When victims come forward about abuse within a church, school, or youth organization, the institution of trust at the center of the allegations has a choice to make: either (a) believe and support victims and take all necessary steps to prevent abuses from being repeated; or (b) disbelieve, deny and take all necessary steps to protect the reputation of the organization.
Institutions that choose to put their reputation first are not just passively failing to rectify past harm (and putting future children at risk); these organizations are actually inflicting additional harm on those who have already suffered sexual abuse.
This phenomenon is called “institutional betrayal.” Institutional betrayal is defined as “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals (e.g. sexual assault) committed within the context of the institution.” Institutional Betrayal and Betrayal Blindness, Jennifer J. Freyd, Department of Psychology, University of Oregon.
Current social science research is finding that a callous response by an organization (“institutional betrayal”) inflicts separate injuries, distinct from and in addition to the original abuse (or other trauma). See Institutional Betrayal, Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer J. Freyd University of Oregon.
The movie “Spotlight”, currently in theaters, in part tells the story of the Catholic Church’s efforts in Boston to keep child sexual abuse by priests a secret. We are still learning the full extent of past institutional betrayal, but we know it stretches far beyond Boston. Just this week, a news story discusses new testimony about a Catholic leader who threatened a police officer’s job in the 1970s if the officer didn’t drop an investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by a monsignor.. And Australia’s senior ranking Catholic leader, Cardinal George Pell, is facing current allegations about callousness towards abuse victims in the past – including allegations that he joked about a priest raping boys, tried to bribe victims to stay quiet, and told a reporting victim not to be “so ridiculous.”
But it is also important to recognize that this type of institutional betrayal and cover-up is a very real, current problem. For example, a quick review of this week’s news include the following stories:
- A priest who admitted under oath to destroying documents that implicated other priests accused of sexual abuse has been appointed by the Diocese of Sand Diego as the person in charge of the hotline that victims are told to call to report abuse in the Catholic church.
- El Salvador’s highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader is under fire for trying to bribe a victim to stay quiet about child sexual abuse she suffered as a priest.
Institutional betrayal is not only a Catholic problem – we’ve seen it in the Boy Scouts of America, the Mormon Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Boys and Girls Club, and other churches, schools, and youth-serving organizations.
Whatever an organization’s responsibility for particular sins of the past, the social science shows that real damage can be inflicted by the way institutions choose to respond to allegations of abuse. Nice sounding statements about “concern” for victims only go so far; actions speak louder than words. Every organization has a current choice to make: will they support victims and encourage healing? Or will they chose to inflict further harm on the vulnerable who have already been hurt in their organizations?
If you would like advice about the legal rights and options for victims of child sexual abuse, please contact Crew Janci LLP today for a no-cost confidential consultation at 1-888-407-0224 or by using our private online form. We will treat you with discretion and respect.
Together, in solidarity with survivors of sexual abuse everywhere, we can all do our part to help eradicate child sexual abuse in institutions of trust.