The news is filled with fallout from the Jerry Sandusky case. It seems that all of America is outraged that this man, entrusted with helping lead a football program at a leading university and administer a charity, molested young men who were under his influence for years without being brought to task for his crimes. Now that he's been convicted on 45 counts, there is a rush to label him - monster, the face of evil, etc.
For those who aren't aware, we are so blessed to live in Cherokee County. Since 1989, when a concerned group of citizens gathered to discuss ways to impact children affected by abuse, we have had an organization dedicated to being a voice for the children. Some of those involved initially included representatives from DFACS, the Sheriff's office, the District Attorney's office, educators, mental health professionals and private citizens. I was blessed to have the opportunity to be one of those private citizens, working side-by-side with some of the most creative, informed, dedicated advocates it's ever been my privilege to know.
Initially, the Cherokee County Council on Child Abuse, the name was changed to The Cherokee Child Advocacy Council, Inc. and preparations began to change the way abused children were offered the opportunity to tell their stories. Prior to opening the doors of the Anna Crawford Children's Center in 1990, any child in Cherokee County (or elsewhere) who told a mandated reporter of abuse was forced to repeat the story over and over, perhaps as many as 10-15 times to welfare, legal and medical professionals until such time as there was sufficient evidence and documentation to prosecute. Frequently, the children received no therapy at all during the process, despite the repeated trauma of having to re-live the incident(s) over and over and over. There is much medical documentation to support the damning effect of this repeated traumatization of the victim.
This wonderful group of citizens, after a presentation by the Georgia Council on Child Abuse, worked together to make a change - one that would have an incredible positive impact on the lives of children who had suffered from abuse.
From the Anna Crawford Children's Center website:
"The opening of the Anna Crawford Children’s Center dramatically transformed the system’s response to children who had experienced child abuse, especially in cases involving child sexual abuse. Now, children are interviewed a limited number of times (usually just once) by a trained professional in a neutral, child-friendly environment instead of repeatedly being interviewed in school classrooms and offices, police stations and interrogation rooms, hospital emergency rooms, child protective services offices, or in front of family members in their homes. Care, support and therapy for the child and family begin within days or even hours, instead of weeks or months, and continues for as long as necessary. Parent Mentors and Educators now go out in the homes, schools, churches and businesses to educate parents, caregivers and other adults in caretaking roles on how they can do their part to prevent, react and respond responsibly to child abuse. We are pleased to be able to offer these intervention and prevention services in English, Spanish and Portuguese, at no charge to the children and families."
The current statistics for childhood sexual abuse state that 1 in 4 girls will be abused before age 18 and 1 in 6 boys; however, only 1 out of 10 will tell. Telling is just the beginning. Even before telling, the child has to have awareness and acknowledge the abuse is real and few realize how difficult this is, especially is the abuse is at the hand of someone the child loves and trusts. There are so many steps to work through, and critical to the ability to proceed through the process is belief - belief on the part of the adults entrusted to ensure the child is protected. If there is any victory in the Sandusky case, the belief of the jury may be the overwhelming factor. It is the first step, for most victims, on the road to healing.
Much further along in the journey, there is another critical factor that is crucial to healing in almost any human circumstance of suffering or being wounded at the hand of another. The principle of forgiveness may be the final step, yet it is absolutely vital in terms of true healing.
My personal belief system allows me to embrace the idea that there is a Creator of the Universe who has all power with regard to judgment. Yes, we have a justice system, but honestly? What justice can be meted to children whose fundamental right to trust adults has been violated? Will locking the Jerry Sandusky's away for a lifetime restore the children's sense of self? Would his death do it? Not in my experience. It's a personal journey for each survivor, from hatred, resentment, bitterness and blame toward forgiveness.
It may take many a lifetime to get there. Others may be blessed more quickly with the ultimate healing. From experts at the Mayo Clinic to authorities at Psychology Today to exhortations from the Bible and other great spiritual literature - all give us the same outline. Hanging on to the hatred, resentment, bitterness and blame does nothing to harm the offenders. Holding on to the negative feelings harms the survivors and those whom the survivors love. This principle is applicable whether we're discussing bullying or having felt undeserved criticism from a loved one or abuse. When we embrace the bitterness, we tend to bring it with us into every relationship, every situation we encounter along life's journey. It poisons us and everything we touch. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, allowing us to remain in a state where we can believe that we are not worthy of love or trust or affection (and neither is anyone else!) because we are so enmeshed in our negative emotions. The physical consequences can be depression, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, higher blood pressure, on and on.
Most people have a self-righteous indignation over the thought of forgiving something as heinous as childhood sexual abuse. I used to feel that way as well. However, I finally was taught the truth that would free me from a lifetime of my own prisonhood. Forgiveness isn't about excusing the behaviors of the perpetrator - it doesn't deny the other person hurt you and it doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. Forgiveness can occur without excusing the act. Forgiveness releases the survivor from the cycle of bitterness and despair and allows a moving forward toward life and the living of it, fully and with joy.
