Faith, Trauma, and the Problem of Evil, with Victor Vieth
We talk to Victor Vieth, director of education and research at Zero Abuse Project, about the intersection of faith and child protection. How should we handle it when abused children have spiritual questions? How do we help child protection professionals wrestling with the trauma they witness and its impact on their own faith? And how do we engage faith communities as allies against child abuse?
Victor Vieth, Chief Program Officer, Education and Research, at Zero Abuse Project
Season 4, Episode 15
“Best of the Best: Faith, Trauma, and the Problem of Evil,” with Victor Vieth; originally published in Season 1, Episode 2 (May 2019)
You are listening to One in Ten from National Children’s Alliance. I’m Teresa Huizar, your host. Join us as we engage in one-on-one conversations with the brightest minds in science, medicine, faith, communications, and the law. We’ll discuss the path forward as we all work together to solve the greatest challenge one in 10 of our children face: child abuse.
Recent child sexual abuse scandals in faith communities have surfaced questions that many survivors struggle with. Why did this happen to me? How do I understand what happened to me in the context of my faith? How do I make meaning of these traumatic events going forward?
While these might sound like strictly theological questions, child abuse professionals respond every day to questions of faith, trauma, and the problem of evil. How do we address with victims, survivors, and the frontline professionals working with them the deep need to make meaning of these traumatic events? We talked to Victor Veith, Director of Education and Research at Zero Abuse Project and a renowned writer and trainer, about the intersection of faith and child protection. We discussed how to help children when they have spiritual questions and how to help child protection professionals wrestling with the trauma they bear witness to every day.
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Thank you, Teresa.
So you came to this work as a prosecutor and then went on to lead a number of training efforts at NDAA, at the National Center for Child Protection Training, CAST. You know, CACs are very familiar with your work in that way. But I wonder what brought you to the question of the intersection between faith and child protection?
A number of years ago when I was serving as director of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, I took a phone call from a Children’s Advocacy Center in California. And the local prosecutor shared with me that they had done a forensic interview with a girl who was sexually abused by her father and near the end of the interview, they said, “We’ve asked you a lot of questions. Do you have any questions for us?” And the girl got nervous and twirled her hair and looked at her toes and said, “Yeah, I’m just kind of wondering, am I still a virgin in God’s eyes?” The prosecutor said, “Gosh, that’s a really important question to this child’s mental health question, for sure.” It’s also a spiritual question. How did multidisciplinary teams respond to that?
A lot of times children have questions such as this. So we had a small federal award. We had a working group of pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, frontline professionals. And we just began to dialogue about the intersection of faith and child protection. And when the intersection takes place, how do we respond appropriately? And so really it was that one case that really sparked my interest. And then as I dialogued, I realized that many people had seen scenarios such as that.
So when you think about the forensic interview, which is where this arose, are there other kinds of questions that might well come up that children might have, either about their faith or that an investigator or a forensic interviewer would hear through the forensic interview?
Sure. When I teach on the subject, I urge [multidisciplinary teams] MDTs to think about this issue even before they do the forensic interview. So as they look at the intake form, look for potential clues.
So for example, I consulted on a case where a child was absent from school, then came back after recess, the teacher found her in the bathroom crying and said that she thought God was mad at her. And the teacher asked why. And she disclosed that she was being sexually abused by a schoolteacher. And so that was all part of the intake. And there’s a clue even before you do the interview that religion may have been involved or the child has some spiritual questions and may be blaming themselves under a theological construct.
So look at the intake, look at the setting where the abuse happened. If the alleged perpetrator is a member of the clergy or closely connected to the child’s faith tradition, there’s an increased possibility that religion was used in the abuse, or the child just has religious or spiritual questions.
And then even if there’s nothing in the intake or presenting problems, just be aware as things come up in the interview. So for example, in one case during the forensic interview, the child made a statement. You know, “My dad’s touching me sexually. And Mr. Jesus is in the room, and he’s just watching. He doesn’t do anything.” Well as it turns out the child was abused in her room, and there was a big picture of Jesus on the wall. And she was focusing on that image and praying in her mind, asking God to stop the abuse.
