Believing Survivors

“Shame stops children reporting abuse in religious institutions” – The Guardian

Every group where there’s trust and closeness attracts abusers. But there are some key features which make it more likely that abuse will go unchecked.

TW: abuse survivors may find some aspects of this article triggering.

Features of a system that are likely to enable abuse

A culture of shame around sexuality will make it more likely that abusers can shame their victims into silence. If you’re coerced into believing that all manifestations of sexuality are shameful, you’re unlikely to understand the difference between healthy, consensual sexual situations and unhealthy, coercive sexual situations.

It’s also possible that abusers think that a vow of celibacy will help them to resist their urges. Or they know that their apparent celibacy is the perfect cover for abuse, because victims are less likely to be believed.

Authoritarian and hierarchical settings are more likely to create opportunities for abuse, because a great deal of power is available to authority figures and they can use it to hide their abusive activities and instill fear into victims.

Even in communities where there isn’t a formal and institutionalized hierarchy, abuse can still occur for other reasons.

Members of marginalized religions feel pressure to not disclose abuse because their religion is already persecuted & revelations of abuse might make the persecution worse.

In reality the best way to prevent abuse is to be open about it, and what measures are being put in place.

Plausible deniability is a huge factor enabling perpetrators to get away with abuse. Members of close-knit communities find it hard to believe that a particular person they’ve known for years could be an abuser. “But they’re so nice!” is the typical response.

There’s a reluctance to believe that this is a systemic problem. People always want to think that it’s a few bad apples infiltrating the community, rather than a culture that permits people to get away with abuse. That’s why #MeToo places so much emphasis on believing survivors.

Because people are reluctant to believe survivors (for various reasons), abusers are enabled to get away with abuse.

Reasons why people don’t want to believe survivors:

  • authority & power of the abuser;
  • apparent niceness of the abuser;
  • culture of shame around sexuality.

This can result in victim blaming — assumptions that the victim “led the perpetrator on” (ugh), or was too weak to say no (in reality, abusers ignore clear refusals), or even that they’re lying or exaggerating the abuse.

But when multiple survivors come forward, it’s harder to ignore.

However, if you know a survivor, don’t pressure them to speak out. Instead, help to create a culture where it’s safe for them to speak out. If and when they do speak out, support them, and support other people who support them, because supporters of survivors will also be attacked.

If the survivor was an adult when the abuse occurred, people find it difficult to understand that it’s abuse. But if there’s a significant difference of power between abuser and abused, then it’s abuse.

If the abuser is an authority figure who tells the victim to keep quiet and promises them something (extra spiritual status, initiation etc) in exchange for the violation of their person, then it’s abuse. They may also threaten the victim with loss of spiritual status.

In many settings (not just religious settings) abusers groom their victims by undermining their confidence, saying things like they’re ugly or fat or unlovable. This happened to me, so I know.

Abusers also tell their victims that no-one will believe them if they speak out about the abuse, and that they will be shunned by the community.

Sadly, this is often the truth. Is that what we, as religious/spiritual communities, really want? To be complicit with abusers?

We have to do better.

How to reduce opportunities for abuse

By creating strong community standards of consent and safeguarding, it’s possible to reduce the opportunities for abuse.

  • Believe survivors (I can’t emphasize this strongly enough).
  • Establish clear guidelines. Be prepared to act on them. Fuzzy guidelines enable abusers.
  • If someone says No to anything, even hugs, respect their No. Don’t assume that their yes is always yes or that their no is always no. Check each time.
  • Promote resources about consent in your community. “Consent & tea” is excellent.

It’s also important for communities to share knowledge of abusers and believe members of other communities who pass information along. Abusers, once outed in one setting, will move to another setting and start abusing there. In some cases the parent institution moves them to another setting (the Catholic Church did this repeatedly, but is by no means the only offender in this regard).

The best way to prevent abuse: create a consent culture.

  1. push for consent culture in wider society;
  2. provide clear community guidelines on consent & safeguarding;
  3. be willing to listen to victims and act on what they say;
  4. empower individuals.
[source: Kim & Tracey Dent-Brown, chapter in Pagan Consent Culture, co-edited by Christine Hoff-Kraemer and me]

Our book, Pagan Consent Culture is relevant to lots of groups, not just Pagans, and is an excellent resource for thinking about consent in religious & spiritual communities.

I didn’t write this to promote Pagan Consent Culture; it is genuinely relevant to the topic.



This post is also available as a tweet thread.