Marginalizing the abused: Six ways survivors are treated as insignificant

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Derogation -  photo courtesy of David Goehring via Flickr

Derogation - photo courtesy of David Goehring via Flickr

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

Derogation -  photo courtesy of David Goehring via Flickr

Derogation – photo courtesy of David Goehring via Flickr

“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.


  • Andrew

    The marginalization seems insurmountable, and I’m merely a supporter. I do not understand why the initial Christian community reaction tends to be judgment and dismissal rather than Christlike justice and compassion. I pray more will take it to heart that, as you said, “When we do this, we marginalize Jesus.”

  • Helen

    If you could have told me 5 years ago I would see the kind of behaviour that marginalises survivors of abuse in a liberal and inclusive church, I would have not believed you.
    But seeing how my partner has been treated as a man who was a victim of a violent wife and how much the liberal members of this community have enabled her ongoing violence to him and his daughters is tragic.
    Abuse is not always physical. Psychological, financial and spiritual abuse leaves permanent scars. Having those scars compounded by a perspective that “men can’t be victims” is just tragic

  • lu

    Its a pity that most religious leaders in the USA don’t have a problem with ‘ Confidential Clergy Communications Privilege’ in cases of child abuse or neglect.

    Are not clergy marginalizing children by their not banging on the doors of legislatures across the nation imploring them to change archaic law in the states that still permit clergy penitent privilege in cases of child abuse or neglect?

  • As I read this article I notice the pain that stirs up inside me. I am moved by your understanding of the failure of the church in this area and see a little spark of hope in your call to repentance on the part of the Bride of Christ. I have been told in many a small group that talking about healing from my abuse was not allowed. It was something to be dealt with only in the therapist’s office. It is too upsetting to people, and this is NOT a support group. Never was the subject of abuse addressed from the pulpit. And more than a couple of pastors came to see me as their “project”- the poor, broken person that they would play savior to. As one on the other side of the ministry paradigm now…one who walks along others in their healing journey, I see in bold relief the difference between pity and compassion. I believe the lack of love shown to abuse survivors is endemic of a deeper problem in the church. The Bride has lost her first love. Position, power and popularity have replaced the call for many in ministry to serve in humility with a sacrificial love that reflects Jesus’ love for us. It is my heart and my prayer that the church will be restored to the glory she was created to reflect. This, in turn, will create a safe place for the many wounded souls who need a sanctuary for healing. Thank you, Boz, for using your voice to rouse the church and challenge her to her rightful place to protect and love the oppressed.

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  • Lynn Czarniecki

    “Believing that the complainant is “crazy” gives the community the excuse to marginalize the victim…’ Yes, the abused are marginalized just like people with mental illness are every day of their lives. Neither group should be; both groups of people need love, support and advocates both in the church and society. Making them insignificant diminishes us all.

  • Oscar

    I wandered aimlessly

    In a wooded autumnal day

    Kicking leaves in habit

    Mind at gentle play

    When there in the overgrowth

    I saw a rusty gate

    That I’d not noticed before

    In my wanderings of past and late

    So having not much to do

    I passed right on through

    And the gate sighed of voices past

    As on it’s rusty hinges drew

    I came upon a field

    Long since kept and nice

    And something caught my eye

    So I looked a second twice

    It was a little headstone

    Almost covered by leaves and sod

    And on it was a written

    “Known Only To A Loving God”

    Then there I found another

    And another one close by

    Each with those same words

    And dates of time of die

    And then it really struck me

    These were monuments to children past

    Who died long before old age

    In lives gone so very fast

    The names, some were familiar

    And I wondered where I’d come

    For many were the headstones

    And familiar were more than some

    Then in the gentle autumnal breeze

    I heard the gate sigh a prayer

    “You’re in a graveyard of young souls

    Taken by those supposed to care”

    And then I saw the past

    The hurt and the pain

    As I found the overgrown stone

    That alas bore my name

    There were the years of service

    Inscribed on foreign field

    Just a child in a masters plan

    To harvest native yield

    Yet the harvest had gone wrong

    And there a casualty I lay

    No one ever tended the grave

    For few ever passed this way

    The flowers that once lived

    Were no longer watered with anguished tears

    And the hair went up on my back

    As I cried in this field of fears

    The tears did nay stop coming

    As I cleared away the weeds

    On tombstone after tombstone

    Monuments to evil deeds

    And I’m sure I heard their voices

    Distant echoes in the past

    As I gathered up my thoughts

    With memories tumbling fast

    So many little monuments

    In this place so sad and odd

    And I heard the gate a whisper

    “Known Only To A Loving God”

  • Shary Hauber

    Wow. How many neglected children are there all sacrificed for god’s service.

  • oscar

    Probably many thousands. I’m one of the fortunate survivors who escaped with enough of a modicum of sanity left to make a good go of life post being a missionary kid, but many were not as fortunate, finding themselves coping with the side effects of sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Fearing to really live, but just existing, in worlds that they do not really feel a part of.

    There are several good websites to assist those who find themselves in such circumstances. Fanda Eagles being one and well worth a visit.

