The fall out related to my sharing of sexual harassment I experienced from a beloved, well known pastor and leader in the church has been heartbreaking- for me and for my family. The trauma of the process the organization put me through has led me to some complex PTSD, something I’ve found is common when those reporting aren’t believed. The secondary abuse of invalidating someone else’s trauma creates more trauma, it’s hurtful and abusive. I had no clue of the roller coaster I was boarding when I stepped forward. I wouldn’t have believed you it you told me what the last ten months would consist of. I’m grateful for voices like Wade Mullen, Diane Langberg, Boz Tchividjian as well as countless survivors that have shined a bright light for me to navigate this darkness. Their resources have educated me and given language for what I was experiencing. I’m thankful for the language that has equipped me to engage in ongoing dialogue with the church. Inviting them to do better and partner on the side of redemption. Below is a list from Wade Mullen, sharing 12 motivations for victims to stay silent. Sadly, I have experience with each one of them. My hope for sharing is that we can learn together so that our churches and organizations can do better.
When victims decide to go public with their story of abuse, people can be quick to question their motivations, especially if the accused is a powerful and popular person. However, the number of motivations for never telling that victims have to overcome in order to come forward are often unknown or ignored. Here are 12 of those motivations that I’ve observed in my own work and research:
1. A major reason victims remain silent is their understandable belief that the credibility of their story will be called into question. If the story threatens the identity, power, or position of a well-known and loved individual, then many might discredit victims to protect the more powerful individual.
2. Some victims feel they have a moral responsibility to remain loyal. Revealing information about an abusive person or organization might cause others to blame victims for betraying that loyalty. Victims are then manipulated into feeling their actions brought undeserved harm to another.
3. Victims are often very close to their abuser. The abuser might be a family member, boss, friend, or co-worker. Therefore, victims have a natural concern for the well-being of the abuser and might feel a need to protect. They also know many will suggest they lack compassion, mercy, forgiveness, or love for exposing the abuser.
4. In contexts where the accused is considered an important contributor to a religious belief system or cause, victim’s might be condemned for bringing public shame upon the spiritual community by giving a reason for outsiders to look upon the people and their beliefs with suspicion.
5. Fear of being blamed for the abuse can easily outweigh any motivation to tell. Many victims have tragically been made to believe their abuse was self-inflicted or deserved, either through their attire, attractiveness, assertive personality, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
6. Telling a story of abuse requires tremendous courage and vulnerability because it is impossible to know how others will respond. Some simply distance themselves because they lack the emotional maturity needed to hear ugly truths. Others go so far as to make victims feel ashamed for their involvement with the abuser.
7. If the abuse took place years ago, victims might believe they will be condemned for not coming forward sooner. When people ask, “Why did it take so long for this to be told?” they are suggesting the victim is at fault for not reporting the abuse. The sheep, now bloodied from the attack of the wolf, is somehow expected to bear the responsibility of exposing the wolf to others.
8. Victims almost always suffer relational loss after their story is made known. Friends and family may abandon them over what they perceive as a betrayal, especially if they are hearing other narratives being spread by the accused. In some cases, victims have had to relocate to another school, church, or community to escape harassment.
9. Victims are sometimes threatened with defamation lawsuits after they go public with their story. Some have even been told that they will be “destroyed” if they blow the whistle. For good reasons then, victims fear losing their jobs, facing legal expenses, and ruining future job opportunities.
10. Victims risk losing their reputation if they go public, especially if the accused is a powerful individual. The abuser can easily use that power to spread a narrative in which victims are made to appear vindictive, selfish, confused, mentally ill, bitter, or in need of attention.
11. In some cases, victims are intimidated with threats against their safety. The fear of physical or emotional abuse as retaliation is a strong (and sometimes necessary) deterrent to exposing the abuser. Victims who are trying to tell their story of abuse might know that great effort will have to go into creating a safety plan if they ever decide to tell.
12. Some victims face condemnation for not following procedures designed to keep matters internal. People ask, “Why did they have to go public?” Few understand the many unsuccessful attempts victims often make to confront their abuser. Some simply want victims to continue appealing to the wolves from inside the den of the wolves if it means keeping the world from any knowledge of the wolves.
Any one of these barriers can cause a great deal of stress. Usually there are multiple motivations that exist for never telling. This also produces despair. Victims begin believing that telling others will never accomplish anything because the barriers are too many and too great. Some victims even retract their story after meeting these powerful silencing influences.
It is no wonder then that false accusations are rare. Choosing to expose an abuser, especially one with power, carries tremendous risk. Nevertheless, we tend to be quick to question the motivations of victims and we are not so quick to consider the many strong motivations that exist for never telling.
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