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Thursday, November 10, 2022

Institutional betrayal, institutional courage and the church

Susan Shaw
Baptist News Global
Originally published 26 JUL 22

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.

Institutional betrayal

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.

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.