What should I do after having just discovered that my husband has been sexually abusing our six-year-old niece? I won't go into details, but I do have solid evidence that he's been engaging in unspeakable acts with this sweet, innocent child. He isn't aware that I know about this yet, and I'm ashamed to say that I feel tempted to look the other way. Yes, I'm angry, but I'm also terribly afraid. I know I need to do something to protect my niece, but I fear that if this comes to light everything in my life will be destroyed, including my marriage. Not only will I lose my husband, but I'm scared that family and friends will regard both of us as outcasts from this point forward. Should I report him? If so, how do I go about it? Under the circumstances, do you think there's any possibility that our marriage can be saved?
You're in the middle of an agonizing situation, and we want you to know that our hearts go out to you in your pain, anguish, and fear. It takes courage to seek outside help at a time like this, and you deserve to be commended for having the fortitude to turn to our ministry for guidance.
Our first piece of advice is this: look to the Lord in prayer. Hold on to your faith, strength, and courage. You'll need them if you're to navigate this difficult pathway successfully.
Next, realize that your emotional response to your husband's behavior is completely understandable. Anyone in your position would be experiencing the same fears, doubts, temptations, and feelings of confusion and disorientation. This is to be expected. Among other things, your spouse has broken faith with you. He has violated the marriage covenant by seeking sexual satisfaction elsewhere. When trust is destroyed, the relationship between husband and wife inevitably suffers. So if you feel like you're going crazy, take heart. This is a normal response to a "crazy-making" turn of events in your life.
But while the situation is agonizing, there's a sense in which the decisions you're facing are not. As a matter of fact, they're fairly simple and straightforward. Clearly, something needs to be done about the discovery you've made. Your emotions may be paralyzing you and clouding your judgment at the moment, but somehow you've got to find a way to get past them. We recommend that you step back and try to take an objective look at your husband's secret life of sexual abuse. It doesn't matter what your friends and relatives think – there is no reason to assume that you will be blamed or vilified for your spouse's actions. In fact, you can't be implicated in his guilt as long as you make up your mind to do the right thing before it's too late. But you need to act now – both for the sake of your niece and for the sake of your marriage.
So what should you do? Obviously, ensuring your niece's safety is a top priority. At this point she probably feels isolated and completely under the control of her abuser. If you are the child's legal guardian (you didn't mention whether she's been living with you or not), the first thing to do is to get her away from your husband. Take her to a safe location. Do whatever is necessary to procure the medical and psychological assistance she needs. You don't have to play detective, and you shouldn't probe her for details, though you may need to let her know that you have become aware of the sexual abuse to which she's been subjected. Express your sorrow over what has happened to her. Then place her under the care of a trained Christian clinician who specializes in sexual abuse. The therapist will know exactly what to do. It's important that your niece receive this help as soon as possible. In instances like this, there's a huge difference between immediate assistance and delayed assistance in terms of overall effectiveness. If she represses the memory of her ordeal until she's older, her symptoms will likely be far more severe and she will face a much longer period of recovery.
Once you've attended to the child's needs, you will need to report the incident to law enforcement or Child Protective Services. We can easily understand why you might be reluctant to take this step, but keep in mind that if you don't report your husband you could possibly bear some degree of legal culpability depending on your state's laws regarding reporting requirements of child sexual abuse.
If the child is not under your direct care, you will probably want to bring her parents or foster parents into the loop right away. Take them into your confidence and tell them what you know and how you know it. Then encourage them to contact the authorities and engage the services of a qualified counselor. If you have reason to suppose that they are neither competent nor responsible enough to take these steps, you may have to act on their behalf. You really don't have any other choice if you care about your niece. From her perspective, it's going to make all the difference in the world to have the love, reassurance, and support of wise and caring adults.
