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Institutional Abuse - Hilary's Story

My own abuse occurred within the context of a bible college. It has taken over a decade for me to even begin to make sense of and articulate why I still feel such profound pain when I am reminded of what I experienced in its aftermath.

Having put my studies on hold for a term in order to break free from this abusive relationship with a fellow student, I approached the college leadership to make a formal complaint against my then ex-boyfriend. I made several allegations regarding specific instances of sexual assault and rape. Although he had inadvertently admitted to raping me in front of a staff member – he had pinned my hands together, he had heard me say ‘no’, he had used force – I was blamed for what had happened.

The question that ‘begged’ to be asked, I was told, was that of why I had ‘allowed’ myself to be in that situation more than once. I was warned that he might get suspended if I made a formal complaint. I was also informed that he had already been given a stern telling off, but could be called in to the principal’s office and told off again if it would help, which made me feel as though I were back at school complaining about someone pushing me in the playground.

Implicit within the response I received was that I was of less value to the college than he. I echo countless other survivors in saying that the abuse that I endured at the hands of those that represented the institution of which I was a part, was in many ways far more damaging than the abuse that I had endured at the hands of my boyfriend, damaging though that, of course, was.

The institutional abuse that I experienced shattered my trust in the church. Having been brought up by parents that were very active in the church, it had shaped my entire outlook on life. So when my trust in the church was shattered, my trust in life also collapsed and fear became part and parcel of my everyday life.

Recent research conducted by Smith and Freyd (2014) shows that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more likely to occur in cases such as mine, where an individual has been betrayed by an institution in which they have put their trust or been dependent upon. In their words, institutions ‘have the potential to either worsen posttraumatic outcomes or become sources of justice, support, and healing’ (p.576). The realisation that a just and supportive institutional response could have had a significantly different impact on my life as I experience it today grieves me.

A just and supportive institutional response could have countered rather than confirmed the lies I had been manipulated into believing: that I was to blame, that I was worthless, that God had a special purpose for my boyfriend’s life that justified his mistreatment of me. For the past twelve years I have played the role of spectator as far as life is concerned: too afraid to take part, only able to watch from a distance, from a safe place into which only a few have been granted varying degrees of access. I began to assume this role whilst together with my boyfriend: he never allowed me to get too involved in life and when I tried to rebel, there were consequences. Yet I became locked into that role through the institutional betrayal that reinforced the truth of his lies. So I walked away from the college quietly, shame in tow, and retreated even further into my safe place.

A just and supportive institutional response could have also enabled my membership in the college community – a community that represented the church to me – to continue. With no disciplinary action evidenced, only one of the few people I confided in believed me. The rest had faith in the institution, understandably so, and believed that if an incident as serious as rape had occurred, decisive action would have been taken. Of course a bible college would not allow someone who had raped a fellow student to remain on campus. Again, I walked away from the community with a deep sense of shame, and on top of the shame, guilt for having disclosed the abuse in the first place.

The institutional response that I was met with was neither just, nor supportive, nor healing – for myself or my abuser. He has gone on to abuse others from various positions of power within church and society. My plea to the church, and in particular, to those in positions of power within it, is that you would wake up and open your eyes to the scale of institutional abuse and betrayal in which you are complicit through your persistent, even if unintentional, re-victimisation of those who have the courage to disclose abuse, and through your failure to address the root causes of such responses.

What can the church do to foster a just and supportive environment in which healing can occur? Organisations such as Restored are working closely with churches to address questions such as this, and it is imperative that this work is prioritised and increased.