  • Deb

    This poem is soulful. Did you write is Oscar? If not, do you know the author?

  • The first paragraph of this post speaks so directly to my life of being raised by my pedophile father that it bring on anxiety to read it… it is spot on! And it is the WORST part of sexual abuse.

  • Oscar

    It’s my own work. I write for a website called Fanda Eagles under the pseudonym “Bemused” and find poetry a therapeutic medium for myself and the many victims of mission child abuse who use the site.
    It’s a site well worth having a look at.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    I have wanted to respond to this article for awhile, but have struggled to get my thoughts into words. The first sentence, “He has worked hard to convince everyone that I am crazy.” sounds like the religious environment I grew up in. The offenders were honored as respected leaders within Christianity.
    We often heard examples of girls and women who were so vile and corrupted that they thought they were more important than God and his work. As evil blackened their souls, they actually dared to speak out against Christian men of God and state offenses that these godly men supposedly had done. Everyone knew to stay away from these girls and women. They were liars. They were crazy. They were poisonous, ones who God had spit out and ones who no good man would ever see with respect.
    Many of us feared being named among them and we knew that only by keeping perfectly silent could we possibly be seen as having any worth at all before God.
    This WAS Christianity. We all knew that we were supposed to be living sacrifices and that we had no rights to defend ourselves or consider ourselves as more important than Ministry.
    I escaped, but only partially. I ran from that world, rejecting it, started a new life and did all I could to block out the past.
    Recently, some of the abuse that I experienced has begun to be exposed. It has been a frightening time, filled with confusion. While I no longer believe the teachings I grew up with, I still believed that Christians will hate me for exposing sexual offenders. I have seen and heard criticism from MANY. We have been accused as being liars, as being bitter, destroyers, etc.
    While there have been some who have been incredibly supportive in God’s name, the general views within Christianity still seem to shame victims and make terrible assumptions about us.
    I don’t know if true freedom can be had within the confines of a church community. While support grows among those who see the errors of wrong teaching, the community of Christianity in general, does not seem friendly to victims of sexual abuse. We seem to be seen as a different species. If we struggle with the past, we are viewed as bitter or crazy.
    Many of us have “found” each other and gained some bit of strength in knowing that we weren’t as alone as we thought. Perhaps we have all be cast out, but as we each struggle mostly alone, we also realize that we aren’t completely alone. We may be hated by much of the Christian community, but some of us are beginning to dare to believe that perhaps we aren’t hated by God.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    This is hauntingly beautiful. I suppose my tombstone is in that field…forgotten, hated and alone. I do all I can to block out my MK experiences. Usually, I can keep it blocked out like a horrific nightmare from the past.

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  • Kevin

    With absolutely no disrespect toward the children mentioned here, I applaud all the wonderful work done on their behalf. I have been presenting the evidence for children abused by state actions both in the home countries and abroad. The kids horribly abused as a result of the states actions fall into much the same patterns mentioned by the article, unfortunately when kids are abused by officials and especially by people in uniform their actions are by and large “justified” by people who would not countenance the physical abuse by anyone not in uniform and in the completion of their official duties. Those children are no less ravaged by the abuse they have suffered than those mentioned in the article, yet at times even the abused of the type mentioned in the article tell me that no it is not the same and we cannot criticise those who abuse children in the line of duty. I believe that our Savior meant it across the board when he told us that it would be better if we were tossed into the sea with a millstone around our neck than to offend one of these little ones. We would do well to remeber that before we encourage the state to commit violence against these little ones.

  • Lana

    Oscar, thank you for sharing your experiences and your pain. I am so very sorry for what happened to you, and agree that too many children are sacrificed in the name of religion. There are far too many abuses that have occurred within the confines of the Church, and the attempt to gloss over them, cover them up, and deny victims any justice has only complicated matters and caused more pain.

    I was abused though out my childhood by my father, a former cop. His prosecution was intentionally tanked, and it took 35 years for me to be able to piece together what happened because pages of the court transcript “went missing” on three separate occasions — it was a betrayal that left me without peace in knowing that my disclosure to authorities would stop my perp from ever harming another child. I was thought to have lied because my father never went to prison. It is a pain that takes a long time to heal, as even as recently as two years ago when I contacted the prosecutor to have the case reviewed, I was thought to be “crazy” and was dismissed. It took perseverance to get her to see what really happened, and that resulted in an apology letter. But the prosecutor who was in-charge when the case was tanked was the sitting judge, and so there was only so far this prosecutor would go to help me get justice. There wasn’t an investigation over the missing documents, she broke a promise to publicly release the official apology, and she publicly praised this man when he announced his intent to not seek reelection. She then defended the assistant who lied in court about the presence of two confessions — hiding them from the judge and the public. She might as well have shredded my apology letter. I am supposed to be grateful for what I got and I am grateful for the letter, but I cannot abide by denying this man’s role in my father’s case, and then his attempt to paint me as “crazy” when the newspaper series ran about it. It has been a painful lesson to learn that our justice matters none when people with power and influence are caught aiding and abetting child rapists. Then to have found many objects that clearly indicate that the rapist never stopped abusing children when he died in January was heartbreaking — he had saved “trophies” from victims as far back as me. The prosecutor did not want to know about them because she needed “closure.” Once again the victim is left holding the bag — literally — as I removed these objects and had them properly destroyed by our local SA/DV center. The cover-up continues. . . . and the victim is an “ungrateful bit*h” for not just groveling with thanks, and for expecting true accountability for all of the crimes that occurred. I am finding peace, but it is due to my own hard work, and my own determination to be free of my rapist’s hold on my life, as well as to be free of the impact of being harmed yet again by the judicial system in my home county. I won’t be anyone’s victim anymore, and I won’t remain silent about what really happened despite attempts to paint me as being “ungrateful” and “unbalanced.” Those who know me best know the truth, and know just how balanced I really am despite suffering PTSD.

