Stop the Blame
Victim blaming: what it is and why it needs to stop
+JMJ+ I have something to say about a very serious issue that has reared its ugly head once again.
I want to talk to you about victim blaming.
What is victim blaming? Simply put, victim blaming occurs when the victim is held at full or partial fault for a crime that has been committed. One example is putting blame on a female victim of sexual assault for her manner of dress. In order to truly take a stand against any kind of abuse, society needs to stop the victim blaming.
This culture of victim blaming has become ingrained in our culture and is purported in part through the media. Stories of sexual assault are sensationalized, negative assumptions are inferred about the victim, and the full blame is oftentimes not put entirely onto the person who is should be on - the predator. Sadly, I dealt with my own fair share of victim blaming when I came forward with my story of sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest. This blaming even went into the trial with the defense and the media making sweeping assumptions about my family and me.
My heart breaks for survivors who try to come forward but are then blamed for the abuse or for “covering it up.”
There is a portion of my blog called Healing Hearts, Hope Restored. This is where I open my blog to stories of hope, healing, and restoration. It’s my way of trying to give other trauma survivors a voice.
A few months ago, I posted a very beautiful and heartfelt open letter from a Catholic priest named Fr. Brent Shelton. I have since deleted his letter and I think you'll understand why once I explain. Without going into too much detail, Fr. Brent was a victim of a predatory priest when he was a young man (19 years old and in the seminary). Fr. Brent told his spiritual advisor and the priest's diocese but nothing was done and so he handled the situation as many survivors would - he was silent. To make a long story short, he eventually found out that the older priest (since deceased) had been accused of sexual assault by several other teen boys. Fr. Brent bravely came forward about his own experiences. A few years ago, he told his parishioners as well as his bishop. Since the predator is deceased, there will sadly be no justice or complete disclosure for any of the survivors, including this courageous priest.
Fr. Brent's letter encouraged Catholics to not stop fighting against corruption. He also expressed that he felt complicit in the cover-up of the other priest’s actions. While I in no way shape or form want to discredit Fr. Brent's feelings, I respectfully have to disagree. He was not complicit. He was a victim and he blamed himself for not coming forward sooner. He held onto a lot of guilt after finding out about the other victims. Fr. wished that he understood then as a young man what he understands now about predators and victims.
If you have ever been a survivor, you know all too well that we often blame themselves. You may think you didn’t do enough to stop the assault or that you were responsible for it happening in the first place. Blaming ourselves may also make us feel safer in a way. It’s easier to rationalize an assault with something such as, “It was the way I was dressed...” rather than facing the reality that there is evil and evil people in the world. The world isn’t “fair” in the ways we wish it was.
That still doesn’t make any survivor complicit.
Unfortunately, a reporter picked up on Fr. Brent's letter and published an article inferring that the priest was indeed complicit in covering up clergy abuse. Part of the headline read, "...he confesses he kept silent."
Wow. "Confesses?" Doesn't "confesses" infer that someone did something wrong? Is this article, then, really fair? I think not. This article is a clear case of victim blaming.
Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be a Catholic priest these days. The secular media has cast a negative light on the priesthood, making a majority of them to be abusers. Now imagine having your profession seen in a negative light and, on top of that, you yourself were a direct victim of a real predator. You have tried to speak up, not only to bring attention to the issue of abuse and corruption, but to help other survivors and to encourage others to come forward. Yet, your suffering is discounted and you are purported to be somehow complicit in covering up the abuses of your brother priests.
News flash: there have been priests and seminarians who have also been victims of abuse. And they deserve our support and understanding just as much as anyone else. They deserve to heal.
Sadly, victim blaming has become a part of our culture, particularly when there is an agenda to be pushed. I'm not really sure what point the reporter was trying to get across from his article or if there is some agenda (it seemed he was trying to connect the dots where there were none to connect) but, either way, the article could easily be misconstrued by someone who doesn't know the situation and the victim has, once again, been victimized. Again, I can't pretend to assume what the journalist in this case was trying to do, but many times in my own life I have witnessed journalists who are so anxious to find a juicy news story that they’ll do anything to get it, even at the expense of someone else. I sincerely hope this is not the case here and that the readers have somehow "misinterpreted" the intentions of the article.
Can we please remember who the blame lies with? The perpetrator! Every ounce of blame and shame should be on him/her, not on survivors.
Why is victim blaming so harmful?
Blaming survivors makes coming forward all the more difficult for them and subjects them to ridicule when they do. As a result of victim blaming, fewer crimes get reported. Fewer predators are punished and so fewer survivors see justice done. Of course that also means that there will be more victims since predators are still running free, and these perpetrators get to avoid being held accountable for their actions.
If a survivor knows that he/she will be blamed by the people around them or by society, they are not going to feel safe coming forward or talking about their experiences at all. Victim blaming attitudes also reinforce what the victim already feels so painfully: “It was my fault.”
The abuse was the perpetrator’s very bad choice, not the victim’s. Abuse is never a survivor’s fault. Stop putting so much responsibility on the person who is just trying to figure out how to move forward and heal.
And we wonder why survivors are so hesitant to come forward?
Stop 🛑 making survivors feel as if they are to blame. It’s tough enough being a survivor and blaming yourself for not speaking up soon enough or for not speaking up at all. I will always encourage survivors to come forward whenever possible, but this culture of ours does little to encourage survivors to have a voice. When a survivor does find their voice, they are often ignored or mocked. The media talks a good talk but oftentimes fails to walk the walk. This is why I am always hesitant to deal with the media, secular media in particular. I have had several very negative experiences in my own life in regards to my own sexual abuse case.
How about instead of trying to juice up stories, we learn about victimization? There is no need to embellish, infer, etc. How about we concentrate on trying to encourage and help survivors? How about we find ways to make coming forward easier? How about we help our brothers and sisters in Christ for no other reason than we love each other and that's what we are called to do?
On a side note, please also remember that, while there have of course been predatory priests, some priests have been the prey rather than the predator. Not all priests are abusers just as not all teachers or coaches are predators and not all cops are bad. The majority of priests are NOT abusers and the silence of victim priests does not mean that they have been complicit. They have been victims.
Remember that survivors are real people with names, faces, and stories. Let’s work together to stop this culture of victim blaming and call out each other (including the media) when we do it.
Some practical advice for talking to survivors
We doubt you
We silence you
We blame you
Why did you...?
Why didn’t you...?
We are listening to you.
We believe you.
You did nothing wrong.
It wasn’t your fault.
You aren’t alone.
To anyone who has suffered the pain of victim blaming, I am so sorry. I am so thankful that you are here and I am praying for you. I can only hope and pray and trust that God will use Fr. Brent’s situation for good. If anything, maybe this will bring attention to the fact that this sort of treatment of survivors goes on. Please pray for Fr. Brent and for all survivors.
If you or a loved one has been a victim of any kind of abuse, please reach out to a therapist or a group who can provide you with support and guidance as you seek to heal. My RESOURCES page or MY BOOK might be able to help point you in the right direction.