Pope Francis’ strong condemnation of the sexual abuse of children by some rogue Catholic clergy and his apology to the sufferers of the abuse must be greatly commended at every level. Last week, during a Mass held for six victims of priests’ pedophilic abuses at the Vatican, Pope Francis addressed the subject of sexual abuses by some Roman Catholic clerics and declared that bishops who tried to sweep allegations of sexual abuses under the carpet would be held accountable by the Roman Catholic Church.

Child sexual abuse is one of those murky taboo subjects cloaked in veils of secrecy, deception, intimidation, shame and disgrace. The offenders exist in all societies, come from every culture and practice all religions. It does not just exist in the Catholic Church; it occurs in familial establishments, school institutions and is often cultivated in relationships that are based on trust.

It would really be naive, even reckless, for any community or establishment to think that their families and institutions are totally immune from the threat of child sexual abuse. It is vitally important for communities to acknowledge the existence of child sexual abuse in order for that knowledge to serve as a deterrent and help in the reduction of this transgression. And that is exactly what Pope Francis did.

The eradication of child sexual abuse is a subject that I am extremely passionate about and committed to. For the past couple of weeks, I have wanted to write on this topic. Recently, I was presented with a brief where a six-year-old was brutally sexually assaulted by her uncle. Apparently, the uncle had been a frequent visitor to the house where his niece lived and, on many occasions, he was left in the house with the little girl and a nanny. It wasn’t until the little girl’s mother had sacked her old nanny and hired a new nanny that the new nanny informed the family that, whenever they were out of the house, “uncle” would take the little girl into the room and lock the door. Upon thorough investigation, the girl’s mother discovered that the uncle had been molesting her little girl and other little girls in the neighborhood for a long time.

It seems so out-of-order and malevolent for a family member to carry out such an abominable violation upon his own kin. But the truth is, often, child abusers are trusted people known to the child. It is that closeness and position of trust, which the adult has, that makes the abuse much easier to carry out. That familial situation provides a sort of convenient cover for the abuser.

It really is heart-breaking to know that there are people that feel compelled to carry out such monstrous acts against young children. The horror, trauma, and damage that pedophilia inflicts on a young child is not a faith-based problem; it isn’t a western or developing world problem; it is a problem within every single society.

Here in Nigeria, there are so many cases of child abuse; I have dealt with them for over ten years. And it is unfortunate to note that, from my experience and observation; the incidences of child sexual abuse have greatly risen and have become more brazen in the last four to five years. In my past articles, I have spoken of a little girl that I met sometime in the year 2000, when I was involved with a charity which helped women and children that were being abused. The little girl was four years old at the time I met her. I was alerted to the family of this little girl after her mother found out that she was a victim of sexual abuse. While I now deal with cases of such nature regularly, at the time I dealt with that particular case, I was relatively new to matters that were so horrific. I was naturally shell shocked and shattered to know of the ordeal that this little girl had gone through.

In that specific case, from the age of three, this girl had been systematically and violently raped by a young family friend in the compound where she lived. At the time we came across her case, she was four and had already become psychologically traumatized and damaged. When we took her for medical tests, it was further revealed that this four-year-old little girl had contracted HIV from the young man who consistently raped her. Although we had a deep desire to help her and her family in every way we could at that time, we unfortunately lost contact with the family because they were displaced during a sectarian skirmish where they lived. In the aftermath of the conflict, we tried to get in touch with the family to no avail.  I never saw her or her family again and was never able to find out where they went or what eventually happened to them. Whenever I think of the pain and distrust I saw in the little girl’s eyes, whenever I remember the sad, tortured look on her face and her damaged little body, I wonder what eventually became of her…, and my heart breaks! If that little is somewhere out there today, she would now be 18 years old. If she was able to survive the conflict and heal from the trauma, I hope that she has access to the treatment available for her to live a healthy and productive life.

There is really no simple reason why some adults molest and sexually abuse children, although some would tend to argue that pedophiles are plainly insane. I don’t agree with this position because it gives them an excuse and is a sort of cop out for them. If we argue that people who have an unhealthy appetite for young children and carry out their warped desires are insane, then, the very fact of that insanity makes them not culpable for their heinous acts. I totally believe that adults who abuse children are completely aware of their actions and have an absolute understanding that what they are doing is wrong. For me, there is no debate in this; otherwise, why would they go to great lengths to cover up their acts?

It doesn’t matter whether child sexual abuse is carried out by Bishops in the Vatican in Italy or by ex-governors in Nigeria, in all of our communities, we cannot ignore the occurrence of child sexual abuse. Those in positions of authority; be it an older family member who touches a young relative in the wrong manner, a teacher who immorally crosses the line with their students, religious leaders who hide under the clandestine nature of their institutions to molest children or even aged, abhorrent, venal ex-governors who habitually espouse prepubescent lassies under the insincere rationalization of creed, all play a part in breaking down inhibitions on how elements within societies eventually come to view very young children as sexual partners.

The challenge for every community is to confront it head on, so that communities can identify methods of combating or reducing its occurrence and dealing with it when it happens.

As a mother, I believe it is vitally important for every single parent to speak to their young children about the dangers that come from the faceless pedophilic predator that may lurk around us. In order to protect our children, we must have good communication with them, talk to them regularly, listen and observe their behavior to see if there is any change. If in the unfortunate situation a child has been abused, that child most likely would be too afraid, ashamed and embarrassed to talk about it. In that situation, it is the responsibility of the parent to detect the physical and behavioral signals that accompany the victim of child abuse.

An abused child may lose appetite for food, regress to infantile behavior, such as bedwetting or excessive crying, become afraid of the dark, have recurrent nightmares or disturbed sleep patterns and have an unusual interest in or knowledge of intimate matters. They may also begin to express affection in ways inappropriate for a child. In a situation where children show adult-like sexual behavior, it is usually because they have been exposed to it by someone else. Children tend to copy and repeat adult behavior.

A parent should also notice if a child has unexplainable vaginal or rectal bleeding, venereal infections, torn or strained underclothing and other signals, such as disruptive behavior, withdrawal or delinquent conduct or even if they are unusually failing in school. Once any of these behavioral patterns become noticeable, a parent needs to be on alert and make further, necessary enquiries.

A child can be abused no matter their gender. As parents, we must safeguard the interests of our children, boys and girls, because every child has a right to be protected, to be safe, to maintain their innocence during childhood and to be free from abuse.

It is the obligation of each and every one of us adults to protect children from the harm of one of the worst crimes against humanity. The starting point for the protection has got to be breaking the taboo of speaking against child sexual abuse, just like Pope Francis did.