So just being aware of statements like that as they come out and if they do come out, I urge MDTs just as you would process physical or emotional injuries, how do you, after the fact, figure out a game plan to address any spiritual questions or spiritual needs the child may have?
So this is going to sound like a little bit of an odd question to ask, but why should MDT members care about these types of questions? Why shouldn’t they just say, you know, “Go chat with your pastor about that,” or onto the next question?
Yeah, no, this is a great question. That is one of the barriers. People often say, “Well, there’s a separation of church and state. And you know, it’s not really my area of expertise. I’m not theologically trained.” And most of us were taught as children: Never talk about religion or politics. That will get us into trouble. So some of those barriers are out there.
But what I say to teams is, first of all, you’re not, right, promoting religion, which is the concern of the First Amendment. But we’re simply being culturally sensitive, which is, you know, part of the National Children’s Alliance standards. And religion is really important for a lot of children, and in some regions of the country, such as the South, it’s very important to many families.
And there’s a growing body of research that says if we don’t pay attention to this and if we don’t address the spiritual questions a child may have—it impairs their ability to cope physically and emotionally. That’s the bad news. The good news is, if we do address it in an appropriate way and help a child develop a healthy sense of spirituality. They do a whole lot better in the short and long term in terms of functioning. So the short answer to your question is we should care about it because we care about the children that cross our desks. And the research is overwhelming that this is a really important issue to perhaps more than half of the children that we work with according to informal literature review.
So why do you think—given the importance of this—why do you think that some professionals may really struggle with addressing those important issues? I mean, it’s true that they’re not theologians and those kinds of things, but do you run into other common barriers or reasons why they might feel reluctance?
A couple of things. One, we have often in our field had only bad experiences with faith leaders. And that’s just because of the nature of our work. So when we intersect with faith, it’s because there’s a faith leader who abused a child or faith community that covered up abuse, or we’ve seen abuse used in the beating of a child or the starving of the child or other atrocities. And so we have this sort of drum beat, or drip, drip, drip, that that’s the only thing faith leaders ever do. For folks like me, you have a background as a prosecutor, pretty much the only time we intersected with faith leaders, they’d show up to court as support personnel or character witnesses for defendants. Never, ever on behalf of children.
So we have to break out of that experience and realize that there are faith leaders who do care, who are willing to help. And especially if we reach out to them with good training and advice. So we have to have a different picture in mind that there are a lot of good people that are able to help.
Second, I think some of us have to acknowledge that we have our own personal biases. I was training at a conference, and a psychologist came up to me and he said that he was an atheist and he was deeply offended by religion. And he thought kids would be better off without it. And no matter what the research says, he was certainly not going to address it, and attitudes like that. And attitudes like that are very, very problematic because it’s not about us. It’s about children and what their needs may be at a particular point in their life.
You know, we’ve been talking about the children which are of course, you know, at the heart of our work. But let’s turn for a minute to the multidisciplinary team members themselves.
Do you see multi-disciplinary team members struggling with the moral distress of their work or questions of faith in their work?
Certainly. You know, vicarious trauma, burnout, whatever verbiage we wish to use, impacts all of us at one time or another. And it leaves any particular case that’s really traumatic, such as an instance of torture, or it could just be the drop, drop, drop every day of very traumatic events crossing our desks. And it sooner or later takes a toll on each of us. And everybody on the MDT needs to be aware of that.
When you think about that impact on one’s own faith, do you feel that currently there’s a good venue for multidisciplinary team members—not only to talk about the impact on kids and their faith, which I think we’re very comfortable in talking about, or at least more so maybe, if not very, and just talk about their own? That piece that you’re describing, which is, you know, multidisciplinary team members really wrestling with the impact on them of their own work and also wrestling, I mean, truly with the problem of evil?
Yes. And no, I think some members of our MDT may have access to chaplains who are skilled with issues of trauma. So the pediatrician on your team is probably working at a hospital where they have really good chaplains that have some skills with trauma-informed care.
