Counseling Parents Accused of Sexual Abuse by their Children

The September 1992 issue of Perspectives caught my eye. Its focus was on child sexual abuse, which seems to be a growing epidemic in our sexually distorted culture. The article by Kathi Carino was of particular interest because her story so closely parallels that of two young ladies I know. I’ll let Kathi tell her own story:

I was born into a very committed Christian family—my grandparents were all Christians; my father’s only brother and his entire family are Christians; my mother is a Christian; my father is a Christian; my brothers are all Christians; my sister is a Christian; I am a Christian. Four out of the five siblings in my family attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

In my extended family, the term  Christian meant that you had to have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. It meant that you were an active member of a conservative, evangelistic, gospel-preaching church,…that you prayed every day at least once; that you read your Bible in a daily devotional time.

Why have I documented my family’s faith? I want to provide for you a real, live example of an incest survivor who grew up in a model Christian home…I have always loved my parents, and until the past several years I thought of them as the ideal-involved, nurturing, cheerful and spiritual. I enjoyed family gatherings and looked forward to every opportunity to be with them….

My mother describes my father as someone with a heart so soft he would bring injured birds home in his hat and try to nurse them back to health. She talks about how he used to sing to my brothers and sister and me while rocking us to sleep. I remember his praying with us each night when he tucked us into bed, and I can almost feel the warmth of his arm around me as he read about Rudyard Kipling’s “great, grey, green, greasy banks of the Limpopo River.”

But there is another side to my father. It is that side of him responsible for my dark room. That side of my father took me into the basement where he stripped me naked and whipped me with his belt before raping me. That side of my father literally stuck long hat pins through my wrists and into the mattress of my bed while he played doctor with his pocket knife on the most intimate part of my body. That side of my father dressed me like a saloon girl at age ten and took pictures of me while a young man “made love” to me. That side of my father took my siblings and me to some sort of club filled with depraved men who found pleasure in discovering innovative ways to torture and violate children.

I lived with the secrets of that dark room in my mind, never telling anyone until long after I became a happily married mother of four children. Then, with my husband Stephen in seminary and four active, needy little children, my present life began to consume so much energy there was not enough left over to keep the dark little room locked. More and more information began to leak out of it and bother me…My neat, peaceful life grew increasingly chaotic, and I began emotionally to slip away from Stephen and my children (Carino, Perspectives, pp.9–11).


The second person whose story I want to share with you I’ll call Susan. Her name has been changed to protect the innocent, just as Kathi Carino has used a fictitious name to protect her family. Susan is a 36 year-old divorced mother of one child who is currently participating in three different “support” or therapy groups.

Susan has lived a troubled life and is a product of a broken home. At age 13 she got started in the drug culture and then turned to prostitution to finance her habit. There was a running war with her parents, with little agreement as to how to discipline this rebellious young girl. Within two years the marriage of her parents was on the rocks, and Susan took off. At age fifteen she had run away from home and was gone for approximately six months. One day, in desperation, she called her mother. Her brain was fried. Her life was a cesspool, but she wanted help. Family members admitted her to an adolescent psychiatric ward where she stayed another six months. The parents were poor as church mice, but they visited her faithfully. Gradually the relationships were restored so that bonds of love and trust were once again evident, not only with the mother, but also the father, who by this time had remarried and was trying to establish himself in business.

In the early ‘80’s Susan went through a marriage and divorce herself, but became the proud mother of a beautiful daughter in the process. Both grandpa and grandma treated little Jenny as the apple of their eye, making repeated trips to be with her. Relationships were warm, loving and supportive from all reports and indicators, at least they were until May of 1992. Suddenly everything went sour.

In May and early June, Susan “started to regain her memory,” something that had been “repressed” for 32 years. Now, with increasing clarity and conviction, she began to believe that she had been raped and sexually molested when she was one, two and three years of age. Slowly, steadily she started to “recall” those incidents where her father would molest her while her mother would play the piano loudly so that her two older sisters would not hear her screams. With the help of her therapist and her support groups, she began to “uncover her past.” Firmly convinced of her story, she emphatically insisted that her father and her mother never see her again and never try to contact their beloved granddaughter. At first, there was no explanation for this unexpected behavior, leaving the parents in an absolute quandary. Then in June the charges were made: “You abused me sexually when I was a baby. I am going to sue you for every dime you have.”

