The Trauma Inflicted by Child Sex Predators

I am prompted to compose this article for two primary reasons. First, I live in a Catholic Diocese (Altoona-Johnstown, PA) where a grand jury report very recently exposed that over four decades, over 50 priests and other church officials have harbored, protected, and enabled the victimization and mortification of hundreds of innocent children and youth in our community. Second, an article appearing in the New York Times written by Frank Bruni and published this past week, explores the impact of child sex predators in the Boston, Mass. Archdiocese.

These incidents are revealed in the searing and troubling movie Spotlight. This movie’s focus is on the very courageous efforts of investigative journalists to expose the wide complicity of many in that community who protected these predators. The article is entitled “The Catholic Churches Sins Are Ours”.

In Bruni’s article, he highlights how “churches benefit from the American Way of giving religion a free pass”. He ends his article by indicating that “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”!

My intent here is to discuss the clinical impact of this type of abuse by focusing what happens to these innocent victims. In a previously published article appearing on BrainBlogger, I offer a profile of a serial preferred predator in my area: Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State Scandal still rocking our community.

I am guided in my clinical focus by Erik Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, Abraham Maslow’s needs hierarchy, and Judith Herman who published a book in 1992, Trauma and Recovery. I present here the accumulative damage of lifelong development of this kind of trauma.

In psychology and other related social sciences, we recognize the abuse of children commences at a very vulnerable age, takes multiple forms, and continues well through adolescence. Judith Herman highlights three prominent themes of abuse: terror, psychosocial disconnection, and captivity.

In regards to child sexual abuse, we know that these predators choose vulnerable children and families and spend tremendous time “grooming” them before betraying them multiple times. The end result for the victim is mortification, a term offered by the sociologist Erving Goffman. I call this psychosocial death. The final stage in my deconstruction of a self is suicide. And we know that in our church community a number of these victims have, in fact, killed themselves.

I now walk the reader through Eric Erickson’s psychosocial stages. All of us proceed through these stages: trust or mistrust; autonomy or doubt or shame; initiative or guilt; industry or inferiority; identity or role confusion; intimacy or isolation; generavity or stagnation; integrity or despair; and transcendence and joy or dread and decay. In my own work I’ve added role diffusion in stage five of Erickson’s paradigm based on my clinical experiences with victims.

Maslow highlights our essential human needs on a hierarchy. At the base level are essential survival needs such as food, water and physical protection. The next level entails psychosocial safety and security. Affiliation and affection are prominent themes at the next level. Recognition and approval are prime themes in level four. At the peak of our human development is self-actualization that entails becoming the best persons we can possibly be.

I am a faculty member in psychology and community counseling at Mount Aloysius College. When we discuss child abuse, I assign my students a critical analysis of abuse as it pertains to the psychosocial and essential needs perspectives. So now I lead the readers through this analysis.

This kind of abuse results in the following: pervasive amounts of mistrust, doubt and shame, guilt, inferiority, role diffusion, isolation, stagnation, despair, and dread and decay. In other words, they become significantly developmentally arrested; and none of this is their fault!

As per Maslow, they experience unmet safety needs, they experience little or no affection and affiliation, little or no recognition or approval, and will likely never experience self-actualization. Their experience also involves multiple betrayals at multiple levels by those who are supposed to protect them from harm; and none of this is their fault!

Sociologists discuss the various roles we enact. With each role comes responsibilities, obligations, and duties. I hope that some of our child victims will read this article and realize that none of this is their fault!


Bruni, F. (4 November 2016). The Catholic Church’s Sins Are Ours. New York Times. Accessed online 7 March 2016.

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery.. Basic Books.

Image via Meewezen Photography / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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