As a developmental psychologist, I study how and why children change over time. This profession has given me the gift of watching idyllic childhoods unfold. Unfortunately, I have also learned of exceptionally horrific, gut-wrenching stories. Among the most challenging to process are tales of disruptive and unhealthy patterns of behavior that stem from preventable trauma experienced in childhood, such as sexual abuse.
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that adverse childhood experiences (or “ACEs”) are associated with damage to the brain and other systems that are vital to healthy development. ACEs are events that are outside of a child’s control, yet they can have long lasting toxic effects on their health and well-being. Among a laundry list of tragic outcomes, ACEs can predispose children to chronic disease, substance use, social problems, and earlier death relative to those without ACEs.
While much of this research understandably focuses on the individual survivor, a crucial piece that is often overlooked is the collateral damage of these events. ACEs, like child sexual abuse, can cause irreparable damage to families. The repercussions of ACEs reverberate within and across generations, meaning that the negative effects of ACEs extend much further than previously acknowledged.
It may surprise you to learn that, knowing all of this, I married a man who is a survivor of child sexual abuse. My husband, Ryan Brophy, has been protesting the Diocese of Providence’s reassignment and protection of the Rev. Eric Silva, who has been removed from two parishes for making inappropriate sexual comments to children.
I was drawn to and inspired by Ryan because of his resilience in the face of his trauma. I was taken by his candor and the ease with which he shared his experience. This tragedy inspired Ryan to be a fervent advocate for justice and humanity. Just like me, but in different ways, he is someone who would do anything, give anything, risk anything to protect a single child.
However inspiring, the damage inflicted on Ryan has permeated every crevice of his being. Ryan wages a war within himself every single day and sometimes this war extends to others, even those closest to him. It is not lost on me that I spend my 9-to-5 studying how to help children thrive, and I spend my 5-to-9 devoted to repairing and supporting one of these children. As a mother, I see the potential for intergenerational transmission of trauma unfolding before my eyes and am exhausted by the energy I have had to expend to ensure it does not extend to the next generation.
My feelings toward the Catholic church’s handling of documented and alleged child sexual abuse are too strong to describe easily. To say that I am baffled is an understatement. As a professional, a wife of a survivor, and a mother, I implore the Church to take greater accountability for their missteps and inaction. Be more proactive. Offer more meaningful and in-depth reparations. Make more widespread and deep systemic change.
One preventable harm to a child is one harm too many and the consequences can be far greater than you can imagine.
Lauren Micalizzi Brophy, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist focusing on child behavior problems and family functioning.