This was a short piece I was asked to write for a Catholic Charities newsletter in the aftermath of many clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse cases in the diocese. There is so much more I wanted to say (and scream), but this was meant to be a brief "101" and gentle challenge to church communities to examine bias and stereotypes about abusers, offer a possible explanation as to why people may react in harmful and victim-blaming ways, and confront the cost of prioritizing our own comfort over the safety, healing, validation, and support of those who have been abused.
Have you ever heard someone say, “they weren’t who I thought they were…”?
This is an example statement of someone expressing a feeling of betrayal. Unfortunately, betrayal is common in human relationships, as we all can hurt and be hurt in big ways and small. However, betrayal can sometimes have such a profound effect on a person that they experience life-altering trauma and post-traumatic stress symptoms.
“Betrayal trauma” is a psychological concept originated by Jennifer Freyd in 1994. Betrayal trauma can occur when a person or institution we depend on for survival, support, or are significantly attached to, critically violates our trust or well-being.
This violation of trust can happen on both a micro/individual level and a macro/institutional/ systemic level.
Abuse by a parent, partner, family member, caregiver, spiritual leader, a “caring/helping” professional, or systemic/institutional failures can shatter a person’s worldview and sense of safety. When you put your trust in someone/something, and they become the agent of hurt, pain, trauma, and abuse, you can question deeply held beliefs about the goodness of people. This questioning is a normal reaction and a way our body and brain work to protect us.
The rampant sexual abuse crisis in the church (and so many institutions) is likely to cause betrayal trauma. Could we have experienced betrayal trauma from the church, but never recognized it as such?
People make sense of betrayal in varying ways. Betrayal trauma may manifest as questioning the validity, integrity, truth, or faith in the church and God, especially when we are told that religious leaders represent or embody God. If clergy cannot be trusted, can God be trusted? If even the church can’t be trusted, where can my family and I be safe?
These may be frightening and unsettling questions, but they are also important questions that lead to more honest assessment and much-needed accountability if we are serious about creating a safe church for victims/survivors and holding abusers accountable. We can do both; we must do both.
Jesus didn’t shy away from hard questions or preaching difficult truths. He radically challenged religious leaders and the comfortable status quo with empathy, grace, strength, conviction, and truth. Jesus did not remain neutral or “wait for all the facts”—he consistently sided with the marginalized every time.
Although Jesus affirmed that all human beings matter and have inherent worth and dignity—he focused most of his time specifically on those whose lives were deemed least worthy in society. Instead, he centered on those deemed in society as “the least” in his work and ministry—the poor, immigrant, widowed, prostituted, oppressed, sick, incarcerated, and outcast. Jesus, a man of color, was not lynched for sharing messages of peace and love. He was crucified by law enforcers for many reasons, but one was certainly his prophetic disruption of “business as usual” and his rebellious solidarity with the oppressed.
It is normal to have mixed emotions after a shocking discovery. You may know an abusive person—but still believe they are good, recognize the incredible gifts they may have to share with the world,
remember how they showed kindness to you, appeared to be a “man/woman of God,” or you may have trouble believing that the person you know could be capable of causing such hurt, pain, and trauma towards others.
Social norms and media play a significant role in skewing our perceptions and generating inaccurate stereotypes of abusers as easily identifiable people. This often leads us to overlook those in our own lives and prevents us from looking inward to see our own complicity and some of the unhealthy, manipulative, or abusive behavior we may have perpetrated ourselves. Instead of allowing new information about people and institutions to shift our beliefs, even disrupting our worldview, reputation, or perception of another, we tend to deny that new information. We tell ourselves: this can’t possibly be true.
Although denial is often used to give us a false and temporary sense of protection or comfort, Christ following, peace-making, and justice demands us to be uncomfortable.
Holding the tension of mixed views/emotions can be difficult. Human beings are far more complex than the neat boxes we try to force them in. All people have goodness and redeeming qualities. People who abuse are not monsters. They are people just like you and me.
Black-and-white binary thinking is common—we tend to label people as either “good” or “bad.” Binary thinking can have detrimental effects. Suppose we cannot hold this tension and accept that sometimes people are not who we thought they were, have different “sides” we don’t see, or that someone we like/love is capable of abuse. In that case, we tend to shift blame from the perpetrator (who is responsible for the abuse) to the victim (who is not responsible for the abuse perpetrated against them). As a society, we have found it easier to punish victims who speak out or other messengers of painful truths, instead of directing our anger at the source of the problem.
This response to victims can cause severe, compounding harm, and additional trauma. Shifting blame onto the victim is especially devastating in a church setting or with other religious/spiritual people, where people often expect support and healing and instead feel abandoned.
Instead, sometimes betrayal trauma looks like invalidating the righteous anger of the victim. It looks like siding with the perpetrator. It looks like blind loyalty to abusive people and institutions. We deny, minimize, trivialize, justify, dismiss, or even excuse the gravity of abuse.
This is particularly common when the priest or clergy member abuses an adult. Adult victims of abuse are far more likely to be held responsible for the abuse perpetrated against them. Sexual abuse against adults, which involves a spiritual leader or counselor engaging in any sexual activity with a person in the congregation or who is receiving counseling (regardless of any appearance of consent) is always an abuse of power.
This is not a misunderstanding, mistake, miscommunication, affair, inappropriate relationship, or an overwhelming temptation. It is a deliberate pattern of behavior chosen by the abuser. A more powerful person takes advantage of a less powerful person, often in a state of vulnerability. The clergy member is often a beloved person of status, respect, and moral authority in the community. The abuse is often additionally spiritualized as the religious leader uses scripture or theology to manipulate the victim into doing what he wants.
It is critical that we hold abusers accountable, regardless of our personal feelings and experiences with that person. Accountability is the best thing that can happen to an abuser—it interrupts their destructive choices, brings the harmful behavior to the light, and provides an additional opportunity for change.
Betrayal Trauma and accountability are something, as a church, we must do the hard work to confront— to reckon with, reflect on, but most importantly—push for change and real accountability. No one is above accountability. Sometimes we are so obsessed with preserving and defending our worldview, the church, and our beliefs, that we become incapable of thinking critically. Human beings with power, status, moral prestige (paired with lack of accountability) are those that are most likely to abuse, not least likely. As a person gains power, too often, they feel more entitled to the use of others and know their positive reputation will protect them. Abusers groom not only the victim; they often groom the entire community.
We must end the worship of flawed human beings and institutions and refuse to accept the illusion that they can do no wrong. From a Christian theological standpoint, Jesus was the only perfect person—no other human being or institution deserves worship. When we put people and institutions on a pedestal, we far too easily become blindly loyal and avert our eyes to the blatant abuses and pain in front of us.
As a church, we can heal or harm—which path will we choose going forward?