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SPOTLIGHT on Systemic Silence Surrounding Child Abuse

Posted on Monday, February 08, 2016 11:45 AM

After seeing “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe investigation of child abuse coverups in the Catholic Church, I can’t stop thinking about how far secrecy goes in institutions. Mark Ruffalo who played Mike Rendezza in the movie won a SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) award. In his acceptance speech, he cites the Catholic coverup is “one of the most horrific things our culture has allowed to happen. http://deadline.com/2016/01/sag-awards-spotlight-a... .” He doesn’t just blame priests. But shines the light on bystanders who saw something but said nothing. It was this systemic silence that prompted Attorney Mitchell Garabedian’s point in the movie: “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to abuse them.” The lingering questions left for me as a church-going clinician is: How can cultures call to protect children allow abuse? What’s the impact on children who become adult survivors? What steps can we take to respond faithfully? Big questions for a small article. We can only start the conversation.

Systemic silence is a collective phenomenon that turns a blind eye to bad behavior. People sweep it under the rug, act like it didn’t happen and hope it will go away. In the case of a crime, victims are seldom believed, offenders aren’t held accountable and faith communities can’t heal. Extreme examples of systemic silence include revisionist history of the Holocaust, abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib and the support of Sandusky by those who saw him rape boys. Most of us who keep quiet (and we all do) isn’t evil. Our intent isn't to harm to innocents. Often its conflicting loyalties between people we love and values we hold dear. We can't believe that ‘such good people can do such bad things.’ There’s little scholarly research or theological reflection on systemic silence. But it is in the Bible. Joseph’s brothers colluded in silence for decades about his child abuse. Not sexual, it was physical. They ditched him in a pit and left him for dead. Then he was trafficked into slavery.

Clinician Sandra Butler coined this concept in her groundbreaking book called Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest (1979). Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune from the Faith Institute in Seattle then imported the idea from families of origin to families of faith (Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin). Now, Boz Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson and founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), has become the herald to evangelicalism (http://www.netgrace.org/resources/2015/4/9/where-are-the-voices-the-continued-culture-of-silence-and-protection-in-american-evangelicalism). It’s Tchividijan who tackles my first question (http://www.netgrace.org/resources/2015/4/9/walls-of-silence-protecting-the-institution-over-the-individual): How can cultures call to protect children allow abuse? Pointing to church leaders, he suggests three reasons: directing members not to speak under the guise of gossip, refusing to report to law authorities and downsizing the offense and passing perpetrators on to another parish. In a follow-up story with "Spotlight's" investigative team (New Yorker, 2015), one reporter gives another reason: "If the crimes of the priest were mentioned, they were often referred to as ‘sins,’ for which the priest had repented and been forgiven. With no sophisticated understanding at a time when there should have been that these were A) criminal acts and B) criminal acts of a type that recurs again and again (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/sarah-larson/spotlight-and-its-revelations).”

Seeing abuse as a sin to be forgiven instead of a crime to be dealt with is likely why offenders aren’t always held accountable and survivors are seldom believed. That's certainly what happened initially in the Sandusky story. While consequences to Penn State and former coach Joe Paterno dominated the media, there was little said about the impact on victims. The same can be said for the Catholic crisis. “There was no appreciation whatsoever of the impact on a child’s life or development,” Rendezza says. “Zero,” reporter Sacha Pfeiffer agreed. “And I think that’s one thing that’s still unclear. Does the Church get it? Do they get how it totally affects you the rest of your life (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/sarah-larson/spotlight-and-its-revelations)?” If we're honest most of us don't. But you don’t have to be a veteran, a refugee or a rape victim to experience trauma. All of us can and many do. Credible research shows that one in five Americans is sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent and one of the three couples engages in physical violence and one in eight children witness their mother being hit (Felitti, et all; ACE Study).