Once you've taken these steps, you'll obviously want to turn your attention to the state of your marriage. Here, too, we believe you have no alternative except to bring the truth to light and take immediate action. If you're afraid or hesitant to do this, spend a few moments thinking about this question: what's likely to happen to your relationship with your husband if you simply turn a blind eye to his behavior? As we see it, the bitterness, anger, and disgust you're feeling toward him at this moment will continue to grow until you can no longer tolerate his presence. Put simply, your marriage will be destroyed if you don't reveal what you know.
Love and trust depend on honesty, and in this situation honesty requires a direct confrontation. We suggest you talk to your husband and find out exactly what's been going on. Ask your spouse some pointed questions about the frequency and duration of his involvement in pedophilia. He may very well give you a large dose of denial or defensiveness in return, but it's crucial to bring the issue up regardless of his reaction. If you think he may respond with anger or would in some way downplay the situation, bring some other interested parties into the discussion – your niece's parents, perhaps, or a pastor, or a trusted Christian friend.
As you go through this process, bear in mind that most pedophiles and perpetrators of sexual abuse share a number of distinct personality traits in common. They're usually seductive, manipulative, and highly controlling. They're also nice, friendly, affable, helpful, and extremely adept at wheedling their way into other people's good graces so that they can persuade those same people to do what they want them to do. These qualities are fundamental to the secret double life that characterizes the typical abuser. They're essential to their ability to seduce their victims. This means that when you confront your husband with your discovery, you will probably find that he's very good at looking you straight in the eye and saying something that will cause you to doubt yourself. All the more reason to stand firm and enlist the help of a few supporters who won't be taken in by deception or smooth talk.
Your goal in all of this will be to persuade your husband to meet with and be assessed by a competent licensed clinician who has been specially trained to deal with sexual abuse and addiction. In most cases, pedophiles and sexual abusers are sexually broken themselves. Many were abused or victimized by others at an earlier period in their lives. To make matters worse, they tend to marry someone who has also been sexually broken. There's a good chance, then, that both of you will be tempted to minimize, rationalize, or deny the seriousness of the situation. A good therapist can help you sort all of this out. He or she can also evaluate your husband's overall attitude – for example, is he truly repentant and sorry for his actions, or does he refuse to admit that he's done anything wrong? The counselor will also be able to gauge his receptivity to treatment.
What are the chances that your marriage can survive this crisis? The answer to this question depends on a number of different factors. One important point to bear in mind is that there will be legal consequences for your husband's actions. Exactly what form this will take is likely to vary from state to state. There is no standard way of handling pedophiles in our court system. We highly recommend that you consult with a reputable attorney to find out what your options are. If your spouse ends up serving a lengthy prison sentence for his crimes, this is obviously going to have a serious impact on your marriage. The good news is that this might actually be the best way to get him the help he needs: if the case comes to trial, and if he is convicted, the judge will probably order him to undergo personal therapy.
Meanwhile, move forward with your eyes wide open. Here at Focus on the Family we are committed to doing everything in our power to save and restore broken marriages, but we're also aware that it's important to be realistic. We live in a flawed, fallen world, and there are some wounds that simply will not be healed until the Lord comes again. Pedophilia is a severe sexual dysfunction, and many reputable experts hold out very little hope for the average abuser's rehabilitation. In light of the profile of the typical pedophile outlined above, it would be a good idea to ask yourself some serious questions about the future of your marriage and to work through those questions with the help of wise counsel. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and Focus on the Family would hesitate to recommend it as a first option even in terrible scenarios like the one you've described, but we're also aware that there are occasions when the wounded partner of an unfaithful spouse simply has to face facts.
Obviously, we don't have all the answers. At this point no one can know exactly what's going to happen. Your marriage might be healed, but it might not. Only time will tell. But whatever happens, you need to understand that it's not your responsibility to sacrifice everything else in your life in order to save this relationship.
If you think it might be helpful to talk these issues over at greater length with a member of our staff, we'd like to invite you to call Focus on the Family's Counseling department.
Child Help USA