Thursday, March 09, 2006

Should Abusers Be Confronted?

My post on How Much Wallowing is Cathartic? may raise the question, "Should abusers be confronted by their victims?"

I indicated there my belief that abusers should be confronted. My only argument there is with the apparently preferred treatment for the victims of abuse these days. I don't feel that the abused find it helpful to continuously rehearse their pain until they think of themselves as inveterate victims.

Some will read this as permission for the abuser to feel no remorse or for his family to treat the abuse as "no big deal." That would be wrong!

Let me tell you a true story. A colleague of mine served as a pastor in a community in which sexual abuse and exploitation by dads, stepdads, uncles, and grandfathers are regarded as something like unstated norms. The family systems are so closed and enmeshed that there is rarely any accountability demanded of the abusers.

One day, my colleague was visited by a twenty-something woman from the community, not a member of his church. She was too embarrassed to discuss this with her own pastor, she said. She explained that she was living in her own apartment, attending a local college, working a full time job, and engaged to be married. In other words, she was building a life for herself and things were going well.

But in recent weeks, she told my colleague, her happiness had been clouded by an event. Her mother, who had given birth to her when she was very young, had just given birth to another little girl. The young woman was terrified by this.

"Why?" my colleague wondered. Because, he was told, this self-assured twenty-something had been, in her teen years, the victim of sexual abuse on the part of her father and several uncles.

A few weeks before, concerned not for herself, but for her baby sister, she confronted her father. He flew into a rage and told her that no such thing had ever happened. He proceeded to tell his wife and extended family what the young woman had said, causing the whole family to go after her. What, some family members wondered, had they been teaching her at that college? Others recalled the "imagination" they claimed she'd always had. After the explosive accusations and recriminations, the family subjected her to the silent treatment, acting as though she didn't exist.

My only reason for talking with my father, this woman told my colleague, was out of concern for my little sister. She said that she hoped that after their conversation, her father would seek help.

He did, of course, but not the spiritual or competent psychotherapeutic help that he needed and might have led to healing. Instead, he called in the reinforcements of a family mired in a sick and sinful groupthink that accepted and ignored sexual abuse.

My colleague left that parish about five years after the young woman first approached him for advice. Her family was still ignoring her at that point. Although she prayed daily for her little sister, she had no contact with them. She had no idea whether her sister would be subjected to abuse herself one day.

Among the walls that abusers and their enablers erect around abuse is to accuse the victims who confront their abusers of making things up, of living in the past, or of more sinister motives. This is true even when the victim is motivated to rectify things and help the abuser, as the young woman who contacted my colleague apparently was.

When a person abuses alcohol, it's difficult for family and friends to lovingly confront them for it. But because the abuse of alcohol is something which, over time, is usually witnessed by more than one person, it's easier to confront than sexual abuse. There is a certain safety in numbers.

The victim of sexual abuse though, almost always stands alone in confronting an abuser. That makes it tough. The abuser usually denies what they have done and often, family systems, fighting for some semblance of sanity and honor, will support such denials.

Confrontation without the agenda of revenge is a healthy thing. But the victim should never be surprised if their confrontation doesn't change others' behaviors and attitudes.

The person who refuses to be a victim must accept a simple fact: The only person whose behaviors and attitudes they can control is their own.


P_J said...


Great reflections and good reminders for us all.

The flip side of the that sad coin was recent the trend in psychotherapy to encourage people to discover repressed memories -- some legitimate, some totally invented by suggestion. Families were broken up with no due process. People's careers and lives were ruined by false accusations.

Sex abuse is horrible -- especially coming from a close relative -- but I am just as horrified at anyone being falsely branded a sex abuser and having their life destroyed and their family alienated from them.

It sounds like the young woman handled her experience as best she could. It's terrible that the father and the family weren't willing to admit his problem. But I am also uncomfortable with the state's "right" to remove children from homes on a bare accusation. Surely there must be a better way.

Marty Daniels said...

One of my really good friends eventually killed herself because she could no longer stand the guilt over the "breakup" of her family after she confronted a relative who had sexually abused her.

What an absurd view of "family."

Curious to know when the church will give more than courteous lip service to victims and actively seek to stand with them as they confrotn their abusers?

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that the young woman handled things in as mature and appropriate manner as I can imagine.

I think that the Church deals with all of these issues best on a case-by-case manner, within the context of supportive pastoral relationhips and in stern discipline against any in authority who abuse others. I also think that publicly, pastors should speak out on this issue by preaching that condemns the sin and offers grace.

What other steps did you have in mind?