Many police departments have chaplains, and if they’re intersecting a lot with police officers who witness car accidents and child homicides and other traumatic events, they may have some resources. But if you’re working in a prosecutor’s office, or a Children’s Advocacy Center, or you’re a social worker, you probably don’t have the access to professional spiritual care. And even though you may be part of a faith community, there’s a pretty good chance that your pastor, priest, rabbi, imam is not trained on these issues.
We did a study in 2015, I believe, where we looked at the course catalogs of every accredited seminary in the United States, and only 3% were addressing child abuse or other forms of violence. So many clergy simply aren’t equipped to address these issues.
Now there is something exciting, I think, happening at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Greenville, South Carolina, the Julie Valentine Center. Some years ago, there was a pediatric chaplain named Terry Nettles who went through one of our training programs on the potential use of the chaplain on an MDT. And she eventually connected with Shauna Galloway-Williams there and they decided to do something pioneering. And they have a chaplain who sits as part of the case review team and is available to provide spiritual care to children or families that ask it and also to the MDT members. So a professional could turn out to her. And I think that’s a promising practice. I mean, we need to research its impact, certainly, but I think it’s a potential that we need to think about.
So whether or not someone actually takes a chaplain onto their multidisciplinary team, how do you think that CAC can better engage faith communities and supporting child victims, adult survivors, and just really becoming allies around this issue?
Yeah. Whether or not you do what has happened in Greenville, bring a chaplain on board, research in 2017 from Tishelman and Fontes documented how often in forensic interviews, spiritual questions are coming up. And they found that ad hoc MDTs are from time to time reaching out to local faith leaders. And that’s good. But I think we need to be more proactive in reaching out to faith leaders, educating them about what trauma-informed care is, educating our mental health professionals about the research on the spiritual impact of trauma.
American Psychological Association has published some good resources for our psychologists to explore these issues. Developing a really good list of faith leaders you can turn to in crisis. So, you’ve got a child who’s raised a spiritual question or wants a spiritual care, just as you wouldn’t refer to any old psychologist, you probably wouldn’t refer to any old pastor, priest, rabbi, or imam, but you’d want those who’ve gone through some training through the CAC, who understand about trauma-informed care, understand how to collaborate their work with the medical and mental health providers. So it really is CACs and MDTs becoming very proactive and reaching out to these communities.
And I would add this: There’s a lot we can do for these communities in terms of prevention. Many faith leaders turn to insurance companies and lawyers, as they develop, say, their child protection policies. Well, insurance companies and lawyers aren’t necessarily experts on child abuse, but the local detectives are and local CACs are, and local prosecutors are. So we can probably do a better job of advising them on, say, managing a sex offender in the congregation or doing a proper screening or what does a good background check look like.
So just by offering those sorts of services, we, I think can be very proactive in the prevention of abuse.vv
You know, related to that, you have spoken to many faith communities as well about child protection issues. And I’m wondering, given the variety, really, of faith communities that have had media attention of late because of child sexual abuse scandals, are you finding that there is more openness to discussion around these issues, or conversely that people are kind of in a bunker mentality around this, or something else?
All of the above, including the something else. Some really are resistant to talking about the issue, especially with an MDT because they think we’re the enemy. We’re part of the secular community. We’re not respectful to faith. So, some do hunker down in that way. Some try to fool themselves and think, “Oh, this is a problem in somebody else’s faith community.” But there are many who really just genuinely care about it. And they just don’t know enough to realize what a potentially big issue it is. And those are the folks we need to reach.
Now, how do you reach them? There’s not a lot of research on that, but I have felt that it’s critical to engage faith leaders theologically. So, to know a little bit about their sacred texts, about their views of God or a higher power, and within their sacred traditions, what is the book to connect them with that?
And there is some research from Cindy [Miller-]Perrin and Robin [Perrin] saying that, at least on issues of corporal punishment and potential physical abuse if you engage the faith community on theological questions they have about those issues, they’re very receptive to the research and moving in a different, more healthy direction.
And I’m intrigued by that research. And I think we could expand it and find that if we’re reaching out to them in a more culturally sensitive way then they’ll be engaged with us in terms of policies and that sort of thing.