  • April 1st

    When my daughter and three other girls were sexually abused by our youth pastor and his brother, the reaction from the church was to sweep everything under the rug. The very first words out of the lead pastors mouth was “we are all lawyered up, and this is going to cost us a bundle!” My husband and I taught Sunday School in the youth and when we found out we were so upset, that we stepped down from teaching immediatly! The pastor told us 3 times to say we were out of town! The 3rd time my husband looked at him and said “we will not lie, we will be in church worshiping our Lord and Savior!” Then when he told the church he said “the alleged abuse.”
    The very next Sunday he preached about “rumors” , when women get together over coffee, they spread rumors.”
    I put in a prayer request for healing for the girls and swift justice! They did not honor the request. They said it would keep things all stired up!
    Some people said that the girls were fanticising or were exagerating. One person said ” the girls were old enough to know better! This kind of ignorance is the norm, and the only way to change it is education. 1 in 4 GIRLS and 1 in 6 BOYS WILL BE SEXUALLY ABUSED by their 18th BIRTHDAY! Churches must wake up, the devil hides in sheeps clothing and we must not believe everyone is good!

  • Lana

    April, I am so very sorry to read of your family’s plight, and of what happened to your daughter and these other girls. The response of the pastor, unfortunately, is all too common. While there are legal reasons that he must call it the “alleged” abuse, as he cannot put the congregation at greater legal risk by stating it as fact until a full investigation has been conducted, and the abuse corroborated, he still could handle this far better than he is. This is called “Institutional Betrayal Trauma” and it has happened on two levels — the institution betrayed these girls and their families, as well as the congregation, and then the RESPONSE of this institution has also been traumatic and has been a betrayal of your trust that they would be supportive and attempt to handle this properly. I cannot recommend Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s latest book, “Blind to Betrayal” to help you contextualize what’s happened upon the disclosure of the abuse, and with the abuse itself. It helped me immensely as I went back and discovered that my perp/father didn’t serve prison time and his case was intentionally tanked by the prosecution, most likely because he was an ex-cop. There were civil liability issues for the department, as well as public relations issues that would have created a nightmare for them. Seeing how we are often “abused for being abused” is an important step in naming the problem and therefore getting help with it. Betrayal Trauma Theory is widely accepted in the academic and scientific communities, and if you google it, you will find Dr. Freyd’s webpage at the University of Oregon. She has much free information there about Betrayal Trauma and Betrayal Blindness.

    I was told by my doctor that “girls often fantasize these things about their fathers” when I disclosed to him as a teen. That was in 1974-75, a year or two before my father’s arrest. . We’ve come a long way, and these people need to get educated about the ways of perps, and how they groom kids and the adults around them. The comments are almost as painful as the original abuse in many instances, and the cover-ups are maddening and completely mind-numbing to witness at times. you might also want to google the New Bethany Girls School case in Louisiana to see what has happened in that case — and how these women survivors are bravely coming forward now, after years of not being believed. The Times-Picayune did an excellent series on the case. I am just so sorry for what you are going through, and what these girls are going through. But your response is the most important to these victims, and your support will matter more than anyone else’s. They will not look back and have to deal with anger over being abandoned, or betrayed when the abuse came out. You have spared her this trauma, and that is no small matter. Had my mother been supportive, my life would have been much different, and I would not have been bounced through 4 foster homes. I would not have lost most of my family because my perp was never incarcerated. He ruined my reputation with other family members, who chose to remain blind to his abuse of me and other family members. Even with multiple victims, there were those who played the “forgive and forget” card, even as they laid blame at my feet, and that is the worst thing we can do to a survivor. It adds so much pain to what is already there.

    Blessings to you and your family, and to these girls. Thank goodness they have you.

  • Lana

    Sorry — I meant to write that I cannot recommend Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s book “Blind to Betrayal” enough!! That last word got omitted, and it is the most important one. That book is so readable and digestible, and so on target that you’ll be nodding your head in agreement throughout.

  • Charlotte

    Thank you for sharing that Helen – that happens more than anybody realizes and hopefully if we continue to speak against it, people will realize that men are human, too, and that unfortunately, women can also be vicious abusers…

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  • I read the first paragraph to my husband. It was so real to my life, he thought I wrote it myself. I blogged about this post.

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