How Could This Happen?

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Nassar victims

I wept as one young woman after another came forward and bravely faced him. I silently cheered them on as the tears freely fell down my face and onto my shirt – I didn’t care who saw me. These brave women faced the demon who had tormented them and they survived. They will remember that moment, too, and it will strengthen them when the black memories seek to haunt them – and they will. Along with many, I look forward to hearing their stories of victory and grace that surely will be told.

Besides the sheer weight and magnitude of the evil done (which, in truth, is incomprehensible), a number of things have struck me hard with this story as a result of questions that are being repeatedly asked. In an effort to help the church become better equipped at walking alongside abuse survivors, I’m writing today to both educate and, hopefully, equip the body with tools of understanding and discernment to use when facing abuse in their midst. The questions I’ve repeatedly heard are, “Why didn’t they tell someone when this was happening to them?” “Why didn’t the other adults who knew do something?” and “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?”

Why didn’t they tell?

A common thread through almost every single testimony was that of the victims not knowing what was happening to them when the abuse took place. It’s difficult for many people – people who have no history of abuse – to comprehend how someone could not understand where moral, ethical, or legal boundaries ought to be when it comes to touch, behavior, demands, or even language. People tend to imagine themselves in the shoes of a sexual abuse victim and believe they know what they would do. They think – rationally, calmly, and from the safety of their homes and abuse-free lives – that they either wouldn’t put up with what these victims endured or that they would report it immediately. But that is so far from the experience of a victim that it is neither realistic nor reasonable to expect.

It was clear from these testimonies that all of these girls and young women were vulnerable to ongoing sexual abuse because they did not know that what was happening to them was abuse. They were expertly lied to. Little children simple can’t know that what is happening to them is inappropriate adult behavior until someone explicitly tells them so. They are dependent on the adults in their lives to teach them what is right and what is wrong. When a trusted adult abuses them and tells them that this is a “normal” procedure (or some other lie), they can do nothing but believe them and to accept the behavior as normal and right. They might know they don’t like it. They might know that it hurts. But child victims don’t know that what is happening to them is wrong. Because it’s usually done by someone who is trusted, it is accepted.

But even young women can be easily convinced that the abuse that is being perpetrated upon them is something they must accept. Abusers always enjoy a position of power over their victims – if they didn’t the victim wouldn’t submit. There is vulnerability inherent in abuse, no matter what kind it is, and no matter how old the victim is. But there is another dynamic going on for victims as well. Unless we are given specific information about what abuse is, where the boundaries are, and when to tell, we tend to generate a personal definition of abuse as “something worse than what I am experiencing.”

Seeing one’s self as a victim of abuse is repulsive. As noted above, child victims simply don’t know that they are victims, and the truth is, adult victims rarely see themselves as victims until someone else points it out to them. In fact, it typically takes a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that someone you love and trust is hurting you for their own pleasure, gratification, and/or satisfaction. A long time. It presents as a cognitive distortion of such magnitude that it is very difficult to come to accept as truth. This was also evident in many of the testimonies given last week.

Additionally, and not insignificantly, victims are not stupid. They know full well what it will cost them to openly accuse their abusers of their crimes. The goal of coming forward might be to get abusers to stop, but it often doesn’t happen because of how difficult it is to make abuse charges stick, and to be believed. It is a very common experience for telling someone about abuse to come at an indescribably high price to the victim. Victims have already been terribly wounded by the abuse – not many want to open themselves up to wounding again by the shaming, blaming, and attacking that will surely come if they tell.

Why didn’t adults do something?

A second question I’ve heard surrounds the incomprehensibility of adults knowing that something was amiss with this man and yet they did nothing to stop him. It is hard to detangle the complex web of complicity, cover-ups, and failure on the parts of so many adults in authority, but it is clear that many had opportunity to do something to protect the vulnerable but failed to do so. Complicating the very disorienting truth of not understanding what was happening to them, victims did tell, but what we know from testimony after testimony is that they were not believed, or that their stories were minimized or ignored, or worst of all, they were made out to be the ones doing something wrong by calling a trusted adult’s character into question. This is a very common experience for abuse victims – both children and adults, and the damage done by this is incalculable.

