suffer from the following problems:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Low self-esteem or self-image
- Eating disorders
- An increased risk of substance abuse
- An increased risk of unsafe sexual behaviors
- An increased risk of self-harm or suicide
- Intimacy and relationship issues
- Cognitive impairment
The increased likelihood of repeat sexual abuse
One of the most damaging realizations about the victims of institutional child sexual abuse is just how many become subjects of sexual abuse in later life.
Evidence suggests that child sexual abuse victims are at least twice as likely to experience partner violence in later life. So, the abuse and victimization they experienced in their childhood can return again and again.
It has been suggested that child sexual abuse victims may either become desensitized to danger due to development difficulties or believe that domineering sexual behavior is the norm.
While almost all victims of institutional child sexual abuse suffer long-term in some form or other, some notable differences have been identified between male and female victims.
Girls are more likely to be sexually abused in their lifetimes than boys. Consequently, most studies on the long-term effects of abuse have focused mainly on females.
This has led to the following observations of female victims:
- They are more likely to experience abnormal physical developments
- Mental health issues such as PTSD and depression are more likely
- Physical and sexual revictimization is common
- They are at a high risk of teen pregnancy
- They are more likely to suffer self-mutilation and abuse drugs/alcohol
- They are more likely to engage in high-risk sexual activity
- They are less likely to complete high school
Despite girls being far likelier to be sexually abused in their lifetimes, around one in 13 boys also experience child sexual abuse.
Male victims often suffer from society’s stereotypical views of masculinity, including feelings of shame about their memories of the experience and guilt and inadequacy at not being able to stop it.
Other common problems associated with male victims of child sexual abuse include the following:
- Mental health issues, e.g., anxiety, stress, and depression
- Uncertainty about sexual orientation
- Feelings of loss of masculinity
- Inability to discuss past experiences
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulties keeping relationships
What can adult survivors of child sexual abuse do?
Because of the lasting effects of childhood sexual abuse, many historical victims are still dealing with their issues today. Experiences have often been suppressed for many years, and it can be difficult to drag up dark memories.
There is no “normal” timescale in which to process past experiences of abuse. Everyone is different.
The steps to recovery are, however, possible with the support apparatus that is now in place. This is designed to help victims discuss their experiences and seek a small measure of justice for the crimes that have happened to them—even long ago.
For a start, emotional support, therapy and counseling are all available. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), for instance, helps victims abused by the Catholic Church.
The legal system has also taken steps to help victims of institutional child sexual abuse. Because many victims take years to come forward and tell their stories, some states have started to extend the statute of limitations to allow historical child sexual abuse crimes to be heard by the civil courts.
Pennsylvania lawmakers consider “look back” window
Around the U.S. in recent years, many states have opened legal “look back” windows during which expired civil cases of child sexual abuse can be revisited. California, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina are some good examples.
Through this mechanism, victims can file a civil case against an abuser or the institution for which they worked—regardless of how long ago the abuse took place. This has encouraged many adult survivors of institutional child sexual abuse (even from decades before) to come forward.
Despite past reticence to do so, the State of Pennsylvania is now considering a two-year look-back period in which victims can pursue civil cases with a constitutional amendment.
Pennsylvania dioceses’ settlements and compensation funds
Some adult survivors of child sexual abuse of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania have chosen to sue the dioceses through the state’s legal system. This has led to considerable settlements that have at least recognized the wrongdoing and helped the victims to draw a line under their ordeals.
Another avenue that has been open to survivors is seeking compensation through victim compensation funds. Pennsylvania has provided several opportunities for this, including the following funds:
- Allentown diocese
- Erie diocese
- Greensburg diocese
- Harrisburg diocese
- Philadelphia archdiocese
- Pittsburgh diocese
- Scranton diocese
Because many of these funds have been closed to new claimants in the past, it is best to check with an experienced child sexual abuse lawyer if you want to tell your story and are unsure about the options open to you.
If you or a loved one has been a victim of institutional abuse, contact the child sexual abuse lawyers at Andreozzi & Foote for a free and confidential consultation.