First the mother came to me, and then the father, both deeply disturbed and badly in need of advice. Both knew that I had taught educational psychology for over twenty years and had edited some books on the subject of epistemology, or the study of the learning process. Could I help?

My first reaction was one of total surprise. I knew this couple well and had lived in their home during my college days, in fact, the very years which covered the supposed actions by the parents. For years and years, because of low income, this family had boarded one or two students in a back bedroom to help pay the rent. I was one of those renters and sometimes babysat their three daughters for them. A number of other students occupied that back bedroom in subsequent years.

The charges were, on the face of them, preposterous, almost laughable. In the first place, the family never had a piano during those early years of their marriage. Secondly, the older sisters have absolutely no recollections of anything like this ever occurring. They view their sister as once again experiencing mental and emotional difficulties. But Susan sticks to her story and continues to make threats about publicly exposing her parents and filing damage suits against her father who is now quite wealthy.


Were Kathi’s and Susan’s complaints isolated incidents, or are we experiencing a growing epidemic of child sexual abuse? According to a recent report from the Child Protection Center in Sioux City, Iowa, there have been 1100 cases of child sexual abuse reported to their office in the last three years. They estimate that one out of every four females in the surrounding area have been victims of child sexual abuse (KTIV, March 30, 1993). In June 1992, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) received and debated a report that is even more alarming in its numbers. According to that report, One thousand adult members of the CRC were mailed questionnaires, and six hundred forty-three returned them. Among the respondents, 12 percent reported having experienced physical abuse or neglect, 13 percent reported sexual abuse, and 19 percent reported emotional abuse. The total abuse prevalence rate was found to be 28 percent, or more than one in four, a rate that the study says is comparable to the rate of abuse found in the general population. In other words, being a church member has no effect on one’s likelihood of having experienced abuse in one form or another (Van Wyk Phillips, p. 7). These sets of figures, both from the Sioux City report and from the synodical study submitted to the CRC, if anywhere near accurate, should be a cause for serious alarm. If they are accurate, we have major spiritual problems of historical standing, not only in society at large, but also in a denomination which has long prided itself on its orthodoxy and its presumably biblical lifestyle.

If the figures are not accurate, and there is good reason to believe that they are skewed badly, then we also have a serious crisis. Then we are confronted with very biased interpretation of data, with possible scare tactics, and with bureaucrats who may be operating from prejudicial agendas. We also face the probability that many persons are being falsely accused, that families are being needlessly tom apart, and that our judicial system is being circumvented by the bureaucracy of our social welfare system.

Consider the following:

1. The respondents in the CRC survey were all adults. This would imply that the abuse occurred at least 15, 20 or more years ago, long before the sexual revolution occurred and before pornography became easily accessible. The abusers, by sheer arithmetic, would have to be the persons in the 50–70 age bracket, which translates into the current male leadership in most conservative churches, the ones who tend to have wealth and power.

2. The sets of figures given us by the two sources cited above are statistically far apart. The Child Protection Center claims that one of every four females (25 %) has been the victim of sexual abuse. The CRC study reports that 13 percent of the total adults responding reported sexual abuse. Assuming that at least one-half of these respondents were female, that would mean that 6 to 7 percent of the CRC females reported sexual abuse. That translates to one-fourth or one-third of the number reported by the Sioux City agency. These numbers certainly do not complement each other, yet both claimed that their figures represented a cross section of society as a whole.

3. The set of figures reported by the CRC study committee included the category of physical abuse which allowed the respondent to reason positively if he or she had been subject to corporal punishment as a child. By including the recipients of spanking in the abused category, the figures should have been much higher. I, my wife, and all of our children would have had to include ourselves as abused if we had been surveyed. To consider spanking as abuse does little justice to God’s Word which reminds us that “He who spares the rod hates his son” (Pr.13:24; d. Pro 22:15; 23:13; 29:15; Heb. 12:5–13). If the figures from the CRC study are to be considered reliable, then an institution like Calvin College should expect 28 % of its student body, or approximately 1120 students, to be victims of abuse, walking time-bombs in need of psychological care. Within the organization known as Christian Schools International, there should be at least 26,000 students in grades K–12 waiting to discover their abused past.The latter figures trouble me a great deal since I was a Christian school administrator for ten years and cannot recall the teachers ever reporting more than a handful of cases where sexual abuse or physical abuse was even suspected. There were a few instances of suspicion, and those were reported, as teachers are required to do, but there was never anything of the magnitude suggested by the synodical study report.