How do we, as adults, encourage the principle of forgiveness? I'm certainly not an expert, but I've been learning a lot about forgiveness over the past few decades, and here are some of the gems I've unearthed.
- Forgiveness begins with me. As someone who held onto bitterness, anger and resentment for nearly a lifetime, so much of it was self-directed. Like most people, I embraced the idea that I must have "done something" to encourage the wrongs done to me. Once I released the idea that anything done to me as a child was my fault, I was in a position to look at forgiveness from another angle.
- As an adult, I had to look honestly at myself in the mirror and be ready to see that the cloak of "victim" I had worn as proudly as a badge of honor was indeed killing me. Worse yet, it was damaging the people I loved in so many ways, I can't even count. What was I to do? I finally became willing to honestly assess my own behaviors, as painful as it might be, and look squarely at where I had done harm.
- Once I had the awareness of how much harm I had done over the years, the question arose of how the cycle could be broken. Granted, I had not physically abused or sexually abused my children or anyone else. However, there was an undercurrent of rage in my heart that could explode into verbal assaults at any time. I knew I had to ask for help. The volunteers at the Cherokee County Council on Child Abuse, even in 1990, were ever so willing to help me learn new methods of discipline, both for myself and in working with children, family and friends. In this sense, discipline is about the wider definition of the word, ranging from self-control to the traditional idea of correcting wrong behaviors.
- Acknowledging my own damage enabled me to look at the resentments I was holding onto in a different light. I remember distinctly wanting my loved ones to find a way to forgive me for my rage and the other behaviors that I used to push people away, rather than draw them close. Like many Christians, I say the Lord's Prayer daily. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" had a whole new meaning. I saw the light with regard to the spiritual truth that if I was going to hold onto all that bitterness, I couldn't much expect to find forgiveness and even I knew that I hadn't set out in life to hurt those I loved. Perhaps those who had hurt me hadn't intended to do so either. I'm not taking away that I was hurt. It happened. But was it a deliberate, evil, cruel act? Or was it the byproduct of someone else having been hurt along the way? These questions led to the next step.
- The cycle of self-examination has continued, since that first admission that I was "broken" in 1990. Today, after a 22 year journey, I understand that famous quote, attributed to various authors, "Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." In my childish mind, for years I thought I had some unique spin on having been hurt. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It's a well-known fact that people who have been hurt often turn out to be people who hurt others. This has helped me embrace another spiritual truth - which is that almost everyone has suffered something in their lifetime which might trigger unacceptable behavior. In 2012, I look at the people who hurt me as being spiritually sick, just as I have been, and I am filled with compassion, wondering who hurt them and if they made a decision to hurt me or if it was the byproduct of their own abuse. I don't need to know the answer. It allows me to forgive. That's all that matters.
- The most important lesson has been the freedom of my own soul, once I was able to move into forgiveness phase. I am free to love and be loved. I am free to explore all relationships in a manner I never thought I would, coming from a standpoint of what can I give rather than focusing on what I might or might not receive. I have been released from the self-imposed prison of victimhood and catapulted into a fourth dimension of life in which there are no limits to what can be achieved, provided I follow the dictates of a forgiving heart and the guidance of my Creator.
There is no way I could really thank everyone who has helped me on this journey. Like most people who are hurt as children, even in adulthood I sought out abusive relationships because they were familiar ... comfortable ... and safe. I knew what to do if someone was hurting me. It took a village of people to work with my wounded heart, mind, body and soul and help me learn the value of forgiveness.
When I showed up on the doorstep of the folks putting together the Child Advocacy Center in 1990, I was just beginning to be aware that I needed help. Mary Migliario, Anna Crawford, Roger Garrison, Garry Moss, and so many others were instrumental in showing me how one could use one's personal tragedies to help others in need. From the time they started me on the journey, so many others have contributed. As I said, it's a process. Today, I'm so grateful to be living a life relatively free from all that bitterness and I know, without question, that it is true what "they" say. Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
I'm living a free, full, wonderful life in 2012, thanks to the guidance of my Creator and earthly angels who felt it appropriate to reach out to a wounded spirit - mine. My prayer is that the survivors of Jerry Sandusky's abuse, and all others who have been hurt by someone, can find the same release through the grace of God, loving family and friends, and the principle of forgiveness.
For Mary, Anna and the gang, I'd like to end with a quote that we used to use on all our literature:
A hundred years from now no one will remember how much money I had in the bank or what kind of car I drove or what kind of job I had. But I will be remembered as someone special because I made a difference in the life of a child.
With a grateful heart, this "child" thanks you for leading me toward a path of healing and hope, a path that included being a part of something very special, right here in Cherokee County.
Author's note: for more information (services, donations or volunteer opportunities) on The Cherokee Child Advocacy Council, Inc., please go to http://cherokeechildadvocates.org/ or call 770-345-8100.