Forgiveness Is Good, Up to a Point

A new study shows that forgiveness might not be a salve for all wrongs, particularly in cases of child sexual abuse.

By Brenda Goodman, published January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

If physical exercise had a mental equivalent, it would probably be the process of forgiveness. Researchers continue to tally the benefits of burying the hatchet—lower blood pressure and heart rate, less depression, a better immune system and a longer life, among others. But now a new study has demonstrated that forgiveness might not be a salve for all wrongs, particularly in cases of child sexual abuse.

Jennie Noll, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, spent 10 years studying 55 girls who had been sexually abused. She compared them with girls who had not been abused. The girls who were not abused were asked how they felt about someone who had hurt them in the past. Noll asked both groups about four aspects of forgiveness: a desire for revenge, letting go of anger, a wish to move on with their lives, and a desire for reconciliation with their offender.

Noll found that abused girls who had let go of both anger and the desire for revenge had higher self-esteem, less anxiety, fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and better relationships with their mothers. But when the girls wanted to reconcile with their offenders, who were sometimes their fathers, they were more anxious, had more symptoms of PTSD and dissociation and were more likely to have bad relationships with their mothers.

The study suggests that victims of child sexual abuse shouldn’t be encouraged to reconcile with their abusers, says Noll, who presented her study at the Conference of Forgiveness in Atlanta.

“Do some work with them that lets them get over their anger, gets them over wanting to hurt this person, but don’t encourage a renewal of that relationship,” she says. “It could put them at risk and make them feel powerless again.”