Suffer the Little Children

In August, Daniel R. Ferris, a volunteer Sunday School teacher in Millbury, Massachusetts, confessed to sexually abusing six children in his United Church of Christ congregation. The children liked Mr. Ferris. Their parents respected him. And the church trusted him enough to allow him to teach its youngsters about God.   One month before Ferris's arrest, Waterbury, Connecticut police arrested another trusted individual-their mayor, Philip Giordano, 38, a respected lawyer and former Marine. Giordano was charged with two counts of "sexual activity" involving a child.   Every day, it seems, there are reports like this. Is this an epidemic? And what is sexual abuse? It is any sexual touch by force, trickery, or bribery between two people where there is an imbalance of age, size, power, or knowledge. Most victims are between the ages of eight and thirteen years old, boys as well as girls. Child sexual abuse is a problem within secular society and within the Christian community as well.   We are shocked, disgusted, and embarrassed by adults who abuse children sexually. Yet our society has long tried to ignore and hide this dark problem. It wasn't until 1871 that a group formed in the United States to oppose the abuse of children. In 1866, when adoptive parents abused little Mary Ellen Wilson, there was nobody other than the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to intervene!   A new study released in September by the University of Pennsylvania reports that child sexual exploitation in North America is far more widespread than previously documented. In the United States, the study reports, 325,000 children are subjected to sexual exploitation each year.   "The magnitude of the problem is really something that is not understood," said Professor Richard J. Estes, one of the study's researchers.   Sexual abuse is unlike any other childhood abuse. It is degrading, painful, and confusing to a child. And it robs a child of a childhood-which, once lost, can never be recovered. Childhood sexual abuse leaves its young victims suffering a deep sense of shame, guilt, and worthlessness. It leaves a permanent scar.   Victims of child sexual abuse often develop sexual problems themselves, either promiscuity or asexuality. They may deal with numerous other problems including eating disorders, low self-esteem, and difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. Sexual abuse is such a horrifying violation of a child that it is almost impossible to ever erase the damage done.   Who are the sexual abusers of America's children? The answer may startle you. The new study reports that only 4 percent of sexual assaults on children are committed by strangers. The child's own relatives are responsible for 47 percent of all sexual assaults. And acquaintances of the child, like a teacher, a coach, or a neighbor, commit 49 percent of all sexual abuses. In other words, most abused children know, love, and trust the people who sexually molest them.   People like Daniel Ferris, the Sunday School teacher in Millbury, Massachusetts. People like Philip Giordano, the former mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut.   Understanding the problem is the first step of responsibly dealing with it.       For further reading:   Laurie Goodstein, "Child Sex Case Brings Battle on Admission to Clerics," CNN Online, Aug. 31, 2001.   "Mayor Arrested on Sexually-Related Charges Involving Child," CNN Online, July 26, 2001.   "Children's Sexual Exploitation Underestimated, Study Finds," The New York Times, September 10, 2001.   Denise George, God's Heart, God's Hands: Reaching Out to Hurting Women (New Hope Publishers, 1998), pp. 91- 96.    


Chuck Colson


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