Marginalizing the abused: Six ways survivors are treated as insignificant

Marginalize (verb) To treat a person as insignificant.  (Oxford Dictionary)

He has worked hard to convince everyone that I am crazy.”  These were the words of a woman who was speaking about a relative who had sexually abused her as a child for years.   This well-known and “respected” relative has been successful in keeping her abuse disclosures ignored for many years by convincing anyone that listens that she is an irrational and troubled individual. After years of being labeled “crazy” and being ignored, this survivor became silent and even found herself struggling with whether or not the baseless label was legitimate.  Do you see what happened?  A person who is well liked and well-respected in the community is accused of horrific behavior that the community prefers not to believe.   The perpetrator provides the community with exactly what it wants in order for it to look the other way. Believing that the complainant is “crazy” gives the community the excuse to marginalize the victim and the disclosure, all the while showing support to the "unfairly" accused offender.

I recently watched the acclaimed Norwegian film, King of Devil’s Island.   Based upon a true story, this movie was about the Bastoy Boy’s Home for delinquent boys located on an island off of Norway in the early 20th century.   During the course of the film, a housefather named Bråthen sexually molests one of the resident boys who ends up committing suicide.   Another resident eventually reports Bråthen’s abuse to the corrupt superintendent, Bestyreren, who confronts Bråthen.  What follows are scenes that vividly illustrate some of the appalling ways sexual abuse survivors are marginalized by our communities:

  • Don’t Listen:  When initially confronted about the reported abuse, Bråthen responds, “You can’t listen to them. They say whatever they want.” Survivors are marginalized when communities are all too willing to accept the claims made by perpetrators and their supporters that the individual disclosing the abuse is “crazy” and should be ignored.  Disregarding the claims of a survivor communicates insignificance.
  • Helpless Souls:  During the course of the confrontation with Bestyreren, Bråthen claims, “The only thing I have done is to try and help a boy who could not help himself.” Survivors are marginalized when perpetrators and their supporters paint them as helpless souls.   Perpetrators are heralded as compassionate and the survivors are pitied as their disclosures are largely ignored.
  • Supporters Maligned:  At one point, Bråthen identifies the boys who reported the abuse as “animals”, claiming that they were the real source of the victim’s harm. Survivors are marginalized when those who support them are maligned as being irrational and harmful.  All too often this becomes the needed validation by some within the community to disregard allegations of abuse.
  • My Reputation:  Just when we think that Bestyreren is going to report Bråthen to the authorities, Bråthen pulls out his trump card.   He threatens to report that Bestyreren has been misappropriating funds for himself and his wife.  In perhaps the most decisive scene of the film, Bestyreren makes the deliberate decision to protect his own reputation instead of reporting the abuse and protecting the lives of the other boys under the supervision of Bråthen.  Survivors are marginalized when those within the community value their own reputation over the life of the abused.   One way this happens is when an institution fails to report an offender out of fear that its own reputation may suffer.   When speaking about the failure of boarding schools in the United Kingdom to properly respond to abuse disclosures, attorney Alan Collins recently told the New York Times, “…when teachers were discovered abusing pupils, they tended to be moved on quietly to avoid public embarrassment and damage to the school’s reputation.”
  • Disingenuous Response:  The scene immediately following the confrontation between Bråthen and Bestyreren, shows Bråthen leaving the island with his suitcases as the boys look out their dorm window visibly rejoicing.  At first it looks as if Bestyreren did the right thing.   It is not until later in the film when Bråthen returns to the island that we learn the real reason for his initial departure.  The Bastoy Boy’s Home board of directors had scheduled its annual inspection of the facility and Bestyreren did not want the boys reporting   Bråthen’s abuse, fearing that it would get him fired.   The best way to keep their silence was to make the boys think that he had terminated Bråthen.  Tragically, the plan worked.  The boys remained silent, Bestyreren kept his job, and Bråthen returned shortly after the inspection. Survivors are marginalized when a community is disingenuous about its responses to abuse disclosures.   All too often such responses are not driven by the need to serve abuse survivors and pursue justice, but to create a positive public perception and to protect jobs.
  • Misplaced Focus:  At the end of King of Devil’s Island, the boys begin a revolt when discovering that Bråthen has returned.  Eventually, the armed forces are called in to put down the revolt by beating and capturing the boys.  At no time do the authorities address the horrific abuses perpetrated by Bråthen and the fact that he was responsible for the death of a boy.  Instead, the authorities focus on silencing those who were simply crying out for justice. Survivors are marginalized when the community misplaces its focus on behavior of the abused instead of the abuser. This belittles and re-traumatizes survivors, while conveniently keeping the spotlight off of the offender, where it needs to be.

The heartbreaking reality is that the marginalization of survivors is all too common in the Christian community. I have encountered many abuse survivors who want nothing to do with Jesus because of being marginalized by the very community they had hoped would care most, the Church.  Just like the Priest and Levi in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are often so quick to embrace ‘rational excuses’ for why we walk away.  When we do this, we marginalize the very lives that God sees as beautiful and infinitely valuable.  When we do this, we marginalize Jesus.

 

This post was originally published on March 20, 2014 by RNS. It is reposted here with their permission.