We are in the midst of a sex-crazed culture. No one can deny that. We can’t go to the grocery store without passing through a check-out counter lined with bare-breasted magazine covers. We cannot visit the pharmacist without having to stare at forty-two varieties of condoms. Television bravely shows full-frontal nudity and fornication during prime time, while during prime time, while comic strips attempt to glamorize the homosexual life-style. Sex has become one of America’s gods. Little wonder then, that there are increasing numbers of perverts who will do almost anything to get sexual gratification. Sometimes the ones seduced by Satan are otherwise godly men who fall prey to the allurement of their own children’s bodies. When such happens, tragedy magnifies itself and seeps into ensuing generations.

The problem we face as pastors and as elders is one of discernment. When are we being confronted with legitimate complaints from legitimate victims, and when are we be-ing confronted with false accusations? How do we tell the difference? How do we decide to seek help for a sinful offender, and how do we determine when we have on our hands a case of wrongful allegation

If we go back to the cases of Kathi and Susan, we have classic examples of what has been labeled as the “false memory syndrome.” With the assistance of “therapists” and support groups, the individual begins to “remember” things of which they had no previous knowledge or recollection. Often this “memory” creates a picture of which the individual had no prior knowledge and one which other family members insist has no basis in fact. In cases of false accusation, not only is there complete absence of corroboration by other family members (remember that Kathi claimed that her father took her “and her siblings…to some sort of club filled with depraved men”), but there is also complete absence of physical evidence (remember the “long hat pins through her wrists”). Still another warning sign of false accusation lies in whether the one indicted has the opportunity to face the accuser and whether the child and the parent accused ever have the opportunity to be interviewed together. In a very helpful article by Faller, et. al., p. 552, it is reported that:

In a national survey of 212 sexual abuse specialists, Conte and colleagues found that 96% of the respondents usually do not interview the child in the presence of the alleged offender. Moreover, the guidelines of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (1990) recommend that such interviews should not be used to determine the accuracy of the allegation, but only to aid in assessing the parent-child relationship.

As early as 1984, the American Medical Association became involved in this controversy, unanimously adopting a motion to “study the subject of refreshing recollection by the use of hypnosis of witnesses and victims of crime.” The following year they accepted their committee’s report which said in summary:

The Council finds that recollections obtained during hypnosis can involve confabulations and pseudo-memories and not only fail to be more accurate, but actually appear to be less reliable than non-hypnotic recall. The use of hypnosis with witnesses and victims may have serious consequences for the legal process when testimony is based on material that is elicited from a witness who has been hypnotized for the purpose of refreshing recollection (False Memory Syndrome Phenomenon, p. 30).


Whether the above studies and figures are accurate, or whether they are grossly distorted, we have a problem that we cannot ignore. If the figures are correct, we all must have a large number of abusers and abused in our congregations. If the figures are not correct, we will still be faced with a number of parents and families in our congregations who have been falsely accused.



Both groups will need our attention, but neither group will come forward voluntarily. Almost no father, I suspect, who has been accused of sexual assault by his daughter, is going to come to the pastor or to an elder and reveal that kind of information. The last thing such persons want is for that kind of accusation to become public or even discreetly spread in a consistory room. In the two families that I am currently counseling, one will not even share the information with immediate family members. To be accused in our culture is to be presumed guilty. To be publicly accused is to invite a no-win court case, a definite demise of business prospects, family disaster and ostracism by the congregation.

If there is a genuine instance of sexual abuse, there will be an even stronger desire to keep the matter a secret. Known offenders usually threaten or cajole their victims into silence by varieties of threats and promises. Public disclosure of their heinous crimes will frequently land them in jail with little sympathy from the judicial system. Recent issues of The Rocky Mountain News (Scanlon, Sept. 13–15, 1992), the Reader’s Digest (Armbristor, April, 1993) and the Wall Street Journal (Gardner, Feb. 22, 1993, p. A10) all suggest that the legal protections against false accusation are weakest where child sexual molestation is alleged.

