Empathy and the Scandal of Abuse

“Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me?”
(victim/nephew of Bishop Vangheluwe)

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This question must have hung in the air after it was uttered, and it lingers after one reads any of the reports of Cardinal Danneels‘ discussions with this victim of sexual abuse, in the presence of his uncle, Bishop Vangheluwe, who was the abuser.  Because the victim chose to release the recording he secretly made, the content of the discussion is undisputed.

The interpretation of the conversation is disputed.  Retired from office, Cardinal Danneels had no direct authority and, according to his spokesman, thought he was there in a pastoral role, to help the family mend.  The victim contends that Cardinal Danneels had the means to force the bishop – his uncle – to resign.

The conversation took place in April, just weeks after Pope Benedict’s letter to the Church in Ireland and his exhortation that any allegation of abuse be handled with quick reporting to civil authorities, thorough investigation, and action by Church authorities when it was evident that the abuse had occurred.  The tapes show Cardinal Danneels arguing at length for keeping silent until Bishop Vangheluwe would retire – reputation intact – a year later at the age of 75.  Clearly, the Cardinal and the Pope were not speaking the same message.

Why is empathy with abuse victims so difficult?

Pushed to accept a private apology and keep silence, this victim asked, “Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me?”  This is a very deep question, and it’s at the heart of the Church’s failures in the sex abuse scandal.

The offender, who was the “strong” figure at the time of the abuse, may be distraught, worried, humiliated, depressed, grieving his loss of reputation and honor.  His weakness and the trauma he is now experiencing are visible.  The Church authority – whether the bishop who ordained him or another – has known him for years, perhaps been his friend.  He knows in his gut just what this fellow cleric is losing. Empathy always comes more when someone like ourselves – in a position like our own – experiences loss or pain.  It doesn’t take much imagination to understand their feelings. Fellow-feeling comes easily.

A similar immediate empathy rises up when people hear the details of abusive events. We can imagine the child’s confusion, fear, sense of betrayal.  Hearing the stories, one wants to reach out to help and comfort the child.  But … time has passed; the child is not there. Instead, we encounter an adult – and a much more complex interaction.

The Whistleblower Paradox

Americans are fascinated by whistleblowers, who have been called the “saints of secular culture.”  They appeal to our sense of justice – that big organizations need to behave responsibly. Most of the stories – like Erin Brokovich – feature whistleblowers who are successful in bringing about change.  While we know that organizations tend to protect themselves – and even to punish insiders who try to reveal wrong-doing – it is part of our mythology that justice will prevail. We root for the whistleblower.

The reality for most whistleblowers is much different.  Even when they are successful in calling attention to the wrongful situation, they experience retaliation.  One early study [1] showed that “retaliation was more severe if the wrongdoing was serious and if the whistle blower used external channels (i.e., outside the organization) for blowing the whistle.”  The stories of sex abuse victims through the 1980s reveals a pattern similar to that experienced by whistleblowers: when the information was brought to someone in authority, they met with disbelief or explanations.  When those same victims show up now, years later, the injury of the original abuse has been compounded by dismissal of their early claims.

If we consider the interaction between the victim and Cardinal Daneels through the lens of research on whistleblowers, the Cardinal’s response makes sense. He wants to deal with “the problem” but in a way that minimizes harm to the organization.  Like most people who receive such reports in organizations, he doesn’t perceive that the minimizing approach will, in the end, harm the organization – the Church – more than the truth.

The paradox lies in this: the whistleblower often has clarity of vision about what will harm the organization – and perhaps a love or belief in its mission, while the one who seeks to protect and maintain it may not see as clearly.

Whistleblower Protection and the Dallas Policies

The US has passed a number of whistle-blower protection laws in an attempt to shift this paradox.  By providing protections to those who reveal situations of wrong-doing, they promote the view that it is definitely more beneficial for society (and often for the organization itself) to deal openly with a problem than to sweep it under the rug.  Yet if recent research is any indication [ 2 ], retaliation against whistleblowers is continues decades after the passage of laws.  The legal protections stand as some support to those who bring the problems forward, and give witness to the principle of openness. When companies create positions of ombudsman or advocate, the principle moves closer to reality.

There are many differences between the Church and a corporate business enterprise – but some of the same sociological realities are at work in both.  When the bishops passed the Dallas policies and required reporting and monitoring of cases, they recognized the dynamic that arises in any whistle blower situation.  Pope Benedict XVI’s message in April reinforced that recognition – but much work remains to be done before the structures and procedures are in place to carry out the policy.

I have been haunted by the words of this victim since I first read them a few weeks ago. The question should not be forgotten.

“Why do you feel so sorry for him and not for me?”
(victim/nephew of Bishop Vangheluwe)

1Near, J. and Miceli, M. (1986) Retaliation against whistleblowers: Predictors and effects. Journal of Applied Psychology Volume 71, Issue 1, pp. 137-145. doi:10.1016/0149-2063(94)90030-2

2Rehg, Miceli, Near, and Van Scotter. (2008) Antecedents and outcomes of retaliation against whistleblowers: Gender differences and power relationships. Organization Science Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 221-240  DOI: 10.1287/orsc.1070.0310

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  1. In spite of the pain it must have caused you to write this informed, compassionate, just post, Sister, I am glad you did. You’ve contributed a lot to the conversation about abuse in general and not just within the church. Thanks for it.

  2. I read the article that came up when I clicked on the highlighted words “the tapes.” What was really sad, for me, was the comments people wrote after the article. I love the Church, and I believe there are far, far more good and holy clerics than the ones we’re hearing about. But such a scandal, not only to the rest of the world, but to our own people, many of whom no longer trust the church as a result of these horrors. Why do there seem to be so many pedophiles in our Church? I realize I’m not even commenting on the whole point of your entry–the shabby treatment of the victim–but in my life, I’m surrounded by people who not only aren’t religious, but are antagonistic toward the Church and its very existence. This whole scandal leaves faithful Catholics looking like idiots, and unable to explain WHY we’re faithful to an institution that looks so tawdry to outsiders. “Judge by those who FOLLOW Church teachings, and not those who don’t,” I’ve often said. I hate to see the scorn in their eyes.

    • I’ve shared your dismay, and every time something like this happens, it makes matters worse.

      The sad news is that the rate of sexual predation is really high around the world, not just in the Church. The rate is highest within families, where it is rarely reported. Even the instance here is as much a story of an uncle abusing a nephew as an issue of clerical abuse – and those who suffer abuse often go on to become abusers as adults. When the Pope and other leaders speak out against our heavily sexualized culture, I’m sorry that people don’t hear that part of their message – often because the scandals undercut their standing to speak.

      And it also makes me sad for the vast majority of non-abusing priests, religious, and lay people who – as you say – have to face the perception that the Church is made up of nothing but perpetrators.

      It was all of those perceptions that make me focus on that astute question this victim asked: “Why can you feel so sorry for him and not for me?”

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