History and Context

Abuse has a long history. It is not a modern invention.


The O.T. includes strong language about incest (( Leviticus 20: 1 1 -20 )) but curiously does not include sexual relations with children in the list of prohibited activities. It seems likely to me that this does not imply approval of incest with children, but rather a disapproval so universal that is didn’t need to be stated. The existence of these prohibitions suggests that sexual relations between family members was a problem. It was clearly, however, not a problem limited to ancient Israel.

“Paternal incest has been known and recorded in all periods of history and in all types of civilizations. It seems to be a universal phenomenon which does not recognize any historical, geographical, racial or social boundaries. ” (( Lukianowicz, Incest, Brit. J. Psychiat. 120, 301-313, 1972 ))

Incest has always been a concern in the Christian community. Here, for example, is a prohibition from a mid seventh-century penitential:

No one shall marry, or maintain incestuous relations with, any woman belonging
to the family of his father, or his mother, or of his grandfather, or his
grandmother; or with the betrothed of his brother, or the widow of any of his
relatives. Therefore, it shall not be lawful to defile the blood of such as are related
even to the sixth degree, either by marriage or otherwise … If any person should
violate it, the judge shall immediately order them to be separated, and shall cause
them to be placed in monasteries, according to their sex, there to perform
perpetual penance. (( Flavius Chintasvintus, The Yisigothic Code, ed. S.P. Scott. http://libro.uca.edu/vcode/visigoths.htm, 3.1. ))

For a discussion of how changes in the meaning of incest (and marriage!) during this period impacted the understanding of incest see: Christine McCann, Transgressing the Boundaries of Holiness: Sexual Deviance in the Early Medieval Penitential Handbooks of Ireland, England and France (( McCann, Christine, Transgressing the Boundaries of Holiness: Sexual Deviance in the Early Medieval Penitential Handbooks of Ireland, England and France 500-1000 MA Thesis, Seton Hall (2010) Available HERE ))


Molech, one of the gods of the Canaanites, demanded child sacrifice. (( John Day, Molech : A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge University Press, 1990) ISBN: 0521364744 )) The history of child sacrifice is not however just an ancient phenomenon.

“The history of infanticide in the West has yet to be written.., but enough is already known to establish that, contrary to the usual assumption that it is an Eastern rather than a Western problem, infanticide of both legitimate and illegitimate children was a regular practice of antiquity, that the killing of legitimate children was only slowly reduced during the Middle Ages, and that illegitimate children continued regularly to be killed right up into the nineteenth century.” (( Lloyd DeMause, The History of Childhood (Jason Aronson; New edition, 1995) ISBN: 1568215517 ))

Although the early church fathers opposed infanticide, their opposition, according to DeMause:

“often seemed to be based more on their concerns for the parent’s soul than with the child’s life. This attitude can be seen in Saint Justin Martyr’s statement that the reason a Christian should not expose his children is to avoid meeting them later in a brothel: ‘Lest we molest anyone or commit sin ourselves, we have been taught that it is wicked to expose newly-born children, first because we see that almost all who are exposed (not only girls, but boys too) are raised in prostitution’” (( Lloyd DeMause, The History of Childhood…The Untold Story of Child Abuse (Peter Bedrick Books, 1988) ))

DeMause’s points to church records which show typical ratios of boys to girls of 156 to 100 (in 800 CE) and 172 to 100 (in 1400 CE) as suggestive of on-going infanticide.

Childhood Sexual Abuse

Infanticide is, of course, only the most extreme form of child abuse. The history of attitudes towards other forms of abuse is also mostly a story of avoidance. There is, however, some documentation which would not exist at all if sex abuse were not a problem.