Authority figures of all sorts – parents, coaches, administrators, trainers, and medical personnel knew about this man’s abuse and did nothing. They were dismissive. They were indignant at the accusation (rather than the abuse). They worried that they would forfeit their positions, be cut off from the sport they loved, or miss out on the gold medals (ie – their glory) they coveted. They were willing to sacrifice child after child on the alter of fame, power, and prestige. Some didn’t want to make waves. Some thought they wouldn’t be believed. Some didn’t think it was bad enough to make a stink about. All of them are culpable. All of them bear a heavy weight of responsibility. And the same will be true for each of us if we suspect that abuse is taking place and don’t do all we can to stop it.

The only appropriate response to a report of abuse is to move heaven and earth to make it stop. Period. Nothing else is more important. Not protecting the perpetrator’s reputation, not waiting to try to figure out if the victim’s story makes sense, not protecting a system’s reputation, or a complicit adult’s aspirations, wealth, or career – nothing. The betrayal of the adults in these girls’ lives and their failure to protect them before and after the abuse is every bit as bad as the abuse itself. I’m glad to see that this is not ending with one man’s sentencing because there are many who failed these girls. And this is a very common experience for abuse victims, too. We would do well to listen to their excuses and examine our own hearts very closely to see if there is any similar thinking lurking there. Any time we “don’t want to be bothered,” or “don’t want to make a fuss,” or want someone else to take care of it, we are doing the same thing that these complicit adults did.

How did he get away with it for so long?

The third question I’ve heard many ask is, “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?” As all abusers do, this perpetrator went to great lengths to cast doubt on his victims’ claims. Even after he was convicted, he continued his attempts to try to excuse his behavior, explain it away, or deflect attention away from what he did in order to try to minimize both the charges against him and any possible consequences he might need to pay. His tactics ranged from distorting the truth and calling abuse a “medical procedure,” to calling into question the veracity of the testimony of his young victims.

As I was scrolling through social media to see what people were saying I ran across a very encouraging series of Tweets from Wade Mullen (@wad3mullen), professor at Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Pennsylvania which address this issue head-on. Mullen offers a list of 12 tactics abusers use to disorient and confuse both victims and those trying to make sense of what is being said when a victim comes forward with an allegation. These are classic abuser tactics, and Mullen puts them into a concise form so that we can learn to recognize them when someone is trying to deceive or confuse us.

Mullen’s list is below in its entirety. It is excellent. It takes a messy, confusing set of tactics abusers use to discredit their victims and obscure the truth and helps us see what’s really happening. Clarity, above all else, is needed when dealing with those who consistently distort and misrepresent the truth. It is encouraging to hear Christian leaders speak truth into this topic. It often takes a long time to realize what is really happening in many cases of abuse – perhaps this helpful list will make it easier to clear a way through the fog in less time. As I’ve written before, trauma stories are often disjointed and messy when they first come out. It is easy to become frustrated with a victim’s lack of clarity and the way the details come out in “bits and pieces.” It is the nature of trauma to render victims speechless, but Mullen’s list helps explain the things abusers do to make it even harder for victims to be clear enough for others to understand and believe them. Hopefully you will begin to understand why those walking alongside need to be patient – and careful – to listen well to victims of abuse.

Here is Mullen’s list of 12 ways abusers attempt to redefine what they’ve done:

“Lately, #metoo and #churchtoo and now #175years victims have been emboldened to share their stories. In response, some abusers have issued statements in an attempt to define the “incident” in the way they want everyone to define it. Here are 12 of the many tactics we’ve seen recently:

