Betrayal by trusted people, like pastors, teachers, supervisors and coaches can inflict devastating consequences on victims. According to psychologists who study trauma, betrayal trauma affects the brain differently than any other trauma, particularly when the victim depends upon the perpetrator. Betrayal trauma threatens the very sense of self of the victim, who often cannot easily escape because of physical, psychological or spiritual dependence.
When institutions don’t address perpetrators but rather meet survivors with denial, harassment and attack, they engage in institutional betrayal. Institutional betrayal occurs “when an institution causes harm to people who depend on it.”
Betrayal blindness describes ignoring, overlooking, “not-knowing” and forgetting betrayal. People, including victims themselves as well as perpetrators and witnesses, exhibit betrayal blindness to “preserve relationships, institutions and social systems upon which they depend.”
We don’t have to think very long to name a depressing list of instances of institutional betrayal by the church: segregation, clergy sex abuse, conversion therapy, exclusion of women from church leadership and ordained ministry, purity culture, the Magdalene laundries, witch hunts, Indian schools, on and on.
Institutional betrayal occurs “when an institution causes harm to people who depend on it.”
In recent days, we’ve seen institutional betrayal at work in megachurches like Hillsong and Highpoint, where popular pastors engaged in abusive conduct and their churches enabled them. The clergy abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention are textbook examples of institutional betrayal — institutions that chose to protect themselves rather than address the harm done to members.
Rather than challenging itself to create welcome, repair harm and do justice, the church often has chosen to preserve itself, to overlook harmful behavior by leaders and to demonize and ostracize those who speak out against abuse
Findley Edge, who taught religious education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote about the process of institutionalization. Edge explained people developed great and exciting ideas, and these ideas lead to innovations and movements. As time goes along, these innovations and movements develop structure to continue to facilitate their growth. Eventually, the first generation that formed the great and exciting idea dies out, and soon people only know the institution and not the idea that sparked it. Their goal then becomes preservation of the institution, not the idea.
Uncritical dedication to the preservation of an institution can easily lead to institutional betrayal, especially when people depend upon organizations like the church, work or family.
Jennifer Freyd, the psychologist who coined “institutional betrayal,” says people protect institutions by participating in what she calls DARVO — Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender.
We’re certainly seeing DARVO at work in the current Southern Baptist clergy abuse scandal. Just ask Christa Brown and Dee Miller who spent decades trying to get the convention to acknowledge their abuse. We’ve also seen the predictable line of attack, calling whistleblowers “adulteresses” and “sluts.” We’re also seeing survivors framed as perpetrators of harm and offenders as victims of wokeness or even Satan himself.
The clergy abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention are textbook examples of institutional betrayal — institutions that chose to protect themselves rather than address the harm done to members.
The Guidepost Solutions report, which documents the clergy sex abuse scandal among Southern Baptists, is a virtual compendium of institutional betrayal. While the convention is taking minor steps to address problems identified in the report, it hardly is blazing a path toward institutional transformation with gender justice at the center.
Churches betray people when churches harm them, especially when the harm goes unaddressed or is amplified by a church’s response. Previously, I’ve written about han, the deep suffering that results from unresolved injustice. In psychological terms, institutional betrayal can cause trauma; in theological terms, it causes han.
In contrast to institutional betrayal, Freyd suggests institutions can demonstrate “institutional courage.” Institutional courage “is an institution’s commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk and short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution.” It includes “institutional accountability, transparency, making reparations where needed and a commitment to being responsive to its members.”
What would institutional courage look like for the church?
Freyd offers 11 steps to promote institutional courage:
- Comply with civil rights laws and go beyond mere compliance; beware risk management
- Educate the institutional community, especially leadership
- Add checks and balances to power structure and diffuse highly dependent relationships
- Respond well to victim disclosures and create a trauma-informed reporting policy
- Bear witness, be accountable, apologize
- Cherish the whistleblowers; cherish the truth tellers
- Conduct scientifically sound anonymous surveys
- Regularly engage in self-study
- Be transparent about data and policy
- Use the organization to address the societal problem
- Commit ongoing resources to 1-10
By showing institutional courage, the church fulfills its mission to be a justice-seeking, loving, redemptive community. Rather than protecting institutional structures, the institutionally courageous church recognizes wrong-doing and harm, searches out truth and listens to truth-tellers, responds redemptively to harm and seeks proactively to prevent harm by creating just structures.
This means the institutionally courageous church or denomination will have clear policies and procedures for addressing sex abuse. They will act swiftly and decisively to address abuse. They will listen to survivors and provide resources for support and healing. They will tell the truth about what’s happened. They will speak out prophetically against sexism, misogyny and abuse.
Likewise, the institutionally courageous church will examine beliefs that harm people. It will root out structures that exclude and marginalize. It will call its leadership to accountability for preventing harm and repairing damage to individuals and groups when harm is done. It will tell the truth. It will take public stands against oppression, discrimination and hate, even when it’s costly.
Of all social institutions, the church — the very body that claims it is called by God to be a redemptive force in the world — should exhibit institutional courage. The church should lead the way in truth-telling, accountability, reparation and transformation. Only when it is institutionally courageous is the church in any way the body of Christ. Institutional courage is not an option for the church; it must be one of its defining characteristics.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.