Adults Must Act to Avert Child Abuse

By S. Renee Mitchell
The Oregonian [Portland OR]
November 10, 2005

T he Rev. Matt Hennessee will get past this difficult moment. Eventually.

He will probably regain the trust of many of those who respect and admire all that he has accomplished in the Portland area.

As Hennessee did with his troubled upbringing, he will probably extract whatever lessons that God is trying to teach him and use it for good.

He will survive.

But if Hennessee had his way, no one would know that he was accused of sexually abusing a close relative for several years, starting when she was 12 or 13.

Whatever happened is a private matter, he and his church members say. It was 15 years ago. He has earned forgiveness.

"We don't know what's going on, but whatever it is, we are for him," says Charlene Young, who has been a member of Hennessee's church in inner North Portland on and off since 1956. "We don't feel like he's done anything wrong."

But forgiveness is not the same as absolution. Not when a young woman might be forever haunted by what Hennessee acknowledges was "inappropriate exposure and poor judgment."

Sexual abuse happens when a child is touched, rubbed or talked to in sexual ways. And it's against the law, whether charges are filed or not.

Yet, we often choose to ignore the truth about child sexual abuse because it's too painful to face head-on. And it's the community's preference to keep the skeletons buried that allow so many children to be taken advantage of by those they love and trust.

Commonly cited statistics say up to one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18. The median age for sexual abuse is just 9 years.

And more than 90 percent of the time, children are abused by someone they know; 34 percent of the abuse is done by family members.

"I don't think people in the community understand how often sexual abuse happens," says Kevin Dowling, program manager for Cares Northwest, the only Portland clinic specializing in diagnosing child abuse. "In the course of a few months, we'll see what's the equivalent of the population of a local elementary school."

At least 1,400 children are referred to the center each year by law enforcement, health care providers or government agencies. At least three-fourths have been sexually abused.

And yet, not all children will tell or exhibit obvious signs that someone is taking advantage of their innocence. If we, as adults, aren't honest about what's going on in our homes and communities, how can we expect children -- who lack the worldly context -- to explain what's happening to them?

"It kind of happens gradually over time," Dowling says. "So, it is really important for us as parents and adults to minimize the opportunities for those kinds of things to happen."

A well-respected Web site,, lists seven ways adults can be more proactive on this issue: Learn the facts. Minimize opportunity. Talk about it. Stay alert. Make a plan. Act on suspicions. Get involved.

In other words, do something.

"It's like anything else," Dowling says. "If you're going through anything stressful, I might not be able to tell, but I can see a change in your behavior."

Even if you talk to children about sexual abuse, they might deny it because of how the revelation might affect the family unit.

"It's sad these cases happen where the child gets blamed for breaking up the family because of what they said," Dowling says. "So, I think there are a lot of reasons why kids don't tell."

And yet, even if they get therapy, abused children are at a greater risk for depression, substance abuse and relationship problems.

It's not enough just to forgive. We have to talk about it. We have to act.