  1. The details of a victim’s story are disruptive to the image of the abuser. Therefore, abusers will give it a label and say nothing more about it. Her details may destroy their definition of the “incident” and reveal coverup of a crime, not a mistake which the abuser regrets.
  2. Although he was an adult in a position of authority and trust, the abuser gives the impression it could have been consensual and typical. This tactic is called blurring and hides the truth without putting the abuser in the indefensible position of telling an outright lie.
  3. Abusers take every opportunity to mention the abuse took place a long time ago in a place far way. We tend to care more about recent harm done to those close to us (our own children). By amplifying these gaps in time and place, they create distance between you and the story.
  4. Abusers place great focus on their “redemptive process.” By using qualifiers like “full” to describe responsibility and “every” to describe the steps taken, they promote themselves as exemplary models of redemption. We should then trust them when they say it was “dealt with.”
  5. a) Abusers use a very subtle tactic I call polishing. Just as your shoes look better after you polish them, which in turn improves your overall appearance, abusers polish the people who have known about their abuse but have nonetheless supported him. b) By stating the behavior was known by other leaders and relatives who have continued to support him, abusers use them as a witness to their narrative. Now followers will have to reject the witness and credibility of their leaders and friends if they are to reject the abuser.
  6. Even though the story is about pain inflicted on the victim, attention is given to the abuser’s pain & how saddened he is. This is called supplication and it causes his followers to pray over him, applaud him, and call him worthy. Sadly, he receives what the victim never did.
  7. Abusers can be quick to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” but real apologies include a full and complete confession without explanation or excuse and an offer to accept penalizing actions. Restitution begins immediately with the victim and includes cooperation with the law.
  8. When abusers can’t refute a story, they try their best to dilute it. Diverting attention away from the crime and toward the perceived positive outcomes like lessons learned and the good they have done since, causes followers to view negative events in a positive light.
  9. When abusers state how uncharacteristic this behavior is of them, that they never engaged in similar behavior before or after the incident, they are trying to convince people they should not be linked to this kind of behavior. It may be true, but it doesn’t need to (be) said.
  10. Abusers may make a big deal about their pursuit of forgiveness and make it more important than the pursuit of examination. However, truth must precede confession which precedes forgiveness which precedes change. Forgiveness is exploited when it prevents discovery of truth.
  11. Abusers will try to conform themselves to the side of the victim, so as to keep people from taking sides. When they claim to be on the side of the victim and offer healing, but avoid the truth, they put the victim in a trap. When she doesn’t concede she’s seen as unforgiving.
  12. Abusers will abuse the Bible by quoting passages on mercy, love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. They boost teachings that will serve their cause and belittle teachings that threaten their image (truth, justice). It’s another trap that seeks to pit you against Scripture.

“Abusers who engage in this complex process of managing the impressions others form of them will always confuse their targets. It is easier to manipulate and control confused people. The abuser will then influence their thoughts so that they voluntarily act according to his plan.”

The only thing I would add to this helpful list is that when the abuser’s attempts to reframe the story fails to convince anyone that the victim isn’t telling the truth, he will go to great lengths to smear her reputation, and call her sanity and trustworthiness into question. This, too, is a classic tactic. These are good to know and understand as you wade through the many, many stories coming out into the light. All of these are common experiences for victims of abuse.

What can the church do?

Believe that abuse takes place in all the places you would never suspect. Believe allegations of abuse – the incidence of false reporting is rare, and it should not be used as justification to not pursue the truth. Protect the vulnerable, seek justice for those who have been oppressed.

And, beloved church, as we seek to minister to every sinner – abusers included – let us not focus on the things abusers say, but much more on how they conduct themselves over the course of time and through the testing of stress, struggle, and consequences. Abusers who are truly repentant will abhor all that they’ve done, not seek attention for any of it. They will seek the victim’s well being – even if it costs them much. Abusers need to be held accountable because the temptation to abuse again will be incredibly strong, and will be a life-long battle.

Victims, on the other hand, need much care. They will almost certainly need counseling with qualified counselors, and a lot of patience, love, and compassion as they try to learn how to carry their stories of abuse with them for the rest of their lives. As Christians, we love stories of forgiveness and redemption – and we should. Our Savior bent low to rescue us from our own filthy messes. But when it comes to abuse, we must not be easily fooled into believing words of repentance and change. As C. H. Spurgeon noted, true repentance can be seen when we dread our sin “as the burnt child dreads fire.” Until that is evident in an abuser’s life, we would be wise to question everything.

May God be glorified, church, as we arm ourselves with knowledge and seek to find ways to respond that bring no further harm to the vulnerable, even while seeking to call the guilty to repentance.

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