So when you think about that—I mean, in your own faith tradition, I know that you’re a Christian. And so I’m wondering, what have you found to be beneficial arguments to engage just your own faith community around these issues?
I graduated from seminary in 2017, and my seminary allowed me to focus my studies on the sacred texts in the Christian community. And what, if anything those texts said about child abuse.
Right. I wrote a thesis which has now been published as a book, and I analyzed the words of Jesus and found that most scholars think that when he said better a millstone around your neck, drown in the sea than hurt a child, he was specifically referring to child sexual abuse. And certainly, generally he was saying anything you do to harm a child, God will view harshly.
There’s this remarkable statement in the New Testament where Jesus puts a child in the middle of the crowd and says how you treat the child says everything about what you think about me, and what you think about me says what you really think about God. And that’s extraordinary, even by today’s standards, that Jesus was saying what you really think about God is determined by how you treat a child.
In the research I did, I learned that the early Christian community interpreted these words from Jesus as a call to distance themselves from the high levels of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect at that time. And then after a few centuries or so the church really moved in a different direction.
I argued in my paper, we needed to get back to the words of Jesus, take them seriously. And again, distinguish ourselves through how we care about children. And there’s no research on this, but anecdotally it does seem to resonate in faith communities. I think we can do things like that with other sacred traditions as well.
I’ve done a lot of work in the Jewish community. I’ve seen the same sort of arguments work by using references to children in the Hebrew Bible. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. So when you’re thinking about these issues and talking about them, I mean, as you know, the families that come to Children’s Advocacy Centers are very, very diverse.
And so—and this is an area that I think many CACs would like to be able to have conversations respectfully around the way in which this is impacting families and even multidisciplinary teams. So I’m wondering, how do you think that CACs can approach it in such a way that they’re doing that respectfully while at the same time not making themselves seem unfriendly either to people of no faith or other faith traditions.
Yeah, look, you’re not in any way promoting religion—that would be wrong and perhaps unlawful—but instead we’re just being culturally sensitive. We’re realizing that many folks who come into our CACs are religious or spiritual, and it’s influencing their day-in and day-out functioning. And so we’re being sensitive to that.
And so, just as a hospital would offer chaplaincy services, a CAC or someone else might offer that as well, or at least be aware of where they can turn to if someone needs those services in order to cope. A chaplain, a true chaplain, is ecumenical, and they represent the faith of whoever it is that they’re working with.
And that’s the sort of mentality that we need to have in working with our clients, including those who have no faithrre.
You know, we’ve been talking a little bit about the chaplaincy program, and I’m sure you’ve also seen other innovative projects or programs in this space as well. Are there any others that you would like to call out as just, you know, here’s an example of another type of response to this issue that you prefer, that you found particularly helpful?
Sure. In Charleston, South Carolina, a program began called HALOS, which the Office of Victims of Crime recognizes as a promising practice. And on their website, there’s some free material folks can download. And one of the creative things they did is, they developed a project called Adopt a Social Worker.
And so, they would get synagogues and churches and temples together who wanted to be part of the project, and each of them would adopt a local child protection professional, and they would check in with that professional and say: “We care about you and we’re here for your needs, whatever they may be. We also care about your children. And so if there’s a child who has a need the government can’t or won’t provide, you can let us know.” And so it could be as simple as the child needs a dress for prom or money to register for Little League baseball. Whatever it is. And then an email would go out to the local faith partners and invariably somebody would cover that need.
Here in Minnesota, we have an identical program that was modeled after HALOS. It’s called Care in Action that operates in six counties, and it’s a creative way to bring faith and child protection professionals together. The faith communities do not witness. They don’t proselytize. They’re simply providing a basic service and helping the local child protection professionals add resources to the children that they’re working with.
So that’s a very creative and positive project.
One of the things that I wanted to circle back to for a minute, you were talking about physical abuse earlier, and I know that, you know, you’ve been on the forefront of efforts to encourage individuals, families, but also projects to take this on. Really reducing the use of corporal punishment and eliminating that.