Recovery from trauma is not an event. It is a long journey home. A journey with life-altering effects. Drawing on thirty years of experience, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, one of the world’s foremost experts on this subject sums up its impact: “Most rape victims, combat soldiers and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, [and] act like nothing happened (The Body Keeps the Score, Prologue, 1).” As you can imagine it takes tremendous energy to move on while carrying a memory of terror that you’re too ashamed to talk about. Feeling small and weak some compensate by being strong and successful to deflect their shame and downplay their chronic loneliness. Numbing feelings for a lifetime to survive, we feel disembodied, displaced and often spiritually homeless. To Van Der Kolk's research," trauma reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, relationships, self-control and trust (ibid, jacket). New Testament Professor and adult survivor Andrew Schmutzer's names being abused as "Majestically Broken:"

Collector-of-Fragments, we are broken now.
Fragmented are simple expectations.
Fragmented are life-giving hopes.
Fragmented are ligaments of faith.

How good are you at:
Finding, Cleaning,
Mending pieces of lives?
The dismembered, displaced and disoriented need to know

Facing what the Center for Disease Control calls a "hidden epidemic" in this country how can faith communities respond faithfully? For starters, the definition for child abuse is broader than you might think. It not only involves physical contact and penetration. It's any sexual act between an adult and a minor, or between two minors, when one exerts power over the other; forcing, coercing or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act; non-contact acts such as exhibitionism, exposure to pornography, voyeurism, and communicating in a sexual manner by phone or Internet (http://www.D2L.org/LearnTheFacts). Because in the words of the then-Globe editor Marty Baron "We’re going after the system,” it's important to begin by raising awareness among leaders and educating and equipping whole congregations:

  • Put the subject of child abuse on the Agenda of you governing boards monthly meeting. Provide this fact sheet for discussion (http://nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/caring/ChildSexualAbuseFactSheet.pdf').
  • See “Spotlight.” Raise awareness among churchgoers by utilizing the UCC’s newly published discussion guide (http://www.ucc.org/_spotlight_discussion_guide_a_meaningful_conversation_starter_for_preventing_sexual_abuse_in_churches).
  • Arrange training for clergy and staff by a qualified clinician (http://www.beverlyweinhold.org) to learn how to respond to a victim’s disclosures, offer informed pastoral care and make appropriate referrals to community resources.
  • Learn the reporting laws for child abuse in your state and have a conversation with victim advocates or law enforcement authorities about how to recognize and when to report offending behaviors (https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/statutes/manda/).
  • April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. Preach a sermon on it, light a candle and pray for victims in a worship service. And invite a Women's Center or Shelter to speak in a 'spotlight' moment during the service and have a conversation a coffee after church.
  • Be proactive and make a plan based on best practices in case of an allegation against a clergyperson, staff, volunteer or congregant in your faith community (http://www.gundersenhealth.org/upload/docs/NCPTC/Jacobs-Hope/Jacobs-Hope-vol2-issue1.pdf).

Summarizing, a faithful response to child sexual abuse that brings restorative justice includes holding perpetrators accountable, believing and supporting victims and including congregations with appropriate levels of disclosure rather than imposing a gag order. Healing involves the whole community to ensure that the same cycle won't recycle again. Prevention requires raising awareness, breaking the silence and equipping the system and making a plan. Child abuse is an adult problem. If we see something we must be brave enough to say something. Where were you,” Robinson asks Jim Sullivan in “Spotlight” the movie. “I don’t know Robbie. We all knew something was going on. Where were you?”


ACE Study-Prevalence-Adverse Child Experiences, http://www.cdc.gov/needphp/aceprevalence.htm.

Butler, S. (1979). Conspiracy of Silence: The trauma of incest. Sierra Nevada, CA: Volcano.

Felletti, et al. “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14, no 4 (1998): 245-58.

Fortune, M. (1983). Sexual Violence: The unmentionable sin. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim.

Larson, S. “Spotlight” and its revelations.” New Yorker Magazine (Dec 8,2015).

Pagen-Faust, B., et al and McCarthy, T. Spotlight. (2015). US: Open Road Films.

Schumtzer, A. Ed. (2011). The Long Journey Home. Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock.

Schumutzer, A. “We Are Majestically Broken.” The Long Journey Home. (2011): Appendix.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of
trauma. NY: Penquin.
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