As shepherds over the flocks that God has entrusted to our care, both elders and pastors need to address the problem. Let me suggest some strategies to consider.

1. Become informed. There is an increasing amount of information available on this subject in current periodicals and in daily newspapers. Some of the articles will be obviously biased, while others will be balanced and thoughtful. One of the best sources of information is the FMS Foundation, noted in the bibliography. Their packet of materials contains helpful reports from the American Medical Association, from numerous newspapers around the country and from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Another very helpful and balanced source of information is the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry found in many college libraries.

2. Alert your congregation. As information becomes available, let your congregation know that the consistory is studying the problems involved in this matter and that it encourages abusers or those falsely accused to contact the pastor for help. With both types of problems, the law of love is being seriously violated and in need of correction.

3. Ask lots of questions. If someone should come to your office requesting counseling either for themselves or for someone else, wisdom demands that you get many questions answered before you make a decision as to guilt or innocence. In initial phases it would be well for the pastor to invite into the conversation a trusted elder or colleague. To presume innocence or guilt without adequate basis could spell future troubles for all involved.

4. Do not be afraid to make referrals to trusted Christian counselors. Until a pastor has gained some insight into the nature of the false memory syndrome, and into the mode of operation by many child welfare agencies, there is a strong possibility of misreading the signals being sent. Keep in mind the risks of public disclosure and of antagonizing the welfare staff. Once a complaint becomes public information, there is almost no way to avoid a no-win situation. All of us need to put ourselves into the shoes of an innocent couple who has been wrongly accused by a son or daughter of sexual molestation. That kind of trauma can be akin to murder, with the victim still walking around, unable to seek help for a mortal wound. One of my counselees has described the pain as comparable to that of divorce with no hope for reconciliation. When such trouble comes to one of our parishioners, we must reach out in love, with understanding and with compassion. We must also encourage the victims to reach out for support to the members of their immediate family, the ones who have the greatest obligation to uphold the innocent victim. Such reaching out may at first be very difficult, but it is far superior to the support or therapy groups organized by secular, civic agencies. In many instances, such “support” groups contribute more to the problem than to the cure.


Alyn, Jody H. and Margaret L. Duncombe. “Child Abuse Allegations,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 59, # 2, April, 1989, pp.313–4.

Armbrister, Trevor. “When Parents Become Victims,” Reader’s Digest. April. 1993, pp. 101–106.

Carino, Kathi. “A Dark Room in My Mind.” Perspectives. Vol. 7, No.7. Sept. 1992. pp. 9–12.

Conte, Jon R., “Evaluating Children’s Reports of Sexual Abuse: Results From a Survey of Professionals.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 61, #3, July, 1991, pp. 428–437.

Daly, Lawrence W. and J. Frank Pacifico, “Opening The Doors To The Post: Decode Delayed Disclosure of Memories of Years Gone By,” Champion Magazine, December 1991, pp. 43–47.

Dawes, Robyn M. “Bioses of Retrospection,” Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 1991, Vol. I, No.3, pp.25–28.

Dunsmore, Richard A., M.D. and Lillan D. Dunsmore, M.D. “Letter to the Editor,” The Wall Street Journal, March 1993.

Faller, Kathleen Coulborn, at. al. “The Parent-Child Interview: Use in Evaluating Child Allegations of Sexual Abuse by the Parent,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 61, #4, October 1991, pp. 552–557.

False Memory Syndrome Phenomenon. Philadelphia: FMS Foundation. 1992, 41 pp. This is a compilation of reprints from numerous newspapers. magazines and journals, with original citations. Complete pockets of information can be gotten from: FMS Foundation, 3508 Market Street. Suite 128, Philodelphia, PA 19104, Ph. #215-387-1865.

FMS Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 2, # 1, January 8, 1993, 16 pp.

Gardner, Richard A., M.D. “Modern Witch Hunt-ChiId Abuse Charges.” The Wall Street Journal, February 22, 1993. p. A10.