And so can you talk a little bit, because I do feel that for some faith communities, that conversation can be difficult. And I think sometimes CACs have wound up crosswise actually of certain congregations in promoting no-hit zones and other kinds of things. So, you know, how can one approach those conversations respectfully, but also clearly?
Religion in the United States does play a major role in influencing the usage of corporal punishment. And there are a number of studies that say, if you’re conservative Protestant, you have a more literal interpretation of the Bible. You take very seriously the handful of verses in the Book of Proverbs that reference the corporate punishment of children—what’s often phrased as “spare the rod.” And if that’s your belief, it’s very hard to overcome that with research. However, the two studies I mentioned from Pepperdine, done by Miller and Perrin, say if you address the theological construct there of people that are open to moving away from the practice, well, how do you do that?
You need to realize how complex theology is on this issue. Some conservative Protestants say that the Bible requires corporal punishment and requires you to use a stick, but many have a broader interpretation. So while it’s really referencing discipline of any kind, and if that’s the case, then there is a room to maneuver.
Sometimes pointing out to parents or just asking a question: “Gosh, there’s six verses in Proverbs about the corporal question of children, but there’s about three times as many Proverbs about the corporal punishment of adults. What do you think about that?” And letting folks realize, gosh, you know, we don’t use corporal punishment on adults anymore because we recognize that as what was done in the time that was written in the Hebrew Bible. And the underlying wisdom is just that misdeeds result in consequences—back then, a whipping, today jail or a fine.
And so maybe that sort of interpretation works well for the corporal punishment verses as well. I think it’s also helpful to suggest to parents what is actually meant by these texts. Because if we apply them literally, there’s nothing in the Bible about spanking. There’s nothing in the Bible about about swatting a child on the buttocks one or two times and cause a sting. That’s not what’s being referenced.
And instead references to picking up this stick and you’re hitting a child usually in the back and they’re usually pretty severely causing bruises or drawing blood and everybody today would say that’s child abuse. So there’s nothing in the Bible about spanking as we view it today. It’s pretty egregious punishment.
Maybe what’s being said here is just the underlying wisdom that they need to discipline, we need to reform our children. And since the research is overwhelming that there are other forms of discipline which are so much more effective in reforming the child’s behavior and improving their conduct in the short and long term, arguably, those do something other than corporal punishment are operating not less but more biblical.
If your listeners are interested, the Academy on Violence and Abuse—I’m currently the president for another few months [Editor’s note: when this interview was originally published]—we just published, it’s on our website, some guidelines for the professionals to use in working on issues of corporal punishment with somebody who has concerns related to their religious beliefs.
You know, you’ve been working on this overall topic for some time, this intersection between faith and child protection. What’s next for your own efforts? What’s next in terms of Zero Abuse Project or, you know, articles you’re writing or things you’re thinking about?
The most important initiative for me and I think for the child protection community as a whole is to dramatically improve training at the undergraduate and graduate level. Most of us in this field left college or law school or medical school with very little training on child abuse. And as a result, we make a lot of errors. So we have worked very hard with universities and graduate programs to implement reforms called child advocacy studies [CAST]. We’re currently at 67 such institutions. And I want to continue to expand that. And with respect to faith, we need to get into seminaries. And so I hope to do that in the next few years and get theologians engaged with some of these issues as well.
I think as a country, we need to shift to more experiential training. So we still need national and state conferences, but we need small class sizes and hands-on child advocacy courses and forensic interview training programs and crime scene investigation courses. So I want to figure out a blueprint of how we can do more of that as well.
And one of the things at Zero Abuse Project I’ve never had the opportunity to do before is to fund some research. And so we’re funding some research on our CAST program. And in years ahead, I want to fund some research on polyvictimization and some other things that I think get short shrift in peer-reviewed journals.
And so I want to promote research that I think would benefit the field. And then, you know, me, Teresa, whatever comes to my mind at two in the morning when I can’t sleep turns into a project the next day. But those are some of the things I’m currently working on and hope to hope to expand.