The sexual abuse of boys was not common in the Jewish tradition (the Torah makes no mention of it). But it was a common practice in Hellenistic culture and was apparently social acceptable in some contexts. The Didache, a late first century or early second century document which presents itself as “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (or Nations) by the Twelve Apostles” clearly condemns this practice. It’s “second commandment” is:

2:2 Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not have illicit sex; do not steal; do not practice magic; do not practice witchcraft; you shall not murder a child, whether it be born or unborn. Do not covet the things of your neighbor.

The expression “corrupt boys” is literally “you will not corrupt boys” (ou paidophthoreseis) and clearly refers to sexual practices.

The Canons of the Council at Elvira in 309AD includes many items related to sexual failure of one kind or another. ((Canons of Elvira )). For our purposes it is worth noting the penalty for men who sexually abuse boys.

Can. 71. Men who sexually abuse boys shall not be given communion even at the end.

There would be no need for this if it were not a problem. Also note Canon 12:

Can 12. A mother or female guardian or any Christian woman who engages in pandering, since she is selling anothers body—or even her own—she shall not receive communion even at the end.

And Canon 18:

Can. 18. Bishops, presbyters, and deacons, if—once placed in the ministry—they are discovered to be sexual offenders, shall not receive communion, not even at the end, because of the scandal and the heinousness of the crime.

In 527 Justinian became ruler of the Byzantine Empire. He commissioned a team to assemble a legal code from existing Roman Law. The resulting “Digest of Justinian” was a pillar of legal education and argumentation for hundreds of years. Here is the section on child abuse: (( Extraordinariis Criminibus, Vol IV, 784 (AD 530) ))

One who persuades a boy, abducted by himself or by a corrupt attendant, into indecency or who solicits a woman or girl or does anything for the purpose of impurity or who offers a gift or a reward wereby to induce indecency will, if the offense be complete, suffer capital punishment; if it be not fully effected, he is deported to an island. Corrupt attendants undergo the supreme penalty

The development of strategies for avoiding the consequences of clerical sexual abusive goes back a ways. Consider this official decree from 1665: (( Collectanea S.C. de Prop. Fide, vol. I, n. 509] ))

A confessor who in the sacramental Confession gives a note to a Penitent to be read later, in which he incites [the Penitent] toward sex, shall not be thought to have solicited in Confession; and therefore ought not be denounced”

So. . .as long as she doesn’t actually read the note during confession, everything is fine.

A relevant example of the failure to pay attention to sex abuse in recent times concerns the ways in which Freud’s early observations on the etiology of ‘hysteria’ in women was denied, avoided and neglected. In 1896 in The Aetiology of Hysteria Freud wrote

"I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience."

Shortly after it’s publication, Freud recanted this view and suggested that women imagined and longed for the sexual experiences which he had previously thought were at the roots of the hysteria. He looked at it and then turned away from the painful truth. It was not until World War 1 that people with symptoms almost identical to Freud’s ‘hysteria’ were again paid attention to. In this case it was men. It was not called hysteria but rather "Shell shock" or "Nerves". Although commonly explained as a kind of personal failure ("moral invalids", "malingerers", "cowards"), the symptoms were very similar to those exhibited by "hysterical women". It was not until the 1970’s and the emergence of the American feminist movement that a connection was made between the effects of violence experienced by women in rape, sexual abuse etc and the effects of violence experienced by men in combat. The focus on violence rather than sex was an important reframing of the issue.

Bottom lines:

  • It took a hundred years in American culture for the psychological trauma of sexual violence to be recognized as real. It will probably take that long in other places.
  • It is possible to forget what has been learned. If people stop speaking, things revert to old patterns. It takes energy to sustain awareness.
  • Social change related to abuse issues requires a political base in addition to awareness, understanding and personal support.

Recommended reading:

Lloyd deMause. The History of Child Abuse The Journal of Psychohistory 25 (3) Winter 1998

Child Abuse—A History – Overview

Recommended listening:

“Women And Inequality Around The World: Why Do Girls Starve, Remain Illiterate, And Lack Health Care While Their Brothers Eat, Learn, And Live?”
by Ron Sider