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Health and Spirituality Department

Please remember, this column is designed to help the consumer seeking behavioral-health information, and not intended to be any form of psychotherapy or a replacement for professional, individualized services. Opinions expressed in the column are those of the columnist and do not represent the position of other SelfhelpMagazine.com staff.


I am a member of a support group for adult survivors of incest. Someone else in our group says that incest survivors have spiritual issues as well as psychological ones. How so?


First of all, good for you for facing the past and healing from it. That is an act of courage, one which many people avoid out of fear.

Many incest survivors were raised within a religious context and were taught to believe in an all-loving God. When facing the reality of the abuse, some survivors react in one of two ways:

1. anger at God for apparently permitting the abuse or

2. guilt and shame based on the belief that God permitted the abuse because the individual somehow was "bad". Such thoughts and feelings can obviously have a devastating effect throughout life.

Spiritual issues can also arise if the perpetrator of the abuse was male. Given that most of us are raised with a presentation of God as male, the experience of abuse by a male can result in a God whom one may be afraid of approaching. In other words, the image of the abuser gets in the way of the survivor's image of God.

Finally, if you were abused by an actual member of the clergy, obviously this can give raise to confusion and anger. The survivor can again feel betrayed not only by the clergy person but by the religion standing behind that person and by the God whom that person supposedly represented.

None of these issues are easy. Several survivors have childhood incest have given me some insights:

1. Sometimes the healing process includes a healing of the survivor's image of God. Some survivors, for example, have found it helpful to reflect on and even to generate an image representing the feminine side of God.

2. I for one have no answer as to why God permits the sexual abuse of children. Answers about free will or the work of the devil provide little comfort. Following Fr. Henri Nouwen, however, some persons have found comfort and healing with the idea that sometimes we need to forgive God!

3. We have talked about anger toward God elsewhere in this column. It is important to vent the anger. God can take it.

4. Finally, particularly when the survivor was abused by a clergy person, there may be a need for accountability. One woman, for example, found some healing when she met with a priest who, while he was not the abuser, spoke as a representative of the church involved in expressing deep sorrow and in exploring how the woman might pursue holding the abuser accountable. Such acknowledgment of a wrong done by a fellow clergy person had some impact.

The journey of healing from the incest wound is a long one. If the survivor is able to find his or her way back to a God whom he/she may feel abandoned him/her at another point in time, that resource of faith and comfort can sometimes ease that survivor's way along the road of recovery.


Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.


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