You know, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about as you were talking was about a concept that came from a sort of another conversation, another article, which was around this idea that sometimes people who have been sexually abused—sexual abuse survivors—because of the experience itself that they have, you know, this “anesthesia to faith” was the term used, this sort of deadening to that. And the way in which that impacts their lives, lifelong. You know, have you seen that, and is that sort of a driver and part of your interest in this and your work in this space?
Yeah. I mean, essentially the research on that issue says most children are impacted spiritually from the trauma. The younger you are, the more you’re impacted. And the reason for that we think is, say if you’re sexually abused at the age of 4, every part of you, including your spirituality and your view of God, is being developed. And now all of a sudden at this critical juncture in your development, you then physically or sexually abused, in perhaps the name of God, and it’s impacting your view of a higher power. Whereas if you’re 16, 17, you’ve got more in the bank, so to speak more, to draw upon. And so generally speaking, the impact may be, may be less. So we need to be aware of all those dynamics as well.
The other thing I would say is, although you may be impacted spiritually, want nothing to do with organized religion, it doesn’t mean that you’re no longer spiritual. It just means that you’re hungry or thirsty, or you’re really crying out for answers. I was part of a team investigating abuse in a Christian mission in Africa, in the 1980s.
And I interviewed a man who said, “Do you think God understands ACE research?” And I said, “Tell me about that.” And he said, “Well, I understand it. I was beaten and raped and neglected and saw my friends abused. And this compound—I got this, you know, ACE score through the stratosphere, but I’ve also done really, really bad things in my life, including accidentally killing someone in a car accident. And, you know, now I’m trying to clean up my life, but I’m just terrified of dying. Because I don’t know if I die tonight, how does God sort out my life? Does God understand ACE research?”
Well, that man is being tormented with these really profound questions. And so even though he wants nothing to do with organized religion, he just needs somebody to help him sort through these spiritual constructs just to continue to survive because he’s terrified of dying.
That’s many, many survivors, they’re still struggling. They still may pray. I talked to a man in that case who said, “I read the Bible two hours every morning before I go to work, even though I’ll never go to church again.” And I said, “Well, why do you do that?” And he said, “Well, I guess I’m searching for something.”
So even though you may be angry with God, want nothing to do with organized religion, you may still have these spiritual questions that you’re searching for answers for.
You know, it’s I think a good reminder that CACs are in the business of often dealing with really existential questions and helping, I think, survivors and child victims struggle with those and wrestle with those. When you think about that, the weight of what we’re doing, what would you say are the most impactful things that CACs could do to address both the needs of child victims and MDT members at the intersection of their faith and childhood sexual abuse.
I mean, just, if you could say, “If you could do these three things, those would be the most impactful,” what would it be?
I think CACs should screen for this issue as they screen for anything else. So anybody who’s never been to a hospital knows you’d be screened as you’re being admitted. One of the questions is, do you have a particular faith? Would you like a chaplain or spiritual care? That CAC in Greenville does that as part of their screening and last year, as I understand it, over 400 children and families asked for that service. So just being aware of it, creating an environment where you can talk about it, is really positive.
The second thing that we talked about earlier is just being aware, as children in the investigation or the forensic interview are raising spiritual questions, to be cognizant of that.
Third, I think we need to be proactive in training on this issue. I’ll be keynoting on this issue at the APSAC conference, which I think is a good indication the field is catching up to the literature that we have to pay attention to this.
Fourth is just constantly be thinking of cultural sensitivity and taking people as they are and allowing them to share whatever their questions are or concerns are.
If we can do those four things, I think that’s a really positive step.
And I think I would add, you know, we have to be proactive in training our faith communities and developing a good list of resources that we can reach out to if somebody needs pastoral or spiritual care.
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Victor, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your work with us. And listeners, stay tuned for more on child abuse. Thanks, Victor.
Thank you, Teresa. And thank you for all that you do for Children’s Advocacy Centers and for all.
Thank you for listening to One in Ten. we hope you’ll tune in for the next episode where we’ll talk to researcher Wendy Walsh about the bystander effect and why people don’t report child abuse. For more information about National Children’s Alliance and the work of Children’s Advocacy Centers, visit our website at www.nationalchildrensalliance.org.