Day of Healing Colloquium, St. Mary’s Church, December 16, 2018 by Bud C. Ballinger III, Ph.D.
Bud Ballinger is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has specialized in the assessment, treatment, and risk management of individuals who engage in sexually abusive behavior. He currently serves as the Director of Treatment Services for Institutional Sex Offender Treatment with the NYS Office of Mental Health. In 2017 he was recognized as a Fellow by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and is president of the NYS Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. He serves on the Board of Directors for the NYS Alliance for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse. He and his wife, Dr Deborah Sharp, have three children. He will be focusing on how accurate information and effective responses to sexual abuse perpetration can support people who have suffered abuse and contribute to efforts to prevent future abuse.
I would like to preface my remarks by mentioning that the first thing we as a faith community can do to support people who have been victimized is listen. While all of us have something to say to contribute to healing, any efforts we make should be firmly rooted in responding to the needs expressed by those who have been harmed. That means listening, validating their experiences and their feelings, and providing support in the same manner that Jesus would have done. We should make conscious efforts individually and collectively through our worship to remind them that we know they exist, we know they are continuing to suffer, and we want to help. The research about the harm suffered by victims suggests that a supportive and affirming response to a disclosure of abuse can reduce the suffering of a person who was victimized. Similarly, a response of disbelief, blaming the victim, or minimizing their experiences of trauma can increase their suffering and the long-term effects of trauma. We know very well that the response of the Church has been anything but supportive and affirming and continues to be so. True repentance involves accepting sole responsibility for one’s behavior and the harm it has caused and turning away from past harmful behaviors. It is hard for the Church to say that we have turned away from past harmful behaviors when acknowledgment of the wrong behavior is forced by courts, comes through planned statements, and is filtered through lawyers. Part of moving forward and supporting people who were victimized is holding our leadership accountable for responding according to Christ’s example and clearlycommunicating to them that we expect better and we must do better.
As someone who has worked primarily with perpetrators of abuse, I have had the opportunity to speak with people who have suffered abuse and they have asked me questions about perpetrators in the hope that knowing the answers would help them in the process of healing. I thought I would share some of those questions and answers in the hopes that it would be helpful in this situation.
1) Why did they do this to me?
This is the most common question. The best answer I can provide is that the perpetrator chose to prioritize his or her wants, needs, or desires over the well-being of the person they victimized. The perpetrator used distorted thinking to rationalize, justify, or blame the circumstances or the person they hurt, often working to convince the victim that it was their fault. The most important thing that we can say to people who were victimized is that what the perpetrator did to you is NOT your fault. None of it. Zero. The responsibility resides with the person who had the power in the situation and who chose to use the power to get what they wanted without regard for the safety of the person they were hurting.
In the case of clergy abuse, I believe that the popular narrative in trying to understand it has been to view clergy abuse as somehow different from sexual abuse perpetrated by other abusers. One example of this is to blame vows of celibacy. This narrative is distorted and presents the abusive priest as a person who could not control his behavior because of circumstances. It takes the responsibility away from the abuser and blames his circumstances. It is important to move away from this blame-shifting and return to the idea that the person who perpetrated the abuse chose the behavior and is responsible for it.
2) Will they do it again? Will they always do it?
One thing that is surprising to many people is to find out that the majority of sexual offenders are not rearrested or convicted for new sexual offenses after they are held accountable and face consequences for their behavior. This holds true even for many offenders who perpetrated multiple acts of abuse prior to being detected. While data from arrests and convictions are an imperfect measure and an underestimate of the actual prevalence of sexual abuse, the finding that offenders who face consequences for their behaviors are less likely to reoffend suggests that in protecting abusive clergy from exposure to consequences, the Church hierarchy caused more people to be victimized and allowed the abusive priests to become more prolific offenders. Compounding the effects of this was that abusive priests were moved to new parishes where the parishioners were unaware of their abusive behaviors and provided with a fresh start without increased supervision, accountability, or oversight. So rather than being provided with consequences to motivate a change of behavior, the abuser was provided with a new group of unsuspecting potential victims
I would like to focus the remainder of what I have to say on the idea of prevention as a response to past abuse but would like to reiterate that moving forward must involve looking back and never forgetting the past.
Here are four ways that we can work to prevent future victimization:
First, Talking to children. Historically, prevention programs have focused on telling children to avoid strangers. Newer programs have improved upon this by encouraging children to take ownership of their own bodies and to set boundaries, to be vocal about concerns they have, to talk about times they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and to identify multiple trustworthy adults within their lives to whom they can openly talk. While this approach is valuable, it can send a subtle message that if someone is or was victimized, it was because they did not do all of the things they were supposed to do to stay safe. So, while these efforts are worthwhile, care must be taken to have them be a part of a comprehensive approach.
Second, Adults should take responsibility for educating ourselves. Having accurate information about sexual abuse and having open conversations can allow us to prevent future abuse and identify risk. We are aware that there are adults in ANY situation where children are present who might be at risk to offend—abuse occurs in schools, scouts, etc. This knowledge is uncomfortable but helps us confront a misguided belief that we can tell who might be an abuser by looking. Abuse thrives in secrecy and as adults we must hold ourselves responsible for having uncomfortable conversations with each other if something does not seem right. Historically, we have avoided such conversations out of fear of offending people or saying the wrong thing. Being open and direct with each other makes it harder for secrecy to develop and communicates with potential offenders that our community will not help them keep their secrets. While getting into the details is beyond the scope of this forum, there is an organization called the Enough Abuse Campaign which encourages shifting the focus for abuse prevention efforts to adults and communities.
Third, prevention efforts should include responding effectively to perpetrators of abuse. Effective treatment for abusers reduces the likelihood that they will offend in the future. Abusers who commit to turning away from their harmful behaviors, change their thinking about their abusive behavior, work with others to manage their risk (for instance not ever being in a position of authority over children or other vulnerable persons and never being in the presence of children without a person who understands their risk and accepts responsibility for monitoring their behavior), and who are engaged by members of their communities in a way that promotes accountability and support are much less likely to reoffend than they otherwise would be. Even though we may want them to go away and allow us to forget they ever existed, we must remember that vulnerable people can be saved from suffering abuse when offenders have connections with healthy adults who can both challenge them and provide support. In our culture, we often seek retribution and punishment in the name of working to heal the victims. We may think that humane treatment is too good for offenders or even somehow disrespectful to victims. However, if a punitive approach is less effective at preventing future victimization, that ultimately means that more people will be victimized as a result of our desire for the offender to "get what's coming to them.” We should advocate for the most effective treatment of perpetrators if we are truly committed to preventing future abuse.
Finally, and most difficult, we can engage in prevention efforts by working to change elements of our culture that promote abuse. In working with offenders, it becomes obvious that the distorted thinking they use to justify offending can be rooted in common cultural beliefs. Specific to abuse perpetrated by clergy, the responses from the Church hierarchy and laypeople reflect patterns of belief that contribute to an environment in which abuse could occur. Examples include unquestioning belief in authority, believing that people who were victimized were somehow “asking for it,” or believing that men are helpless to control their sexual behavior. To move forward, we need to challenge ourselves and challenge each other to change our thinking when we hear anything that could place blame for sexual abuse on victims or potential victims or confirm perpetrators’ belief that they are not fully responsible for their abusive behavior.
Copyright © 2018 Bud C. Ballinger III. All rights reserved. Posted to https://stmarysandstjoans.org with permission.