“Judith Barr is a Connecticut psychotherapist and author of the book, “Power Abused, Power Healed.” She spoke to the Trib about the continuing fallout from the Penn State child molestation scandal and its broader societal implications.
Q: From a psychotherapist’s perspective, what lessons can be learned from the events that occurred at Penn State?
A: I think it’s really important to pay attention to the fact that the institutional incidents of sexual abuse that we’ve seen — the (Jerry) Sandusky incident, the private school in New York called Horace Mann, the incidents in the Catholic church — mirror incidents of sexual abuse at the familial level. And (that) abuse can’t be changed by laws; it has to be changed by healing.
I disagree. I believe that laws with the penalty of prison for those who know about child sexual abuse and do nothing to stop it, would put a dent in the prevalence, frequency, and severity of child sexual abuse cases.
How many children would be saved if the janitor who found Sandusky raping a child, or Mike McQueary, or the Penn State senior staff members, or the bishops in the Catholic Church, and people like my mother knew their failure to report sex crimes against a child would land them in prison for a few years?
Q: And how is that healing accomplished? Intensive therapy sessions?
A: In my experience with people who have been sexually abused, (I’ve found) people have to build their capacity to go back into it and through the pain of it so they are not having it inside them, haunting them, causing them to be terrified and freezing them from living full lives, from taking actions they need to protect themselves and fulfill the gifts that they have.
Q: In that regard, do you consider the witnesses in the Sandusky case particularly heroic because they had to publicly confront the circumstances of their molestations?
A: I think it was very courageous, especially since they didn’t know how they were going to be responded to. One of the things with sexual abuse is that you don’t know if the people who find out about it afterward are going to respond in loving ways, or in hardhearted ways, or in cool ways. So, yes, I think they were very courageous and I hope that for each of them, (testifying) did turn out to be part of their healing.
Q: Does justice equate with healing in these situations?
A: Justice could be one element of the process. But there are many people who heal without having the opportunity to have justice. So if somebody gets stuck looking for justice in a situation where there is not going to be any, they’ve blocked their own healing and undermined themselves.
Q: How significant do you consider the overall impact of child sexual abuse to be?
A: I think the degree of sexual abuse that occurs in this country, in our world, is mind-blowing and heartbreaking. I think it has just fed (many of) the things we are struggling with in our society: pornography, sexual harassment, sexual addiction, prostitution, rape, sex slavery. I think that deep down, we have to ask ourselves how many of the victims of those things were sexually abused as children? How many of the perpetrators were sexually abused as children? How many of the providers of these things were sexually abused as children? How many of the consumers were sexually abused as children?
Q: Could some good ultimately emerge from the Penn State situation in that it shined a much-needed spotlight on this issue?
A: I think every time issues about childhood sexual abuse come out into the open, come out into people’s consciousness, it helps. But I think (it also helps) if we point out that childhood sexual abuse ends up feeding the other things I just named.”