Acknowledging domestic and child abuse is a (very) recent phenomenon

One would be forgiven for thinking that Western society has been combating child and domestic violence for some time. Given the virulent outrage against the Catholic Church's harboring and protection of pedophiles, the daily prosecution of child abusers of all kinds, the increasing public awareness of child pornography and child trafficking, it might seem that what we are seeing is the culmination of decades of intense investigation. This is not the case, unfortunately.

Prior to 1971, when the first rape crisis center opened in New York City, these issues of domestic and child abuse were deemed too unimportant to be dealt with. Abuse was an unspoken and invisible social fact rarely noticed and seldom acted upon. It was not until 1975 that a center for the research into rape was created in the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

Before the recent advent of feminism, women were thought to subconsciously desire rape; children also. Child sexual abuse was blamed on children seducing adults, a fallacy repeated right to the 1980's by Richard Gardner MD, an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who defended accused fathers in court. The incest-molested child was regarded as an accomplice to the father's abuse rather than a victim.

This attitude changed abruptly with the launch of women's and civil rights movements 1970's when the subject of abuse was brought kicking and screaming to the forefront of society's attention. These abused women and children were shown to be real victims, capable of suffering the life-long psychological effects of post traumatic stress to the same intensity as combat veterans.

You might rationalize that for whatever reason, societies lack of awareness was due to the patriarchal suppression of women and you would be correct. One might also suppose that society wasn't sufficiently mature or that mental health research was not sufficiently advanced to recognize these issues until the social uplifts in the 1970s. You'd be wrong; dead wrong.

One hundred and fourteen years ago in 1896, Sigmund Freud, the renowned father of psychoanalysis, delivered a paper to his contemporaries in Vienna; a thesis entitled 'The Aetiology (Cause) of Hysteria.' It was the result of his research into then popular notion of neurosis observed in women and children, referred to in his day as 'hysteria.' Many theories were put forward to explain hysteria, none as poignant or as relevant as his. His thesis presented the results of his conversations with women where he - and they - delved deeply into their pasts and childhoods. The results showed that he hit the proverbial nail on the head.

In his paper he stated that 'at the bottom of every case of hysteria (neurosis) there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psycho-analysis in spite of the intervening decades.' This description was so accurate and is so relevant today that it needs no updating.

Freud was proud of his accomplishment, he thought of it as one of his great achievements. His contemporaries however did not. His thesis was met with silence not acclaim.

Freud realized the social implications of his findings, that child abuse - the basis of 'hysteria' - was endemic; a terrifying reality. Further promotion of this thesis would have meant that he, his clients and society would have to tackle this unwelcome issue, a task they clearly did not want to embrace.

It would also have meant that Freud would have had to acknowledge that many of his client's problems were rooted in abuse. That his livelihood depended on their favorable support and funding was not lost on him. So he filed his thesis, turned his back on the women he was working with and nothing more was done about the subject of abuse for nearly 70 years. Out of this wreckage Freud created psychoanalysis.

Throughout the 1900's it was thought that child abusers, (pedophiles, rapists, molesters) when caught and confronted, were suffering from a malady capable of being cured through therapy; a viewpoint that lingers even today in some elements of society. This attitude is clearly highlighted in the way that the Catholic Church, throughout its history either sent their offending priests to therapy, or more likely, moved them to another parish. Indeed molestation of girls was considered by some in the church to be normal curiosity for a priest, while the molestation of boys was regarded as obscene. *

Today we realize that rape and child sexual abuse are crimes; crimes that rate as highly as murder in their seriousness. The long term consequences can deprive the victim of quality and meaning in their lives. It is a psychological murder, relived by some victims daily as they try to makes sense of what has happened to them.

Rape of adults has been punished harshly since the 1970s as society acknowledged the severity of it as a crime of abject violence. Child rape however still languishes as a punishable offence as, for whatever reasons, some legal and mental health professionals try to understand the motivation of the abuser (were they abused themselves as children? etc).

While commendable in its intent this thinking does the child victims a tremendous disservice. Abusers can only benefit from any disparity or debate about their behavior as they desperately seek to add sympathy to their cases prior to their sentencing. They cast themselves as victims; victims of society, of a misunderstood sexuality ('I loved the child'), victims of their childhood. Nothing justifies their criminal behavior. And in the scheme of things it devalues the real victims; children.

This trend toward understanding is reflected in the poor sentencing guidelines still found in some Western countries. One can take Ireland as an example where many abusers get off with a slap on the wrist and a thoroughly good giving out to from the judge. And after they serve their sentence they're free to roam the streets again unhindered, the public unprotected, the victims at risk once again.

The United States is at the forefront of dealing with these offenders having realized just how dangerous these predators are. The tough sentencing guidelines, in which the prisoners lose their rights (replaced by earned privileges), acknowledge that they serve no purpose to or in society, are at life-long risk of re-offending and are completely untreatable. Justice in America sides very much with the victim, just as it should. Debates about the circumstances of the abusers are welcome, after they are locked up.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that these offenders may be locked up indefinitely after they have completed their prison sentences; which means that they may never be released. These offenders and those who qualify to leave jail, or who have been deemed not to be at risk of re-offending, are recorded for life on publicly accessible internet-based sex offender lists.

In certain U.S. states they already keep sex offenders incarcerated after their prison term is finished. This is done through a civil process under the guise of providing treatment but it is really designed to protect the public. For those concerned that this may lead to the unauthorized extended imprisonment of other offenders, it won't. It simply affirms that sex offenders are incorrigible predators and ranks them with murderers and serial killers among those who should never see the light of day. One by one U.S. states are lifting the statute of limitation time limits for the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases so that victims who seek justice as they get older may do so.

On a final note it is worth pointing out that a century prior to Freud's investigation and findings, the Catholic Church had a more direct way of dealing with the 'hysteria' of abused women and children; they burned them at the stake.

Trauma & Recovery: Judith. Herman MD
Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists: Anna. C. Salter PhD
* Nancy Sloan, victim of Irish pedophile Fr. Oliver O'Grady, recounts this comment from Monsignor Cain in Los Angeles when she questioned Cain about the churches knowledge that she and other were being abused in the 1970s. (Deliver Us from Evil - video - time stamp 23:43, directed by Amy Berg)

About the writer:
Evin Daly is the CEO and founder of One Child International Inc./Child AbuseWatch, a U.S.-based world child advocacy organization. .